Inside the Oligarch Ghost Town of Kiev

The luxury neighborhood of Vozdvyzhenka in the center of Kiev is filled with a mind-boggling collection of Easter Egg mansions and luxury apartment buildings.

KIEV — Curving downhill back and forth from St. Andrew’s, the prettiest of Kiev’s magnificent onion-domed churches, Andriyivskyy Descent was long considered the heart of the city’s artistic community. It was the birthplace of writer Mikhail Bulgakov and is the home of the famed One Street Museum. And just off this iconic street, tucked under a hillside park, there is a wonder of Kiev that literally cannot be missed.

The abandoned luxury development Vozdvyzhenka cannot be missed because it is made up of ostentatious Easter egg-pastel mansions and condo buildings that verge on neon. Loud is the word that comes to mind. Conceived and built at the height of the real estate bubble, today it is reportedly most popular for music videos and wedding shoots.

On one square in the neighborhood, a six-story Pepto Bismal-colored building is topped by no fewer then three stories of dormer windows. Next to it, another apartment complex—this time of a canary yellow variety—rises six stories high and is crowned by a gold-trimmed needle and dome. The abodes here were supposedly designed in the Ukrainian Baroque style of the 17th and 18th centuries, but that seems to have merely been a starting point. Angled gables run into curved ones, which in turn run into others that seem to be a compromise between the two. Another pink edifice, which resembles a cotton-candied version of the nearby Richard the Lionheart Castle, manages to fit in colorful brick latticework, turrets trimmed in turquoise, and crow-stepped gables. Quoins decorate nearly every other building.

The Kiev of legend, the famed city of hills—a city so wealthy and majestic that it awed the richest and most powerful of Enlightenment monarchs, Catherine the Great herself—is by and large gone now. The Nazis and the Soviets left their mark and while there are still Art Nouveau icons like the House of the Weeping Widow or the House of the Chimeras, today, to wander the city is to take in a sense of something lost.

When I first stumbled across Vozdvyzhenka, I wasn’t sure if I was looking at one of the worst restoration jobs in history, or an attempt by a rich developer to recapture some of that past glory.

“What you see before you is Kiev over the past decade,” explained Oleg, a 25-year-old economics student who was showing me around the neighborhood. Today’s Kiev is a city of whispers and blasé shrugs about endemic corruption. It is a city where kitsch is embodied in the extreme in what has become its most famous attraction—the dacha of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. The Potemkin village of Vozdvyzhenka is no different.

Over dinners in Kiev, whenever I brought up the city’s Twilight Zone of a neighborhood, there were knowing smiles and hints about how the development didn’t go exactly as planned.

When it was originally proposed in 2003 and then built in the latter half of the 2000s, Vozdvyzhenka replaced a historic neighborhood—home to potters and craftsmen—that had miraculously managed to survive Soviet plans to destroy it.

"There are building rules, common sense and there is also a greed which destroys them,” Kiev architect Georgy Duchovychniy told The Guardian about the development.

The $100 million project faced hurdles not only from the economic crisis of 2008 that gutted Kiev’s real estate market, but also—or so critics allege—from building decisions that made the apartments less than perfect. Local reports detailed buildings that easily flooded, that had cracked walls, and that were made from poor materials.

Many of these flaws are still visually apparent today. To be sure, there are now cafés and art galleries in the development, and whereas previous accounts describe completely empty streets, there were some inhabitants walking about. But some mansions on Honcharna, a dead-end street in the development, still have chipped paint, overgrown weeds, and deteriorating edifices.

The neighborhood was quickly dubbed the “millionaires’ ghost town” as many of the houses and apartments went visibly unoccupied. Prices for apartments dropped from $7,000 per square meter just before the crash to less than half that. But that apparently has not deterred the developers, as new construction sites were under way in Kiev when I visited this summer. The developers claim that the apartments in Vozkvyzhenka have even started selling again in recent years. There is something magical about all those neon-pink turrets, arches, and gables after all.