Frozen Fountains and Soviet Scenes in a Kharkiv Winter

Early in fall, I spent a day in Kharkiv for a conference. The day in question was overcast and gray, though there wasn’t snow on the ground yet. Daylight savings time had just ended, and I wasn’t used to darkness descending at 3:30 pm. All day I was at Karazin University, next to a ninth-floor window with a great view of the Dherzpom, an imposing monolith that was the first skyscraper in the USSR, built during the brief period, just after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Kharkiv was the capital of Ukraine.

Dherzpom, Kharkiv
the Dherzpom

I went around in a haze that day, feeling like I was immersed in a modernist Soviet dreamworld. I was not prepared for that part of the city: the Dherzpom, Karazin University (built in a similar style), and the enormous brick Freedom Square now stripped of its Lenin statue after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. It’s hard to describe the feeling of this place on a cold, gray fall day. The gray bricks of the square were just a few shades darker than the sky, and the tall off-white skyscrapers were a few shades lighter. Perhaps it was this palette, or maybe it was the palpable police presence on the square, or maybe it was just my mood–but wow, after a decade of traveling around eastern Europe, I have never felt so much like I had stepped into the Soviet Union.

Sumska Street, Kharkiv
Les Kurbas’s theatre on Sumska street in a snowstorm, 2018

Stroll down Sumska Street, the main drag connection Freedom Square with the old downtown, and you’ll go through Shevchenko Park, which is anchored by an amazing modernist sculpture of Shevchenko surrounded by his characters, from 1935. You’ll pass some lovely cafes, a Japanese restaurant I haven’t tried, and then you’ll hit the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, which is across from the Mirror Stream fountain and a lovely Orthodox church.

Monument to Taras Shevchenko, Kharkiv
Monument to Taras Shevchenko

The Opera theatre is a wild example of brutalist architecture, though the front of the building, with an overhang designed to make people walking in feel small, is tempered by advertisements. Head to the side of the building to take in the full impact. Let’s just say it’s not a building that communicates the lightness, joy, or imagination of art. This is the architecture of power and domination. What really boggles the mind is that this building was completed the year the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent–1991.

Opera Theatre, Kharkiv
The Opera House
Kharkiv frozen fountain
The Mirror Stream…frozen and still switched on.

The contrast with the park, church, and fountain across the street is pretty intense, even though, when I visited in December, the fountain had frozen into something like an ice Christmas Tree. And yes, it was still on–water was burbling out of the top.

Pro-tip for anyone visiting Kharkiv: Hotel 19, on Sumska street just next to the Opera Theatre, is a steal. I haven’t seen a room that costs more than $50/night. I know that’s not cheap for Kharkiv, but if you’re used to western-style comforts, you’ll get them here, and it’s a 10 minute walk from a metro station that’s on the same line as the main train station. AND: there is an amazing free breakfast in the restaurant next door. This is no crap American buffet, but a cooked-to-order feast of two courses. With latte art and avo toast. And there’s hair conditioner in the rooms (only place I’ve seen this in Ukraine)!

Thanks to all the great Eastern Europe travel blogs (like this one) for making me feel like I’m not alone in being interested in these places, and for providing great advice. Concrete and Kitsch is a great example and his account of visiting the Dzherpom is classic!

Economics, Cognitive Dissonance, and Being an American in Ukraine

Ukraine recently surpassed Moldova to be named the poorest country in Europe by the IMF. That economic pain is palpable here, where the local currency has lost 70% of its value against the US dollar since the war against Russian-backed separatists began in Donbas in 2014. Purchasing power has declined, and prices have risen. There areĀ  rich people here–the high-end boutiques of Kyiv tell that story–but times are tough for average Ukrainians.

St. Volodymyr, in June

The currency crisis that has made life difficult for Ukrainians has also made Ukraine an incredibly cheap destination for western tourists. I’ve traveled a lot in Eastern Europe, and I naively expected my US dollars to go as far here as they do in Romania, Hungary, or Latvia. What I found was something very different.

Even in the capital, Kyiv, it’s difficult to go to a fairly hip restaurant and spend more than $50 for dinner for 3 people. Including mixology, or a bottle of good Georgian wine. Including dessert, coffee, and an Uber to get there. Latte art is available everywhere, for less than $1. In Kharkiv, you can stay in a 4-star hotel for $50 per night. Outside of a major city, make that $30. A high speed train ticket halfway across the country will cost $8 (and the trains are frequent and punctual, to be distinguished from American abominations such as the South Shore Line in Northwest Indiana). You can get a really good seat for a show by the national ballet company for about $14 (multiply by 10 for anything comparable in Chicago).

Extreme latte art at Takava Coffee-Buffet in Kyiv

Part of my tourist-mind–the part that’s constantly making calculations back to my home currency when I travel, weighing what I spend now versus paying my mortgage and vet bills and saving for the future–is almost giddy in Ukraine. You can’t be serious, this voice says, when I buy a kilo of organic, local apples for 20 US cents. I feel the lingering price-trauma from a trip to London as a graduate student–at a moment when the exchange rate was almost 2 USD to 1 GBP–begin to ease.

But then almost immediately another part of my brain starts to imagine all the implications of this for Ukrainians. How staggeringly deep the economic inequality is here. How poor you must be when these prices are high for you. How utterly impossible it must be to travel to the US or western Europe or even Poland if these are the prices you can afford. How vulnerable and desperate this situation could make Ukrainians who can’t find good jobs at home. How many talented young people will want to go abroad to work because their salary at home won’t be enough.

An $8 spread at Lviv Homemade Chocolate in June 2016

I have to admit that I don’t know how to deal with this cognitive dissonance. The longer I stay in Ukraine, and the more Ukrainians I get to know, the more extreme it gets. The only practical response is to try to shut up about prices; to take my Ukrainian friends out to dinner whenever possible; and to keep trying to put myself in their shoes to understand this situation. I don’t know what else to do, other than to try to learn.