The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyiv’s ‘brutalist’ legacy comes alive through Zoom tours by a native son

Dmytro Soloviov makes a passionate case for appreciating and preserving Soviet-era modernist buildings and mosaics

Dmytro Soloviov has been giving real-world tours since 2019 and recently started giving tours on Zoom. (Ruslan Synhaievski)
8 min

On a warm July afternoon in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dmytro Soloviov strolls past pink and green facades on a bustling boulevard, in search of a passageway.

“In Kyiv, it is important to enter every door you see, and sometimes, you can find some very unexpected treasures,” he says. He opens a white gate to a pedestrian tunnel and follows it into a desolate courtyard. “Nobody comes here unless they are on business, visiting a friend or know about the mural.”

The 32-year-old architecture enthusiast and Kyiv resident isn’t talking to himself — he has a captive audience on Zoom that has tuned in from around the world to watch him explore his city. Equipped with a smartphone, a selfie stick and an irrepressible spirit, Soloviov, who runs @ukrainianmodernism on Instagram and has been giving real-world tours since 2019, is taking us on his first virtual tour. From early on, it’s clear he is not showing the guidebooks’ greatest hits.

Soloviov walks toward the center of the courtyard to a small building that boasts a blue mosaic mural — a trace of its history as a children’s art school. He talks us through the mural, which was made by students, and its details: the nation’s signature sunflowers, a chestnut symbolizing Kyiv, a bird from Ukrainian folklore and a rainbow. As he moves his phone closer, we can see that the mosaic was crafted from broken kitchenware and shattered tiles — a kaleidoscope of fragmented colors fill the screen.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, we’ve heard a lot about the capital city of Kyiv. About missile attacks and bombed-out apartments. About political figures making surprise visits and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage to stay there. But for those who have never stepped foot in the Eastern European metropolis, it remains an abstraction. Too often, it’s reduced to images of rubble or discussed only as a target in the war — a place from which people are trying to flee. Soloviov reveals a different Kyiv — the city lived in and loved by many. He brings Kyiv up-close, from afar.

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For over two hours, the Zoom tour goes from hidden courtyards to imposing Soviet-era structures that seem to soar with renewed pride, seen through Soloviov’s lens. When it comes to architecture, he is not one to hide his emotions: He strokes the wall of the Kyiv Metro headquarters, admiring the rough natural stone. Stopping outside another futuristic-looking building, which was once a Soviet fashion house, he laments how it has “suffered” in recent years (it has been covered with a digital billboard). A simple geometric light fixture is cause for celebration. “Amaaaazing,” he says. “I love this. They’re like candies. I want to lick them.

“Well,” he adds, inspecting the globes more closely, “I’ll have to dust them first.”

Soloviov traces his fascination with architecture to a 2014 trip to Poland. He had seen Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science on television, but in person, its scale blew him away. From that day on, he says, he stopped seeing buildings as mere “decorations” but as artworks with profound political, social and psychological effects. He traveled around Europe to learn about different building styles — art deco in Lisbon, constructivism in Moscow. But he found his passion back home in late Soviet modernism, which is embodied by Kyiv’s famous flying saucer building and crematorium, and commonly described as “brutalist.”

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“It has a kind of brave, intellectual beauty,” Soloviov says of brutalism on a later Zoom call, which he admires both for its aesthetic — exposed concrete and strong geometric shapes — and for the way it broke with tradition, pioneering progressive ideas about how architecture can serve citizens.

But Soloviov quickly learned that he was in the minority — that these modernist masterpieces are often dismissed as eyesores and routinely demolished. To fight back, he started giving in-person architecture tours — in Kyiv and elsewhere — with hopes of convincing more people that his brutalist beaus are worth keeping.

Recent events have not stopped him. Just two weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion, he decided to start tours in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where he had sought refuge. A group of 40 — half locals and half fellow displaced people — showed up to the first one to admire the Carpathian mountain region’s distinctive modernist architecture (think, concrete meets log cabin). Attendees told him the tour was the first time since the war had begun that they thought of anything else.

Soloviov’s virtual tours, which he announces on his Instagram page, have also become a way of coping with present circumstances. He says that during the pandemic and now the war, he has missed meeting visiting foreigners, some of whom were his most inquisitive tour participants. Now, he’s meeting them in their living rooms.

There is a disarming sincerity to Soloviov that makes it work. He speaks off the cuff — scorning Stalinist architecture (he finds it “fake”) and critiquing the city’s commercialization. When he stops on a corner to marvel at a view of five modernist buildings from four different decades, he suggests we take a screenshot or visit the spot on Google Earth to remember it. As he passes the crowded Come and Stay cafe, he says, “I wish you could join me for a coffee here, perhaps one day.”

Tina Ferrari, 44, watching from Italy, said after the tour that at times, she forgot that other people were watching. “I almost felt like I was on a Zoom call with a friend who was taking me with him through his city,” she said. “It felt very intimate.”

While the war comes up occasionally — at one point, Soloviov stops talking to avoid suspicion from a police officer — it is certainly not the focus. Asked whether giving tours in wartime feels any different, Soloviov says, “No, it’s the same. And I think that’s the point, too — to bring some sense that life goes on.”

At times, that sense can be hard won. Soloviov grew up in Zaporizhzhia, an eastern region of Ukraine now partially occupied by Russia and where his father still lives. A few weeks ago, Soloviov lost his job as a video game copy writer because of wartime cutbacks — making tours his primary source of income (there is a $30 fee). In the coming weeks, he plans to return to Ivano-Frankivsk for a few months, during which he hopes to give virtual tours of the city he discovered in those early days of the invasion.

Some of Soloviov’s followers have suggested tours of the buildings Russia has destroyed, but he’s against it. “Everyone knows about the destruction. There’s no need to do tours,” he says. “My job is different. My job is to educate people, especially when biases against Soviet modern architecture are strengthening.” To Soloviov, it is public opinion — not missiles — that is the biggest threat to the modernist buildings he treasures.

For such a concrete connoisseur, Ukraine is a gold mine. “It’s quite rare to see so many pieces of modernism at such a great scale in one place,” says Ashley Bigham, an Ohio State University professor who studies Soviet architecture. Bigham points to Ukraine’s sprawling civic structures — theaters, sport complexes, schools — which she says are remarkable for balancing expressive, grand forms (many have complicated roofs that allow for huge, open floor plans) with functionality.

Convincing others to appreciate these behemoths, though, is no easy task. “Sometimes, it’s hard to get the public to understand what is worth saving about these buildings,” she says. “Sometimes, people don’t understand how groundbreaking they were or their architectural significance.”

The war hasn’t helped. Even though Ukrainian identity existed throughout the Soviet Union (present-day Ukraine was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), Soloviov says some Ukrainians are conflating “Soviet” with “Russian” and making a case for expunging any trace of that past — including buildings.

And as Russia seeks to erase Ukrainian culture, it disturbs him that some Ukrainians want to erase parts of it themselves. “What will our descendants know of the 20th century in Ukraine if we demolished it all?” he asks. “What will they think? That we did nothing?”

So, tour by tour, Soloviov is making a case for remembering. “All those buildings and mosaics, they are products of Ukrainian architects and artists,” he says, “products of their labor, their skill, their creativity, their soul.”