One of the things I enjoy most about Kyiv is that I discover something new nearly every day. Last week I was walking in the Golden Gate district of Kyiv with friends and we stopped by Pejzazhna Valley to sit on the steps and listen to an outdoor piano performance. Misha, a young virtuoso of Western pop hits by the likes of Coldplay and Maroon 5, and Ukrainian tunes like люди (people) by Бумбокс (Boombox) plays piano in the shade of the park’s old stone staircase every night.
Misha is a 20-something long-haired Kyivan complete with the backwards baseball cap and gleaming white trainers. He plays requests from an eager audience sitting shoulder to shoulder on the stairs and those passing by drawn from around the park. Folks often stop for a few songs, make suggestions on what to play next, and even sing along – especially with the Ukrainian songs.
Misha clearly loves what he does, and actually makes a modest living through the Hryvniasstuffed into his hat beside him.
The Keys to Kyiv
Misha is but one example of the strong focus on culture in Kyiv and indeed a Ukrainian Renaissance across the country. In fact, there are three pianos near the stone staircase as part of an initiative called the Ukraine Culture Crawl. Pianos have been placed in parks all over Ukraine enticing anyone to stop and tickle the ivories anytime.
Last night we were sitting on the steps, sipping white wine while enjoying incredible music and the warm summer evening. Eventually, Misha needed to take a break and recharge, so he surrendered the piano to the crowd. The audience included an enthusiastic contingent of young students from one of the many musical academies in Kyiv. A young girl immediately jumped up and began playing the piano while her talented friends sang along with voices that were obviously blessed with operatic training.
Culture where? Everywhere!
Just a few blocks away is the Kyiv National Opera Academy and I always make an effort to wander past any time I can. Especially in the heat of summer, you’ll hear someone practising a flute, cello or an aria from Tosca.
A walk along Kyiv Hill to enjoy the view of the mighty Dnipro River that bisects the city includes the Alley of Artists in the shadow of the spectacular Baroque Church of St. Andrews. Artists from across Ukraine flock to the alley to hang their paintings, drawings and photographs on the wall that runs straight down the centre of the pathway. Perhaps they’ll sell a work to tourists or a local looking to decorate their flat. The Alley of Artists is just a portion of a kilometres-long pathway that includes a walk across the glass Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people to the Park Bridge that crosses the Dnipro to the beaches of Trukhaniv Island.
Kyiv has been the cultural capital of Ukraine for over a thousand years and you can see the evidence everywhere. What began with a church on a hill to establish Kyivan-Rus, developed into a deeply-rooted desire to express the culture of the region through music, art and design.
Putin’s illegal and unjustified war is an attempt to extinguish the unique heritage of the Ukrainian people, but it only takes a stroll through the leafy parks and streets of Kyivto know that he will never succeed.
Slava Ukrani! Heroaim Slava!
One facet of the war in Ukraine that doesn’t often get shared is that Kyiv is still a really fun city. Everywhere you’ll find basement speakeasys, streetside cafes and parks bustling with people enjoying the rhythm of summertime everyday life, just like in any other European city. Afternoon parties turn into late, but not too late-night revelry as the music and drinks must stop flowing at 9:30 so that folks can get home before the midnight curfew.
On the surface, Kyivans seem to be living a normal life, but scratch a little below and you’ll find wartime guilt weighing heavily on everyone.
War is always on my mind
No one ever forgets about the war raging in the east and southern regions of the country, even while trying to blow off some steam. Nightly drone and missile attacks still plague Kyiv, but fortunately Ukrainian air defence is rock solid thanks to the top-notch military equipment supplied by Western allies. Life is quite a bit easier in Kyiv than it is in Kherson for example, which is in range of the murderous Russian artillery.
Everyone works hard to pay their bills, but also donate whatever they’d normally squirrel away as savings to the military. Whenever a group of us is sitting & chatting after the rooftop the bar has closed, there’s lots of laughter, but there’s also a stiff dose of reality.
One of my friends has a father fighting on the front lines but hasn’t heard from him in four days. Two others have family trapped in occupied territory, and there’s always someone talking about volunteering to fight. Men are constantly drafted and everyone knows a friend who’s died at the front.
A Guilted Cage
Ukrainians are people just like us. They want to be happy and enjoy life, but it’s very hard to be happy about anything while friends & family are dying just a few hours away. When living day by day, how can you not need to blow off steam? At the same time, celebrating just seems wrong, a guilty pleasure that should be reserved for people not at war.
After a year living in Ukraine I’ve learned that war causes untold damage and heartbreak, but it also brings people together to resist a common enemy. Ukrainians and Russians are like a fractured family who’ve spent decades together but are now experiencing a horrendous estrangement.
In Ukraine, guilt is a paradox, but so is an unjustified, murderous war with your brothers and sisters.
Slava Ukraini! Heroaim Slava!
Generally, I consider myself to be a very positive person. I get up every day assuming it’s going to be good or even great, until something or someone proves me wrong. I believe in being nice to your barista in the morning, always tipping your server, holding doors open for strangers, and saying please & thank you. Very basic, simply things we all learned in childhood. It’s amazing how positive your life can be when you, yourself, exude positivity.
Life is about living, and to me, that means meeting other people and sharing your life with them. Maybe that’s why I’ve found it easy to stay in Kyiv for over a year during wartime. I’m surrounded by so many incredible people who willingly share their lives with me every day. It’s both exciting and heartwarming at the same time.
Feeling the Love
The entire crew at Hotel Bursa is ‘family’ to me and I spend lots of time with them because I truly enjoy it. My day always begins with hugs and coffee, and my nights end with conversation and laughter on the rooftop deck after closing. I’m invited to staff parties and attend nearly everyone’s birthday party. The couch in my room is always available for curfew-induced surfing, and everything I have is everyone’s to share.
Last night, spontaneously in the middle of conversation, four of the crew turned to me and said “Michael, do you know how much we love you?” I was speechless and blushing from ear to ear when they followed up with, “You are the nicest person we’ve ever met.” After melting in my chair from the warmth these wonderful folks shared I replied, “I love all of you too, and I’d take a bullet for any of you.” I suppose regular missile attacks result in different ways of thinking and expressing oneself, but it’s the best way to describe how grateful I am to be surrounded by such a loving family.
My overall positive mood and resulting approach to life has also earned me the nickname “the Human Antidepressant.” This blush-worthy moniker was assigned to me by Artem, my Ukrainian brother from another mother.
It’s not hard to exude positivity if you put your mind to it, and you’ll be astonished at how quickly it becomes second-nature. The effect you’ll have on others occurs naturally through osmosis. It’s a wonderful feeling, and it changes outcomes.
Friends are Family
When I eventually leave Kyiv I may just miss my Bursa family more than I’ve missed my real family. Why are my connections so strong here? Perhaps the war has made people more open, or perhaps Ukrainians don’t have much to look forward to given the daily murderous Russian attacks. All I know is I wouldn’t want to be be anywhere else on earth right now because I truly love my wonderful family in Kyiv.
I wish you could join me here at Hotel Bursa in Kyiv. After two weeks of wartime warmth, kindness and caring, you’ll never want to leave.
Slava Ukraini! Heroiam Slava!
As regular readers know, I love my Hotel Bursa in Kyiv for many reasons. One of its best features is the panoramic view from the 5th floor rooftop lounge 1818. Legions of young, hip Ukrainians regularly ascend for a yummy cocktail and update their Instagram while enjoying a view to die for. This combined with the large terrace also makes 1818 a popular destination for weddings, and last weekend there was a classic.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, several party-rental trucks arrived to unload DJ equipment, speakers, tables, chairs, decorations and umbrellas to protect guests from the blazing summer sun. Considering the number of people swarming around all day, this was easily going to be the largest wedding ever hosted at the hotel.
By 3pm both rooftop decks had been transformed into scenes reminiscent of Barbie meets Arabian Nights. The music started pumping and the drinks started flowing and the tranquillity of a sweltering Saturday afternoon was annihilated by the raucous celebration of a typical Ukrainian wedding.
The Late Bride gets the Groom
Beer, wine & prosecco turned into Whiskey Sours as night fell to a curfew-induced 10pm close. At 10:30 the groom, already several sheets to the wind, invited everyone left at the bar, including me and all the staff, to continue the revelry on the sizable deck of their hotel room.
As typically happens at Bursa weddings, the bride and groom booked the Attic suite featuring a huge deck, banya (sauna), fireplace and L-shaped couch. Considering it was the happy couple’s wedding night, I opted not to join them and instead, retired to the main floor courtyard just under the balcony of their honeymoon suite.
Just then my good friends, The Georgians appeared after a 48-hour trip back into Kyiv, and joined me and a few other night owls. We all enjoyed some ‘emergency rations’ and the music and laughter from the deck above as it continued into to wee hours.
Fight for Your Right! To Party!
As the mandatory midnight curfew approached, the bride became more & more anxious and demanded the party end and all guests depart. Unsurprisingly, fireworks ensued when she didn’t receive the answer she wanted from her new husband. So, she locked him and his friends out of the deck, confirming that my decision not to join them was the right one!
Understandably, people in Kyiv are conflicted about celebrating when their friends & family are dying at the front, but weddings are an exception. Life continues even during wartime, and the fact that folks can still celebrate something special is a testament to the Ukrainian spirit – as long as that spirit is consumed responsibly.
Fortunately, the bride and groom were smiling and still together on Sunday morning. I learned that the stress of war allows for certain exceptions to wedding night obligations.
Wartime weddings are yet another reason why the Ukrainians are fighting for their right to party anywhere, anytime in a free and independent Ukraine.
Slava Ukraini! Heroiam Slava!
One of realities of living in Kyiv is the daily risk of air raids. The country’s early warning air defence system is very good, although occasionally you get a pretty exciting show in the middle of the night. Last week however, I was awoken for a different reason.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, I was jolted awake by a knock on my hotel room door by a staff member announcing an anonymous bomb threat!
I got the full story as I made my way downstairs to a lobby full of sleepy guests. Someone who didn’t identify themselves called and claimed there was a bomb hidden somewhere on the property. So the hotel security guard inspected all the common areas while guests waited patiently in the lobby.
One of my newer friends at Hotel Bursa, Jeffery, a former UK Foreign Office diplomat who spent 14 years in Lebanon and is very familiar with bomb threats, provided some sober advice. “Perhaps the best place for all the guests while the hotel is being searched is not the lobby?”
Tick, tick, tick
This made a lot of sense to everyone, so we all moved to the open-air courtyard while security completed their search and pronounced the hotel safe. Jeffrey reacted to this revelation with typical British aplomb and whispered, “What does he mean he didn’t find anything? What’s he looking for – a shoebox with two red wires attached to an alarm clock?”
Jeffrey suggested the staff should report the threat to the police. “Good idea!” replied Katerina, working her very first 24-hour shift. One quick phone call and within fifteen minutes a Ukrainian National Guard team arrived with a trained bomb-sniffing dog. They inspected the entire hotel, including guest rooms, and thankfully pronounced it clear.
Do Not Disturb
In conversations with the national guard and police, we learned that Bursa was not the only hotel that experienced a bomb threat that night, apparently five others received the same. As Jeffrey and I walked back to our rooms we discussed how random bomb threats could be a very effective way for Russian agents to drive foreigners, aid workers, humanitarians and journalists out of Kyiv because they can’t get a decent night’s sleep.
It’s hard enough to sleep in a city with routine air raid sirens, active air defence fire, and civilian cellphone warnings going off almost every night. Nobody needs the additional stress of explosives to disturb their already disturbed sleep.
Go ahead, Russia, call in your fake bomb threats. But I can tell you, it didn’t really faze me or my fellow guests. We’re here for the long haul. We’re here to support freedom and the Ukrainian people. Cowardly bomb threats in a city under nearly constant aerial attack are the least of our worries.
Slava Ukraini! Heroaim Slava!
I was sitting around my hotel the other day and I met an American named Tom who was in Ukraine looking to develop modular housing for refugees. Tom is perhaps your stereotypical Texan with a booming voice, colourful vocabulary, and no-nonsense attitude towards life. As a fellow humanitarian in Ukraine looking to help, Tom and I had lots to talk about and we soon became fast friends.
Every morning, Tom and I would sit together, have breakfast and numerous coffees and watch life in Kyiv walk by. One day after tucking into a great Bursa hotel breakfast, Tom started to philosophise about Ukraine, Texas style.”That was the best god damn scrambled eggs and bacon I have ever had! and I’m in Kyiv!”
“This ain’t Russia! This is Europe!”
I wholeheartedly agree with Tom as I believe that the story that is often missed in the press coverage of the war in places like Canada and the U.S. is how similar life is in Kyiv to life in any other western city. Everyone dresses nice, the food is top-notch, people are driving Teslas around all over the place and food delivery, ride sharing and Internet banking are all commonplace.
There is a war raging in the East and Kyiv is under almost daily air bombardment by Russia but this is still Europe in all its forms. It is easy to get detached from reality in war time Ukraine when all you see is death and destruction of remote villages in your Instagram feed but if you heard air raid sirens 3 times a day in your town, your children were dying when their schools were bombed, and your fancy Tesla was stolen from your garage by an enemy soldier, you might relate better to why the Ukrainians need to win this war.
This is not just any war, it is a war on all of us who believe in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Come to U-Krane or Shut Up!”
“If more of my friends in America came to U-Krane, they would be just like me and never want to leave!” This is also true, in fact, I believe that if you, dear reader, came to Kyiv for 2 weeks and walked the beautiful tree lined streets past thousand year old gold domed churches and groups of children playing, you wouldn’t want to leave either.
“I ain’t gonna be popular among my friends when I get home!” exclaimed Tom; he does a lot of exclaiming, Texas style. “All my freinds are always asking me, Why the hell are you going to U-Krane?” and “Why are we spending all this money on the war there?”
“I’m gonna tell these folks to shut up and stop talking about the war in U-Krane and whether we should be sending money until they come to U-Krane themselves!” “Then I’ll talk to them about supporting U-Krane!”
“God Damnit I want to get my guns!”
When we talked about the war, Tom almost jumped out of his seat and said “I’m so pissed off with the god damn U.S, government for not sending every god damn gun, bullet, tank and airplane we have to U-Krane!” “These wonderful people are fighting a god damn war against a bunch of god damn murderers and we’re too chicken sh*it to give them everything they need to win!”
If Tom, your typical conservative, gun-toting Texan can come to Kyiv you can too, and if you do you, will understand why Ukraine is one of “us” and why we need to defend them just like we would defend a friendly neighbour, just like we defended Europe in 2 world wars. If more of us were like Tom, this war would be over and we could all go back to living our lives in peace, like we all deserve, especially Ukrainians.
Slava Ukraini! Heroiam Slava!
It’s been great living in Kyiv for the past year, meeting new people and learning the ins & outs of the most easterly country in Europe. I have identified many quirky things about Ukraine like staff food, ride-share roulette, and constant bicycle couriers, but living arrangements are definitely unique. There’s a nightly 12:00 am curfew and the metro train stops running at 10:30pm. Obviously, this can wreak havoc on plans to get home, but like so many other realities of life during wartime, Ukrainians have adapted seemingly effortlessly.
Due to the unpredictable daily routine caused by air raids, living arrangements have become more fluid as well. Everyone I know has at least one room to call their own, plus a dozen other flats around the city where they can crash on a couch as the curfew approaches. Your house is yours, but your house is also your friend’s place as well.
We are enjoying a beautiful, hot summer in Kyiv and the rooftop bar at hotel Bursa is packed nearly every night. Because of the curfew most establishments close at 10:00 pm, and once everything is cleaned up and ready for the next day, it’s time to relax with friends and catch up.
Everyone knows each other and enjoys spending time blowing off the steam of wartime, but sometimes the revelry ends up changing your plans. Occasionally, you miss the last train and are forced to play ride-share roulette hoping to strike the Uber jackpot. Other times, you’re having so much fun you just want to keep the party going.
All of these scenarios cause you to wonder, where to sleep tonight? If you miss the metro, you can stay at a friend’s flat in Podil. If you’re unable to get a ride-share, stay with someone who lives closer to your neighbourhood so you can get home quickly in the morning to change before tomorrow’s shift. If you and your friends decide to keep the party going, it’s assumed that all be staying wherever the party continues.
Mi Casa es tu Casa
Everyone carries a spare toothbrush, and many even keep one at their friend’s place. Everyone is welcome everywhere.
I’ve never been fortunate enough to call dozens of friend’s homes my own anytime I needed a place to stay. Perhaps that’s what war does to people – bringing them closer by forcing everyone to adapt to new realities. Or maybe, it’s something uniquely Ukrainian to think of everyone as family and everyone’s house as your home as well.
Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re in Ukraine or just a Canadian lucky enough to have wonderful Ukrainian friends, you’ll always have a home – and that’s certainly worth fighting for.
I’ve now been in Kyiv for a year and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about the beauty, power, strength, and intelligence of Ukrainian women. I only hope I can do them the justice they deserve as I express my admiration for these incredible women.
Not your Average Man
Most of the men I’ve met in Ukraine are awesome dudes working hard as baristas, bartenders, drivers, servers and cooks and they’re all great. However, most of the women I’ve met are fashion designers, musicians, marketing executives, event planners, teachers, politicians and deputy ministers. Women seem to hold most of the top jobs in Ukraine. In fact, it’s rare to encounter a company with fewer than 50% female managers and directors. Why? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s a result of the higher proportion of women aged 30-34 having completed post-secondary education in Ukraine (65%), than in the EU (46%), and well above Ukrainian men according to figures from 2021.
Dressed for Success
Ukrainian women are some of the most fashionable in the world, especially the young, progressive women that will determine Ukraine’s future.
This weekend was Kyivness at Hotel Bursa. Kyivness is a fashion event where emerging Ukrainian designers like Roxy Levkovska showcase their latest creations. Roxy is a one-woman brand and everything she sells is original and handmade. She began her career at a major Ukrainian label called Better, but her career was cut short when she was forced to flee because of the war.
After relocating to her grandmother’s home in the country, Roxy began repurposing her Baba’s tablecloths into corsets and her grandfather’s old shirts became a woman’s jacket. After a year of building her brand on Instagram, her business is finally taking off. Roxy is just one of many Ukrainian women who have turned adversity into opportunity. The confidence that she could build a unique fashion brand while war continues to ravage her country is an incredible example of how Ukrainian women cannot, and will not be defeated.
No Street lights? No Problem
As things were winding down at the end of another night at Hotel Bursa, the gang was planning their way home before curfew. It was 10:30 and the Metro was about to close, so they all had to rush for the last train. Barbara, a brilliant aspiring bio-medical engineer, lives at the end of one of the lines – a 40-minute train ride from Podil. Furthermore, after that leg she has a 15-minute walk through the dark streets of suburban Kyiv.
For Barbara, like all the Ukrainian women I’ve met, the idea of walking home alone in the dark after a long train ride is not an issue. It’s just what you do. I’m not saying that walking late at night is without risk, it’s just not a risk to the average Ukrainian woman. You need to get home, and that means walking in the dark, period.
Strong Women – Strong Nation
Even the Ukrainian military is heavily populated by women with more than 50,000 female soldiers serving and over 10,000 in active duty on the front lines. That’s 16% of their armed forces and it’s growing. In fact, October 2022 saw the first all-female prisoner of war exchange including 37 women who fought at the grisly Battle of Azovstal.
One thing I’ve learned after a year in Kyiv is that one must never underestimate the power, strength and intelligence of Ukrainian women. Ukraine is considered the motherland of the Slavic people – and the world can thank Ukrainian women for that.
Slava Ukraini! Slava Ukrainian Women!
After being summoned by the Government of Canada, Mike’s about to walk into several meetings with some of the highest-ranking officials and Ministers in Ottawa. Learn all the details including ‘what it’s really like’ within the hallowed halls of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. Mike was rather surprised!
Please join us to learn who’s involved, what was discussed, and the next steps to move forward on this episode of The Decentralists.
The latest escalation of the war in Ukraine has been raging for 18 months. In response to the damage and destruction, the government has passed a new law in the Rada which has the potential to change the futures of the 7 million Ukrainians displaced by the conflict. While questions have arisen around the wording of the legislation, this article argues that there is no doubt that if passed in the right form and implemented successfully, timely, accessible, compensation for those who have lost their homes and lands to Russian aggression will change the nature of future housing land and property compensation schemes, as well as the post-war landscape in Ukraine.
Addressing the issue of housing land and property (HLP) compensation for displaced populations so early in the conflict is a bold and difficult move, and it is one which should be welcomed and supported by the international community. The law will bring Ukraine into line with international standards on HLP restitution, which seeks to bolster durable solutions to displacement by allowing populations to return and reclaim their HLP assets left behind or stay where they are and be compensated if their homes are destroyed. The faster a law and claims mechanism is operational, the easier it will be for the displaced to gather enough evidence to show where they once lived and what they owned. The longer the war and the greater the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the more difficult this becomes. In this respect, the draft legislation seems to allow for a variety of evidence, including potentially digital footprints, to be used to prove former ownership and use, beyond just land titles. This is going to be crucial for populations which may struggle to prove legal titles to property because of displacement.
The Ukrainian legislation is a great first step, but it needs a broader scope. If implemented in its current form, the law will not include the compensation rights of a wide range of HLP owners and users. Renters aren’t included, and neither are those who have lost agricultural land, a crucial demographic in a country which relies heavily on agricultural exports. Small businesses don’t seem to be included either, however these groups will be key to getting the economy back on its feet. Finally, the law appears to suggest that claims will be individually assessed, rather than following the mass claims model. With the potential number of claimants, this approach is simply not feasible, even with the best will and resources in the world.
Being a statutory body, the compensation commission will be funded from state coffers, but with the cost of rebuilding Ukraine in the trillions, such an effort is going to put a massive strain on a Ukrainian economy already stretched by the war. Russia will neither withdraw, apologise or pay reparations willingly, which only leaves an international community reeling from economic hardship and the covid hangover to fill the void. If the compensation mechanism stalls on the issue of funding, it will further demoralise a population struggling to maintain hope and further delay a return to homes, lands and property.
Reason for Optimism
Despite the challenges, there are reasons to be optimistic about the compensation law. Most countries never see compensation mechanisms for many years after the cessation of hostilities, if at all. Some, like Iraq, are so mired in corruption and mismanagement that only the elites and families of politicians benefit from compensation.