One day under a wan late winter sun in March of 2017 I arrived in Kiev for the first time. My friend Vladimir and his wonderful wife Nataly were waiting patiently for me at the airport, almost like parents waiting for a son returning home.
That whole day was devoted to work in Vladimir’s office, but later in the evening I took a taxi to the restaurant “Shchekavytsya” , camera equipment in tow, where my hosts were again waiting for me. I had already fallen in love with the “borscht” at lunch, and was very eager to try more Ukrainian cuisine. After dinner I would have free time in Kiev with my camera.
The taxi turned onto Khreschatyk street, where the lights of modern capitalism were shining on the neoclassical Stalinist buildings. The unique character of this capital city and its country was striking.
It is a place on the precarious dividing line between its Russian past and a European future, and today Kiev is a city on the brink of something magical.
Upon reaching Maiden Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), I found myself in front of an imposing 61-meter-high column. It was done in a mixture of Ukrainian baroque and imperial-style architecture, and topped with a statue of the Slavic goddess Berehynia holding a branch of roses in her arms.
All streets in the center of Kiev seem to lead to the “Maidan Nezalezhnosti “, and with them converges a cross-section of Kiev life: vendors selling food and souvenirs; teenagers carousing under the watchful gaze of winged-angel statues; young couples with babies, and the omnipresent echoes of the revolution.
This is why the taxi driver took me straight to “Maidan” after dinner at “Shchekavytsya”, when I told him I wanted to photograph the most significant monuments of the city. And the beautiful spectacles kept coming. At one end of “Proyizd Volodymyrsky” was St Michael’s golden-domed Monastery with its blue washed walls. On the other side appeared the Cathedral of Saint Sophia.
All these places provided inspiration for a lovely hour of night photography. That hour passed very quickly, as did my first trip to Kiev.
At the end of October 2017 I returned to Kiev, but the weather was rainy and gray, and the light was not good for photographing the city in the daytime. The night, however, drew me to the most dazzling spots in Kiev, where young people party like nowhere else in the world.
Ukrainians strive to look fashionable any time they go out in public. So sitting down to dinner at the “Avalon restaurant” while watching the beautiful women of Kiev passing by as if on a catwalk became a daily habit. Going down the steps inside the restaurant, I could see outside to the golden domes and illuminated church facades, a sight that transported me and underscored that I was in a magical world.
My desire to capture the real spirit of Kiev with my camera still felt unfulfilled, however. So I decided to come back one weekend in the summer of 2019, where I found once more the golden domes of St Michael’s against a sky laden with gray clouds.
I went down the cobblestoned “Andriyivskyy Descent”, called the “Montmartre of Kiev”, towards Podil where I found plenty of curious people happy to pose for my camera.
And on my last day there, the bright sun and summer returned in all their glory, as if the city was offering me a lure to ensure I would be back. A fast-paced Uber tour of the city before I headed to the airport ended on the pedestrian “Khreschatyk Street “, packed with people who seemed like they had gathered to wish me farewell.
Then came Covid, that shut down the borders and also my dreams of returning to all the unique places of my memories.
Then one night in June of this year on Via Montenapoleone in Milan, an elegant woman appeared before my eyes. She immediately captivated me with her angelic smile and her enigmatic gaze. She didn’t tell me her name, and would only reveal that she was from Kiev.
Forgotten memories of Kiev surged back in my mind, the charm of the city of golden domes, the elegance of its nights, and so a sweet dream was rekindled for me by this enchanting woman. I wondered however if it was all a mere fabrication of my mind, a dream like that of Julio Cortazar’s “Pursuer”, one dreamt by the kind of perennial traveller I was.
This woman might be a Slavic goddess, a modern Berehynia descended from the heavens to deliver me a message, or maybe she was only a figment of an imagination feeling trapped in the frenetic energy of Milan, and needing to escape to a dream.
“An accidental encounter is the least casual thing in our lives,” wrote Cortazar. And that’s how that elegant woman with the enigmatic gaze reappeared before me months later on another street in Milan. This woman is now for me, like Kiev, on a cloudy and fragile edge, between reality and something magical, leaving me wondering if I will ever be able to go beyond the boundaries of the everyday and live the magic of this dream.
Fate will tell if I will ever return to Kiev to complete this gallery of images and if I will ever cross paths with her again.
This gallery is dedicated to Svetlana, a dream on the fragile brink of magic.
Pablo Munini © Milan November 2021