Fighting the developers in Kyiv

The fate of historic buildings is a global hot topic, but this month activists occupying an old trading complex in Ukraine’s capital to try to stop its redevelopment had to deal with a real fire destroying their ‘Friendly Republic’. Marta Dyczok sees here a metaphor for the country as a whole.   

On Sunday10th February Ukrainian activist Oleksandr Misiura was taken to hospital from Hostynnyi Dvir in the country’s capital Kyiv, to be treated for an attack of bronchitis. The night before, fire had broken out in the building; firefighters were slow to respond, but activists remained on site even though temperatures dipped well below freezing. Some people believe historical monuments are worth preserving, and are willing to brave freezing temperatures and fight fires to stand up to developers who believe otherwise.

Hostynnyi Dvir stands in a prime Kyiv location in the heart of the city’s Podil district, opposite the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and next to a statue of the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda. The white neo-classical building with arches and a large courtyard was built in 1809 as a trading complex, and its modern name means Hospitable Courtyard, although then it would have been known as the Merchant’s Courtyard.

For over a year it has been a battleground, a microcosm for what’s happening in Ukraine: conflict between the market, the state, and society. Developers are trying to reconstruct the space, using their influence with government officials to change legislation in their favour. Ordinary Kyivites are fighting back, using social networking to preserve the character of an architectural and historic landmark.

Leave to deteriorate, declassify, then demolish

Ukraine’s government removed Hostynnyi Dvir from its list of protected architectural monuments on 15 August 2011, after underfunding its maintenance for years, allowing the building to deteriorate. A few months later, on the anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, Kyiv’s city council voted on a motion to grant a development company permission to draw up plans for reconstruction. The next day, before this decision was even formalised, a developer moved drilling equipment onto the site. This is a common pattern: the state allows architectural gems to fall into disrepair, then allows developers to move in, claim prime locations semi-legally, and proceed to alter the character of the buildings, or even demolish them completely.

Hostynnyi Dvir has for over a year served as a microcosm of the wider Ukriainian situation: a conflict between the market, the state, and society.

But Kyivites, horrified by the destruction of the city’s historical character, are fighting back. They have caught what Human Rights activist Yevhen Zakharov has called the ‘virus of insubordination.’ A group  called Zberezhy Staryi Kyiv (Save old Kyiv), led by journalist Ihor Lutsenko, has been active since 2007, and when developers started moving in on Hostynnyi Dvir they and others were quick to respond. In the spirit of the ‘Occupy’ movement, they created a Hostynna Respublika (Friendly Republic) in the courtyard and have been blocking the development, using social networking to spread the word.

This is a common pattern: the state allows architectural gems to fall into disrepair, then allows developers to move in, claim prime locations semi-legally, and proceed to alter the character of the buildings, or even demolish them completely.

I first learned about their activities on Facebook back in the spring of 2012: when police tried to evict them in the middle of the night they posted a mobile phone video and appealed for help. Enough people showed up to allow them to stand their ground, and they have been doing so ever since. The building is buzzing, with art exhibitions, poetry readings, free foreign language lessons, lectures, dance classes. Before Christmas they invited everyone to come and help decorate the overgrown evergreen shrubs in the courtyard.  

Many post communist cities have struggled with the challenge of renewal in a changing political economy. Even in success stories like Prague, politicians have more concerned with preserving their power than managing the conflicting needs of conservation and development in the city’s historic core. 

Developers are a mixed blessing everywhere. On the one hand they provide buildings, often much needed living spaces and convenient commercial centres. On the other hand, they focus on the bottom line and often disregard issues of environment, neighbourhood, culture, and preservation. A large corporation is constructing a high rise apartment building across the driveway from my home in Toronto, having somehow got round the bylaw that restricts the height of buildings to six storeys. The character of the neighbourhood will be irrevocably destroyed, and likely set the precedent for more tower blocks.

The fight heats up

The outcome for Hostynnyi Dvir is not yet clear. Just before Christmas, when the developers tried to move in new construction equipment, the Friendly Republic activists called in some new heavy artillery of their own. World boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko, elected to Parliament on 28th October as head of his UDAR party, showed up and helped stop a police tear gas assault against the activists. But the post Christmas lull brought a new attack, when in the early hours of Saturday 9th February a fire broke out in the part of the building where the activists were sleeping, as well as two other areas including the library. Fire-fighters were slow to respond, took over five hours to extinguish the fire, and large parts of the building’s roof were destroyed.

World boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko, elected to Parliament on 28th October as head of his UDAR party, showed up and helped stop a police tear gas assault against the activists.

On Sunday morning an announcement was made that because of fire and water damage, all planned events were cancelled. Celebrity TV journalist  Andriy Kulykov, who was scheduled to do a live edition of his radio rock music show, showed up anyway. Since there was no power source for the music, he stood in the courtyard and read a story about Sherlock Holmes’ Ukrainian roots for the activists.

The latest appeals on Facebook are for hot coffee, tea, blankets, warm clothing, candles, and any donations. Since it’s too far for me to take coffee to Kyiv, I’m trying to figure out a way to wire them some money. And share their story.

A version of this article originally appeared in Kyiv Post

About the author
Marta Dyczok is an Associate Professor at the Departments of History and Political Science at the University of Western Ontario and a Fellow of the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) and its Munk School of Global Affairs.