Podil (Podol in Russian) is perhaps one of the oldest, quirkiest and most diverse district in Kyiv. Its mix of ‘pre-revolution’, Stalinist, 1970s and modern ‘fake-old’ buildings, dotted with ancient burial grounds, hills and ‘elite’ tower-blocks makes it a fun place to explore. In Podil you’ll find small winding streets of faded pastel-coloured houses, ancient trams, crappy roads, sleepy boulevards, students, businessmen and babushkas all jostling for space on its small squares, ruined pavements and a patchwork of small courtyards.
Since the Maidan revolution last year, Podil has also become a hipsters paradise of coffee shops, animal-themed kiosks, tech companies, galleries and burger bars.
It’s the home of Kyiv’s most famous street (Andriyivsky Spusk) a large University, a massive Soviet market and a port where you can take a small ferry along the river to drinking beer and listening to loud Russian pop-music. It has Kyiv’s poshest hotel, three million sushi bars, a mosque and the bizarrely-named but wonderfully cheap bar called ‘Beer Online’ where you can eat and drink with local students, alcoholics and expats – all for the cost of a bottle of Evian in western Europe.
Podil is the kind of place where a drunk a man can introduce you to a small bronze statue which he claims to have married, where a bar called ‘live fuck die’ may appear in the middle of the revolution and where you can invent entirely new words during an excessively drunken underground karaoke session. I know because all of these things have happened to me in this crazy district on the banks of the Dniper. Basically, for those who love Kyiv because of its striking contrasts, weirdness and unpredictability – Podil offers everything you could wish for and more and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
However, nothing in Podil is as cool as the new ‘Samo Sad‘ (СамоСада) or ‘self garden’.
I first saw a post about Samo Sad somewhere online but didn’t pay much attention to the article as it looked like ‘just another park’ amongst the hundreds of others that literally ‘Spring’ to life in early May. About two weeks later on a typically warm and sunny Sunday, my housemate Gregory invited me to join him at a new ‘garden’ near our house on Horiva Street.
Misjudging the weather quite spectacularly, I put on a large orange body-warmer and wandered down to join him and Vika and to see what ‘new garden’ he was talking about.
“Our Grandmas are very clever”
Samo Sad is a small square of land which is about 20 meters wide and is guarded by two straw sheep. Well, at least I think they are sheep and in authentic Ukrainian-style one is wearing sunglasses and the other has a pink bow tied in her hair. Along one side of the plot is a pub, there are two restaurants across the street, a ‘produkti’ (corner-shop) on the opposite side, a ridiculous but fun ‘Crab Coffee’ kiosk on one corner and a recycling centre for used bottles on the other. The cetnre piece is a large tree and if you crawl through a hole in the bushes and fence there is a basketball court behind.
So what is it? Well, it was (and officially probably still is) a peice of land which is being leased to the Russian Embassy (yes its occupied territory), and right now Samo Sad is a community garden and 20 square meters of cool.
I met Gregory and Vika sitting under the tree on the newly erected bench which now circles it, and just as they just started mocking my winter jacket an old lady stopped to inquire about this random new ‘garden’. Vika explained that a bunch of activists had reclaimed the land and were building a community space, a stage and a herb garden. The old woman responded that she also lived in Podil and was very proud to see such an initiative.
As a stood there like a big sweaty orange, I felt a sense of pride too. This garden isn’t just another space – it represents a complete 360 degree change of mentality and symbolizes not just a new-found confidence which has spread through Podil, but also a shift in power back to the people and their neighborhood.
A local activist explained in more detail.
The space, she said, was reclaimed and landscaped by the same Volunteers that took it upon themselves to patrol the streets of Podil in March 2014 when the police vanished following the grim climax of the Maidan protests and massacre in the city centre. They have built and planted a vegetable garden in boxes, erected a stage, built a number of wooden chairs, found a piano from somewhere and assembled it all around the grassy square. This will not surprise anyone in Ukraine, but the Babushkas (grandmas) often come to the garden and tell the young growers what they are doing wrong and how they should be growing this and that vegetable. The hipsters come on their bikes, families bring their kids and the drunks come and sit and get quietly drunk. It is the first real, organic community I’ve seen in five years in Kyiv.
“So why is the piano padlocked?”, I asked. “Well”, the activist said, “it is because people were leaving the pub playing it late at night when they are drunk”. This (somewhat understandably) irritated an old woman in the apartment bloc next door who vented her anger by logging onto Facebook and complaining to the community via their new Facebook page.
“Our old people are very smart” the she explained in a matter-of-fact way – highlighting, for me anyway, the real and ongoing social media revolution that’s taking place.
So far it seems that the local authorities have given their silent approval to the project but this is Ukraine and so we can be fairly sure that Samo Sad will eventually attract much drama, scandal and controversy. But, for now at least it symbolizes everything that is good about Ukraine. It shows the very best of Ukrainian community spirit and it is Podil’s stubborn, understated and beautiful answer to the vitriol which has been thrown in their direction by those claiming the city is overrun by Nazis.
Samo Sad is a peoples garden for people who deserve ever inch of it.
Go and see for yourself at Voloska St, 20. Visit them online at: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Samosad/1605911233024707?fref=ts