The Storm Before The Calm

Kyiv, June 2009

There is much to enjoy about early mornings in Kyiv: the cool air and peaceful blue tint in the sky (or whimsical snow in winter); the purposeful stomp of expensive shoes on the street as its businesspeople make their way to work; the unflustered rhythms of the metro before it becomes crowded; the melodious whirr of the coffee machine in the kitchen in my office, churning out triple espressos to be sipped before the working day starts. Unfortunately – due to my body’s own unflustered rhythms – ninety-nine times out of a hundred while all this is going on I am still in bed, jabbing weakly at the snooze button on my alarm clock.

Five times a week (or four most weeks in spring, thanks to public holidays dished out by the Red Army and Russian Orthodox Church) my plans for the day can be summed up in one word: work, or rabota in Russian – a noun which shares its stem with the word for slavery. With the time it takes me to get up, shower, get dressed and make my way to the office, I am often late before I have left my flat.

As I walk along the tree-lined path that leads from my building to a small park, I switch on my MP3-player. Which songs I skip to depend on my mood: classy, upbeat ones to complement the neighbourhood’s architecture, happy ones if a dull project is waiting for me at the end of the commute – or Russian rap if I am still barely awake. I walk past the Hotel Salyut, the dress shop (where voluptuous mannequins in its windows thrust their glamorously-dressed hips towards passers-by) and the intimate Cafe Alfredo, as well as opticians, banks, chemists and canteens, until I reach Arsenal’na metro.

By the time I reach the metro, I am too late to glide down the escalators with the businessmen wrapped in smart suits and eau de cologne. The commute has left without me. The stairs are now clogged by the day shift of a nation that has been ravaged by unemployment since the start of the economic crisis. Babushki with baskets, brawny blokes with blank faces, and other wastrels shuffle through the underground with no particular place to go. It is gloomy and uncomfortable. Some faces stand out from the crowd moving in the opposite direction: those of Chinese or African students on their way to classes at the transport university, and of bushy-bearded monks in black robes heading to the Lavra monastery.

I run down both sets of escalators (the station is the deepest metro in Europe – if you stayed on the same steps it would take five minutes to get to the platform) and turn left to join the red line. On the advertising boards beside the escalators, Oksana Marchenko, the presenter of Ukrayina Mae Talant (Ukraine’s Got Talent), competes for my attention with an ostrich and a boy in a canoe.

On at least six mornings out of ten, I arrive on the platform at the very moment that the doors of a blue and yellow train are slamming shut before it sets off towards Khreschatik. When the next one arrives I clamber into a carriage. By the time the train arrives at Arsenal’na it has already picked up passengers from two of the city’s biggest hubs, Darnytsya and Livoberezhna, and hasn’t yet arrived in the centre; the train is heaving with bodies. Every day I am swallowed by the scrum, and only the ratio of armpits to bosoms and perfume to sweat identifies a good trip from a bad one.

I fight – literally – my way off the train a few minutes later as it stops between the red marble pillars of Teatral’na metro, underneath the Opera Theatre. At one end of the station there is a ten foot-high gold bust of Lenin, and along the platform there are plaques with parts of his famous speeches engraved on them. I march up the steps to change lines – red to green – onto Zoloti Vorota (The Golden Gates) station in a phalanx of other commuters, six or seven people wide and at least twenty long. On this passageway between the stairs and the escalator, elderly men and women stand mournfully, clutching flyers for laptop repair centres, manicurists, Italian lessons, weight loss schemes and so on. We ignore them. At one side, a woman sells pot plants and miniature cacti. We ignore her, too.

Zoloti Vorota, with its high ceiling and attractively-lit mosaic arches, is Kyiv’s finest metro station. I don’t step on to another train, but walk to the other end of the platform and take two more escalators up to the street. I gulp in the fresh air. The Golden Gates in front of me which give the station its name are in fact a wooden fortress, built in the 11th Century but recently refurbished, next to which stands a sizeable statue of Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Yaroslav was a prince of the Kievan Empire (Kyivska Rus’), and is a legend in Ukraine for his bravery and endeavour – the Volodymyr Klitchko of his day, with the same jutting jaw line.

My office is a ten-minute walk from the Gates. A couple of times a week I will buy a Coke from a kiosk at the metro to sip on the rest of the way. I walk to St. Sophia’s Square, which is chock-full of landmarks. The golden domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral glisten in the sunlight, and throw their reflection into the silver panels of the Hyatt hotel. Four hundred yards away, St. Michael’s Monastery is every bit as impressive. In the middle of the courtyard that separates Michael from Sophia stands a bronze statue of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the nineteenth century Hetman (Cossack leader) and scoundrel, on a panic-stricken horse. It is a divine square mile – when this part of town loses its lustre, I will know that my time in Ukraine is up.

Tourists mill around the courtyard surveying their guidebooks, but on days when I’m free to explore I rely instead on the clues that Kyiv leaves lying around it streets for its perceptive inhabitants to pick up. After two years working here I’m in on a few of the city’s secrets that it doesn’t want foreigners to know. Some of these titbits of wisdom keep you satisfied (in pastry shops, the more unpleasant a cake looks, the tastier it will be); others help to keep you safe (the sillier the hat on a member of the militsiya, the nastier the man underneath it). And some merely guide you: the friendlier the graffiti, the closer you are to the centre of the city. Throughout Kyiv’s grim, grey outskirts, marshrutka stops have “Het’ Usikh” (Piss off, all of you) scribbled on them in red capitals – on provulok Rilskiy, a stone’s throw from the descent to Khreschatik, someone has mused in polite
lower-case: All you need is love.

On the corner of provulok Rilskiy stands the Ministry of Justice. The flag of the European Union is being kept company outside by the Ukrainian flag, like a boy standing by the school gates with the prettiest girl in his class, hoping that the people walking past will think that they are an item.

The next vulytsya along is Velyka Zhytomyrska, the street on which I work. I am late, but there is no chance of slinking into my kabinet unnoticed: according to Ukrainian etiquette I make a tour of the office and greet everyone before I switch on my computer. Ukrainians are the world’s most enthusiastic hand-shakers.

I start working on a translation. Every hour or so I get up from my chair and make a cup of tea, or step on to the balcony to check that St. Sophia’s Cathedral is still where it was in the morning. From the eighth floor the sound from the city below is a metropolitan hum. One warm Tuesday, Vanya interrupts me every half an hour to help with a legal document that he is reading in English. I explain that I don’t know what ‘vertically aware’ means – or ‘voluntary poultry grading system’, for that matter. At lunchtime a party of us walks to the Mister Snek sandwich bar on Lvivska Ploshcha. In the other direction the cobbled lanes and trinket stalls of Andriyvsky Uzviz (Andrew’s Slope) lead down to Podil. The stalls sell key rings and fridge magnets, t-shirts and caps with ‘Ukraine’ embroidered into them, books and photographs, Lenin busts of several sizes and Dmitry Medvedev matryoshki.

When I travel home at the end of the day, my route is much the same. At six in the evening the businessmen smell how the rest of Kyiv’s citizens did in the morning, but as I walk to Zoloti Vorota they are masked by the fragrance of chestnut trees – their leaves freshened by a summer shower – and the tantalising aroma of grilled shashlyki as it drifts from a barbecue on the patio of a beer garden. I meet Ana on one of the metro platforms and we push through the crowd together. The woman with the cacti has been replaced by a man selling balloons: I imagine the commotion if they were ever to meet in the passageway. We barge onto a metro train at Teatral’na (they arrive in perfect time when you are in no hurry) and then stop at the Sil’po supermarket on our block to idiosyncratically choose a dinner and snacks for the evening.

When we get home I am exhausted – but not from the work.

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