01 May 2008

TsUM of All Fears

Note: I have changed the title of this post from "Is Kiev the New Moscow" to "TsUM of All Fears" because I will be detailing the differences between Kiev and Moscow in future in detail.

I know I have been lagging for while to add new posts but I have been well trapped into my new contract and it is always fun but exhaustion in learning something new (and getting paid for it)

Lately, my comrade-at-arms Chris has posted a lovely article about Moscow being the new New York and he shed his fistful hate of this city and saved all for NYC. I know that all expats oscillate between total loathing and endless love of Moscow but as far as I have seen ( and I have seen many) Chris was doing rather fine in both living standarts and business. I event considered myself in a parisian condo when I woke up in his flat after one of our LF stormtroopings in Moscow...I hope he stays that way.

So Moscow is in a heartstopping pace to be the NY of Eurasia and his little bother Kiev (Boring Note: Kiev was the third biggest city in USSR after Moscow and Leningrad) shows no hesitation to join the race of post-soviet cities for ultimate capitalist downfall.

I was expecting a little bit of nostalgia and an odd mediterranean feeling that I have felt in Odessa years ago and was disillusioned with the scenery so familiar in Moscow. A lot of advertisements of virtually everything that is sold for an amount of money and a showcase of fast money. Although Ukraine has minuscule amounts of what Russia sits on as a soviet legacy: the natural resources and been through multiple times of economic turmoil, luxury cars and SUVs roam the downtown and oligarchs or wannabe jerks in their bumer (Russian Mafia Hype) outwear appear in every posh cafe or restaurant that has menus with 100$ bill dishes.

Combined with a busy schedule of business networking and solution providing to my colleagues that varied from ordering in restaurants to begging ukrainian passport police to let them in, I had a limited time to discover the city but did my best to pack all soviet legacy and monuments in a day and quenched my historical thirst.

So what is the difference of Kiev? Actually this unfortunate city has seen itself shaken to its foundations twice as in 1941 the fleeing soviet army hid radio operated bombs (and lots of them) in the cellar and waited as the Germans dig in and blew them off...no need to say that the Germans in 1943 did the same as they fled away from Dnepr beachheads (link). The city was destroyed to the limits of Warsaw or Berlin and ordered by Stalin to reach its pre-war beauty as he had it in his sick mind. This beautiful romantic city became another Stalinist architectural battleground as they mixed stone, concrete and nauseating taste to build up Kiev from scratch. Now everything except the TsUM building (which I will come later below as the scene of my adventure) which had defied every attack including the foreign fashion trends, was rebuilt.

Milla Jovovich for Moscow TsUM

Reminding me about Tverskaya Street (Gorky Street in Soviet times), the high street of everything in Kiev is Kreshatyk Street, starting from the Bessarabsky Market where I had a lot of fun comparing the names Ukrainians give to the fish..exactly the same as we have in Turkey. This street houses all the street fashion, beauty, extravagance and decadence Kiev can offer. Especially in summer, as they told me, Kreshatyk attracts all small town beauties in search for a rich and preferably foreign husband...

Speaking about TsUM (Universal Central Store) as the zenith of soviet shopping, Kievan TsUM also differs radically from its Muscovite sister. In Moscow, TsUM is located near the Red Square and in a shouting distance to the GUM (State Universal Store) whose facades were upholstered with red posters on every communist holiday. After the disposal of socialism it quickly transformed itself back to its roots (It was a luxury department store called Muir & Mirrielees when Tsars were ruling) and became the halfway marker for our regular friday evening walks from Mayakovskaya to Kitay Gorod with Saim and Tamer. We often stopped by this gem of the Petrovka Luxury Area and feasted our senses of touch by the ubersilky Hugo Boss suits (that quadrupled our combined salaries) and the sense of sight by the store personnel that seemed to be recruited directly from the Milano Fashion Week.

GUM in Red Square, Moscow

However, The Kievan TsUM, first marked my urban memory as the only building standing after the war in Kiev, was just another capitalistically spoilt soviet memorial for me until I had to buy a suit for a business event (Don't ask me the reason that made me buy a suit in the most absurd place in the most absurd time...). I was very short of time and needed some apparel to blend in the Ukrainian business community so I made my way into the closest department shop to my hotel which happened to be the TsUM.

Inside Kievan TsUM...quantity beats quality at every corner

TsUM with its gloomy vestibule with decaying marbles and grand staircase was so similar to the central post office in Moscow that I remembered the time when we lost our way and entered a modeling agency instead of a travel agency in the same building. (Oguz, my comrade in our assault to Balkans, and I lost balance as we saw all the slavic beauty of the federation converge in a small room.) Despite the muscovite sister, it hasn't lost its soviet feeling and the management must have focused on quantity rather than quality as a reproach to the perestroika times when shelves were empty. Now they are fully stocked but by chinese or lo-quality european stuff and the store personnel seemed to be directly recruited from State Collective Farm No:12 Cow Milking Contest in 1964.

Kreshatyk Street before the war...where elegance meets classic architecture

It took me a while to figure out the Ukrainian placeholders and panicked through the maze of the floors to the 3rd floor where I was directed to by some extra helpful and dying shop keepers trying to sell dusty needlework to some odd lost japanese couple.

The third floor was half lit and had virtually no customers since it was the "men's" floor (Men in post-soviet world either have the same clothing: dangling fake adidas black trainer bottoms, black stout leather shoes and a dirty white t-shirt and they buy it from the street markets or they pay handful of hundred dollar bills to anything wearable with a D&G sign on it.) Like the eggs in Alien movies that sense human movement and start to move, the shop personnel appeared from the dark shadows and stared at us as if we were strangers entering a saloon in the wild west. They made us feel that we weren't wanted there although we, the customer, are the prime source of their income but it is like expecting gratefulness from a hungry cat as to expect customer care in an ex-soviet republic. My worries dampened down when I saw a huge corner clad with suits with one brand "Mihail Voronin" and asked for a personnel nearby to help me with my size. As of my pure soviet luck, the personnel with the "most customer kills" badge came to me and told me that I was a size 58 (do I look that fat?) and immediately handed me a 58 size suit in foul gray color. I tried hard to tell her that I wanted a black suit but tried it anyway to learn about my right size. She led me to a fitting room that I myself could hardly fit. Of course the 58 size is a "bit" big for me but she insisted that a suit must be a little bit "relaxed " on the body. I turned around myself to show her that a regular red army infantry soldier could fit in this suit, with me in it; but she didn't step back from her 50+ years of service in the front lines of the glorious soviet textile industry. I literally had to convince her to give me a size 54 and a black color after a series of discussions that included Boris Yeltsin, food prices, coal mining in Donetsk Basin and sovetsky champagne.

Kreshatyk after the war...size matters! notice the TsUM building on the far left

Although not 100% satisfied with the latest design of Mihail Voronin 2008 collection (that would kill Karl Lagerfeld with a stroke in seconds), it fit me well and I hurried to pay the bill and leave the premises. But of course I forgot how red tape involves with everything soviet and cursed as I took a handwritten note by the personnel and led my way to a paying booth where I got the note stamped and gave it back to the hero of the socialist textile. I wanted to get it tailored and fetch it in the evening but she told me that the fastest tailoring service for the trousers is 2 days (remember that this is the central universal store...). I told her that in 2 days i would be out of the country but she looked at me with so empty eyes that I could see the Siberia behind them...

But sometimes speaking Russian, especially the one that people use in the streets (in a way to compliment women) has its uses and I played my last deck of cards on her to find a tailor. Maybe it was my compliment on her smile (she seemed like she didn't smile since soviet tanks rolled on the Prague Spring) or her total boredom on me that she gave me an address nearby where I could get the trouser legs fit. I saluted the last remaining soviet legacy and left the building carrying the odd suit.

I don't know why but now I am emotionally bonded to that...

Note: By the way, I have used the word "soviet" 16 times in this article.


Michelle said...

How you have made me laugh! Welcome to Kyiv! Please come back and post some more thoughts! :)

Admin said...

Welcome to Kyiv, from one expat to another. We truly need more Turkish restaurants! Thank you
best way to whiten teeth