Decades before that it formed part of the Soviet Union

As I step out of Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk metro station, the Ukrainian capital’s tumultuous postwar history is laid out before me – in concrete and steel. The busiest, grandest boulevard of downtown Kyiv, Khreshchatyk street is lined by buildings of communist-era vintage. Some are highly decorated, others bear plain facades; but all are lofty, intimidating structures.

There are hints, however, of post-Soviet adjustments. Down the street I spot a large star surmounting an imposing apartment building. When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it must have been painted revolutionary red; now it’s a striking blue over yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. And the metro station houses a branch of an American fast-food chain, sandwiched between Stalinist facades.

It’s outside this eatery I meet Anna, the guide who’ll be taking me on a walking tour of communist Kyiv. As I grew up in Australia during the Cold War years, I’m keen to learn what those times were like in the former USSR. Anna says I’ve come to the right place: after Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kyiv was the third most important Soviet city. That’s one reason nuclear power plants were situated in the region, with catastrophic results in 1986 at nearby Chornobyl(commemorated in Kyiv at the sombre but interesting Chornobyl Museum).

The modern-day appearance of Khreshchatyk, however, was a consequence of the arrival of the German military. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the retreating Red Army had time to booby-trap and detonate its grand 19th-century buildings. With the additional destruction caused by aerial bombing of industrial areas, Kyiv was a mess by the end of WWII. Its makeover after the conflict was extreme.

‘We lost the opportunity to live in a fun city, because the architecture was gone,’ says Anna. The authorities saw the devastation as an opportunity to create a new Soviet-style city, rather than to re-create its old look. To my eye, it doesn’t seem that bad: on one side of the metro station, for example, an apartment building contains a surprising amount of detail in its tiles and pillars. On the other side, a slightly later building has a flatter, plainer facade. Even Soviet architects went through decorative phases, it seems.

Strolling along Khreshchatyk, we also see recent additions. One is a striking bust of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, mounted on a zig-zag frame of girders. A 19th-century nationalist who wrote in the Ukrainian language, Shevchenko is often compared to Shakespeare. Anna prefers to liken him to Robbie Burns, as she feels his role in sustaining Ukrainian identity mirrors that of the Scottish poet in regard to the Scots.