I checked into the Hotel Ukraine (Hotel Ukrayina) in Kiev two days ago. The cold, ugly, state-owned Hotel Ukrayina is completely lacking in modern amenities (although to be fair, they do offer “minor repair of clothing”) and it is sorely in need of a gut refurbishment. In terms of decor, it gives the Koyro Hotel in Pyongyang a run for its money, but the hotel’s history and location, overlooking Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), is remarkable.
The hotel was built in 1961 as the Hotel “Moscow” when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. It stands in the same location originally occupied by Kiev’s first skyscraper, the Ginzburg House, which was destroyed by explosives (along with most of central Kiev) during WWII by order of Stalin as he abandoned the city while retreating from the Nazis.
In 1950, plans were finalized for a showcase hotel to be built on the site. But after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s reprioritization of efforts led to a ban on decorative design (I’m simplifying here), and the design for the hotel came under great scrutiny. This caused repeated alterations, despite construction already being underway. As a result the hotel took seven years to complete, during which time Stalinist architecture became passé to boot, so the hotel opened as the eyesore it remains today instead of the masterpiece it was originally intended.
But, renamed the Hotel Ukrayina in 1991 after the independence of Ukraine, the hotel stands as a symbol, and the battle is still being fought here today.
It was a little more than a year ago (November 2013), when Euromaidan — a series of increasingly violent events against the people of Ukraine, who had taken to the streets in protest of their corrupt government — began. It eventually led to the impeachment of then-President, Viktor Yanukoyvch, who fled to Russia.
Since the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine had been mired down in governmental corruption and mismanagement, resulting in stalled economic growth and destabilization. Yanukovych sought to establish closer relations with the EU to attract the necessary capital to improve Ukraine’s standard of living. Ultimately, at the urging of Russia, he refused to accept the EU Association Agreement and signed a multi-billion-dollar loan with Russia instead.
In protest, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to Independence Square — literally, right outside my window — and remained there for months, despite increasing government-sponsored violence and bitter cold (it’s freezing here now even in March), calling for democracy and a constitutional state.
From November 2013 through February 2014, as the movement grew stronger, the regime (influenced/supported by Russia) responded with escalating and excessive violence and oppression against its own people.
The stories I’ve heard speaking to people are, literally, unbelievable. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance I suffer as I travel around the world learning about “modern” history — I hear what people tell me, I see things with my own eyes, and yet, I can’t believe these things are actually happening while I live my life of safety and comfort at home in New York City.
On February 18, 2014, just over a year ago, snipers were killing unarmed, innocent people around the grounds of the Hotel Ukraine. It is believed that some of the snipers were positioned on the roof of the hotel itself. A 21-year-old female was shot helping to carry another shooting victim from the parking lot into the hotel lobby. Luckily the 21-year-old survived. That the Hotel Ukraine lobby was used as a makeshift hospital at that time has made me like the hotel a whole lot more. Despite its butt-ugly interior.
The Ukrainian people call the events of 2014 their “Revolution of Dignity,” and from what seen, it’s clear their tolerance for corrupt, autocratic leadership is non-existent. And there’s no love lost with Russia. They don’t mince words. It’s not a “conflict” with Russia. “We’re at war with Russia,” I’ve heard more than several times. At the same time, it’s not hard to tell who the Russian-leaning Ukrainians are either — for example, the Ukrainian man who I asked to remind me how to say “thank you” in Ukrainian, who responded, “I don’t know.”
It’s a difficult time for Ukraine. Oligarchs who have controlled the country for years are still running the show, and many people I’ve talked to here — most people — believe, that Russia is doing everything it can to prevent the establishment of a free Ukraine: destabilizing the country politically, militarily, and economically through its threats, military aggression, and other “Soviet times” methods.
And unfortunately, it seems to be working, at least here in Kiev. Kiev is a beautiful, vibrant city, with one gorgeous building after the next. It’s an amazing time to be here. But there is a nervous energy (or maybe it’s exhaustion) that I didn’t feel it at all in Odessa (nothing but charm there), as people contemplate the unlikely, but real possibility, of the re-annexation of their entire country.