Kyiv, Ukraine — It is sagely said here that when two Ukrainians get together there are three leaders.
Which might explain why it is that getting anyone to acknowledge that Ukraine is significantly better off in most every way today than it was 20 years ago and it usually and comes with a "Yes, but."
For people younger than 30, it's understandable -- they don't know or they vaguely remember what a basket case Ukraine was 20 years ago when I first travelled to the country to see the Iron Curtain being raised in Eastern Europe after the Fall of the Wall in Berlin.
And everyone older than 30 grew up knowing that authorities were either corrupt or stupid, and so they seem to remain in the eyes of everyone who would have conducted state or municipal affairs better given the chance to lead.
Stop outside the Hyatt to marvel at its gleaming facade and be told "Yes, but it doesn't belong in this district." Note that the Intercontinental has a done a terrific job of mimicking Kyiv's architecture and be told "Yes, but why didn't they restore an old building instead." Marvel at the shops and be told "Yes, but who can afford it."
And on and on. It seems that second-guessing is the first response to everything.
But I get ahead of myself.
The Tourist Hotel where I stayed in Kyiv marked the 20th anniversary of its opening recently. I know this because it says so on a huge photograph taken back then and on display in the lobby. The photo was shot from the top of the hotel on the suburban left bank looking west across the Dnieper River to the original right bank and the historic city centre strung out along Khreschatyk Street.
It shows that 20 years ago, the view was of an unbroken canopy of green, nothing but trees between the hotel and the river about a kilometre away.
Today, those trees are gone, and in their place has risen a forest of high-rise apartments and business centres.
It is this contemporary view that I saw every morning from my west-facing room on the 20th floor of the Tourist. Below were five new, 10-storey, green, beige and grey apartment buildings; beyond them two business centres, one of them a glass cylinder, then three 25-storey towers, then four more down to the riverbank where men fish through holes in what remains of the winter ice on the Dnieper.
(I would guess that what I could see from my window alone would rival total new commercial construction in Winnipeg over the past two decades.)
But this is only a fraction of the new construction that exploded in Kyiv, particularly in the last decade, fueled by a population growth estimated at between 800,000 and 1.3 million, by concentrations of vast wealth as a result of the botched privatizations and the rise of oligarchs after Ukraine threw off its Soviet yoke in 1991, and by a massive influx of Western cash following the optimism sparked by the Orange Revolution.
The changed skyline is the first thing you notice from the windows of the train as it approaches Kyiv -- hundreds of new buildings in clusters reminiscent of those that dot Toronto.
The familiar landmarks remain -- from my window I could see across the Dnieper to the 80-metre tall statue of Motherland and, to the north, the golden domes of the historic churches that rise above the riverbank forests.
But between these icons are the spikes of new high rises and building cranes, most of them idle as a result of the 2008 economic crisis that caused a 15 per cent contraction in the economy and a 40 per cent devaluation of the hryvnia against the U.S. dollar, as everyone is quick to point out.
The contraction, of course, has been painful, especially for those whose salaries were tied to the greenback, and the rapacious and all but unchecked commercial and residential development outrages many Kyivians who resent glass towers rising among -- even displacing -- historic buildings and neighbourhoods.
But for people like me, who remember the dour and dirty Kyiv of 20 years ago when Ukraine took its first step toward independence with a free election on March 4, 1990, the transformation is nothing short of a miracle.
This is most obvious on bustling Khreshatyk Street, the main drag in Kyiv and the heart of the commercial and retail sector. Twenty years ago, it seemed all but dead, especially at night, when it was dark for lack of lights.
The Tzum Department Store, the Kyivian sister of Moscow's Gum, was a bleak place with nothing worth buying for rubles that were worthless in any event. The clerks were sullen, the escalators clanked and groaned when they worked at all. Today it is a luxury department store, crowded with well-heeled and well-dressed shoppers, especially, and as ever, women. It is, in fact, the kind of store Winnipeggers remember the downtown Bay was before the sprawls and malls.
Independence Square, ground-zero during the Orange Revolution five years ago, has been redone for the worse -- a triumph of kitsch over class, most agree -- but it is alive with activity and has a neon glow at night.
Below the square is a vast underground mall filled with designer shops and young people who have never known their city to be otherwise, who only shrug when you tell them that just 20 years ago you could enter shops to find no selection to speak of, and sometimes nothing at all on empty shelves.
I went to a "gourmet" department store where foie gras, 10 kinds of caviar and rare French wines are among its staples and remembered being in a shop in 1990 where there were only a couple of glass bottles of milk and some bread for sale.
In a suburb of Lviv, where the houses would be at home in Waverley West, I stopped at a Metro store and was surprised to find the Ukrainian equivalent of Costco, a giant warehouse of food, dry goods and appliances that could be entered only with a membership card, which my cab driver had and lent to me so I could look around.
I stopped older shoppers to discuss the changes -- the young, blessedly perhaps, have no historical points of reference to discuss the changes -- and was surprised by what I found.
"They change the historical architecture," Igor Shmaruk, 60, said. "I see nothing here that is special. Everyone is trying to copy the Americans and no one knows what's good or bad."
He then reprised what I often heard.
"Twenty years ago, no one went hungry, no one went without, no one was without clothes. Things are run down in America, too. They have worse buildings and poor people. The young people don't know that -- they know nothing and remember nothing that was good."
Given his age, Shmaruk's contrariness might be explained by the fact that two-thirds of his life was lived as a lie exposed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, however, it is older Ukrainians who have suffered most as a result of the collapse. Their working lives were spent in the expectation that the state would provide, especially pensions. There were no private plans, nor was it possible to invest toward retirement, with the result that many today cannot survive on devalued pensions without help from family or their aging selves -- a great many of the street vendors here are pension-aged people, many hawking home-made preserves and foods in the street.
That's not the case for Victor Helnichemko, 58, who is a director with a construction company that builds shopping centres and, by all appearances, a wealthy man.
He said he is ashamed that homeless people can now be seen in the streets and that there are no programs to help them find shelter or jobs. The mall, he said, is a beautiful place but disguises the fact that since the crisis, few people other than businessmen like himself can afford to shop there.
He, too, remembers that old times in many ways were better times, at least they were 40 years earlier before the Soviet Union started its slide toward dissolution.
In fact, dissatisfaction with the way Kyiv has been managed, especially in good times before the crisis, is endemic, Kostyantyn Matviyenko told me.
An engineer by profession, a former deputy of Kyiv city council and a consultant who has just had his second novel published, Matviyenko said that for all that is new, Kyiv is suffering under capitalism from the same old incompetence and corruption that was the hallmark of Soviet times.
He said the expansion of wealth in the decade prior to 2008 created such pressures on city planning that it was abandoned in favour of schemes that enriched individuals but not the physical city itself.
Roads that needed to be rebuilt were paved instead with interlocking bricks that are now failing with the result that now both street surfaces and foundations need to be repaired at exactly the time that the easy money post crisis has evaporated.
The thirst for fresh water created by growth, meanwhile, was quenched by sinking wells into the aquifer instead of building purification capacity. Today, the aquifer has been seriously drained and its purity is being degraded because the wells allow street runoff, even sewage, to find its way deep underground, he said.
The uncounted new buildings were raised with no expansion of existing sewage and water systems. The result? They are operating far beyond capacity and have become "disasters waiting to happen."
Parks have been sacrificed to new construction, the city's ex-urban green belt has been invaded, and even the protected riverbank forest now boasts a massive development raised in defiance of authorities and completed while the city and developer fought for years in the courts. The city eventually won, but by then it was too late to do anything but prevent the building from being occupied. But what's the sense of that, really?
Matviyenko blames former mayor Alexander Chelchemko for wasting money in early good times, and he blames the current mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, for continuing to do so until last year when the good times ended.
Chernovetsky, an oligarch by most definitions, worth some $700 million having sold a bank he directed in Soviet times and acquired by means unknown in post-Soviet times, has cancelled the construction of two new bridges and subway system extensions so that streets built in horse-and-carriage times are today coping with one million automobiles. The pressure on parking is evident on the sidewalks, which are choked with parked cars.
"So yes, the city looks good, it looks nice, there are many nice coffee shops," Matviyenko said. "But you should remember that the parks are gone, that the water is in danger and that the quality that you think you see is not high quality."
To which I say: Yes, but, isn't it better to have today's problems in an independent Ukraine than yesterday's problems in the Soviet Union?