Kiev is the ultimate city at the crossroads of East and West. In one block you feel like you might be in France or Berlin, down another street you’d be sure you were in the Soviet Union. When we were in Kiev it had the bustling and confident atmosphere that you only feel in a developing city. As people are making more money, their future prospects are improving, and the youth are becoming more educated, it felt like the city is on the rise and opportunity is endless. For us, Kiev encapsulates that feeling perfectly.
One of the things that struck us most when visiting Kiev is: how do we measure wealth? Kiev is full of gorgeous buildings, statues, and monuments. The interior of many buildings feels like regal call-backs to lush Victorian wealth. The population has time to spend with their families, plenty of parks to explore, wonderful and affordable restaurants, and a flourishing arts scene. But relative to western standards, incomes are fairly low. As tourists, this means that we get to enjoy that immense depth of wealth at incredibly favorable prices.
Language in Kiev isn’t as straightforward as you might expect. While the majority of the population are native Ukrainian speakers, the Russian language may actually be more widely understood. This is because while nearly all native speakers of Ukrainian can understand Russian, not all Russian speakers can understand Ukrainian.
Does that mean you should speak Russian in Kiev? Well, not exactly. While many local Ukrainians will choose to communicate in Russian, there is a lot of complexity behind language in Kiev. Recently more Ukrainians are choosing to use the Ukrainian language as a means of asserting their freedom and separation from Russia. Conversely, some of the population has taken the opposite view as speaking Russian becomes a “cool” counter-trend. While it’s unlikely you will offend anyone by speaking Russian in Kiev, it’s worth understanding that these other factors may be at play when communicating.
For English-only speakers, communicating in Kiev can be tough but far from impossible. Generally, you can get by with a few words and a polite tourist smile, as your lack of communication is more than made up for by a surplus of your tourist money. Some restaurants will have English menus, and the hospitality and tourism sector is more accessible for English speakers. Though Kiev is not a city that caters to English only speakers, your best bet is generally to try to speak to someone younger (under 30) who would have grown up in Ukraine after independence as they would more likely have learned English and been exposed to Western Culture earlier in their lives.
The majority of people in Kiev – about 67% - are Orthodox, about 10% are Catholic, and around 10% are part of another Christian denomination. In effect, almost 90% of the population has some Christian affiliation. Around 10% of the population is non-religious, and there are some smaller Jewish, Buddhist, and other religious populations. There are still some religious tensions in Kiev, and while they are nothing like that you might experience elsewhere in the world, there are still occasional reports of graffiti and religious harassment.
It is fair to say that religion still features prominently in Kiev, though as a tourist you may not feel the full extent of it. Several public holidays are based on the Orthodox religion including Christmas (celebrated January 7) and Easter. Likewise, some stores or banks may be closed on Sundays (though in general most restaurants, tourist destinations, and shopping centers will be open).
More directly, you will see religion in Kiev expressed through the many churches and cathedrals throughout the city (which we highly recommend visiting – check out our things to see section). When visiting these sites, make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing (in general a long-sleeved shirt and pants are the safest bet). Women will also typically need to wear a headscarf.
The most obvious political strain in Ukraine is the relationship with Russia and their relatively recent independence in 1991. Ukrainian politics is therefore a constant pull between the East and West: a need to appease yet maintain their distinction from Russia while feeling the pull of the EU counterbalance and western politics. More recently in 2013, an uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square erupted due to the governmental decision to pull away from the European Union (and by default closer to Russia). This pushed the government further towards European integration, and arguably in response to this change of stance, Russia invaded part of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. While these issues have somewhat cooled in the years since these tensions between east and west remain at the forefront of Ukrainian politics.
Since then, the Ukrainian mix of cynicism and humor made international headlines when Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who had played the role of President on a popular TV show was actually elected as President of Ukraine. This was widely seen as a further rebuke to Russian influence, a push towards the rule of law, and a movement against the status quo of corruption in Ukraine.
Like most countries, in large cities such as Kiev you will find that people are somewhat more liberal, less religious and less conservative. That being said, as in most cities you will also find people that bridge the gap between the political extremes. In general, it may be best to avoid discussing any potentially sensitive political topics such as the Russian occupation of Crimea, or political and police corruption on which some people may have very passionate views.
Notable Immigrant Populations
Kiev is a largely homogenous city, with over 82% ethnic Ukrainians, and a further 13% Russian. Outside of these two ethnic groups, no others constitute even 1% of the population.
Despite the lack of diversity, you can still find pockets and neighborhoods with other ethnicities, and some diversity in restaurant options. In fact, though their numbers are relatively low as a percentage of the population, a recent census shows that there are over 130 ethnic groups in the city.
The most recent revolution to tilt the political scales in Ukraine was the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014. While Ukraine had been pushing more and more towards European integration through the early 2000s the government of President Viktor Yanukovych had been postponing a more comprehensive agreement with Europe (that may have endangered trade ties with Russia). Starting out as relatively peaceful protests, on February 18, 2014, approximately 20,000 approaching parliament was blocked by police, resulting in at least 82 deaths and more than 1100 injuries. Ultimately the revolution was successful, with the president ousted, and the European agreement signed shortly thereafter.
Perhaps in response to this move away from Russia and towards European influence, the Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia between February and March 2014. This conflict also features heavily on the psyche of Ukraine – in one sense dividing the population for those in favor of, and against Russian influence. But in another sense, uniting the population as these actions by Russia have pushed Ukraine more towards Europe, and hardened their resolve for their independence from the Russian sphere.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005 also still holds a prominent position in Ukraine and Kiev in particular. If the Euromaidan revolution was focused on addressing Ukraine’s external position in international politics, the Orange Revolution was more initially focused on addressing conflicts internal to Ukraine; corruption, a ruling elite, and political fraud. The Orange Revolution was driven by an increasingly politically active younger generation, and while some of the results of the Orange Revolution have since been overturned, it does appear to have had lasting effects on the fairness of elections in Ukraine, and on the way that the population views their role in shaping their own futures.
Underlying the current political and economic situation of Ukraine is its independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991. Like many post-soviet countries, over the decades since the disintegration of the Soviet Union Ukraine has been developing its balance between the Russian and European sphere of influence. With most Ukrainians fluent in Russian, and with Russia until recently Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, it is fair to say that the evolution of this dynamic continues to this day. From architecture to art, food to media, politics to economics, this careful balance must always be considered to better understand Ukraine.
Ukraine’s economy is primarily service-based, similar to many European countries, with industrial production and agriculture constituting the bulk of the remainder. Major services include transportation and communication, as well as tourism -though there remains a lot of room for tourism development.
Industrial production in Ukraine ranges from mining and steel production to cars and chemicals. While reserves of metal ore and coal for such production remains robust, Ukraine has largely exhausted its natural gas a petroleum reserves. This accounts for a significant part of Ukraine’s trade deficit with Russia. Perhaps more crucial these days is Ukraine’s natural black soil, said to be especially good for farming. Potatoes, sugar beets, grains, corn, tomatoes, and peppers are some of the more substantial crops for Ukrainian farmers. There are also significant vineyards and livestock and poultry farms throughout the Ukrainian steppes.
Though the EU has recently overtaken Russia as Ukraine’s primary trading partner, economic ties with Russia remain strong. In fact, the annexation of Crimea and the resulting economic fallout, combined with the weakening economic ties with Russia helped to push Ukraine into a recession after the Euromaidan Revolution. The Ukrainian currency, the Hryvnia fell precipitously, helping to make Ukrainian exports cheaper, and in the years since the Ukrainian economy has regained its footing.
Though wages are still low by Western Standards (GDP per person of approximately USD 10,000 on a PPP basis), there are improvements in business and political corruption, growing wages, improvements in education, and better economic management. Because of these developments, Ukraine is generally perceived to be in an improving economic position.