Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Kiev Growing in Sophistication

My latest three-week visit to Kiev has led me to a refreshing conclusion: Kiev and Ukrainian cities in general are rapidly developing in line with worldwide urban trends. Moreover, Kiev is slowly regaining its rightful cultural status after the crippling collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing brain drain. 

In today's globalized world there's no good reason why a large, densely built city with a highly educated populace wouldn't have a robust economy and a highly sophisticated cultural life with a wide variety of opportunities for people of all skills and interests. Continuing corruption and backwards governance may slow, but they cannot stop Kiev's evolution into a sophisticated modern megapolis. 

Here's what I'm seeing these days in Kiev:

Fitness has become fashionable
Colorful public playgrounds and exercise bars have popped up in every neighborhood around town and in almost every courtyard. And people of all ages use them for free. Trendy modern gyms have popped up all around town in addition to the cheaper Soviet-era basement gyms. Indoor swimming pools are becoming overcrowded as people rush to get fit.

Not only have fitness and exercise become popular, but there has also been an explosion of organized sports activities for adults. When I learned to play Ultimate Frisbee in Kiev 10 years ago, there was one team, and it was dominated by American expats and their coworkers playing at an intermediate level. Now there 4 teams with tight organization and impressive skills, almost no foreigners, and rigorous workouts. The same can be said for almost any other sport and physical activities from basketball to swing dancing. 

Sports used to be something that adults only do if they are professional athletes or ex-athletes. Now it has become a common way for adults to enrich and balance their lifestyle. 

The same sports and fitness fads that sweep through urban areas worldwide leave their mark on Kiev and other Ukrainian cities: breakdancing, bungee jumping, aikido, skateboarding, parcours, yoga, rock climbing, tango, slack lines... Any respectable progressive young Ukrainian these days should be engaging in some kind of organized physical activity. Just doing aerobics or "shaping" (for women) or working out at the gym (for men) won't surprise anyone anymore. 

While there are still plenty of public drinkers and smokers, these vices are becoming less and less visible. Ukrainians are getting used to not being allowed to smoke at bus stops and in underground passageways. Smoking indoors in clubs and restaurants is now forbidden, whereas it used to be difficult to find a place to hang out without cigarette smoke. 

Vegetarianism, veganism, and other attempts to improve one's diet are becoming increasingly popular. People are more and more concerned about what they're eating, and laws have been improved regarding the proper labelling of food products. There are restaurants serving vegetarian and even non-cooked foods. 

I see the above trends as part of a worldwide trend towards organized self-development to counterract the emerging ill effects of technology and modern living upon the human body. It is gratifying to see urban Ukrainians joining this global movement. 

Increasing "intelligentnost"
Ukrainians and Russians have always been known for reading a lot. This hasn't changed even with the advent of smartphones and tablets. While a significant portion of commuters pass the time playing games on their electronic devices, even more of them read books. Popular genres include psychology, self-development, and professional literature, as well as fiction. It's also fairly common to see people reading in foreign languages. 

In modern Ukraine, knowing a lot is increasingly rewarded socially and professionally, as it should be. During the post-collapse years this was not often the case. Normal values were flipped on their head, and those with the most influence were often brutish types with crude tastes. This has changed, especially in high-tech sectors and other industries exposed to international competition. 

The Slavic word intelligentnost does not just refer to intelligence but refers to one's general degree of cultural refinement, including manners, self-control, taste, and knowledgeability. "Intelligentnost" was once a recognized characteristic of Soviet-era Kievites, and it was commonplace in the 90s and 00s for people to bemoan the general loss of culture in Kiev and other Ukrainian urban areas. This loss was probably attributable to the massive brain drain and upside-down values mentioned above. 

What I am seeing now is that it is once more popular to be "intelligentnyy." Crudeness and brutishness are out, and braininess and self-development are in. Did you know Kiev has become a worldwide IT hub? Did you know "TEDx Kyiv" talks are held regularly? Did you know coworking and working from home are becoming popular among cutting-edge IT workers and freelancers who do sports and travel in their free time? 

The above mentioned trend towards increasing self-improvement opportunities for adults also extends into the cultural and intellectual realm. There are now more and more activities for adults to participate in simply for the sake of self-development:
improvizational theater classes, song writing courses, free public lectures on stimulating topics, etc. etc. The industry of self-development used to be dominated by corporate training (e.g. team building or time management seminars), professional skill development courses, and ideologically oriented groups offering classes in Zen meditation, gestalt therapy, tantric yoga, etc. It is refreshing to see more and more courses and organizations specializing in skill development without an ideological component, as well as more and more self-organized groups doing fun and interesting activities together. 

City pride instead of national pride
Anyone who's spent much time in Ukraine knows that Ukrainians aren't particularly patriotic, to put it mildly. This hasn't changed, but what I am seeing in Kiev is an increasing sense of pride in one's city. After all, Kiev — not the abstract "country of Ukraine" — is the actually physical place where Kievites spend 99% of their time. I believe there is a global trend towards the increasing role of cities and their management and a relative drop in the importance of national governments. 

In the Soviet Union, central management dominated over individual initiative, and the fall of the USSR left people unprepared to take responsibility for anything beyond themselves, their families, and friends. Little by little, a sense of community and collective responsibility is emerging in Kiev. One sees this in many ways, but perhaps most noticeable is the grassroots effort to beautify public spaces around the city. 

Today one sees people planting flower gardens and even edible plants around their high-rise apartment blocks, building and painting short fences around them to keep people and dogs from trampling them. Whimsical sculptures are popping up on the city streets, and people love to take pictures next to them. Near Adreevskiy Spusk there is a massive Gaudi-esque playground featuring scary animals plated in colorful tiles. Needless to say, the place is packed with people having fun. Clever graffiti artists are having their fun around Kiev, too, just as in other metropolises worldwide. 

The street performers that show up on Kreschatik on the weekends (when it is closed to traffic) are getting better year by year. One used to see only amateurs and the occasional destitute conservatory graduate. More and more, one sees professional artists and musicians and organized performances. 

Kievites are showing their growing sense of creative freedom in other ways as well. Concept cafes are popping up around town where you can not only have a coffee, but have a unique aesthetic experience as well. Younger Kievites now expect novelty and an element of fun in their daily city experience. 

In short, there are more and more reasons for Kievites to go out and be impressed with what other people are doing in their city. This reflects a general rise in individualism and sense of collective responsibility. 

As Kiev and other cities around Ukraine become more and more interesting and sophisticated places to live, I think we will see Ukrainians becoming less and less tolerant of bureaucratic hassle, inefficient governance, and mistreatment by government officials. I see some signs that this is happening already, but that will have to be the subject of another article. 

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