Kyiv syndrome

The monsters of glass and concrete overshadow the golden domes of ancient temples and distort the unique face of the capital.

Фото: Ігор Луценко

Photo: Ihor Lutsenko

Saving the drowning is up to the drowning, says popular wisdom. Kyiv residents are increasingly growing to get accustomed to live by this principle. For years, the city councilmen have abused their powers and enjoyed brazen impunity, handing out  the precious land in the historical center of Kyiv.

Corrupt civil servants followed the lead by issuing (not for free) permits and approvals for the construction in the city areas that used to be considered architectural sanctuaries. In recent years, dozens of glass and concrete monsters mushroomed next to the ancient temples in the very heart of Kyiv. The new buildings destroy the unique historical architectural ensemble of the city, overshadow the golden domes of cathedrals and monasteries, and ruin the unique face of the nation’s capital.

The concerned residents of Kyiv and community activists, for sure, have never stood indifferent. However, the numerous appeals to the authorities that be, the protest rallies often accompanied by the demolition of the hated construction fences would produce only temporary effect. Dozens of protracted lawsuits failed to defend most of what activists considered illegal allocation of historic land.

It was the case, in particular, with Landscape Peyzazhna Alley, the park on Honchar St. 1-3 and 5-7, and the project on 10/1 Striletska St. One important breakthrough was when the NGO  Civic Position won a lawsuit to recognize the entire territory of the buffer zone surrounding St. Sophia Cathedral as the territory of historical and cultural significance, and hence especially valuable land. The verdict of the court explicitly banned the city council from allocating land plots in the buffer zone without the consent of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Seemingly, a victory. However, neither the council nor city authorities who have used to getting enormous "fees" from influential developers were prepared to renounce the usual practice and lose steady sources of income. So the shameful practice of shady land deals continued. As outraged Kyiv protested, the city council continued to vote for the scandalous land acquisitions, officials lined their pockets. The destruction of Kyiv continued.

Photo: Experts believe the Diamond Hill high raiser on the 11b Mazepa St. by the developer KAN Development is the ugliest building in the city

Photo: Experts believe the Diamond Hill high raiser on the 11b Mazepa St. by the developer KAN Development is the ugliest building in the citу

Realizing the futility of wait for help from corrupt government, the concerned citizens addressed the international community with numerous appeals and petitions - first of all to UNESCO, an influential international organization whose purpose is to protect the world’s historical and cultural heritage. The response was instantaneous: after hearing the shocking truth about the state of conservation of cultural heritage in Kyiv, UNESCO and ICOMOS immediately sent its experts to look into the situation in the city. Their findings proved to be eye-opening for Ukraine: the problem does exist and it needs to be addressed immediately.

However, the corrupt Ukrainian officials snubbed the decision of UNESCO. After that, UNESCO has taken stringent measures and issued a warning: at its 34th session held in Brazil (2009), the organization proposed to include the object number 527 on the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Kyiv: Saint Sophia Cathedral with Related Monastic Buildings, Kyiv - Pechersk Lavra" to the list of endangered objects, without discussion. The Ukrainian delegation then managed to convince the UNESCO committee that their comments will be taken into account and the situation will be rectified. The threat died down but nothing has changed.

The government has recovered from the shock and continued to plunder the lands so high raisers kept mushrooming. The following year 2010 saw an almost a historic event: for the first time in the history of independent Ukraine representatives of NGOs NGO  Civic Position (Maryna Solovyova and Iryna Nikiforova) and Save Old Kyiv (Ihor Lutsenko and Maria Lebedeva) attended the session of the for UNESCO Committee in the capacity of observers. Admittedly, the presence of public observers at the Committee sessions along with the official delegations is a common practice in all countries, but to our official delegation at the session the appearance of the activists came as a nasty surprise.

Photo: Golden domes of Lavra lost among high raisers.

Photo: Golden domes of Lavra lost among high raisers. Photo:

The reason was simple: it turned out that Ukrainian delegation liedduring the meeting, to put it mildly. To be exact, they lied through the mouths of the Russian delegation, because Ukraine is not a member of the Committee and therefore not entitled to vote. So, at 36th and 37th sessions, representatives of the Russian delegation said that the buffer zones of St. Sophia and Lavra are not being overbuilt, there are no high raisers built at all, and the infamous high raiser in Klovskyi Descent is quite unobtrusive (the videos of session meetings can be found on the UNESCO official website). Ukraine’s official written reports to the Committee contained the same outright lies about "improvements" that allegedly took place in Kyiv. The information about the positive changes was totally far-fetched and fabricated to appease UNESCO, while the government did not change its ways a bit. Meanwhile, the World Heritage Committee, just as any European institution, is used to trust the information provided by official government agencies.

And then the community made a desperate step – with the assistance of MP A. Hrytsenko representatives of Hromadska Posytsia arranged for an official meeting with the Director of the World Heritage Centre Kishore Rao. During the conversation, which lasted over an hour, activists showed a documentary footage that clearly illustrated what actually was going on in Kyiv and provided relevant papers and photographs. Mr. Rao was genuinely shocked by the information that in the buffer zone of St. Sophia alone over 50 land plots were allocated for construction. UNESCO again promised sanctions for Ukraine.

It should be emphasized that the community of Kyiv in no way seeking St. Sophia and Lavra to be included into the so-called "black list" of UNESCO. We want only to put an end to the destruction of the historic centre so that cultural identity of ancient Kyiv maintained, because only strict guidelines and warnings of UNESCO are capable of stopping the arrogant developers and officials with their insatiable appetites.

As the city activists brought the real situation to the attention of the Committee, the official Kyiv assures the Committee that everything’s fine, and the problem is non-existent but continues the destruction of the city’s historical and cultural heritage. Certainly, UNESCO is not a police institution and not a punitive body. Preservation of cultural and historical heritage is a primary function of the state. Nothing will help if Ukraine is in no hurry to protect its own treasures. In Europe, they even coined a term "Kyiv syndrome" to denote a situation when government is not merely fails to protect its own cultural heritage, but with its actions or inaction actually facilitates destruction.

Therefore, the concerned citizens just have no choice but keep drawing public attention to the problems and try resolving them without relying on the help from the state. Unfortunately, the changes that are underway in Ukraine have not touched upon the disastrous situation with the protection of cultural heritage. Officials involved in the malicious destruction of Kyiv, retain their jobs, so urgent and decisive action is needed.

It is necessary, first, to demand lustration and dismissal of corrupt officials that have lined their pockets or obeyed criminal orders and issued permits and approvals for the construction of high rises with underground parking in the security zones St. Sophia Cathedral and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, and who are still working in the Department of Cultural heritage, [the architectural watchdog agency] Derzharhbudkontrol, the National Commission of Ukraine for UNESCO and other agencies, one way or another involved in these abuses.

Secondly, it is necessary to take full and comprehensive control of new appointments to the newly elected city council and mayor’s office.

Unfortunately, inertia, and perhaps lack of awareness of Kyiv people resulted in the fact that the new city council is full of the same notorious faces. These include an ex-mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko, during whose tenure the land free-for-all has developed and gained force; it is the members of [another ex-mayor and tycoon] Chernovetsky’s "young team" that finalized and perfected the land schemes.

Photo: the newly elected mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko appointed as his adviser Ihor Nikonov - one of the most aggressive developers capital

Photo: the newly elected mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko appointed as his adviser Ihor Nikonov - one of the most aggressive developers capital

The fiercest outrage of the heritage activists was caused by the recent appointment of Vitali Klitschko’s adviser Ihor Nikonov, one of the most aggressive developers of the city.

It was Nikonov’s corporation KAN Development that is responsible for the destruction of Kyiv’s scenery landmark, the panoramic view of the right bank of the Dnieper, where the golden domes of the monastery rise on a background of green hills. Currently, the scenic slopes are built with apartment blocks so the domes of the Old Rus monastery are being lost on their background.

In addition, the influential oligarch is implementing its construction projects on the sites of kindergartens (11b Mazepa St.) and schools (32-34 Riznytska St.), in violation of the effective legislation and recommendations of UNESCO. By his own admission, he wants to build “a real high raiser in Kyiv" (as if the 140-meter high "corn" on Klovsky 7 is not high enough?)

Do you think he is capable of advising the new mayor to reduce the number of storeys of the building or on Klovskyi Hill or 17-23 Honchar St., as required by UNESCO? Or cancel the illegal allotment of plots right next to the walls of St. Sofia and Lavra?

The question, unfortunately, is rhetorical. It seems like Kyiv syndrome is not just incurable but highly contagious among the new generation of Kyiv authorities. Or maybe it's the routine summer aggravation of the disease?

We believe Kyiv residents must join forces and seek the cure together.

P.S. The official website of the UNESCO has recently posted a draft resolution on Kyiv that is planned to be adopted at the 38th session of the Committee (15-25 June). The resolution is based on the official report on the state of conservation of cultural heritage in Kyiv, submitted by the National Commission for UNESCO in Ukraine. The document gives a strong impression of deja vu, claiming that the changes in this area are so positive and sweeping that the Committee does not even plan to consider St. Sophia and Lavra until 2016. Exactly the period that developers require to wrap up the job.

So it looks like the fight is bound to rage on.

 Iryna Nikiforova