The 32-year-old architecture enthusiast and resident of Kyiv doesn’t talk to himself – he has a captive audience on Zoom who tuned in from around the world to watch him explore his city. Equipped with a smartphone, a selfie stick and an irrepressible mind, Solovyov, who runs the Instagram @ukrainianmodernism and giving real-world tours since 2019, taking us on his first virtual tour. Right from the start, it’s clear that it doesn’t show the guides’ greatest hits.
Solovyov walks down the center of the courtyard to a small building that features a blue mosaic mural – a trace of its history as a children’s art school. He tells us about the mural, which was made by students, and its details: the nation’s emblematic sunflowers, a chestnut symbolizing Kyiv, a bird from Ukrainian folklore and a rainbow. As he brings his phone closer, we can see that the mosaic has been made from broken kitchen utensils and shattered tiles – a kaleidoscope of fragmented colors fills the screen.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, we have heard a lot about the capital, Kyiv. About missile attacks and bombed apartments. About surprise visiting politicians and the courage of President Volodymyr Zelensky to stay put. But for those who have never set foot in the Eastern European metropolis, this remains an abstraction. Too often it is reduced to images of rubble or discussed only as a target of war – a place from which people try to flee. Solovyov reveals a different Kyiv – the city inhabited and loved by many. It brings Kyiv closer, from afar.
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For more than two hours, the Zoom tour moves from hidden courtyards to towering Soviet-era structures that seem to soar with renewed pride when viewed through Solovyov’s lens. When it comes to architecture, he’s not one to hide his emotions: he strokes the wall of Kyiv’s metro headquarters, admiring the raw natural stone. Stopping in front of another futuristic-looking building, which was once a Soviet fashion house, he laments how it has “suffered” in recent years (it has been covered in a digital billboard). A simple geometric light fixture is cause for celebration. “Incredible,” he says. “I like it. They’re like candy. I want to lick them.
“Well,” he adds, inspecting the globes more closely, “I’m going to have to dust them first.”
Solovyov traces his fascination with architecture to a trip to Poland in 2014. He had seen Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science on TV, but in person, its sheer scale blew him away. From that day on, he says, he stopped seeing buildings as mere “decorations” but as works of art with profound political, social and psychological effects. He traveled across Europe to experience different building styles – art deco in Lisbon, constructivism in Moscow. But he found his passion at home in late Soviet modernism, epitomized by the famous flying saucer building and crematoriumand commonly referred to as “brutalist”.
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“He has a kind of intellectual, brave beauty,” Solovyov said of brutalism on a later Zoom call, which he admires both for its aesthetics — exposed concrete and strong geometric shapes — and for the way he broke with tradition, pioneering progressive ideas about how architecture can serve citizens.
But Solovyov quickly learned that he was in the minority – that these modernist masterpieces are often seen as eyesores and regularly demolished. To retaliate, he began giving in-person architectural tours — in Kyiv and elsewhere — in hopes of convincing more people that his Brutalist beauties are worth keeping.
Recent events have not stopped him. Just two weeks after the February 24 invasion, he decided to begin tours in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where he had taken refuge. A group of 40 people—half locals and half displaced people—showed up at the first to admire the distinctive modernist architecture of the mountainous Carpathian region (think, concrete meets log cabin). Attendees told him that the tour was the first time since the start of the war that they had thought of anything else.
Solovyov’s virtual tours, which he announces on his Instagram page, have also become a means of coping with current circumstances. He says that during the pandemic and now the war, he missed meeting visiting strangers, some of whom were his most curious attendees. Now he meets them in their living rooms.
There’s a disarming sincerity about Solovyov that makes it work. He speaks off the cuff – scorning Stalinist architecture (he finds it “false”) and criticizing the commercialization of the city. When he pulls into a corner to marvel at the sight of five modernist buildings from four different decades, he suggests taking a screenshot or visiting the spot on Google Earth to remember it. As he passed the crowded Come and Stay cafe, he said, “I wish you could join me for a coffee here, maybe one day.”
Tina Ferrari, 44, who is watching from Italy, said after the tour she sometimes forgets other people are watching. “I almost felt like I was on a Zoom call with a friend taking me with him through his town,” she said. “It was very intimate.”
Although war does occasionally crop up – at one point Solovyov stops talking to avoid suspicion from a policeman – that’s certainly not the goal. When asked if giving wartime visits was different, Solovyov replied, “No, it’s the same thing. And I think that’s also the point – to give meaning to the life that goes on.
Sometimes this meaning can be hard earned. Solovyov grew up in Zaporizhzhia, an area of eastern Ukraine now partially occupied by Russia and where his father still lives. A few weeks ago, Solovyov lost his job as a video game editor due to wartime budget cuts – making touring his main source of income (there’s 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 Solovyov’s followers have suggested tours of the buildings that Russia destroyed, but he is against it. “Everyone is aware of the destruction. There’s no need to tour,” he says. “My job is different. My job is to educate people, especially when prejudice against modern Soviet architecture grows stronger. In Solovyov, it is public opinion – not missiles – that is the greatest threat to the modernist buildings he cherishes.
For such a connoisseur of concrete, Ukraine is a gold mine. “It’s quite rare to see so many pieces of modernism on such a grand scale in one place,” says Ashley Bigham, a professor at Ohio State University who studies Soviet architecture. Bigham points to Ukraine’s sprawling civic structures – theatres, sports complexes, schools – which she says are notable for balancing expressive and grand forms (many have intricate roofs that allow for huge open floor plans) with functionality.
Convincing others to appreciate these behemoths is no easy task, however. “Sometimes it’s hard to get the public to understand what’s worth saving in these buildings,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t understand how revolutionary they were or their architectural significance.”
The war did not help. Even though Ukrainian identity existed throughout the Soviet Union (present-day Ukraine was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), Solovyov says some Ukrainians confuse “Soviet” with “Russian” and argue for the erasing all traces of this past – including buildings.
And as Russia seeks to erase Ukrainian culture, it bothers it that some Ukrainians want to erase parts of it themselves. “What will our descendants of the 20th century in Ukraine know if we demolished everything? he asks. “What are they going to think? That we did nothing?
Thus, lap after lap, Solovyov pleads for memory. “All these buildings and mosaics are products of Ukrainian architects and artists,” he says, “products of their labor, their craftsmanship, their creativity, their soul.”