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The heart of Kyiv, fifty years ago


I am a fourth-generation Kyivan, but when I hear someone declare his love for this city, I cringe inwardly — I cannot understand how one can “love” a whole city, particularly a city so large as Kyiv is. For me “love” is something that is applicable only to human beings. I am not sure which word I should use to describe my attitude to some of the places in Kyiv that have a measure of sentimental value for me. I am sentimental — but again, only in relation to people. If it’s a thing or a place or a piece of music, I can grow sentimental over it, but only if that thing or place or music have some relation to a human being I once cared for. Even if that human being was I myself.


I was born in Kyiv, and lived all my life in Kyiv, except for one several-month-long stay in Moscow. I travelled widely in the country that is no more — the Soviet Union, and I saw a lot of other cities both in Ukraine and in Russia (and in some other “Soviet republics”). And I never particularly wanted to “go back home.” Yes, I missed the people — wives, lady friends, children, men friends, — but never any place in Kyiv. Yes, I was happy to get back to my books, to my desk, to my armchair and to my sofa, but there was no particular thrill in “walking again the familiar streets,” or of gazing at “the mighty and handsome river.”

In spite of being a resident of Kyiv for quite a long time, I know only a score of streets by name and by location. I know where my friends live but in most cases I don’t know the name of the streets their houses are in. I find most of the suburbs — except for a few exceptions — extremely ugly. Rows upon rows of boxes — human beehives — that vary only in size and in the state of neglect can hardly provoke any warm feelings. For that matter, there are only a few places — barring the parks — in Kyiv whose architectural and general appearance I could call “beautiful” or “impressive.”

“Kyiv” for me is restricted to a small downtown section of town where I used to live in my childhood, early teens and early adulthood. The rest are just streets, squares, housing developments which are indistinguishable from similar places in any other major Ukrainian town. Yes, I understand that this uniformity, lack of any aesthetical merits and drabness are part of the Soviet legacy but understanding does not change my emotional attitude.

In the past several years a lot has been done to get many old houses repaired, restored, brightly painted and in general prettified. But only three of four small sections of town were the beneficiaries of the prettifying process.

This said, I shall proceed with my very personal story of what “Kyiv” is for me, hoping that my failure to declare love for my native city has not put you off reading.

My father was an actor and we lived in a house next door to the theatre he worked at. The house must have been built in the early twentieth century. In World War II the house suffered heavy damage from bombing, artillery shelling and fires (both at the time when the Nazis were capturing it and later when the Soviet troops returned to capture it back), but miraculously both the theatre and “my house” were spared any serious damage. After the war, all the apartments were crowded much beyond their intended capacity. The apartment my family lived in had about thirty tenants squeezed into ten rooms. Only two families were lucky enough to have been given two rooms, the rest of the families and single persons were confined to one room only per family. My family of three (and eleven years after my birth my sister became the fourth) occupied a room whose size was hardly more than four by four meters (twelve by twelve feet). In the room next to ours lived a family which was made up of husband and wife, and husband’s sister, older than her brother by several years. Their room was slightly bigger than ours though. But we had a balcony, the only family so privileged.

My paternal grandmother and her husband (my grandfather was executed by a Nazi firing squad — he was suspected of helping a Jew to hide) lived in a bathroom. The bathtub was converted into a bed by planks placed on top of it and covered with a mattress. It was a tiny, narrow place with a slit of a window, and there was hardly any room for any possessions. These were kept in cabinets hung on the walls. My granny’s room was next door — very literally — to a toilet, and with about thirty people in an apartment, there toilet was in almost continuous use. In fact, there was a second toilet but quite often one of the toilets had to be shut because something was wrong with the cistern which hang high above the head and it did not want to flush.

The kitchen was spacious enough to accommodate several gas stoves but each family was entitled only to two burners out of four on each stove. The situation with kitchen tables was much tougher — only three tables could be squeezed among the stoves. At dinner time and on holidays, the place was thronging with women and men vying for the access to the tables and stoves.

The long corridor was a potentially good playground for a young boy but unfortunately one of the families kept a mangy old dog (they kept several dogs in succession but each next one looked and smelled the same) that stayed outside their door and did not like my playing ball, or even my passing him cautiously by. He growled and showed its displeasure in various ways. So I had several options where to go and do something with myself — to the neighbours (there were two families where I was welcome); to the balcony, or to the backyard of the house. As I grew older, I was allowed to venture further afield — up and down the street the house stood on, and to the square in front of the theatre.

I’ll skip the neighbours bit and will take you to the balcony. There was a huge maple tree growing in front of the house that was tall enough to provide a sort of a canopy over the balcony with one of its mighty branches. My father who was clever with his hands made all kinds of things for home, including cabinets, closets and tables. He made a sort of a bench on the balcony and a collapsing table; in summer, we often had meals on the balcony, it being about half the size of the room. I loved to spend a lot of my time on that balcony, reading books (I was a voracious reader starting from the age of four or five), daydreaming, or imagining things for which the maple provided an inspiration (in my pre-teen years I also did quite a few of idiotic and unpardonable things, like shooting at passers-by from my sling; in general being very unathletic, I was a good shot with the sling and many a passer-by had a very unpleasant and painful experience of being hit by a small projectile that came from God’s knows where; I knew only too well where all these projectiles came from, but I was never discovered as the source of them).

It was not much fun walking up and down the street; visits to the square and “a public garden” in the centre of it provided much greater opportunities for play and fun. In the centre of the public garden (I find there is no adequate word in English to describe properly a place which the Ukrainian language calls “skveryk” — a dozen or so trees; several paths crisscrossing it, and often a fountain in the centre), played a fountain. Or rather it usually had some water in it, the expanse of which could be used for launching vessels made of pieces of wood and paper. First, I imagined it was an ocean, and as I grew older it became a sea, then a lake and then — what a disappointment! — it became just a fountain, not a very large one at that. In fact I did not like it when the fountain was playing (which was mostly on public holidays and sometimes on Sundays) because it created too many waves and my vessels were not seaworthy enough to withstand their fury.

I was a loner and though I did have a friend — a boy of my age whose family lived in the same house, but in the wing that faced the square rather than the street, I preferred to be on my own during my stays outdoors. I found it curious that there were so many different people (most of whom were actors and their families, stage hands, artists and scenographers, makeup ladies, wig makers and so many others who were connected in some with the life of a theatre) living in one house. Every available space was occupied — even the basements were partitioned into cubicles inhabited by single people and families. The street sweeper lived in a cabin made of wooden boards and planks. The cabin had a small window — but from that window you could see only a wall and part of the lobby because this shanty was tucked under the staircase.

In the evenings, I could peer from the outside in through the top part of the windows of the basement rooms lit from inside; if there were curtains that were rarely drawn. The windows were almost completely sunk into the ground, with only a narrow strip showing above the ground (years later, the kitchen window in my first wife’s apartment in a house that stood in a street ten-minute walk away from the place I had lived at in my childhood, had a similar window, and it annoyed if passers-by tried to spy on me; most of the time I kept the curtains drawn though). What I saw inside seemed to suggest the inhabitants were not a different species, but were quite human. Some of them even had kids but I never played with them. Not only because I was a loner but also because their underground position was a clear indication of their inferior status.

The wing of the house that faced the square did not have anybody living in the basement simply because there was no basement to live in. The ground floor rooms had windows much bigger than anywhere else in the house — a window to a room, with many rooms along a corridor. In fact, the windows were almost the width of the rooms. In one of such window-rooms lived a boy who shared my interest in sailing ships in the fountain. The boy had a reputation of a bully and troublemaker; besides, he used swear words liberally; in fact, there was an obscenity for every decent word he used, and my mother made it quite clear to me she did not think much of my friendship with the swear-words boy. “Besides, he’s snotty most of the time,” she would add. But he was clever with his hands and made very good ships, and I often ignored my mother’s injunctions to avoid his company, snots or no snots. Also, it was fun to come up to his window, always open in summer, lean against the warm wall, put my elbows on the outside part of the windowsill (it was about two feet above the ground) and call out into the curtained room, “Vova, come out and play!” Sometimes, it was his mother’s tired voice who answered, “He’s not home.” His mother was a labourer of poor health; and there was no one in their room who would answer to the description of a father. It sort of puzzled me, but on reflection, I figured out that of all the boys from the house I knew, only three, me included, had someone living with them who could be called “father.” Two of the rooms facing the square were not connected to any corridors inside the building — they could be accessed straight from the street. You opened the door and walked right into the room, with not a hint of hallway to separate you from the street. In one of such rooms the size of a pantry lived a street sweeper, a different one from the lady who lived under the stairs. She had two children, two girls one or the other of whom was always sick. The woman often sat on one of the two stone steps that led to her door, which was always ajar. A piece of grey gauze hang like a curtain in the doorway; whenever he passed her by, my father talked to her and gave her candies “for the kids.” When I asked, Why wouldn’t the woman buy sweets herself, father told me, “Because she’s very poor.” I did not understand then how one could be too “poor” to buy candies. One read about such things in books but nothing of the sort could happen in real life, could it? So I passed judgement — the woman is mean and stingy.

The other room-apartment was occupied by a middle-aged gentleman who was reported to be “a professor at Kyiv Polytechnic.” His room was much bigger than the street-sweeper’s and in addition to the door it also had a window. He was a friendly sort of a fellow. On summer Sundays he sat by the window inside the room, and talked to people passing by. There were very few strangers, and most of those who walked there were inhabitants of the house. Everybody knew everybody else, mostly by name. When the Professor talked to me, he always gave me a candy or a biscuit, and once I took these gifts to the woman with sick daughters. But her door was closed and someone standing nearby said that “there’s no one in; one kid’s died and the other one’s in hospital.” Later, I learned that “the other kid” had swallowed “a piece of metal” and had to be operated on. It was strange but more or less comprehensible. But “died”? How could a kid die? My mother rejected the idea as absolutely absurd — “children don’t die.” But my father confirmed it, and explained what “to die” means. I was sort of envious — I had seen a funeral and though the music played was not exactly cheerful, there was a lot of people and a lot of flowers, and someone in the box got all the attention. Father was somewhat vague where the box was taken to and how long the person snugly lying in it had to stay in it.

There was very little traffic in the adjoining streets. Or rather those few cars a day that rode by could hardly be called “traffic.” The only vehicles I saw in the square were: a bus in which the theatre actors travelled to performances they gave at factories and farms (“Bring art to the people” it was called); occasional cars bringing someone very important to see an evening performance; a hearse or two; horse-drawn wagons, making a lot of wooden noise, the hoofs clopping sharply on the cobblestones. And once they were shooting a sequence for a war movie, and curious crowds watched a brave urban guerrilla throw a grenade at a 1930s German limousine with its roof down, full of Nazis officers. They had to go through many takes because something or other kept happening the wrong way. One of the watching veterans offered to stand in for the partisan and “hurl that bomb right.” He was obviously disappointed with the pyrotechnics which produced a lot of smoke but always failed to do any visible damage either to the car or to the “Nazis,” who in between the takes stepped out of the car, spoke excellent Ukrainian, ate sandwiches and laughed at something. I also vaguely felt it was not a proper way for the enemies to behave.

One of my earliest memories are the ruins, front walls with empty windows with no houses behind them, and huge, mouse-like animals that lazily moved out of the way as we — me and a parent — approached. In the entire neighbourhood there were only two or three houses which could be lived in. Ours was in the best condition of all, which probably explains a great concentration of humanity in it. I remember people in German uniforms working in the ruins, rebuilding the houses. Later, I learned they were actually German prisoners of war.

The place I stayed at most of the time in summer was “a hill” behind the house. The backyard of the house was rather a gloomy place, with the sun having no chance to peek in, except for a short hour at high noon in summer. The backyard could be accessed through a corridor in the basement — the route I liked least of all because it was smelly, badly lit and full of dangers lurking in the dark corners.

You could get into the backyard by a circuitous route through a gate leading from the street — it was the best way. And the third route was most adventurous — you could walk down the back stairs. The staircase was wooden, and the steps were wooden, and the whole structure was rickety and squeaky. You entered the backstairs through the kitchen — which had both a downside and upside to it. The downside was my dislike for the kitchen in general and for the aromas it generated in particular; there always were too many people in it, doing something which I did not think was worth wasting time on. But in the season of jam making or on the eve of holidays passing through the kitchen was rewarded by cookies and “jam skimmings” which were much more delicious than jam itself.

The descent by the back stairs also involved encounters with mice, and what was much less pleasant, with much bigger creatures — the rats. Sometimes they were aggressive enough to show that they were not afraid of me and would attack if I tried to interfere with their activities. I never tried to do that, though I did hunt the mice with a sling. Only once I was rash enough to shoot at a particularly fat and disgusting rat. After being hit, it did run away — only to return a second later and assume a pre-attack stance. I beat the retreat.

What a pleasure it was to leave all the dangers behind, cross the yard, passing by trestles with someone’s mattress from a sofa sitting on top (the springs inside such mattresses regularly needed reinforcement and tightening), and slowly climb the slope of the hill. Once there, I could even look down on the roof of my house. Standing at such a vertiginous height gave me a sense of achievement and I prided myself on my mountaineering skills.

The slope was overgrown with trees and bushes and grass, though there were some ugly naked patches where the grass for some reason did not want to grow. I watched curious creatures of all kinds — mostly bugs, beetles, bees and grasshoppers — going about their business. Lizards were too fast and agile to catch, but beetles and grasshoppers were catchable. I put them in small boxes and brought them home to my mother’s great dismay. I was strictly forbidden to release them in the room, and I never released them on purpose — they just happened to escape, or crawl from the balcony into the room. Only years later I realized that to discover a beetle or a big, stinking green bug in your bed at a very inopportune moment is not exactly a joy.

Digging in the ground on the slope was a source of many discoveries — old coins, bullets of various sizes, metal pieces of unclear origin and purpose, cartridge cases. Once with a friend we dug up a metal box of the kind in which surgeons used to boil their instruments. The box contained a hand gun wrapped in oily rags. We were so excited we ran down the slope out into the street brandishing an elegant “ladies” gun with the handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Several minutes later, one of the rare passers-by stopped us, took away the gun and brought us to the nearest police station. We were rescued by our parents an hour later but the gun was not returned to us. That night I was so upset and disappointed I could not even read — I cried myself to sleep.

Winters seemed to be much more severe than they are now. The best thing about them was snow, so much snow that many places in the public garden and in the street and on the slope behind the house became inaccessible to me — snowdrifts were several feet deep.

And what a great fun it was to be tobogganing down the street! Very few cars in summer turned to no cars in winter, and I could climb to the top of the street at the bottom of which my house stood, then slide all the way down, turn right into another street and coast as far as the main street, past the dead houses with blind windows. Gradually, the houses began to be coming back to life, and the swathes of light falling from their windows illuminated the way. The darkness came early in winter and there were but a few street lamps (still fewer were the bulbs in them), and before the houses on both sides of the streets were reconstructed and filled with people, I tobogganed only in the daylight, but as the life was returning to the neighbourhood, the evenings could also be used for a good purpose. The only inconvenience was climbing back uphill and with the toboggan in tow. It took time and a considerable effort. Incidentally, tobogganing was the only sport I ever did.

There was — and still is — an architectural landmark sitting on a hill behind the theatre that seemed to be ideally suited for kindling imagination and offering a superb background for imaginative games. It’s a building erected by a daring and innovative architect, a local celebrity in fact, who decorated the castle-like house he designed for himself and his family, with sculptures representing all kinds of monsters, fabulous and exotic creatures. You could walk around the house, you could pass underneath it through a passage, and though the building was located right opposite the central offices of the communist party — the dictatorial collective ruler of this country for several decades, no one would prevent you from just hanging around or playing games of hide and seek, or any other game suggested by your imagination. But for some reason I did not particularly like the place. The huge toads, elephants, panthers, snakes, fish and sea monsters on the walls, on the eaves and the pedestals around the house did not look scary at all. Probably because, first, they left little to imagination; second, they looked pathetic with paint peeling, pieces from their trunks, muzzles, sides and tails missing, with the reinforced concrete revealed in all of its unromantic prosaic dullness.

It was the bottom part of one of its walls which reached almost the foot of the hill that provided a good place for games. You could imagine it was the wall of a castle in which a dragon — or a sorcerer — lived keeping a fair damsel in captivity. The wall could be climbed, not too high though. Falling off and down during a climb never caused much damage. One corner of the wall, if the right spot was chosen, provided an angle from which you could get a glimpse or two of actresses changing or strutting around with little on. The windows of the theatre’s dressing rooms for ladies faced the hill but no one seemed to be concerned with a teenage boy climbing the hill and up the wall to gain a view of goings-on in these rooms. I did not see much, but still it was a perfect thrill to see a bit of the naked flesh.

The theatre was a place where father and other “uncles” and “aunts” pretended they were not what they actually were, and appeared on stage before people in strange costumes. You talked to “Aunt Natalya” backstage about reasonable, “normal” things, and ten minutes later you could see her wearing idiotic clothes and hear her say in a howling and plaintive voice something absolutely preposterous, like, “Oh why have you left me?” whereas I knew perfectly well that her husband, “uncle Styopa,” was sitting in a refreshment room, quietly sipping something that didn’t quite look like tea, and waiting for her to come back and resume the “normal” conversation.

But I liked the many corridors of the theatre in which you could easily get lost. It was cool to have grown-up people running around the place and looking for you. They would shout in funny voices, “Sasha! Sasha! Where are you?” And I was there, right there, hiding in a little room by the door that led to the attic where lengths of firehouse, bags of sand and shovels were kept. When I got bored with sitting on the hoses and breathing the staleness of the room that was never aired, I’d walk out and innocently allow myself to be found.

There was a place that I was always looking forward to going to — paradoxically with a measure of dread. It was not in the theatre itself, but in a building next to it. It was a carpenters’ shop. You had to climb many brick steps, hugging close to the wall — there was no railing or banisters or anything that would protect you from falling into “the abyss.” Years later I discovered that the drop was hardly more than fifteen or maybe twenty feet but back then it looked high enough to require a parachute for safe landing in case you made a wrong step and fell down. Father did not seem to notice either the precipitous height or the idiotic inconvenience of the steps. He’d saunter up the steps leaving me to crawl cautiously up and bemoan my being abandoned by a cruel parent in such a perilous condition. But what a double joy it was to get through a low door into an enormously big room filled with wonderful smells of freshly sawed and cut wood and of special “carpenters’ glue” (almost black in colour and for anybody else except the initiates, of a terribly foul stink). The floor was covered with wood shavings several inches deep; all sort of carpenters’ machinery was to be seen standing around; a lot of things were hanging on chains from the ceiling that was so high it could hardly be seen — I did not dare to look up anyway. Father loved carpentry and he did know how to make all sorts of things out of planks and boards.

The descent was far more intimidating than the climb, and Father, who called me “sissy,” walked down first, keeping an eye on me. I had my pockets filled with shavings and pieces of wood that retained its wonderful smell for quite some time.

Two times a year, the neighbourhood went through a great change — huge army trucks barred the streets that led to Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s central thoroughfare. It happened on two official holidays, May 1 and November 7 when civil and military parades marched through Khreshchatyk. For some reasons, the Soviet authorities thought that only a limited number of people were entitled to watch the parades. Among the privileged were all kinds of bosses and people in authority, but the majority were the workers who “showed excellent results in work” and were awarded with free passes to the parade. They could take their kids along. My mother always got a pass because she was a sort of a party boss and I was regularly taken to see tanks, artillery pieces and other frightening vehicles and machinery of destruction roll by. The soldiers marching by and people in columns waving artificial flowers were much less fun, and at the age of ten or eleven I stopped going.

Free entertainment was provided by an airship being inflated and then launched into the air. They did it in a side street. A huge pile of grey material was slowly rising from the ground, little by little taking the shape of an airship. The crowd of boys cheered. At some point, it looked like a gelatinous elephant-like creature trying to get up on its feet. There was something revoltingly obscene in these efforts. When the grey skin became tight and smooth, the airship tried to get away and had to be restrained by a group of workers on the ground. After affixing a banner with the portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Engels they would ease the monster up. It hung several hundred feet up above the parade as long as the festivities lasted. Once, it had to be brought down earlier because the strong wind ripped the banner into untidy strips and the faces on it were “terrible to behold.” Later, one face disappeared from the banner, then another — Stalin and Engels were the first to go. And then they stopped launching the airship altogether.

On holidays I discovered a wonderfully thrilling pastime — I followed little girls who held on to one of their parents with one hand and carried several balloons in the other, and surreptitiously shot at the balloons from tiny slings with sharp projectiles made of small lengths of wire. The balloons would go “pop-pop” and shrivel or burst, and the girls would burst into wailing and tears seeing their multicoloured treasures turn to little pieces of rubber rags for no apparent reason. I chose as victims mostly those girls who had ribbons tied in big bows either at the back of their heads or on both sides, to cover the ears. Only once the source of the destructive attack was discovered by a vigilant parent, but I escaped to safety dashing into a gate and then into the backyard from which I knew too many exits to be discovered. In fact, the race resulted from my inaccurate shooting — instead of the balloon I hit the parent in the back of his head and then had the cheek to laugh at the sight of his jumping up at the impact, and swearing. He was severally censured by his wife for using “an obscenity in front of the child” but he somehow spotted my leering mug some distance away and made the connection.

When I began taking my own children to “Kyiv,” the winters were no longer freezing cold, the hill behind the house shrank in size and lost all of its wild life, automobiles rumbled up and down the streets, the dressing rooms were moved to a different part of the theatre, and the fountain had no water in it.


By Oleksandr Panasyev


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