Next to Osokorky metro station, as usual, there’s noise and bustle. Nearby – Mykola Bazhan Avenue ( it’s first name was – New Street, then – Decembrists Avenue eventually it was named after the Ukrainian poet and generalist) on its eight lanes cars of different weight categories are rushing. On the other side, there is a market with household goods and products. A little further – the high-rises, the construction of which started since the 1980s. They are a symbol of this area, as well as the neighboring Poznyaky and Kharkiv residential districts. Light snow with rain is falling down, everything is white and gray – this picture is diluted with stalls full of tangerines and yellow minibusses. In one of those vehicles, the local ethnographer and guide Oleksandr Mykhailyk has just arrived. We arranged a tour with him around the so-called Kyivan Desert. Around 20 minutes we’re passing by mini-, super- and hypermarkets that are situated between 16-story buildings and chaotically parked cars of their inhabitants. We do all this in order to enter the space where nature is the only architect.
Lands of the chronicles
While walking, we talk about the Left bank, which many inhabitants of Kyiv associate with boring buildings of the Soviet era and not very successful infrastructure. Meanwhile, in ancient documents, there are references to the “Osokorsky Estate”, which in 1070 was gifted alongside the other lands to Vydubytskyi monastery by Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavovych (this is written in the book “Darnytsia: years, events, people”). The origin of the name is read quite easily: there are a lot of black poplars (or osokorky as they’re called in Ukrainian) were growing.
Then a village Osokorky was founded there. For a long time, there was a dispute for it between Vydubytskyi monastery and the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. “There was something worth arguing for: floodplain and meadows, which meant hayfields plus a lot of fish ponds,” Oleksandr Mykhailyk is reflecting. “In general, the period between 16th-17th centuries is a continuous controversy between monasteries. In land records, there are many testimonies about monasteries that were fighting for this place. Due to this a lot of valuable information about the forgotten place was recorded”.
Oleksandr himself explores Kyiv’s Left Bank since 2009 at the amateur level – “to walk – to ride – to photograph the buildings around. The left bank attracted me with its wilderness. It is interesting to be a pioneer, and this area was a huge white spot in the history of Kyiv. All researchers have traditionally been interested in Khreshchatyk, Andriyivskyy Descent, Podil, and there were practically no studies and publications about the Left bank,” says Mykhailyk. “Here the buildings are basically Soviet ones, and the researchers have this stereotype that something Soviet is not interesting. Although there are original architectural ensembles of the 1930s-50s.”
In 2016, the enthusiasm turned to a professional level. “Back then Kyrylo Stepanets suggested me to make a book about the Left bank. The working title was ‘Architectural Atlas of Kyiv’s Left bank’, but in the end, it turned into the ‘Unknown Left bank from the end of the ХІХ to the middle of the ХХ century’. We didn’t make it dry, we talked about the development of buildings, their surroundings, industry, and then decided to prepare a second part about 1960-1980s,” Oleksandr says.
While working on books, he together with his colleagues talked a lot to old-timers, studied rare photographs and documents. As a result, the topic appeared to be interesting not only for researchers: the first print run of “Unknown Left bank. 1960-1980s” was bought in a few months.
Sandy mountains, black vines
Finally, all the stores, service stations and other remnants of civilizations are left behind. We’re at our destination point. The desert is covered with snow, but in some places, you can see sand. Let’s get to the crescent-shaped dune that is 10-15 meters tall. “Imagine such a dune in the area of the present Darnytsia metro station or the residential area Vygurivshchyna – Troyeshchyna. The same ones were there too,” remarks Oleksandr, looking at the sandy hill.
The Kyivan Desert is a part of the once large left bank sandy massif. According to Oleksandr, before the mass development had started on the left bank there were many places with sandy dunes and mountains, where dry winds were blowing. For example, on photographs of the 1950s, you can see such a landscape on the site of the Northern Brovary district, nowadays – a densely populated residential area.
“Somewhere in 1995, when I was little, my grandma and I arrived at the metro station Poznyaky, got out, and on the one side, there was some kind of construction works, and on the other, there was nothing but sands, sometimes covered with a vine,” recalls Oleksandr Mykhailyk. “Only when the time had passed, I realized why this part of the Poznyaky residential area, south to Bazhan Avenue was called the Black Vine sanctuary: only these shrubs were growing there. They are small and the only thing that can grow on the sand.”
All these sands are of natural origin; such a landscape was formed in the old floodplain of the Dnipro. Sandy mountains sometimes were covered with pines, and sometimes remained without any trees. It’s quite obvious that people did not settle down here. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, the landscape began to change radically.
“First of all, the level of soil was raised. The very idea to build on the dredged river sand was to dredge to the point where, in the event of floods, houses would not be threatened by anything,” explains Oleksandr. The relief has changed a lot, many lakes were lost – now there are residential areas there. In general, a lot of lakes and tracts were covered with a sand pillow in Vyhurivshchyna – Troyeshchyna area.”
Now the small Kyivan Desert between Poznyaky and Osokorky metro stations remains the only one of its kind.
From the top of the crescent-shaped dune, we’re looking at a quite large Lake Nebrezh. On the shore, a woman walks two dogs, a fisherman sits in the distance. There are many ancient fluvial lakes here: little ones freeze in winter, and large ones as the Nebrezh don’t. Nebrezh, Ponomarivske, Martyshiv, Tyahle, Koroviache – these lakes have been called this way for centuries.
“I studied maps of the end of the nineteenth century. These lakes existed in the same form back then,” says Mykhailyk. “Some names were mentioned several hundred years ago, but their origin is incomprehensible. Often there’s a lack of cartographic material. In the chronicles and in the disputes between the monasteries, these lakes are mentioned, but it is quite difficult to locate them, often you have to draw parallels between the modern terrain. As for the maps of the nineteenth century, it is much easier – there you can read the names, and see how the outline of lakes has changed. ”
By the way, in the 1980s, some lakes even increased in size, since sand was extracted from there for the residential areas. For example, in the 1940s, Vyrlytsia was about 10 hectares, now it is 98. At the same time, Oleksandr notes that during the construction of Poznyaky metro station, many lakes, which could be preserved were covered.
Remnants of a village
By 1923, Osokorky and Pozniaky were a part of the Chernihiv province. “Now, there are bridges over the Dnipro River, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was a huge natural barrier, with the help of which it was convenient to mark the boundary between provinces,” Oleksandr says. Such a division can now be seen in the architecture of private houses, which differ a lot from the houses of the Right bank. Moreover, the “Chernihiv” accent remains even in buildings built in the postwar period. However, there are no older buildings here, because in 1943 when Nazis were fleeing Kyiv, they destroyed almost everything on the left bank.
“Characteristic features of the Chernihiv are buildings are actively used wood carvings. As a rule, it decorated a window sill, often there were carved ornaments over the roof. On the left bank, it remained after the war: there were many clay and wooden houses, often with shutters above the windows and at least primitive decoration. While on the right bank prevail buildings made of bricks with a minimum of decorations,” our guide describes the differences.
Meanwhile, now there are almost no postwar private homes left – literally only a few huts. If you know the addresses, you can see very unusual for the big city pieces. So, in Baturynska 3 there is a beautiful house with wooden decorations, and next to Baturynska 12, locals are grazing sheep in a pit, which overlooks the high-rises. Poznyakivska street is now considered to be gone – precisely due to construction works that demolished almost all the old houses because there are no inhabitants there. However, one old house remained. Oleksandr notes that with the appearance of high-rise buildings, the level of land has grown, so it actually stays in a concrete pit, the roof of the house is almost on the level of the earth.
From time to time, music videos are made in the Kyivan Desert. For example, one was made for the song “Holova” by the band of Sashko Polozhynskyi “Boovyeah”. In the end, you can make stylish photos with the natural scenery a-la Burning Man Festival that is held in the United States in the Black Rock Desert. Oleksandr adds that in summer it is a popular place to chill for residents of the area.
Nevertheless, on the Internet, you can find information about the desert only in a few blogs about Kyiv. By the way, in those posts, there is a thought that it is better not to show this place everywhere in order not to attract the attention of real-estate developers. And they are moving closer and closer. While walking around the desert, we pass by a broken green fence. In the autumn and early winter, there were clashes between a developer and locals, who are against the construction of 43 houses that are more than 20 floors high. Instead, people are proposing to create an Eco park at Osokorky.
Oleksandr Mykhailyk wants this area to become better-ordered. “In our books, we don’t evaluate era, we just tell about the buildings. So, in the 1960-1980s, residential areas were built according to a single project, green areas, communication, infrastructure, kindergartens, schools were clearly planned. Public centers were planned – supermarkets, department stores. The residential areas that are currently under construction on the left bank are built without a single plan, each company builds as it wishes. As a result, there is no single architectural style, no consideration is given to the pressure on communications and the need for social facilities; schoolchildren are learning in two shifts; kids are signed up for the kindergarten before their birth; there are no green zones,” Mikhailyk recounts problems. “Thus, I want them to develop a unified plan so that they treat infrastructure and green areas wisely.”
According to Oleksandr, the Kyivan Desert is quite worthy of a natural reserve status, which would provide legal protection against potential encroachment. It would be great to make a recreation area here, but a one that would not spoil the natural beauty of the place: without paths made of tiles, swings, and stalls. Maybe only a beach area with a minimum for comfort, where you can relax in silence, in the middle of the sands and near the lake – overlooking the crowd of skyscrapers.
By Maryana Zelenchuk
Photo by Ivan Pechenyi