The Past and Future of Ukrainian Modernism

The enthusiasts for saving the modern buildings of Ukraine have faced difficult struggles for many years – but never so much as they have during the Russian invasion.

Kyiv Crematorium, designed by Avraam Miletsky, Ada Rybachuk, and Volodymyr Melnichenko, and built 1968-1975.

For the last few years, I’ve run an Instagram account documenting Ukrainian Modernist architecture, mostly of the late Soviet era. I also run tours of modernist buildings and areas in Ukraine. By now, the account has nearly 80,000 followers, and is the biggest online architectural community in the country.

But I am not an architect, and didn’t start out as any kind of architectural expert. I was born and raised in Zaporizhzhia, Southeast Ukraine. I received a master’s degree in Ukrainian philology and worked as a copywriter. Meanwhile, I went to Poland in 2014, and was mesmerised by the grandiose beauty of the Palace of Culture and Science, and spent the whole day walking around it and taking pictures. Right there my interest in architecture was born, along with passion for photography, as a means to capture the architecture’s beauty and its details.

But at the time I was bewildered. Why was I taking so many pictures of a mere building? Only when I visited a conference on Atomic Cities back in Zaporizhzhia did it all click. I listened to the speakers, among whom were architectural historians Ievgeniia Gubkina and Dimitrij Zadorin, and leafed through the book CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed by Frédéric Chaubin, and realised. These weren’t just ‘buildings’—this was an art.

The Institute of Scientific and Technical Expertise and Information building, known as the Flying Saucer, designed by Florian Yuriev and Lev Novikov, and completed in 1971.

Inspired, I went on to read the ‘Architecture’ article on Wikipedia, and liked the ‘Modernism’ chapter the most. I traveled to Moscow again to see its Constructivist buildings, then to Riga to enjoy Art Nouveau, then to Lisbon’s art deco, and to Marseille for Le Corbusier’s Brutalism. Finally, I started to notice Soviet modernism around me—it was abundant in Minsk, where I moved in 2015. Architecture and photography were still casual hobbies of mine until I moved to Kyiv in 2017, and experienced a reverse culture shock. What saddened me the most was the state of its architectural heritage, particularly modernist heritage, which became dear to me.

After a tidy Minsk, where heritage was only rarely threatened, in Kyiv I witnessed a war against Soviet heritage. The decommunisation law which outlawed communist symbols was blatantly communicated by its right wing author Volodymyr Viatrovych as a battle against all Soviet heritage. Instead of a centralised, legal removal of the thousands of hammer and sickle signs still on public buildings, a wave of unregulated decommunisation began, resulting in the destruction of countless historical monumental art works created by Ukrainian artists.

A residential building in Kyiv, damaged by Russian shelling on the first day of the war.

And yet the biggest shock came from realising the scale of unregulated corrupt development, which turned Kyiv into a huge kitschy residential complex, with thousands of historical buildings demolished or reconstructed beyond recognition in the process. The final straw was the planned reconstruction of the famous Kyiv ‘flying saucer’ building—the Institute of Scientific and Technical Expertise and Information—into yet another mall. I saw photos of the building in that CCCP book: it’s gorgeous, important, and apparently known around the world. How could they think of destroying it? I rushed to capture the glory of the building on camera while it was still there, to preserve it at least on film.

While I was shooting, a bitter realisation came to me—if nothing changed, in a decade, Ukraine would lose nearly all its modernist heritage. This thought made my blood boil, and suddenly modernism was the most precious thing on earth to me. The way it was neglected, destroyed, and often hated, hurt me almost physically.

I needed to change that. I set out to create a visual project to share the beauty and philosophy of modernism with the world, but especially with Ukrainians, in the hope of changing their negative attitude. Over the years, the Ukrainian Modernism project evolved into an activist platform for heritage preservation, and into a community of enthusiasts, united by a common cause in an uphill battle against greedy developers and corrupt government.

Our successes were scarce, but on 24 February 2022, things got unimaginably worse. Russian rockets shelled Kyiv and dozens of other cities in Ukraine. The full-scale war entered with a bang.

Coming to my senses at 7 AM that day, I decided to continue to do what I was doing—informing people. I spent the whole first day gathering information and finding words to communicate what had just happened to my foreign audience (that first post reached 310,000 people). And I have been doing this almost every day since. I can’t go back to just showcasing architecture as my country is being torn apart. In a few days I moved to a village near Brovary, reuniting with my loved ones. A week into the war we felt it could be unsafe to remain there, as the village was in the way of two Russian divisions in their push for Kyiv. And indeed, very dark things happened there two weeks after we left. We decided to evacuate to Ivano-Frankivsk, Western Ukraine, a journey that usually takes nine hours and 660 kilometers.

The empty streets of Kyiv during the first week of the war.

My car turned into a lowrider from the weight of five people, two pets, and countless bags. Slowly, we moved with hundreds of thousands fleeing the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv regions. Too slowly, in fact, as we not only did not reach our destination that day, but even the back-up plan of sleeping at my friend’s place in Vinnytsia, Central Ukraine, failed. With the help of my colleague we booked a flat in Uzyn, a tiny town near Bila Tserkva. Before we got there, the lowrider mode took its toll on my car, as its rear shock absorbers began to fail. Stressed out but determined, we managed to get to Uzyn before the curfew.

The next morning, after quickly checking in to a mechanic, we resumed our journey, immediately getting into the kilometers-long traffic congestion. Tens of thousands of block posts that sprang out as the war started didn’t help us move faster. Almost every other village was guarded by at least two block posts, guarded by the Territorial Defense Forces—armed reservists and civilians. Most of the block posts were removed several weeks into the war as they interfered with this massive evacuation, but we got into the very thick of it.

I spent fourteen exhausting hours behind the wheel that day, and we still didn’t make it to our destination. The congestion was insane. At times even the opposite lanes got stuck with cars fleeing the war-torn regions. In fourteen hours we travelled a mere 550 kilometers, arriving in Khmelnytsky. We wanted to drive through the night, but were unable to refill an empty tank. All gas stations along the highway were devoid of gas, but full of people sleeping in cars. As one driver told me, they queued to get some fuel when the morning tank truck arrives. And these queues were at every empty gas station we visited.

Renting a flat for the night in a city through which tens of thousands people were moving (or staying) every day was impossible. A friend from Kyiv, who wanted to stay in Khmelnytsky for the war, said she found a long-term rent option, but the price was seven times higher than usual, so she had to move further west. Desperate, I began texting everyone, asking for help. We called many numbers without success, until a woman warned us that we won’t make it until the curfew, and told us to come to the central cinema. Oh, sleeping in a Soviet era cinema, I thought—not too bad! But it turned out to be a hub for accommodating refugees. Tired but focused volunteers were managing a huge crowd, distributing people to various kindergartens across the city, which were converted into refugees’ sleepovers. Drinking hot tea from a tiny cup and sleeping in a kid’s bunk bed felt like heaven after the exhausting day.

A camouflaged Soviet stele near a village in Central Ukraine.

Throughout the trip, I’ve seen numerous mosaics and other Soviet-era monumental artworks, but wasn’t able to shoot them, as my close ones were anxious to get to the destination sooner. I marked their locations to return when things calm down. I’ve also seen one particular kind of monumental art suffering heavily since the war began. During the Soviet era, roadside steles, bearing names of the settlements, were placed at almost all their entry points. They were often designed as monuments made of concrete, adorned with mosaics or bas reliefs. After the war started, the Ukrainian government urged people to demolish all road signs with geographical information. Some communities have tactfully wrapped their steles in cloth or otherwise camouflaged them, while other steles were outright destroyed.

On the third day, we finally reached Ivano-Frankivsk. The locals told me there was a surplus of volunteers, so I’ve tried to resume my photography and the modernism guided tours. I was briefly detained while doing a livestream back in the Kyiv oblast, but here in Western Ukraine things initially seemed way less tense. I was immediately proved wrong, as the locals were alarmed not only by a camera, but by casual phone photographing as well. After a few more incidents like these, I successfully applied for a Ministry of Defence press pass.

The only area in town free from suspicion was the historical centre, where locals have been conducting various tours every day. Relieved, I quickly prepared and announced my own tour around the modernist architecture and Soviet monumental art of Ivano-Frankivsk. Two thirds of the attendees were internally displaced persons. In the hope of bringing locals and refugees closer (and making some friends), after the tours I invited people to continue the conversation in a café.

Apart from the usual educational and entertaining effects, wartime tours have gained a new edge. After them, people were sharing their impressions via stories—one saying, and I quote, that the tour ‘was the happiest moment since the war started’, and ‘a way to reduce anxiety and distract from 24/7 news consumption’. I met with 110 people during three tours, and plan to do more. It feels like a moral obligation now.

A wartime Ukrainian Modernism Tour in Ivano-Frankivsk.

Life goes on, and we’ve almost adapted to the new reality under constant air raid sirens. The war is far from over, but we must endure, we must win. And when the dust settles, we will have to rebuild our country. The foundations are already being laid. The government is about to commission developers to build new housing without tenders, and to buy out illegally constructed residential complexes. In Western Ukraine, there is a growing movement advocating destroying World War II monuments that commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Whether developers cement their grip on the country, whether we’ll be drowned in total corruption and revisionism, or whether we can emerge as a stronger, united, free nation—all this is being decided now, as the Russian army continues to destroy our East.