Ukrainisation of Urbanisation—Sociology of the City in the Ukraine

Галина Боднар, Львів. Щоденне життя міста очима переселенців із сіл (50–80-ті роки ХХ ст.), Львівський національний університет ім. Івана Франка, 2010; Анатомія міста: Київ. Урбаністичні студії, Смолоскип, 2012. Halyna Bodnar, Lviv. Everyday Life of the City in the Eyes of Rural Immigrants (1950s-1980s), Lviv 2010; An Anatomy of a City: Kyiv. Urban Studies, many authors, Smoloskyp, Kyiv 2012.

To an average inhabitant of Poland the Ukraine and Ukrainian culture is associated—if he or she knows anything about it—above all with folk culture. “Average Ukrainians” have a similar perspective: asked about elements distinguishing Ukrainian culture, they usually name embroidered costumes, traditional song, sometimes the cuisine, that is they invoke products of rural culture. And this despite the fact that a significant majority, almost 70% of Ukrainian population, lives in the cities. They live in the cities today but their parents or at best grandparents arrived from the countryside. The consequences of this state of affairs can be perceived in various areas of Ukrainian social life.

This new and constantly emerging urban community attracts researchers, sociologists and social psychologists as well as architects, landscapers, urban planners and managers. In a word, conditions are being created for the development of Ukrainian urban sociology, at the centre of its interest placing urban lifestyle (rather than differences between the city and the country side, as it was before) and its organization by the civil society, which started to emerge after the collapse of communism. The city as a subject of study intrigues Ukrainian researchers, for it has not been investigated in this way. As for Western scholars, the Ukrainian city attracts them with the problems which in other regions of Europe were either solved long ago or did not appear with such an intensity and power as in today’s Ukraine.

The thing is that the history of urbanization of the Ukraine not only starts later than in other parts of Europe but its beginnings lack the Ukrainian national element, that is—as Bohdan Kravchenko notes—Ukrainians as an ethnic group experienced a kind of exclusion from “urbanity,” from urban culture. “When in Europe the new city was becoming [in the early 18th century—JKS] a source of market economy, national awareness and national culture, Ukrainian society did not manage to cross the threshold of urbanization.” The reasons for that—both in the 18th century and later—are still waiting for their researcher. Explanations proposed by Kravchenko put too much emphasis on psychological factors, as the author himself seems to be aware, and the above-quoted Jaroslaw Pas’ko is content to conclude that the “culture of colonial dependence and lack of both vertical and horizontal structural mobility prevented the emergence of Ukrainian middle class, blocked the appearance of Ukrainian civil society and Ukrainian high culture.” So Ukrainian identity was not shaped in the city, for Ukrainian cities were centers of completely different influences: Russian, Polish, Austrian and later Soviet.

Looking with Halyna Bodnar at the everyday life of post-war inhabitants of Lviv, we are witnessing the formation of an urban community practically from scratch: Poles and Jews dominant in 1939 are replaced not only with migrants from neighbouring villages and small towns—although they are in the majority—but also by Russians and representatives of other Soviet nations, previously absent in these regions. The latter arrive and immediately assume management positions in government administration or industrial plants and become academic lecturers.

The book Lviv. Everyday Life of the City in the Eyes of Rural Immigrants (1950s-1980s) is a reliable research report preceded with a presentation of statistics showing the dynamics of demographic changes within the Lviv population. These data are juxtaposed with the demographic situation of the whole Ukraine and its largest cities. They allow us to follow not only the changes in ethnic structure we spoke about earlier but also the age and sex of the new arrivals. We observe how in the early post-war years, several dozen thousands of people arrived annually in the city, mainly young persons. In the record-breaking year 1946, the population of Lviv increased by almost 56 thousand. It is as if a medium-sized district capital in today’s Poland moved to Lviv in one year. In later years, migration streams weakened and stabilized but were still significant. It is enough to recall that in the period from 1959 to 1989, on which the author concentrates, the population of Lviv almost doubled (from 410 thousand in 1959 to 786.9 thousand in 1989). Migrants from surrounding villages form such a large part of the urban community that they essentially become both its creators and building material.

Halyna Bodnar’s book is not the first work on Soviet Lviv. The informal social experiment, which is still going on in this city, could not have remained unnoticed: Bodnar includes a complete bibliography of studies on Lviv. But she was the first to give the floor to the main protagonists of these changes—the migrants themselves—attempting to show both how the city changed under their impact and how they, its new inhabitants, themselves changed.

Incomers from Galician villages dominated the social structure of Lviv but they still did not feel completely at home in this city. Interviewees of Bodnar speak about a sense of superiority demonstrated by other migrants—Russians, who, as the author writes, assumed social positions occupied by Poles before the war, and migrants from eastern regions of the Ukraine, who in their own mind arrived to teach culture to those “peasants.” The antagonism was exacerbated by language differences: those who believed themselves superior used Russian while the “peasants” spoke only Ukrainian. And these linguistic and social divides persist until today: descendants of migrants from Russia and the east of the Ukraine who were born in Lviv rarely speak fluent Ukrainian and even more rarely try to change this. So how is it possible that Lviv became and still remains the centre of Ukrainian identity? The author hardly ever considers this question, perhaps thinking that the answer is obvious. And this is slightly disappointing, for identity themes recur in the narratives of the respondents. But in the book we can find many stories which help us in reconstructing this process: stories about a double life imposed by the Soviet reality, when you said different things at home and outside (in your workplace or at the university), about the attachment to Ukrainian traditions, which were easy to cultivate in private, for most people knew them very well, and finally about “illegal sources of information” and Western culture owed to the location of the city close to the border.

A sense of lacking roots and not being quite at home, often mentioned in the book, seems to be still present for many inhabitants of Lviv, former rural migrants. This is why the book is engrossing, although I am tempted to criticize the author for the fact that having such an ample empirical mate- rial at her disposal she devoted too little space to analyses and conclusions. When you lack roots, it is difficult to think about furnishing your city, about civil society. After all a citizen is a person who is at home in his or her city.

The city as a social institution, as a space for action—so far not very effective—by the citizens is presented by the second book reviewed here, concerned with more recent times and with another city, no less important for the history and present of the Ukraine—Kyiv. The title “an anatomy of a city” reflects the structure of the work: from a general presentation of the complex organism, which the city is, and of its basic functions to a presentation of its selected elements/organs in their functioning. The book is supplemented by interviews with Ukrainian and Western specialists on urban space.

The Ukrainian capital is undergoing its transformation on our eyes—this transformation is perhaps more difficult to extract from official data than what happened in post-war Lviv but its consequences were no less significant. In 1991 Kyiv became the capital of an independent state and almost immediately was cast in the role of a testing ground for capitalist property laws, competition for space, the conflict between various needs and ideas.

In the process of adapting the socialist Kyiv to the spatial patterns and architectural forms of post-socialist urbanism we observe raising of so-called “monsters”—buildings violating the normal urban planning practice. The “monsters” spring up in historic districts, parks and other places where they have no right to be, where their external appearance destroys the cityscape. Such designs are possible thanks to corruption and lack of an organized planning process.

This fragment comes from one of the first chapters in a book by Roman Cybrivsky and provides the most concise characteristics of the main problems the Ukrainian capital (and probably also other big cities in this country) is struggling with. In this context it is not especially surprising that the Soviet system of urban planning is still remembered with nostalgia. “It was more or less effective—says Henrich Filvarov interviewed by Natalia Kodel-Perminova—but at least it was understood that there was some documentation, some program of urban development, modest, perhaps even inadequate but to be respected. […] There was a basic control of rational, functional use of the territory in line with the functions defined by a general zoning plan or other documents.”

The phenomenon of appropriating space by the rich and influential is well described by the concept of “spatial justice”introduced by Johannes Fiedler. The author describes a situation where spatial justice is missing, that is he shows how growing social inequalities find their reflection in urban infrastructure. Another expression of its absence is when an urban community loses once liked and often visited places in the urban space—parks, squares, buildings and other facilities appropriated by institutions or private persons, or being destroyed. As Fiedler concludes, harmful changes in Kyiv have one cause: a corrupt regime, which cannot resist the power of money.

The imbalance between the regime on the one hand and business and inhabitants on the other has many more aspects. Ludmila Males points at centralisation as an important element of the organisation of the Kyiv community and the communities of other post-Soviet cities. Its significance is greater than that of traffic jams and crowded public transport.

Overestimated symbolic value of the centre reproduces itself and the resultant centralization of urban life cannot be reverted with the use of simple means: the prestige of a central address encourages employers to locate their activities in the city centre. Cultural institutions, clubs or restaurants also gravitate there. One consequence of that is a vicious competition for space, the winners being those who have the biggest amount of power and other resources. Inhabitants of distant districts spend several hours a day commuting to and from work or university (the author estimates it at 2 to 4 hours). The remaining time is hardly sufficient to rest and completely lacking for public matters or a simple participation in the life of the city.

They live in their dormitory districts but they do not feel at home there, they live in the capital but they do not use this fact for self-fulfillment or personal development. Males paints a very suggestive picture of a “conserved centralization” becoming a source of a general stagnation in the social sphere. This may contain an at least partial answer to the question as to why the growing pressure on limiting public space liked by Kyiv citizens meets with such a feeble resistance on their part.

Citizens’ activity may be effective, as we can read in the last part of the book—a story about a fight for one street. When Andriyivs’kyi uzviz was renovated, its inhabitants established a consultation board of experts and forced the investors to cooperate with this body. This allowed them to prevent the commercialization of this unique fragment of the city’s public space.

“An anatomy of a city” is a book worth recommending to all those interested in the processes of interactions between society, government and business in the post-Soviet area. It seems that the problems described there also affect other big cities of the former socialist camp but in the Ukraine the weakness of the government, or rather its direct ties with business, produce a situation where the citizens’ interests are in potential conflict with the interests of the regime and business seen as one single agent.

This fusion of government and business may be partly responsible for the distrust towards capitalism as a system directly or indirectly expressed by most of the authors reviewed here, which is a reminder that sociology of the city in its classic form originated from the tradition of leftist thought. On the other hand the authors, when formulating their generalizations, seem to ignore the fact that in today’s Ukraine we are dealing with a peculiar system, that is “oligarchic democracy,” and capitalism not always assumes such a form.

The power of the money of Ukrainian oligarchs and new rich could be counterbalanced by democratic institutions—social organizations and local government bodies acting in the interest of the citizens. But they are neither sufficiently strong nor active in their local efforts and this is why the “monsters” more often win than lose. But their arrogant builders unwittingly give rise to a type of social involvement previously unknown in the Ukraine—urban movements. And this is a path leading to the formation of an enrooted identity, the absence of which makes it difficult for the Ukrainians to build a democratic state.

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