Kyiv: ancient capital, modern tech hub, heart of creativity and culture

Kyiv… as Honore de Balzac described it: the Eternal City, the Rome of the North. It’s one of the birthplaces of ancient European civilization and culture. It’s a city of great princes and princesses, golden-domed temples, and amazing historical relics. In modernity, it’s home to sophisticated coffee shops, museums, art galleries, and technological innovation.

Above, all it’s a symbol of Ukrainian bravery and perseverance in the face of Russia’s bloody, inhuman aggression. Not only did Kyiv’s heroic defenders completely defeat the Russian advance on the city… but Kyivites haven’t allowed the war to cancel their plans and dreams. Despite the air strikes and the sirens, Kyiv continues to create, innovate, live, and love.


Capital of ancient Europe, cradle of early democracy

Long before the rise of modern European states, before Shakespeare wrote his plays in England, before Paris and Venice became synonymous with high culture and art, Kyiv was the capital of one of the greatest kingdoms in Europe — the Kyivan Rus. Contrary to a widespread misconception, the word “Rus” has nothing to do with Russia (a name created by Moscow tzar Peter many centuries later). One prominent historical theory relates the name Rus (Old Norse — “men who row”) to the Vikings that traveled the Dnipro river on longboats. Scandinavian lords would later become the princes of Kyiv and assimilate with the local Slavic tribes, laying the foundation for future Ukrainian culture.

Kyivan Rus was the largest culturally advanced Eastern European state more than 1000 years ago. It was a center of trade, religion, and fine arts. It was one of the first European countries with a codified system of laws, created by Prince Yaroslav the Wise. The establishment of Christianity in Kyiv by Prince Volodymyr the Great led to the development of philosophy, literacy, religious debate, and education.

Kyiv was also the cradle of early democracy in future Ukrainian lands. Due to their strong sense of independence and community, Kyivites upheld the tradition of the Viche — a regular gathering of citizens to discuss societal issues and plans for the future. In some cases, decisions of the Viche (passed by a simple majority of votes) challenged even the power of local or regional rulers.

The legacy of the Kyivan Rus holds strong in Kyiv and in the hearts and minds of all modern Ukrainians. Its most prominent symbol is the Ukrainian trident, the national coat of arms, based on the seal of Prince Volodymyr the Great.

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Unbroken in wars, reborn through bravery

Kyiv is a city of creativity, determination, and courage. It has retained its will to live and love for more than 1500 years. Many have tried to destroy it, yet none have succeeded. Throughout the fifteen centuries of its history, Kyiv has suffered numerous hardships. From the Mongol invasion that razed the city, to the Nazi occupation that murdered tens of thousands of civilians, to the devastation brought by the Soviets themselves… Kyiv has endured more than any single person can imagine. Yet it always blooms anew.

During World War Two, Kyiv was the site of two major battles that shaped this global conflict. In 1941, it endured massive bombings by the German forces as they fought to take the city. The central street of Khreshchatyk (incidentally — the widest main street in Europe) was blown up by the Soviet forces themselves as they retreated, leaving 25,000 people without homes. In 1943 another devastating clash between the Nazi and USSR armies ravaged Kyiv even further.

Despite all this, Kyiv always builds back — more beautiful and prosperous than before.

As Kyivites face the missile strikes of the Russian army today, as they restore the devastated suburbs of Irpin and Bucha, they look back at history and know: their city and land will endure no matter what happens.

Proof of this perseverance is the 27-story highrise on Lobanovskyi Street in Kyiv. A Russian missile smashed into the apartment building two days after the full-scale invasion started, dealing extensive damage to 17 apartments, and even shattering parts of load-bearing pillars. Kyiv architects and construction workers rose to the challenge, and in a few months, the devastated building was almost as good as new.

Home to fierce European queens

Technically — a princess (since Kyiv wasn’t ruled by kings), Olha of Kyiv is one of the most well-known and beloved figures in Ukrainian history. Famous for her bravery and intellect in ruling the Kyivan lands after the passing of her husband, Olha (derived from the Norse name ‘Helga’) was a masterful diplomat and stateswoman, as well as a symbol of both her Ukrainian and Scandinavian heritage. Stories of how she dealt with allies, enemies, and political dilemmas are still taught in Ukrainian schools today.

In fact, Kyiv had more than one beautiful and brave queen, and had lots of historical ties to other European countries. Its second most famous princess, Anna Yaroslavna, was married to the king of France. She too has her own monument in downtown Kyiv… as well as two monuments in the French towns of Senlis and Laon, where she is known as Anne de Kyiv.

Ukrainian women always played an important part in society, history, culture, and art. Solomiia Krushelnytska, the opera singer of dazzling global fame, Lesia Ukrainka, the legendary Ukrainian poet, Olha Kobylianska, novelist and women’s rights champion — these figures have shaped Ukraine in more ways than one. It’s no coincidence that the name “Ukraine” is feminine in its native language and Ukrainian folklore imagery is steeped in an aura of female power.

Eastern Europe’s modern tech hub

Historically, a city of talented engineers and more recently — IT specialists, Kyiv is one of the sites of Ukraine’s modern tech boom. It’s home to numerous IT and tech companies, engineering labs, and creative studios.

The flagship example of Ukrainian tech ingenuity is Diia (“action” in Ukrainian), the app that moves government and public services to the convenience of your smartphone. Developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation, it has changed the lives of millions of Ukrainians for the better. Registering a marriage, opening a company, renewing your driver’s license, and much, much more — it’s all just a few clicks away. No hassle, no queues, no physical effort.

More than that, Diia is now being shared and adopted by other European countries. Estonia is already doing test runs of its national version (named mRiik), and more such projects are planned for the future, spreading Ukrainian technological creativity across the globe. The app’s logo is a symbol of the past meeting the future: the word Diia is shown side-by-side with the Ukrainian trident, derived from the 1000-year-old seal of Kyiv Prince Volodymyr the Great.


World’s deepest subway, unique architecture

Kyiv’s subway system is one of the oldest in Europe, established more than 70 years ago. It houses the deepest station in the world, Arsenalna, at 105m (344 ft.) below street level. The Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) station is considered to be one of the most beautiful subway stops worldwide, noted in ‘top 10’ lists of various publications such as The Daily Telegraph. It’s home to 80 distinct mosaic pieces depicting the history of ancient Ukraine and Kyiv.

Kyiv’s architecture is a unique blend of modern, historical, and ancient as well. From the reconstructed Golden Gate fortress (the heart of medieval Kyiv) to examples of 19-20th century Art Nouveau like the House with Chimearas, the city is a gem for anyone that loves urban walks and deep dives into the historical atmosphere of old cities.

Home of freedom and dignity

The Revolution of Dignity was a major turning point in modern Ukrainian history. It was a fight against authoritarianism, for societal progress, and for human rights. The revolution started as a college student protest in Kyiv’s main square, opposing the decision of Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych to reverse the path to EU integration. Yet after Yanukovych ordered the beatings and dispersal of the protestors, the entire country rose to their defense… as well as the defense of European and universal human values.

In the harsh winter of 2013-2014, everyday Ukrainians stood against riot police and snipers to ensure that the government was held accountable and that the country remained on the path to a civilized future. In the end, the people won.

Today, Kyiv is the home of memorials to the Revolution, as well as the Heavenly Hundred — regular Ukrainian citizens that gave their lives in the fight against tyranny. Winter on Fire, a brilliant and touching Netflix documentary (free to view on Youtube with English subtitles), shows the bravery, tragedy, and triumph of Ukrainians in the fight for their dignity and freedom.

A sea of green, a city of cats (and dogs)

Kyiv is known by many as “the green city” due to the abundance of parks, trees, and greenery. During summertime, it looks as if it’s drowning in a lush emerald ocean, as the chestnuts, oaks, and even sakura cherries bloom and fill the air with floral scents. Kyiv is also the only city in Europe that has a national nature park, Holosiivskyi – a forest of 7 square miles (18 sq. km) completely within the city limits. The oldest tree in Kyiv is the Wilhelm Christer Oak, estimated to be 600-700 years old.

Last but not least, Kyiv is rated the second city in the world based on its cat-to-human ratio (WorldAtlas data). 7.5 million furry and whiskered felines call it home. Not only as household pets but as their own little communities, cared for and fed by Kyivites out of habit and empathy. Spring in Kyiv usually brings new flowers, lush green leaves, and an army of friendly fuzzballs prowling the quieter streets.

Dogs and other pets aren’t less beloved, however, as Ukrainians have great affection and empathy for animals. Proof of this was seen all over social media as the war unfolded: Ukrainians rushed to rescue their own pets, as well as strays and abandoned animals under Russian shelling. When the times are dire, every life is precious.

Birthplace of great people and great ideas

Kyiv has been the birthplace of many great minds and talented people: from one of the lead programmers in Tesla (Kyiv-born Oleksii Illiashov) to one of the most famous ballet dancers and choreographers in modern history (Serge Lifar, born in Kyiv, founded the Paris Institute of Choreography).

Dozens of innovators and creators lived in Kyiv and spread their ideas throughout the world. Yevhen Paton, called by some the “father of welding”, was a Kyiv engineer that pioneered the construction of stable large-scale bridges. Hollywood star Mila Jovovich, whose mother was a Ukrainian actress in Kyiv’s main film studio, has visited the Ukrainian capital many times and provided support for the Ukrainian people in difficult times. Volodymyr Horovitz, a 25-time Grammy winner, considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time, was born in this city as well.

Urban art, coffee, and food culture

Far from being just a tourist attraction, Kyiv’s coffee and food culture is a point of pride for the city’s residents. It is home to some of the most creative, dedicated, and professional restauranteurs and baristas. Gourmet restaurants continue to amaze customers even during the war (in fact, they also support and feed many Ukrainian defenders). Most Kyivites also couldn’t imagine starting their day without a delicious cup of coffee, freshly brewed in one of the thousands of small coffee shops across the city.

Kyiv is a vibrant tapestry not only due to its food and coffee culture, however. Street art tours were a common pastime in pre-war Kyiv, as its 160+ murals (some covering entire walls of 14-story buildings) provide a dazzling art show by painters from all over the globe.

Prime location for concerts, festivals, and dazzling events

Kyiv has hosted numerous concerts, festivals, and even sports championships and has always proven to be a fantastic host to both foreign and Ukrainian guests. Summertime usually sees a boom in parties and fun events, as the softly lit Kyiv evenings, friendly locals, and splendid weather are the perfect backdrop for both a leisurely time and an action-packed urban adventure.

From the ATLAS festival (a staple of Kyiv’s concert scene) that brings global performers to the city, to the sophisticated Ukrainian Fashion Week, to the European football finals and Eurovision Song Contest extravaganzas – in times of peace Kyiv is one of the most welcoming, affordable, diverse and upbeat destinations. Today, Ukrainians work to preserve this for the future, so that one day soon Kyiv may open its doors to grand events once again. 

A symbol of future victory

Kyiv is old. Kyiv is young. Kyiv accepts anyone who enters it with an open heart. It’s the home of designers, painters, programmers, veterinarians, soldiers, nurses, engineers, and poets. It’s a place of unimaginably ancient history and a proud symbol of spiritual strength. It suffered through wars and invasions and still stands tall. It’s our home. It is, and will forever be, Ukraine.

This is why we fight. This is why we endure.

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Last updated 29.01.2024

Статтю створено за участі Волинського історичного центру імені Івана Франка

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