kiev days and nights: a generation's search for a different life
After moving from Luhansk to Kiev, photographer Evgeniy Stepanets documents the new life he and his friends are creating for themselves in Ukraine’s capital.
Whether in search of adventure, better career opportunities or long-awaited independence, most young people all over the world would consider moving to their capital city. But for Ukraine's emerging generation, this choice has been dictated by larger geopolitical events - the continuing war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in the East of the country. Alongside hundreds of his peers, 26-year-old photographer Evgeniy Stepanets left his native Luhansk and headed to Kiev in search of new life.
"The first wave of refugees from Luhansk fell on June 2014, when the first sounds of explosions hit the outskirts and streets of the city", recalls Stepanets. "For many people aged between 18 and 25 it became the final push to leave their hometown. Luhansk has never been a place for romantics. It was a typical provincial post-Soviet city in which time seemed to stand still, where everyone knew everything about each other. You didn't have much choice. After university most would work in factories or shops. All of us were dreaming of escape."
When the war started, it was not just the atmosphere of provincial boredom but one of desolation that ruled the city. "The first thing which strikes you is empty streets, closed factories, shops and banks, it was like a throwback to the 90s. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Social affairs, around 1.5-2 million people have left eastern Ukraine in the last two years. There is only half of the population left in Luhansk now. There are traces of war everywhere at every turn," Stepanets explains.
Thrown into the whirlpool of the big city, the photographer and his friends had to figure things out quickly. "In the beginning, I didn't even feel like I'd moved, probably because most of my friends had also moved. We were sticking together, everything seemed familiar… That said, the scale of Kiev is much bigger, that's the first thing you feel after moving from a town where a trip from one end to the other is at most 30 minutes. During the first two months in Kiev I lived in seven apartments. Sometimes I just stayed at someone's house for the night not knowing where would I spend the next one. Friends who moved here before the conflict helped a lot. The whole month before finally finding a flat I slept on a balcony, I was lucky it was summer."
Cut off from their roots and without a place to come back to, Stepanets and his friends embraced the city. "At first everyone was overwhelmed. For us, very young and unspoilt, it was like a breath of fresh air, it was freedom. Kiev had everything we were missing in Luhansk. It was very difficult to find a job and a place to live, knowing that we couldn't come back home anytime soon, but on the other hand these challenges were almost like adventures."
Throughout the last year, Stepanets has been photographing everyone who happened to share his journey. He's documented serene tower block landscapes at the outskirts of the city, small kitchens, parties, summer nights, and sofas in random flats - all the settings where his friends happened to be young, in love, and discovering the city. His photographs radiate the fragile feeling of attachment and camaraderie that he and his friends developed on the quest to finding a new path in life. "I've been trying to capture what has changed in the lives of my friends and acquaintances. What were their dreams and thoughts, whether they have changed or remained the same. My greatest surprise was that the feeling of homesickness was gradually erased with new experiences, new faces, new acquaintances, and streetlights. It seemed like everyone gained their freedom, which was stronger than the yearning for their hometown, the city that will never be the same again and to which hardly anyone will come back," he says.
Moving away from Luhansk won't be the last big decision that many will have to make. Ukraine's new generation is facing a major financial and social crisis, and a lot of young people are considering moving abroad. Whether they decide to or not, their first steps in Kiev will always be remembered in Stepanets' photographs, like distant memories of a strange family thrown together by a political catastrophe. "Plans and opinions differ", Stepanets says. "Anyone who has a chance to leave Ukraine will use it immediately. Some people, on the contrary, want to stay, live and work in Ukraine. We live in a crazy and incredibly interesting time. Making long term plans in situations that keep changing makes no sense. For now I would like to stay in Ukraine, I am interested in the country, the time of its transformation, there is a great field for art and creativity here."
Photography Evgeniy Stepanets