Looking back over them, and not only, I can hold my hands up and say that ‘pre-war’, I perhaps did write a bit too much about the ladies. But, it was a different time, and far from just that, I’m actually proud of a lot of the work I did back then, although in the context of things now, they are rather like ‘notes from a lost country‘…
So here’s a ‘top 10’ of my work from Ukraine, pre-war:
10. The Pain of Ukraine?
My first article for What’s On magazine, January 2012, and it was about defending Ukraine from the attacks and prophecies of doom in the western media –
6. Ok, it was a bit light-hearted, but you could hardly be in Ukraine pre-war, and not write about the sexual side of things. This piece, a cover-story for What’s On, was about the men who came to Ukraine expressly to pick-up women, and how that was working out for them – I liked how it came out, and felt it made a point –
1. In October of 2012, I wrote what I believe to be my most significant pre-war piece from Ukraine, about the case of Oksana Makar, her tragic murder, and the implications for Ukraine (a case I continued investigating, going to her hometown of Nikolaev), here for the New Statesman
The depopulation which dogged Ukraine in the 90s still cuts a dark shadow, with Ukraine’s population having fallen every year since 1995. In the years to 2001, Ukraine’s population was falling by more than 1% each year, now standing at around 45.5 million, down near 7 million on the early 90s (photo, Dnepropetrovsk, 90s), representing a drop of over 13%. Recent years have seen the decline slightly level off, but it remains problematic, and any offset is propped up purely by population growth in the capital Kiev and certain parts of the west. Ukraine’s east is in deep trouble, with eastern cities Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya, Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk appearing on the State of the World’s Cities list of the globe’s fastest depopulating cities.
In particular trouble is the world’s fastest shrinking city, Dnepropetrovsk, with its population down from around 1.3 million in 1990, to just more than a million in 2011, and a year on year fall of over 1%. As a visitor, it’s hard to see why, the city benefits from perhaps the most beautiful location of any in Ukraine (my own selfie, from March 2014), right on the banks at one of the widest points of the cobalt blue Dnepr river. I’d take it over Lviv, with all its self-satisfied ultra-Ukrainian restaurants, and casual fascism dressed up as nationalism, in a heartbeat.
As the city struggles to keep itself above the psychologically significant 1 million, I speak with Dnepropetrovsk-based journalist Vadim Rizhkov, who tells me:
Firstly, falling below 1 million is a significant and unwelcome milestone for Dnepropetrovsk, and city authorities are doing everything they can to keep their head above that number. No local government wants to be the one at the wheel when this former major conurbation fell below a million. The latest trick was to try to incorporate local villages into the urban population.
(Photo, Dnepropetrovsk, 90s) The fact is that Dnepropetrovsk was a boom city back when people were making money here through the city’s industries, but now they have mostly gone – factories once employing tens of thousands now employ in the low thousands, or hundreds, if they haven’t closed. The legacy of earlier times is that property prices are still high, yet high-paying and in many cases mid-paying jobs have long since gone. The comparatively new redeveloped city centre is a telling point – modern and well-appointed. So those with money can come and spend it, but shop work is about the most a young person from Dnepropetrovsk can hope for these days, low paying and without real prospects. Meanwhile, falling tax revenues have seen services and facilities stripped to the bone. I love Dnepropetrovsk, however, I’m not surprised people are leaving.
And from all of this has come quite a fascinating situation. That being that, although local government is now hastily putting up all manner of statues and cutesy monuments about the place to touristify the place up, the best known attractions of Dnepropetrovsk are its abandoned buildings. There’s even a Vkontakte group, with over 1000 members, named ‘Abandoned Places in Dnepropetrovsk‘. The photos are mostly amateur and mostly spectacular, Dnepropetrovsk abandoned gives even the day-snapper so much to work with. You can check out the Vkontakte page here.
Of course, all abandoned buildings in Dnepropetrovsk lie under the awnings of Parus. This gigantic structure, 28 floors and around 30 years abandoned, towers over the city, delineating the biting contrast between what is and what might have been. Actually, what might have been is to the left below. The early 70s saw a confident Soviet Union with cities trying to outdo each other with ‘super architecture’ projects the legacy of ‘Stalin’s architect’ Lev Rudnev. Scope and scale were perhaps especially important in a Ukraine keen to prove itself no poor relation to Russia. Capital Kiev had tried, and largely failed, with the 1961-completed Hotel Moscow (Hotel Ukraina nowadays), but was increasingly building up, and big. Donetsk finished off its impressive Lenin Square in 1967, and come 1970 Kharkiv was making great noises about its to be ground-breaking, enormous National Theatre to come.
Dnepropetrovsk thought it could do better, and with good reason – the city was a burgeoning hub of Soviet production, with munition and automobile factories proliferating, and full employment for a surging population – up 23% in 1967, to 816,000. These were intelligent people too, with thousands of top physicists, engineers, designers, architects and scientists drawn from right across the USSR, including Moscow.
Photos here, Dnepropetrovsk in the 60s – as the city boomed –
So Parus, meaning ‘sail’ was borne, as a brave, serious statement of intent, technology and status. Architects and planners were awarded prizes purely on the basis of plans for the building, which was to be 28-storeys high, with an area of around 190 thousand square metres, with near 600 hotel rooms. An achievement which would push the envelope of technologies of the time and serve to show the zenith of Soviet architecture, answering critics who said much of the post WW2 reconstruction had been utilitarian, functional, ugly even. The hotel was even to have its own substation, to generate power for the complex, which was to include a range of facilities almost unheard of at the time – from pool to shopping complex. Parus was to be a pioneering, world-leading, super modern symbol of a modern Ukrainian Soviet Union, combining Stalinist scale with architecture of true aesthetic merit.
In the excitement, planning and approval passed through swiftly, and 1973 saw land reclaimed (more than 6 hectares) and construction crack on at a brisk pace. By 1975, the edifice had visibly taken shape, with well over a thousand workers employed on the site on working days. Countless more were involved in Parus-connected spheres, as the building captured the imagination of the city, with crowds gathering to watch the frame being erected at pace. Confident engineers claimed the hotel would be in service by 1979. (1979 did actually see Dnepropetrovsk’s population pass a million for the first time, it officially peaked in 1991 at just over 1.2 million, though higher figures have been widely reported.)
In reality, by 1979 work had ground to a near standstill. Minor work went on until 1984, with the building by then branded with the Russian ‘dolga stroyu‘ (long construction), something which was, and is, fairly common with Soviet, now post-Soviet architecture (Kharkov’s National Theatre went on to take 21 years to complete). However, the building designed like a sail, will never sail. The hotel designed to host thousands, expos, conferences, world leaders, will only ever welcome tramps, urban explorers, thieves and security. (My photo, 2012) Ask a dozen Dnepropetrovsk denizens as to why, and a similar number of theories will come back. A particularly popular one is that the foundations of the building turned out to be unsound, and construction had to be halted hence the structure sink into the ground.
Near 40 years on from when construction started, and 30 years from when stopped, no signs of subsidence are visible to the naked eye. The reality is more prosaic. The project was under-funded. Moscow, with premier Leonid Brezhnev (pictured) taking a personal interest, recommended, and backed the scheme, but only up to 10 million roubles, around 9 million USD.
That was never going to be adequate, but Moscow’s thinking was that once the project gained momentum, the remaining 15-20 million roubles would come from local companies keen to be on board something which would have elevated Dnepropetrovsk’s standing in the Soviet Union significantly, as well as providing a poster for space-race era Soviet success. The 10 million started to run out in the late 70s, and as responsibility for the project increasingly fell on local shoulders, problems arose. Ukraine’s Dnepropetrovsk could just not pull off a project of Moscow scale. Small tranches of funding would keep work limping on until 1984, when the last meaningful work was done. Further slivers of financing periodically had clutches of workers back on site, but the heart was failing, and the Soviet financial crisis of the mid-80s finally finished Parus. 1987 was when the last work took place in anger. The project then slipped silently into a coma.
Ukrainian independence of 1991 saw some champion the chance to assert a modern Ukraine by reviving Parus and completing it better than the Soviet Union ever could. They were dreaming. So financially strapped was late-80s Dnepropetrovsk they could barely afford security on the husk of Parus, as successive hoards of looters stripped everything of value from the site, including the removal of metals, building materials, even installed windows and doors walked. In their wake came vagrants and gangs of youths, interested in at best seeking refuge there, at worst wrecking the place. By 1991, the building had already degraded to such an extent that simply picking up where things left off was no longer an option. Then, Ukraine’s chaotic, near apocalyptic 90s saw the country struggle to just survive, let alone resurrect a symbol of Soviet ambitions which Ukraine had been unable to fulfil. (Photo above, my photo, 2012)
Even if it had been completed, by the mid-90s Dnepropetrovsk was haemorrhaging its own citizens, a far, far cry from attracting the 100,000 plus per year who would have been needed to keep just Parus in business. The situation is laced with unfortunate ironies, the desire for a huge symbol which became a huge symbol for something so unwelcome. Failure. (My photo above, 2012)
Despite the decline, 2013 Dnepropetrovsk boasts a modern centre, high-rises, expensive apartments (one of many prominent persons from the city, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is reported as having owned several upmarket properties in the city (for the most part, confiscated after her 2011 imprisonment), with her daughter Evgenia having lived here for spells with husband Sean Carr). DP, as it’s known, may have missed out on Euro 2012, but the conurbation boasts a 21st-century football stadium, with the national team having played there, and as of 2012 the ‘world’s largest Jewish Centre‘, (stadium and centre funded by DP oligarch Igor Kolomoysky). As Parus began to deteriorate further into eyesore in the 90s, plans were made to repaint the building blue, to represent water. (Above my photo, 2012)
In stepped in Privat Bank, who as the new millennium began, instead daubed the whole complex in the colours of their brand, making it one of the world’s largest advertising hoardings. Even the Privat Bank colours are now faded and dirty.
But, in 2005, suddenly Parus seemed like it may come to life. Ukraine was riding high on the crest of an Orange Revolution wave, with foreign money flooding into the country. Parus was sold for $4.7 million to a private enterprise company, Rhombus Private, who pledged to finish it within 5 years. Not only Parus, they were going to transform the whole riverfront, supplementing a finished Parus with a 45-storey skyscraper next door, and all manner of other development. Things got no further than the artist’s impression, with the company then pushing the completion date back to 2015, before seemingly losing interest entirely when the credit crisis hit Ukraine. Rhombus Private, a London registered company about whom there is little information online, still apparently exist, but are in negative equity, making faint likelihood of any of the artist’s impression being realised. Further came the indignity of the name Parus actually being taken, and given to one of Kiev’s showpiece skyscrapers. Yet Parus the Dnepropetrovsk husk is still called.
Continuing Parus construction is, as Rhombus were reported as realising too late, a non-starter due to the degradation of structure and materials. It’s not even clear who owns it any more, with rumours of Rhombus having handed back the millstone to Dnepropetrovsk. But demolition and clearing would cost millions in a city in penury. So, the ‘sad monument‘ is going nowhere, despite the unhappiness of many Dnepropetrovsk residents at the ‘horror of our town‘ With no real security and easily surmountable gates, you can walk right in. Ground floors are a rubble and rubbish strewn mess.
Yet, in it all, there are fragments of beauty. The location of the building is so perfect, so ideal for river and sun, shards of light permeate and illuminate in a kind of cadaverous, corroding incandescence.
The further up the building you climb, the darker and more dangerous it becomes. Light gives way to intense darkness with floors strewn with bricks, shrapnel and full of gaping holes.
Until a few years ago, it was possible to just walk right to the top of the building, but concerns about injuries being sustained in the site saw staircases smashed. It may still be possible to get to the top without professional equipment, I couldn’t manage, getting to only about the 10th floor. As you ascend, you can hardly not be taken by design touches which still, crumbling, wasting away, can impress with form and material modernity.
Views are either those over the decaying edifice, or the best views in the whole city over the river and DP’s spectacular bridges, indeed combinations of both. Looking over, one wonders what the walls, or what there is of them, would say if they could. There’s report of attacks, of people killed here, town talk of Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs hanging out here, new maniacs operating from, living here…
It all makes for an at times rather daunting, intense experience, encased in pitch black with debris and danger around you. Back on the ground, looking up, it’s hard not to be overcome with emotion and comparison. Detroit. Pompeii. Titanic. Hitler’s Berlin vision.The Road. Tomb Raider. Could Grand Designs do the ultimate one on it?
While writing this, I got an email from a website offering hotel rooms. Parus will never be on that. Yet, yet yet… if it had been finished, would it still be disused now anyway given current Dnepropetrovsk? Or would it have been the catalyst to power Dnepropetrovsk into the premier league of Soviet cities and ensure future prosperity?
It’s all unknowable, even undecidable. Is it a representation of Soviet misuse of Ukraine, or testament to the special treatment given? Is it a huge, empty shame or one of the world’s most glorious abandoned buildings? A cautionary tale of placing a ceiling on ambition, or a statement that magnificence really is possible, even in ruination?
* Since writing this, in 2014 Parus was daubed in Ukrainian colours, with their symbol there, in a show of nationalism.