First Impressions: Kiev

By Jim Selman | Bio

I am in Kiev, Ukraine this week. This is my first time here. In fact, it is the first time I have been in this part of the world or to a country using the Cyrillic alphabet. I am not prepared to write a travelogue since I just arrived a day ago, but sometimes first impressions are fleeting but useful. In this case, my first impressions are reflections on an ‘old’ country that (from what I can tell) has yet to be discovered by the tourism industry. Even at one of Ukraine’s annual festivals, I see few foreigners and most that I do see are reportedly from neighboring Russia.

I am told Kiev is a blend of the country’s other regions, all of which are very different politically, historically and ethnically. Unlike in other parts of the world, however, these diverse elements of the country haven’t resorted to resolving conflict through violence—they maintain instead something more like sulking disagreements and withdraw behind a fortress of cultural and regional differences.

Kiev itself is at least two cities. One is the post-Soviet developments one passes coming from Borispol Airport—miles of modern thirty-storey apartment complexes that house  a good portion of the city’s 3 to 5 million inhabitants. The other is a lovely, interesting ‘old’ city built on hills overlooking the plains of this otherwise flat landscape.

What is most evident is that this is a city intimately connected to its past. From my hotel, I can see architectural examples encompassing 15 centuries: everything from fifth-century ruins and the tenth-century Byzantine Saint Simon Monastery to St. Michael’s eleventh century Monastery and stark Soviet edifices reminiscent of Mussolini or the Third Reich. Beautiful parks accent all of this architectural diversity with streets lined with eighteenth and nineteenth-century apartments and town homes. This historical tapestry is reflected in the mirrored glass windows of the ultra-modern 21st-century Hyatt Hotel on one of the City’s main squares.

Conversations with the people I have met show that history is a very big part of the culture here and a source of pride. The globally witnessed  ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2005 which seemed to be a turning point seems to have become a universal source of disappointment amidst general resignation about government corruption and rule by self-interested oligarchs. Yet, I am told these people have survived and are proud of their heritage in spite of past conquests, multiple destructions of the city and losses from 65 wars (including the deaths of over 100,000 soldiers drafted by the Soviets in “their” war with Afghanistan).  The mood in the street, based on my limited conversations, seems to be a paradoxical cocktail of cautious optimism and deep resignation bordering on cynicism.

I like the people and the City. I’ve shared a bit of our vision and commitment to “Eldering” and transforming the culture of aging in the West and have found it resonates profoundly with just about everyone I’ve spoken to. Older people here seem to be even more isolated and afraid than in North America and everyone seems to lament the government’s inability or unwillingness to confront the lack of social security, health care and social programs of support for their aging population. While there are some examples of strong family and community connections, I have been told that they have seriously eroded as a consequence of the ‘Soviet Era’ and are just now beginning to be rebuilt primarily through religious institutions. The good news is that, as is the case in so many developing countries, technology and the Internet are making it possible to accelerate conversations for changing the status quo. I look forward to my work here this week and will follow-up this blog after I’ve had a bit more exposure to the people in Kiev.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.