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Five secrets of Ukraine encapsulated in its architecture

Collage: Euromaidan Press
Five secrets of Ukraine encapsulated in its architecture
Article by: Olena Makarenko with contributions by Alya Shandra
The secret to helping Ukraine move forward might be well hidden in brick walls. The creators of an unusual encyclopedia devoted to Ukraine’s architecture believe that because it is not just walls but people and relationships between them, no period should be discarded, even that from Stalin’s era. Instead, lessons should be learned from these time capsules testifying to bygone eras. Here are five unexpected secrets contained in Ukraine’s architecture. 

In its long history, Ukraine went through periods of poverty and glory, repressions and renaissance, stagnation and battle. Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Architecture is a project called to observe how all this is captured in the country’s architecture, or how architecture influenced processes happening in the country.

An unusual encyclopedia presents the subjects in a simple and smart audiovisual format. Apart from the alphabetic order (so far only in Ukrainian), it singles out the overarching phenomena that the architecture embodies: power, sacrality, language, order, nation-building, recourse, infrastructure, labor, rest, affordances and constraints, visibility and presence, childhood, appropriation, and migration.

The project was created by the Urban Forms Center NGO, which deals with issues of architectural heritage and the development of Ukrainian cities.

In a conversation with Euromaidan Press, Dmytro Sysoiev, chief coordinator of the Encyclopedia, underlines that Ukraine’s architecture is diverse and multifaceted, as is Ukraine’s history.

“Everything that happened in our country was reflected in our buildings, in our architectural heritage. We should pay attention to all of it. It is just like in history. You cannot discard any periods. Even though they were short.”

The website of the Encyclopedia explains that the categorical principle of systematization of information corresponds to the brightest and most painful issues that Ukrainian architecture works with.

“After all, the essence of the architect’s activity is to find a form of solving social problems. When individual problems grow into noticeable complex phenomena, the forms are combined into archetypes.”

Sysoiev notes that while the team worked on the project, they repeated over and over that architecture is not just walls, it is people and relationships which stand behind it. Nowadays, more people and the media have started to use this thesis.

So what secrets can architecture tell you about Ukraine and Ukrainians themselves?

1. The struggle for power and public space

Power is an initial category. The creators of the Encyclopedia explain that if we view the architect not as a creator, but a politician, architecture can be considered a material embodiment of politics.

“It can be a scene of historical events or personal dramas, or a tool in customer’s hands, or criminal evidence, or an individual actor that constructs reality and streamlines processes.”

Therefore, it is not surprising that the main object illustrating the power aspect of the architecture is the very heart of Kyiv, Ploshcha Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Since the early 1990s, the square has been at the epicenter of three revolutions.

However, Igor Tyshchenko, who wrote the article about Maidan, outlines that Ukraine’s main square was not meant to be a free political space. After being destroyed during World War II, Khreshchatyk street and cosy imperial Dumska Ploshcha, cleared of ruins, were significantly expanded and turned into the center of a Stalinist ideological architectural ensemble.

In Soviet times, what is currently Maidan Nezalezhnosti, was called “The Square of the October Revolution,” after the Russian Bolshevik coup of 1917. Photo:

However, the square betrayed Soviet ideology even before the Soviet Union collapsed. In October 1990, when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, Maidan became home to what is considered the first major political protest of Ukraine — the Revolution on Granite. For more than two weeks, several hundred hunger-striking students camped out here, demanding Ukraine not sign a new Union Treaty. Less than a year later, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, and the square changed its name to “Maidan Nezalezhnosti,” Independence Square.

But the revolutionary traditions stayed.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution took place at Maidan when Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yuschenko competed for the post of the president of Ukraine, and with numerous violations, Yanukovych was proclaimed the winner. Then the Revolution intervened in the course of events.

Afterward, following Moscow’s example, the square was turned into a sterile commercial space — a huge shopping mall was built in its belly. Tyshchenko says this was a clever instrument of urban economic elites and the state to control and regulate this public space:

“Maidan became a site of mass consumption, unsuitable for rallies or other political gatherings. The square continued in that state for almost 10 years. Once a metaphor for public mobilization, it gradually became an illustration of commercialization, mass culture, and consumption.”

Therefore, the Euromaidan Revolution in 2013-2014 was not only about political demands, but about the right of citizens for a public space, a “collective demand for ‘the right to the city’… right to freedom of speech and to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right of social groups to be politically visible in the city center.”

Maidan Nezalezhnosti during the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014 (right) and afterward. Photo:

Commercialization is actually a standard tool that the repressive state apparatus of authoritarian regimes (or weak democracies) uses to deprive its citizens of a public space for protests. For instance, the space in front of the Central Election Commission in Kyiv was for several most election-rigged years occupied by a food market, and a brutal dispersal of a student’s protest during Euromaidan was justified by the need to set up a Christmas tree for the standard commercialized urban celebrations.

Today, the central district where Maidan is located is also a business and an entertainment hub:

“a place where ideological and physical control and commercialization have been colliding and coexisting with each other alongside attempts to ‘bring the public dimension’ from below,” the Encyclopedia describes.

2. The sacrality that served power

Religion has great importance in the lives of Ukrainians. Nowadays, freedom of religion is established by the country’s Constitution. However, it was not always this way. And religion went a long path, starting from the struggle for the right to be professed to a struggle against any dissent.

The authors of the Encyclopedia describe how the position of religion in Ukraine fell from having a state religion, Orthodox Christianity, and limiting the political rights of people with a differing faith, to religion itself being essentially outlawed and existed in the form of clandestine churches during Soviet times.

“One day, religion could have unlimited opportunities and could oppress the rights of others, but the next day it could become oppressed itself.”

The authors of the Encyclopedia delve into the interplay of power and sacrality by considering the sacral architecture that the Kyivan Rus, a medieval state that fell to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, adopted from the Byzantine Empire. The churches of that period are among the few monuments Ukraine inherited from the Middle Ages, but, overwhelmingly, the heritage of the Kyivan Rus is concealed by Baroque plaster and classicist paintings of later eras.


The medieval contours of St. Sophia, one of Kyiv’s UNESCO sites (left), are hidden underneath a baroque makeover (right), as are the original frescoes. Photos:

“No wonder it is easy to get lost trying to define a historical period a building belongs to. However, as soon as we stop and look more closely at façade plasticity, contours, sizes, and constructions, or enter the building and focus on observation, we will see the presence of the Middle Ages.


We may wonder what the Middle Ages meant for Ukraine. Perhaps, this is the question those who tried to hide Rus’ architecture behind décor and modern replicas, wanted to avoid so much. This is not Novgorod’s white-stone buildings, or Suzdal’s carving, or Gothic and Romanesque architecture. A thick layer of plaster and new murals hide Byzantium with its contradictory reputation. Does not the dissection of the Byzantine cultural layer tell us not so much about ancient times as about our present, where the heavily gilded Middle Ages are hidden behind the baroque pro-European façade?” Yaroslav Perekhodko and Ievgeniia Gubkina, who penned the article “Sacral Power in Architecture of Kyivan Rus: Second Constantinople and New Jerusalem,” wonder.

It is from the Byzantine Empire, and, namely, Constantinople, the “Second Rome” and greatest city of that time, that the rulers of Kyivan Rus adopted the concept of “symphony of state power.” This concept, which served as a model for the whole Christian world at the time, was predicated on a belief that spiritual powers of the Church and temporal powers of state power form a synergy, and mystically inherit Christ, who also has both Divine and human nature in one incarnation. Practically speaking, this concept materialized in the Emperor acquiring a sacral status. Thus emerged the desire of Kyiv’s medieval rulers to create a “Second Constantinople” at home. An emblematic example of this is the St. Sophia cathedral, meant to be a copy of the one in Constantinople.

“Imitation as a methodological principle was fundamental to the sacred architecture of Rus’ after Christianisation. It was not innovation or search that was valued, but a representation of power in understandable and simple terms. The only way to achieve authority equal to the Byzantine emperor was to physically construct the ‘New Jerusalem’ and ‘Second Constantinople’. All the more, the Greeks built them.”

Another illustration of Ukraine’s sacral life that the authors of the encyclopedia provide is the monasteries of Lviv, the so-called capital of western Ukraine. This multicultural city is famous for its large number of cloisters. Far from being secluded, the fortresses of worship obliged their inhabitants to take an active part in the life around them. The authors of the Encyclopedia explore how.

2. Order and the desire to deny a traumatic past

The National Expo Center (VDNG) exemplifies the architectural order of the so-called Stalin Empire. Photo:

Architecture is all about putting things into order, the Encyclopedia’s authors say.

“The ordering process, however, inevitably reaches its limit. Beyond this limit, order transforms from a tool of progress and rationalization into a tool restricting and inhibiting creative exploration and diversity.”

In this section, the Encyclopedia explores the heritage of Stalinism. It explains that the main component of the Ukrainian urban architectural heritage is the eclecticism of classical styles and in the 20th century, neoclassicism was superseded by Soviet modernism. The last layer of monumental retrospective architecture in ex-Soviet countries was the so-called Stalin Empire Style, which, besides being a language of Soviet propaganda, left behind spacious VIP apartments that are still cherished as superb housing and orderly monumental constructions At a time when people’s living conditions were hard, it sought to convey a sense of joy, vigor, and celebration.

The Encyclopedia explores the monumental reflections of Stalin’s era in architecture. Since 2015, when corresponding laws were adopted following the Revolution of Dignity, a large part of this legacy has undergone decommunization. To some extent, the desire to cut out manifestations of Ukraine’s totalitarian past encroaches on worthy projects, like Soviet mosaics.

To some extent, Ukrainians would rather erase memories of Stalin’s time from their collective memory. This is something the Encyclopedia’s authors do not take lightly: “We don’t have the right to destroy or damage the cultural heritage because of its affiliation to the totalitarian era. Nobody can overcome trauma without due reflection, but trauma is something that prevents us from reflecting on our past,” they write.

“The Stalin age in Ukraine is a difficult, traumatic, and controversial time. It also makes the perception of the cultural heritage of that era, architecture in particular, difficult. The post-totalitarian trauma of Ukrainian society prevents the comprehension and perception of those difficult and painful pages of history. The collective memory is at the denial stage, at the stage of oblivion. But unless the past is understood, we cannot overcome its consequences. The comprehension of the heritage of the past is a necessary stage for further development.” the Encyclopedia states.

Besides the central vul. Khreshchatyk, a large-scale example of the architecture of that era that has escaped decommunization is VDNG (“Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy,” during Soviet times, now National Expo Center of Ukraine). Built as a temple complex, it served as an “attractive museum display window,” a show of idealized Soviet reality and a pilgrimage site of the cult of prosperity, where visitors were propagandized to believe that life in the USSR was becoming better each day. Today, the USSR is gone and so is the cult of prosperity. The VDNH continues to reinvent itself in the new capitalist era:

4. The metro and the continuity of Soviet management

The authors describe infrastructure as a source of pride, a political promise, and an indicator of culture, progress, and even the civilizing missions of states. It is an indicator of the comfort of the city and its development.

As opposed to western countries, the subway in Ukraine is a post-WWII story and served as a marker of the “status” of cities, with an informal “competition” between them. Like with other Soviet infrastructure projects, however, the subway at times well victim to serving political tasks, rather than scientific or engineering ones:

“For example, the ‘empty’ Saltivska branch of the subway, which was built for an impossible project for the development of Olympic sports in Kharkiv, or the subway station Lvivska Brama in Kyiv, which seems like it is never going to be built, probably due to improperly planned exit.”

The entire subway of Dnipro is a living testimony to this Soviet principle of serving political goals instead of solving problems of the real world and its people:

“From the beginning it did not solve the city’s transport problem, ignoring the objective factors of passenger traffic. Subway stations connect factories with factories, not with the center or residential districts. Also, there is no connection to the other riverbank of the city. Most residents of Dnipro simply found themselves outside the ‘subway area.’ As a result, the Dnipro metro project served more to recognize the city’s status, if not on an equal footing with the capital of the republic, Kyiv, then at least with… Kharkiv.”

To this day, the subway in Kyiv is a question of the status of city districts and the political promises of city officials. A mayor will be judged by whether or not a new subway station was opened during his term. And indeed, the subway finds itself in a higher league amid other traffic. Amidst the dilapidation of roads and chaotic congestion of city streets, the subway, with its precise train schedule, offers solace and certainty to the troubled city dweller.

Take a walk in the Kyiv metro

As we find ourselves witnessing bad urban planning decisions in Ukraine, like the traffic situation or the senseless metro projects, it is worth remembering, the Encyclopedia’s writers state, that Soviet heritage is not only mosaics or repressions:

“More often it is manifested in seemingly absurd management decisions. And what is critical in this situation – such Soviet management systems have longevity to this day. It’s not as important what the subway station looks like as where it stands. The subway, like infrastructure in general, remains a matter of political struggle rather than the practical implementation of needs and the rights of the population.”

5. Collisions of labor

Labor, as well, is a significant aspect explored by the authors of the Encyclopedia.

They look into the legacy left after the collapse of the Soviet Union – its big factories. Only thirty years ago, they were a symbol of guaranteed work and a planned economy.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine searched for a new path of development. Some parts of the factories were privatized and took part in the birth of the phenomenon of Ukrainian oligarchs. Some remained in the state’s property. But a significant part either did not survive the existence in the circumstances of large-scale corruption and was left abandoned, leaving the whole cities without main sources of revenues.

Six amazing projects bringing life to Soviet ruins in Ukrainian cities

The authors of the Encyclopedia argue with the notion of postmodern renovation of abandoned factories. Instead, they stress that addressing the gentrification of “empty” industrial buildings is an urgent need of Ukrainian cities.

“However, the largest industrial enterprises, hubs, and even regions of Ukraine continue to operate without solving either the social or environmental problems of their employees and the cities in which they are located. Given this, the gentrification tool is unlikely to help, as the problem has been misidentified. If we do not see the factory, then, accordingly, we do not see the labor, and therefore in the end we do not see the people who work. It may be nice to be wrong, but Ukrainian society and Ukrainian economy have not yet moved from the industrial state to the post-industrial one,” the authors elaborate.


These are only five aspects of what Ukraine’s architecture can tell about the country. Visit the site of the Encyclopedia for more. The main work on it was completed in 2020. Now, the organizers expanded it with a few new articles. As well, the existing articles can be supplemented, discussed, or receive counterarguments if requested. “Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Architecture” is implemented in partnership with the small cultural capital of Ukraine 2020-2021 – Slavutych, Slavutych City Council, and the Central State Scientific and Technical Archive of Ukraine with the financial support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation and Zagoriy Foundation.

This publication is part of the Ukraine Explained series, which is aimed at telling the truth about Ukraine’s successes to the world. It is produced with the support of the National Democratic Institute in cooperation with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, Internews, StopFake, and Content is produced independently of the NDI and may or may not reflect the position of the Institute. Learn more about the project here.


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