By guest author Rosa Lyster from the New York Times Magazine. Rosa Lyster is a writer currently working on a book about the global water crisis. She is based in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photographs by Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum, for The New York Times. He is is a Russian-French photographer born in Moscow known for his vivid global documentary work and series of city portraits. He has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1988.
Outside 20ft Radio, part of a group of art communities that share space inside a former textiles mill.
My beginner’s guide to Kyiv: There is a courtyard in the old city with a beloved old raven living in it. Address: Reitarska Street, a three-block stretch full of restaurants and bars. Name of raven: Krum. Age: at least 25, which is apparently very old for a raven, although his age is not his defining characteristic. Defining characteristic: He is visited daily by a steady stream of people who intuitively understand that there is something special about the fact of this bird in this place, from little kids to hauntingly chic 22-year-olds to older ladies who adopt a particular stance when standing in the sunlight in front of a metal cage large enough to accommodate a panther — one hand on strap of bag, one hand on hip, head tilted interrogatively as they peer into the shadows in an effort to make meaningful eye contact with this large, elderly bird. Explanation as to the meaning of this whole scene: unavailable.
The existence of the raven and his fans was one of the only things I knew about Kyiv before I arrived in mid-June. I was traveling for essentially bureaucratic reasons. I lived in Cape Town, South Africa, and had sold a book on the strength of a proposal that confidently outlined a year of more or less incessant international travel, just as the doors to the rest of the world started whipping shut. The rules kept changing and the list of countries that would accept anyone traveling directly from South Africa kept getting shorter. Ukraine was one of the few places I could enter before traveling on to the places I needed to go. I asked a friend who knew the city well for advice on how to occupy myself for the two weeks I’d need to stay there before moving on, and the raven was one of two tips he handed over without elaboration. (The other was that I should check out a famously dilapidated outdoor gym, constructed from scrap metal on the banks of one of the islands in the Dnieper River, which bisects the city.) I was flattered by the assumption that I was the type of person who instinctively grasped why it was fun or important to look at a raven, but I didn’t really see the appeal. To the extent that I could rouse myself to picture Kyiv at all, I envisioned it as hard and gray, with gridded streets lined with buildings that would not admit me even as I leaned feebly on the buzzer. Metro doors would slide shut in my face. The sun would come out only to glare tinnily down on an anonymous central square crossed by old people whose hunched shoulders announced the difficulty of their lives. The skyline would be dominated by standardized Soviet apartment buildings, and I would not be able to make this look cool in photographs. The cafes would close at hours I did not understand, leading me to eat constantly at a McDonald’s under a bridge. I would have a sad time, probably.
Purposefully keeping your expectations low is a joyless way to approach a situation, and I would never recommend it, even after what happened. Similarly, I would not suggest preparing for a trip to a new city while being so depressed you cannot conceive of being interested in it, which is another way of saying being so depressed you cannot conceive of having a personality. The payoff would still not be worth it, but then again, these things cannot be engineered or persuaded into being: Sometimes it just happens this way, where circumstances abruptly arrange themselves to present an unimpeded view of a more interesting and hilarious life, and where accessing it seems as effortless as walking through a door left thoughtfully ajar.
That first night, after going to the opera and bursting into energetic sobs at the mere sight of an orchestra for the first time in 18 months, I walked up and down the spokes of medieval streets leading off the central square, past spectral blue churches and groups of people tottering out of restaurants with bunches of flowers in their arms. It was light still, and it seemed not so tragic to be blowing my nose on a receipt as I admonished myself for failing to anticipate how lovely the city would be, perched on the hills along a river I knew about mainly from Isaac Babel, and shot through with parks and squares and rows of the kinds of silvery green trees I knew about mainly from the “Narnia” books. You don’t get a lot of birches in South Africa, and you don’t get a lot of elegantly crumbling brick apartment buildings painted light green and studded with enclosed wooden balconies either. Cape Town is spectacular, but no one has ever accused it of having a functioning tram system or a 200-year-old park on the steep right bank of the Dnieper, with narrow stairs and pathways that lead down to the river. I made an encouraging little note to myself on my phone, an objectively pathetic habit I had picked up over the past year: “Two weeks of this will be the breeze of the century.”
It was late by the time I got back to my rental apartment, which was on the third floor of a building with a murky lobby, a child-size elevator and an air of Soviet decrepitude that made me feel like a canny old spymaster. The apartment had two doors, one after the other, both with locks that required assertive jostling to open. I’d just started working away at the second lock when the door opposite mine swung wide open to the audible accompaniment of multiple Champagne corks popping. Standing there was my neighbor, this sweet-faced French guy who seemed not to notice that I was wearing corduroy depression trousers (so wide-wale, so brown), and who asked if I wouldn’t like to come in for a drink. He gestured at the passageway behind him, where two Ukrainian girls covered in glitter were in the process of falling to the ground with laughter, waving around a bottle of prosecco whose neck had been sabered off cleanly with a knife. “It is nonsensical in there,” he said, “but come in anyway, and have some prosecco. It’s absolutely disgusting.” One of the girls stuck out a sparkly hand and led me down the passage and into a room full of people I could easily imagine knowing. Open bottles were everywhere. Someone handed me a drink, and then another one, and then this guy from Montreal amiably made fun of my hateful trousers, over the objections of this guy from Cologne, who said they were fine but that there was still time to change before we left for the party. I was coming with them, no?
It turned out that yes, I was, and that within a couple of hours I would find myself in the midst of hundreds of strangers having an ecstatically good time in a forest on a river island in the middle of a city I had never thought to visit, and furthermore that this wasn’t some sort of one-off designed to throw the rest of my trip into lonely, boring relief. I woke up the next day worrying that nothing as fun could possibly happen again, but there on my phone was a text from my neighbor, asking if I wouldn’t like to come to another party, also in a forest, and then one in a former factory, and then one in a slightly bigger former factory, and dinner if I was up for it, or at the very least sitting at a kitchen table and describing our hangovers to one another in the most florid terms imaginable.
I should have anticipated at least some of this. Kyiv’s underground scene has been developing a reputation for some time, to the extent that it is now regularly submitted as candidate for the position of the “new Berlin.” Not everyone likes this comparison, pointing out that it is a corny thing to say and also that it diminishes the city’s individual identity, but most will broadly agree with the sentiment behind it, which is that the scene in Kyiv is now understood to be cool. There are a lot of parties in semi-abandoned buildings, a lot of discussions about intolerably hard techno taking place in Boryspil Airport and an atmosphere of brakes-off hedonism that has only grown more heady as the pandemic has stretched on.
There are a number of ways to account for what is currently happening in Kyiv. The most cynical is that it is cheap, accessible via direct flight from countries with stricter pandemic regulations and also perceived to be a place where the boundaries of what’s legal are negotiable. That first night, I noticed a high number of Germans and Americans in attendance, and asked a Belgian guy I’d met why he thought this was the case. “Because people like to take drugs,” he said. “From all over the world, they like to do this.” I met people from Kyiv who framed it differently, noting that the response to lockdown regulations — word-of-mouth parties, secret Telegram channels, bars popping up in empty buildings — resulted in a general sense of gleeful conspiracy that has persisted even as restrictions have lifted, so that going out still feels like a magic trick.
The recognition that something special is happening can tip over into the wide-eyed. Go to enough parties like this, and you will encounter the argument that attending one is not just a route to an extremely good time but something akin to an act of resistance. In this line of thinking, the freedom that everyone feels is attributed to something far more elevated than people going berserk after months spent indoors. From there, it’s a short jump to the suggestion that techno beats are the ideal backdrop against which a vision of a post-capitalist utopia may be collectively forged. It is easy to dismiss the belief that partying is praxis or that there is something politically progressive about leaving the house in a see-through dress you bought at the fetish store. Two weeks in Kyiv did not, thank God, transform me into someone who believes that the road map to a more just and equitable society will be sketched out by people on MDMA, even if they are all very friendly. The world is mainly a terrible place, with many intractable problems, and I cannot think of a single one that will be solved through seeing hundreds of strangers having an amazing time in a forest.
I had not realized how much I missed it, though, the sight of strangers having fun, or how scared I’d been that the life we all spent 18 months getting used to would be the one we’d be stuck with forever, everyone just getting lonelier and weirder and spending more and more time on the computer, fighting about nothing. I had gotten so accustomed to the Pigpen-from-“Peanuts” haze of unhappiness which had settled about my shoulders that I’d stopped noticing it was even there. It took about a week for me to realize that it was gone.
Before my two weeks were up, I booked a ticket back to Kyiv for the end of July, and began cautiously telling friends that I might live there for a bit, maybe, that I knew it was an eccentric move but would you get a load of the light pouring through the living-room window here, and please note the debauched expression on the face of the gargoyle in the 30 photos I just sent. Good light is not a reason to rearrange your life, and neither is being able to walk through a 200-year-old park on your way to the river. A functioning tram system is not a reason, even if the trams are red and white and make you feel as if you’re in a documentary about the value of public utilities. An excess of parties is certainly not a reason.
The real explanation is that sometimes the lights just turn green. Becoming abruptly besotted with a new city can be like falling dramatically in love with a new person, and much of it rests on the sense of elated mystification that is unsustainable in the long term — if you walked around swooning at coincidences like this all the time, you would fall in a hole or become unemployed — but it is also one reason the species continues to thrive. The difference between a city and a person is that a city can’t love you back, but Kyiv frequently gives the impression that it is trying, in that it instantly repays whatever attention you might lavish upon it. It is a city of hidden courtyards and underpasses and bars that you come across by mistake, all of which enables a sense of personal ownership over discoveries everyone has already made. This still isn’t a reason. I can’t say why Kyiv knocked me out the way it did any more than I could objectively account for why and when I fell in love, other than to establish for the record that a feeling of instant affinity is still possible, where matters progress with a speed both astonishing and inevitable.
Of course I opened the door at the exact same time that my neighbor did, and of course there was a party inside full of people I could easily imagine being friends with. Of course I waited until my last day to go and pay my respects to the old raven, and of course the scene was both exactly as described and greater than the sum of its parts. On the one hand, simply a quite large bird with normal feathers, patiently suffering the attentions of the visitors drawn inexplicably to the bars of his cage. On the other, being moved almost to tears, again, through contemplation of the process by which someone at some point decided to test the suspicion that the people of Kyiv would derive a lot of pleasure from close communion with a raven, and watching this belief harden into fact over the years. All kinds of people stopping by for a visit: the little kids, the old ladies standing as if braced against a high wind, three young men padding to and fro in front of the cage and angling their heads fondly to the side every time they caught the eye of the bird, which was often. One of them stuck his finger through the cage, and the raven pecked at it in a perfunctory manner. This man turned to his companions. “He’s bitten me twice now,” he said. “I just need to get him to do it a third time.” His friends did not request any further explanation, and neither did I.