I’ve been following this guy called Dusty Past on Instagram for a while who has a really unique style of tattooing. On a bit of a whim, my friend Al and I ended up booking a trip out to Kiev in Ukraine, based around going to get some work done off of him.
I’ve never been to a Soviet or post-Soviet country before, and it truly felt like we had landed in a different age or world. In some respects, it was similar to experiencing Japan, but almost in the opposite way.
Our first impressions were that the city was a rough place, sort of like a sprawling version of Sprinburn or something. The buildings were grey and blocky, and there seemed to be a lot of hard looking people about. In lots of ways, it actually felt a lot like how Glasgow in the 60s or 70s is always portrayed.
We passed by a particularly soviet looking building which appeared to be abandoned from the outside. Both of us were fairly surprised to discover (with my haphazard Cyrillic translation) that this is in fact, the National Library of Ukraine.
There was scant attention paid to health and safety, and examples were everywhere. It did seem to mean that things were happening in record time mind you, with no need for risk assessments or safety harnesses.
To illustrate the collective brass neck of the Ukranians, the photo below shows them crossing over a high speed rail line to take a shortcut into town. Don’t let the picture fool you – there were actual full on high speed trains whizzing through here every thirty seconds or so. It was a wild sight to witness.
Not everywhere was cold and hard though. There was a lot of beauty to be found in unusual places around Kiev.
It was genuinely pretty fascinating to be in a country that still quite clearly demonstrated the Soviet mindset.
Maidan – aka Independence Square – that was central to the 2014 revolution was an interesting place. It was impressive in some ways, but also strange. For some reason, a modern glass shopping centre had been built right behind the main monument, which seemed like a bizarre choice given the history.
Freedom was a constant narrative that was visible across the city. It’s something that takes on an extra significance in a place like Ukraine, when compared to how it is so liberally used in the likes of the US.
I spent a day or so with Dusty Past and his dog – drinking tea, talking about the tattoo designs, and getting tattooed. It was really cool to get to hang out and hear about his thoughts on art, Ukraine and what the future might hold for the country.
Before we did anything, we took his dog out for a walk in the forest behind his flat. As we turned a corner we heard the unmistakable sound of drums being soundchecked, and I joked to Al that it would be a far right rally. We weren’t too far off, as it was some kind of festival for the ultra nationalists fighting Russia, with lots of people standing about in military garb.
One of the days we spent wandering about Kiev looking at as much of the city as we could. Probably the most impressive thing is The Motherland Monument.
This huge statue dwarves the Statue of Liberty, and the pictures don’t really do justice to just how massive it is. It’s an incredibly imposing and surreal structure, which dominates the landscape around it. It seemed like something right out of a movie, and was very bizarre to see in person.
Inside is a museum, and the chance to go up to various levels of the structure.
Because of the time of year, we could only go up to the first level, and sadly weren’t able to go up into the shield. However, after witnessing the ancient lift and rickety stairs that it took to get us to just the first level, it’s probably for the best that we weren’t able to go much further.
The view was nice though.
The museum itself had a lot of info on Ukraine and their role in the Second World War. That was particularly interesting, as it’s not a country we ever really hear about when we learn about that period in school in the UK. There was definitely some propaganda going on… but then it made me wonder how much of what we ‘know’ back home would seem like obvious propaganda to people from elsewhere.
It’s tough to explain just how surreal every interaction and experience was, as the pictures really don’t capture it. Even visiting the museum toilets or ‘cafe’ felt like we were in some kind of spy movie.
Perhaps understandably, there was a big focus on the country’s military prowess and history, everywhere.
This tank had a plaque on it that said it had been captured/discovered in Crimea, and that it had been identified as Russian, and was evidence of Russia’s war crimes in the area. The hostility towards Russia was palpable here, and across Kiev in different ways.
If you can say anything about the Soviets, it’s that they were good at building monuments. This is the Arch of Friendship – which was built to symbolise the friendship between Ukraine and Russia. Oops.
Understandably, a lot of people in Ukraine feel strongly that all of these monuments should be torn down, and many of them have been. However, this one is to remain for now. What’s kind of amusing is that during the Olympics the rings were painted in rainbow colours, which inadvertently became a symbol of gay pride by accident. I liked that irony.
Every city has a trendy area, and Kiev is no different. Here, Podil is the place to be if you want nice bars and restaurants.
Despite being described as ‘Kiev’s hipster area’, it still felt very much like Kiev, from the graffiti on the walls to the ancient tram system.
We found a few cool places, including the Pink Freud cocktail bar, and it was in this area that we realised just how big the currency difference was. One night, in total we had two full meals, four or five cocktails, and a host of other drinks, and it came to less than 40 Euros each. For reference, a pint of local craft beer was 80p, and that was the more expensive stuff.
We rounded off our time in Kiev at a little bar drinking triple Jack and Coke while chatting to the bar staff, who, as it turned out, happened to have a Scottish flatmate. As the booze seeped in and we became more comfortable, we realised that the Scots and Ukranians have a lot in common at their core. Once you get past their initial coldness, they are friendly, proud people who want to have a drink and share stories about their country.
As we stumbled our way back through the quiet streets of Kiev feeling far more gallus than we did on the first day, we decided that we actually quite like this city. Kiev, you won us over.
For the last part of the trip, we had booked a day trip to Chernobyl… the photos from there will be the subject of the next blog.
In the meantime, check out the short (less than 1 minute) video from the trip here: