Dnipropetrovsk is not Ukraine’s number-one city, but neither is it number two. This maxim, which appeared during Leonid Kuchma’s presidency, was a favorite with his fellow countrymen, who would often quote it while laughing at the residents of the Ukrainian capital and other regions. During Kuchma’s time, this eastern Ukrainian city, once known as Brezhnev’s “hot-house of party cadres,” became Ukraine’s political trendsetter, producing “promising” people, ideas, and trends — just like in Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.”
There was clearly nothing coincidental about the local bureaucrats conceiving the idea of planning an Alley of Glory lined with bronze busts of outstanding Dnipropetrovsk residents led by Leonid Kuchma. And although times have changed and the alley has lost its topicality, the idea now seems to have grown new legs. After all, in Dnipropetrovsk it is fashionable to unveil monuments to people who are still alive — both well-known politicians and “unknown oligarchs,” the new masters of our lives.
Early this spring the central square in Dnipropetrovsk, one of the cities in Ukraine that are preparing to host Euro 2012, began looking like the ruins of Stalingrad. The horrified city residents have been observing the efforts of the municipal authorities, who authorized the demolition of two monumental structures that are part of the central square’s architectural ensemble: the Hotel Central and the Children’s World Department Store. The store, built before the Second World War, was designed by the celebrated architect Oleksandr Krasnoselsky and was one of a handful of examples of Ukrainian national architecture in Dnipropetrovsk. The smart developers, who pushed the project through the city’s executive committee, started tearing down both buildings at a Stakhanov-like pace to clear the construction site.
A DONE DEAL
Six months prior to the demolition members of the local intelligentsia, civic organizations, and even the City Council, repeatedly demanded that Mayor Ivan Kulychenko hold public hearings on the construction project, according to the law. Outraged residents collected signatures to save Children’s World, distributed leaflets, and staged pickets. It all began on New Year’s Eve, when the local press carried the sensational news that the municipal construction council had approved another trade and entertainment center on the site of the Children’s World Department Store and the Hotel Central. The news was so bizarre that at first many residents refused to believe it.
Then the mayor of Dnipropetrovsk Ivan Kulychenko called a press conference to share his plans for 2009 and was forced to admit that these buildings were doomed, to be replaced by a glass-and-concrete mall with underground parking lots. He explained that the Hotel Central is anything but an architectural masterpiece and that Children’s World was built according to a “foreign design,” which did not “fit into the architectural environment.”
Journalists as well as a civic organization called Dnipro Civic Activists claimed that Children’s World was designed by a famous Ukrainian architect and that both buildings are part of the central square’s single architectural ensemble. The mayor then offered a different explanation, declaring that he and the city’s chief architect Yulia Saienko had agreed that Children’s World was no longer an architectural monument as a result of major repairs that were done in the early 1980s, which had altered the roof and the back facade.
“Ukrainian legislation on our cultural heritage states that if changes have been made to architectural monuments, which have altered their appearance and will require restoration, they are no longer heritage sites,” explained Saienko. She admitted, however, that “there were disputes about Children’s World, but it was finally concluded that it was just an ordinary building, not an architectural monument. According to the new master plan, it is a valuable historic structure. The building itself can be torn down because it is not a heritage site; it merely forms the environment. This ‘environment’ was protected during a meeting of the urban development council. We prevented any high-rise construction project from being carried out in its place,” she said.
However, it was some time before Dnipropetrovsk’s chief architect adopted this stance. Earlier, she had done her best to avoid discussing the issue or had answered questions with the following question: “Who told you Children’s World will be torn down?” Mayor Kulychenko tried repeatedly to find scapegoats among his subordinates, even among the employees of the DAI Traffic Control Inspectorate. Without blinking an eye, he declared that the traffic control police had permitted the installation of a fence around Children’ World. After some journalists complained to Minister of Internal Affairs Yurii Lutsenko, it was learned that all the documents authorizing the fencing off of the hotel or its demolition were endorsed by the mayor. The scheme to destroy Children’s World was much cleverer. During the mayor’s absence the City Council gave the go-ahead on the grounds of a court ruling that prohibited any measures against the dismantling of the building.
All things considered, this crafty approach was adopted because the idea of tearing down Children’s World was loathsome even to some members of the oblast administration. Svitlana Kushnir, the chief architect of Dnipropetrovsk oblast, insisted that the structure is an architectural monument and that it should be preserved. She was echoed by several prestigious experts in the field.
When the project design for the Pasazh Mall, to be built in place of the demolished structures, was being discussed, the oblast’s cultural heritage protection consultative council advised the developer, Dolnyk & K., Ltd.’s creative studio, of certain shortcomings. The changed design had to take into account the council’s critical remarks and recommendations. Council member Professor S. Revsky said that Children’s World should be regarded as a newly discovered architectural heritage site, and that this should be taken into consideration when deciding on the placement of the mall. The reviewer, A. Havrylov, pointed out that the proposed design did not take into account the existing structure.
Summing up their recommendations, the experts emphasized that the planned commercial center must harmonize with the adjoining structures, and at least one of the facades of Children’s World must be retained. Then the final design would have to be deliberated again.
But no other meeting was ever called to discuss the matter, and Dnipropetrovsk’s own goddess of justice helped the developer bypass these “formalities.” According to Saienko, the city’s Chief Architectural Development Department prepared the documents for the City Council session because there was a writ that could not be ignored. The council’s resolution dated April 21, 2008, authorizing the limited liability company GUM to dismantle a non-residential structure at 48 Karl Marx Avenue, was passed on the basis of a ruling handed down on April 1 by the Dnipropetrovsk District Administrative Court.
JUSTICE FOR THOSE WHO CAN PAY FOR IT
Interestingly, at a recent press conference in Dnipropetrovsk members of Dnipro Civic Activists talked about the existence of similar schemes that are becoming standard practice in the city. According to the group’s coordinator Andrii Denysenko, local smart operators prefer to let the courts handle their affairs so as to bypass the numerous agencies and permits needed to acquire land, get a construction project going, or tear down old buildings. Municipal bureaucrats, in turn, “forget” to appeal against such rulings or simply go through the motions of doing so to keep the public satisfied, while declaring that they are bound to obey court rulings. Denysenko insists that every such scheme requires a “gentlemen’s agreement” from three parties: interested businessmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and the judicial authorities.
Mayor Kulychenko has nothing more to say on this subject. “Life does not stand still. It dictates its own conditions,” he said recently, skimming his hands over his pockets. “There are owners and investors. I can understand people who spend lots of money to purchase property, and then they pull it down and replace it with something else.”
Incidentally, the mayor is not divulging the investors’ names, explaining (as usual) that he left his notebook at home. It turns out that the head of the profitable new construction project is Hennadii Akselrod, the developer and head of PFC Sparta, who popped up in the local press and television network, declaring, “We’re quietly holding public hearings.” This businessman believes that the dismantling of Children’s World is mostly opposed by residents who are “over 65 years of age,” whereas the younger generation takes a positive view of the matter. According to Akselrod, young people “want to have a modern commercial center with a beautiful facade.” The architect who did the design was allegedly inspired by a shopping mall in the Italian city of Milan.
The Pasazh in Dnipropetrovsk will have retail outlets and four restaurants on the upper floor. The mall will feature a unique lighting system that has “received kudos even in London.” A 120-meter monitor will be mounted on one of the sides of the glass structure to show live broadcasts of the Euro 2012 soccer finals, a great help for the 30,000 fans who won’t be able to get inside the stadiums. “All over the world the downtown cores of cities are being spruced up to attract tourists,” the investor explained, “and our job is to turn downtown Dnipropetrovsk into one of Ukraine’s most attractive places. Naturally, we all want to profit from this project. At the same time, we want to show the other side of this money, that the residents and guests to this city will benefit from it. If we succeed in launching the Pasazh and Brama (a 50-story skyscraper down the road from the central square toward the Dnipro — V. R. ), you can just imagine the expression in the eyes of the tourists, who will come for the games. They will probably tell themselves they’ve arrived in the wrong city, maybe Stockholm. So we have to put up with all these grumblings and provocative questions from journalists, and keep forging ahead,” Akselrod said.
In addition to journalists, a goodly number of citizens are continuing to “grumble.” The Dnipro Civic Activists sent a letter to the Presidential Secretariat, requesting protection from “latter-day vandals” for one of a handful of examples of Ukrainian architecture. Dnipropetrovsk is not in Sweden or Italy, but in Ukraine, the activists wrote in their letter, so it is hardly likely that a visitor from Sweden or Italy will be happy to find himself in another Stockholm or Milan to watch the soccer finals in Dnipropetrovsk. If these kinds of preparations for the championships continue, in a couple of years Dnipropetrovsk will be unrecognizable, the activists warned.
They claim that the businesspeople who are closely connected with the Privat Group are the real owners of Children’s World and the other heritage structures that form part of the main square’s architectural ensemble — the Central Department Store and even the former buildings of the Ministry of Ferrous Metallurgy of the Ukrainian SSR. Now they are creeping up to Hotel Ukraine, a genuine masterpiece of national architecture. A meeting of the hotel’s shareholders will be held soon.
For half a year the hotel has stood opposite the debris of the City Library, the construction site of another PFC Sparta shopping mall. Word has it that the Central Department Store, Krasnoselsky’s last project of his life in downtown Dnipropetrovsk, will also be torn down. Mayor Kulychenko is trying to keep the public calm by repeating that this issue “is not on the agenda yet.” He says that other large Soviet-era department stores will be torn down.
The city state administration has also managed to sell off a number of public restrooms, and stores and restaurants are springing up in their place. In fact, the mayor wants the restroom at the back of the regional state administration building replaced by a cafe for Euro 2012 soccer fans.
ANOTHER SURPRISE IN STORE?
The residents of Dnipropetrovsk will be shocked by another construction project downtown, the dismantling of the regional cardiology center where patients from all over Dnipropetrovsk oblast flock to receive treatment because of the center’s unique equipment. There are plans to move the clinic to a suburban location, and a hotel for European tourists will be built in its place. A similar idea was suggested two years ago. It was supported by the mayor, but the press raised a stink and the authors of the idea backed down. Now, under cover of the Euro 2012 preparations, they are planning to go back to the drawing board.
The most remarkable thing is that there are ruins and vacant lots overgrown with two-meter-high hogweed right in the center of Dnipropetrovsk — and they have been there for years, perhaps decades. There are ramshackle buildings without windows and even thatched- roof cabins dating back a couple of centuries in the vicinity of the Dnipro Stadium, where the Euro 2012 games will be held. By “reserving” these parcels of land, potential investors — or simply local real estate speculators — are in a hurry to get another big slice of the cake that is being generously offered to them by the municipal authorities.
Meanwhile, the local press is writing openly about the mayor’s close ties with people from the Privat Group and the fact that, in the event of early mayoral elections, they will be financing the so-called Kulychenko Bloc. One way or another, the mayor’s cordial relations with certain businessmen are no secret to the people of Dnipropetrovsk.
This is where the so-called monument to the unknown oligarch comes in. The bronze statue appeared on Katerynoslav Boulevard last year. People in the know insist that the statue accurately portrays Hennadii Akselrod. Mayor Kulychenko explained during a press conference that a group of businesspeople had meant it as a birthday present for their friend. But Akselrod refused to have the statue removed on his own orders. Instead, activists from BYuT did this for him. But as soon as Kulychenko was reelected mayor, the bronze oligarch with a cigarette in his hand reappeared.