|Select magazine number|
What he saw on his regular walks in the neighborhood of where he lives, tempted Oles Paniv to write about the urban environment that surrounds him. After a period of gestation, he has come up with the following story.
There must be hundreds upon hundreds of streets in a city like Kyiv which is said to have close to three million denizens — the exact figure is difficult to establish as there are untold numbers of those who come to work or on short visits.
All of these people live in apartment houses (comparatively few, obviously, stay at hotels). There is also a relatively small number of those lucky ones who live in private houses.
All these houses have addresses tied to streets, even though the actual connection to a street may be purely symbolic. There are streets — alas very few of them, whose existence can be traced to the earliest times of Kyiv as a city. There are streets that have no history at all and are as new as the houses that line them up.
A peep into the past
I live in an apartment house that stands in a street whose origins can be traced to the late nineteen forties, but quite possibly there could have been a well-trodden path among the small private houses long before the street took a definite asphalted and built-up shape.
The soviets, among a great many other ideologically motivated myths and legends and downright lies, claimed that the city of Kyiv was very badly damaged during WWII, and thus had to be built up anew. Kyiv did find herself in the focus of fierce fighting when the invading Germans were laying siege to it in the summer and early fall of 1941, and when the Red Army was pushing the invaders out in a major counteroffensive in the fall of 1943. But there was no total devastation even though the center of town was indeed reduced to ruins.
Anyway, in the post-war reconstruction, a great many private houses were raised to the ground and new housing began to be built. For reasons which do not seem to have been clearly explained, the urban population of the Soviet Union was continuously suffering from acute housing shortage. One of the reasons was evidently an influx of people from the countryside into towns, but that alone does not explain the shortage.
Most of the ordinary people in Kyiv, as practically anywhere else in the Soviet Union’s urban areas, lived in apartments with two, three or more families sharing their one kitchen, one bathroom and one toilet.
For many postwar years my parents and I lived in a small room, a tiny part of a huge apartment that accommodated eight families with a total number of more than thirty people. Later in life, successive (but unfortunately not very successful) marriages kept me moving around town but for the past dozen years I stayed put at one and the same place.
The house that contains my apartment dates to the mid nineteen-fifties. It is one of those apartment houses that got nicknamed “khrushchovka” — that is, a house built at the time when the top communist party boss and soviet premier was Nikita Khrushchev (who succeeded Stalin after the dictator’s death in 1953 and was ousted by the conservative party apparatchiks in 1964 for his attempts to bunglingly introduce some reforms).
Nikita Khrushchev was reputedly the one who stood behind a major construction effort to “give every soviet family an apartment to live in.” Since the scale of housing construction was indeed massive, the houses, mostly five-storied but with no elevators, had to be built as simple and unadorned as possible — just boxes made of bricks, the only embellishment being the balconies. But these brown-brick khrushchovka did actually help relieve an almost desperate situation with housing.
I happen to be living in one of such houses, totally faceless among many other houses of the same type in my neighborhood. But strangely enough, the street, or for that matter the whole neighborhood, are not faceless and are easily distinguishable from any other similar neighborhoods in Kyiv. It is even not without quiet, modest charm. Over the years, I’ve even grown to like it.
In fact, the building I live in is one of about a dozen that form a sort of an irregular quadrilateral with unequal number of buildings forming each side, and with rather a vast courtyard in the center (there are several quadrilaterals of this kind in my neighborhood). Three sides of this quadrilateral stretch along three streets, and the fourth side is “washed“ by a sort of a square. One of the streets is a major thoroughfare which seems to be solidly packed with traffic jams during the rush hours. Luckily for me, my apartment faces a quieter street which, in late evening hours, is pretty much deserted, with a few people and a few cars making their infrequent appearances. In warm seasons, on occasional evenings, I spend hours on the balcony, ensconced in a chair, submerged into contemplation — and sipping whisky and soda to enhance the contemplative mood. The majestic horse chestnut trees that rise right in front of the house (and on the opposite side of the street too) isolate me from the rest of the world by their foliage. In spring, their candle-like white and pink blossoms exude a delicate fragrance that adds an olfactory touch to the dreamy mood. With only a little effort, it is very easy to imagine oneself sitting in a bower rather than on a balcony.
Relaxed urban setting
As far as I am concerned, it is the trees that make the neighborhood of “brownbricks” (rather than brown-stones) livable and even pleasing to the eye — plus the small patches of unpaved ground in front of the buildings, mostly on the inner sides of the courtyard. Some of these patches have been turned into flower beds, and some are surrounded with bushes that bloom in spring — and the ubiquitous grass provides its own color pattern (unfortunately, another ubiquitous presence — parked cars do their damned worst to mar and destroy nature in all of its manifestations). In the world of gray asphalt such oases are a most welcome sight. They turn what is actually an eyesore into an eye-catcher.
The buildings themselves are nondescript but the people who inhabit them (not all of them of course — those few who care) started to look for ways of “ennobling” their environment. There are no little individual, private “gardens” that people can claim as theirs — but there are patches of naked soil which could be used to give a nice green or flower touch to the otherwise bleak surroundings.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union where everything belonged to the state, the apartments people lived in were privatized but the land on which the houses stand continued to belong to the state. And the land around the houses also belongs to the state. But those patches of soil near the houses seem to be no-man’s land which, as it turns out, by the efforts of beauty-loving women (according to my observations, it is only women, mostly middle-aged or older who take care of them) can be transformed into tiny oases — or at least something that breaks the dull monotony of urban settings and introduces little splashes of nature.
The balconies also used to have a lot of flowers in flower boxes but now most of the balconies have been “glassed” and if there are flower pots in them, you can’t see them. Some people on the ground floors, with, I suspect, no official permission, have built balcony-like glassed extensions which sit on these no man’s land patches with flowers right next to them.
The courtyard of my “quadrilateral” boasts a culture center, a house maintenance center, an education supervisory board center, two children playgrounds, and a small football/basketball/table tennis ground. The almost continuous string of grass-and-flower-and-bush patches along the houses, in various degrees of care given to them, is a nice feature, touching by its modesty and unpretentiousness. Some parches are almost neglected, some are lavishly decorated with all sorts of kitsch bric-a-brac. People are not paid or “officially” encouraged in any way, for thus adorning their own and anonymous neighbors’ lives.
Babusi, old women wearing headscarves, are still seen sitting on the benches near the entrance doors that have survived drunken vandalism of younger generations — the way these old women have been doing for dozens of years.
I never tire of marveling (in spite of a condescending skepticism of some of the people I know) at such a splendid female instinct of embellishing the world around us by whatever means available to them.
I don’t think my neighborhood is unique in this respect — from what I know of Kyiv you can encounter “cultivated” little patches of ground elsewhere too. In the countryside, hardly any peasant house is without flowers in their front or backyards. But being not unique it definitely has a lot of things that makes it easily distinguishable — one of such features is a relaxed quiet and the abundance of eateries, food stores and drugstores. And probably the most salient feature — my immediate neighborhood has not been affected by the high-rise construction craze that has hit the rest of the city.
Eateries, food stores and drugstores
My neighborhood is located neither in the suburbs nor close to the center of town — it’s somewhere in between. It takes about an hour of a bus ride to get downtown, but it’s not the distance that takes so much time to cover, but traffic jams that slow down the trip significantly.
I would not want to live in the center or anywhere near the center — my sister does. Whenever I pay a visit to her place, the aggressiveness of the glass-and-stone urban environment makes me shudder. My sis complains that to do food shopping she has to go long distances — most of the stores downtown sell expensive clothes, jewelry, and other such things that cannot feed you.
By contrast, in my immediate neighborhood, there are seven food stores (three of them supermarkets), several fruit and vegetable and cookies kiosks, six cafes-restaurants, five drugstores, three “stomatological” (that is, dentists’) centers, three schools, one hospital — all of them within a five-to-ten minute walking distance! A few more minutes of a very leisurely perambulation takes you to a variety of other food stores and drugstores — so if you have an urgent need in buying a pain killer or if you are dying of hunger, neither your headache or toothache, nor your hunger will be life-threatening. I really have no idea why this neighborhood is blessed with such an inordinate number of food stores and drug stores — unless one hypothesizes that the people of the neighborhood are gluttons and treat-yourself freaks.
In my walks, which I take for exercise, I stroll along the houses inside the quadrilaterals looking at the flowers, or at the bushes or at the grass and these little touches of Nature energize me.