Last week a new bar opened in Ivano-Frankivsk on Kurbasa Street, near the Philarmonic Concert Hall, in the city centre. My wife and I visited it for the first time this afternoon. It is called ГОСТ, a reference to the Soviet-era standards agency which continues its work today in providing standards for quality and measurement across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The name of the pub is unusual in that it references the Russian version of the name of the agency, rather than the Ukrainian ДЕСТ, while the theme of the pub is unique for this western Ukrainian city, since it is a Soviet theme bar. Not some kitsch appropriation of Soviet and communist symbols, but a kind of homage to the everyday tastes of life under communism.
There are in the city plenty of bars and cafés which remain Soviet in style, including one of my favourites, Renata, above. Another old favourite, Bilyj Kamin’ (White Stone) no longer exists, but this great article shows that cafe, which is now a jewellers, alongside a couple of other (accidentally) retro cafes in the city.
Renata is located on the central Nezhalezhnosti Street and today tables and chairs were out for the first time this year as temperatures reached 22 degrees Celsius. Other Soviet-era legacy bars and cafes that I enjoy include Krystal and Pirizhkova. The latter specialises in savoury and sweet buns, as well as soups and chicory or wheat-based coffee with condensed milk. The recipes have remained unchanged there for decades, likewise some of the staff. Krystal like Renata offers a fuller menu, including booze, with cognac probably the most popular choice to go with soups, salads, meat patties on bread and coffee still made with Soviet-era, I think Hungarian, espresso machines. Pirzhkova attracts all sorts of people, from kids to pensioners seeking quick and hearty food, while Krystal and Renata tend to attract an older crowd, those who still remember the Soviet days.
These cafés fascinate me and probably deserve a post of their own. ГОСТ is an exceptional case, however, because it is the first stylised Soviet theme pub, designed and run by people whose childhood incorporated the final years of the Soviet Union.
The city features plenty of other stylised theme pubs referring back to other periods in the city’s history or to imagined visions of other countries’ pubs. The original among this type of pub, opened a decade ago, Desyatka, features Austrian/Habsburg and Polish stylings. Pyatnytsa tries to look like an English pub, while Legenda, recently opened at the end of Nezhalezhnosti/ Sichovych Striltsiv mixes British and German themes. Piwnica on Sichovych Strilstiv goes for an interwar-Polish vibe, while Leprechaun – well, no need to explain that one, likewise Bavaria. While pubs in Poland already a decade ago, if not longer, such as PRL in Wrocław, adopted a faux communist-era look, ГОСТ is the first Soviet-era stylisation I have encountered in Ivano-Frankivsk.
The menu features plenty of good, old-fashioned solid dishes as well as a few favourites from the time. It doesn’t go in for daft names for dishes (unlike the city’s kitschy nationalist/ UPA-themed Bunker on Hrushevskoho), it’s a no-frills kind of place. The menu begins with hard spirits, cognac top of the list of course and avoids anything unlikely to have been available at the time, so it’s purely Ukrainian and CIS-sourced food and drink. The beer on tap is from the First Private Brewery, established in 2004, but with its own no-frills image and Zhyhulivskye, which is a type of beer made in the USSR. Known until Stalinism as Viennese beer, it became Zhyhulivskye with a recipe guaranteed by the ГОСТ agency. Now numerous breweries make their own version of it. This beer is part of a trend of reviving Soviet-era brands by Ukrainian producers, including chocolate bars with seagulls and matrioshkas on them, or soft drinks – like the one in the first picture. They also only sell Pepsi, and in bottles with old-school labels. If I’m not mistaken Pepsi beat Coca Cola to the Soviet market, although it was overtaken post-1991/92.
The food menu includes a few salads, nothing too fancy, pierogi, varennyky and pancakes, before ending on desserts, including the outstanding smoked dried plums with walnuts in condensed milk. Really, it is amazing, and all for 12 UAH, so about 75p or $1 right now, meaning prices are comparable to the Soviet legacy bars and cafés.
Like the revival of certain brands, I would suggest ГОСТ is an indicator of a – perhaps surprising in the current climate in Ukraine, particularly the west – certain “Ostalgie”, to use the phrase applied to East Germany and the rise of a fascination with or curiosity about communism among different generations, including the one which did not have experience as adults of it.
ГОСТ is decorated with photos of Ivano-Frankivsk in the Soviet era, as well as various objects including an East German typewriter, a Soviet-era radio and Russian- and Ukrainian-language books from the period. The interesting thing about the photos is that they make clear how much public memory overwrites or sidelines the communist period. It’s easy to find images of interwar or pre-WWI Stanislav(iv), or even the Second World War city under German occupation, yet harder to get a sense of what the city looked like and lived like under communism.
Whether there is a genuine sense of Ostalgie or it’s simply a nice-looking bar with very decent prices that attracts its clients is hard to tell. However, the bar is proving a hit. Last night my wife and I couldn’t get a table, so we popped in for a soft-drink, some soup and the smoked prune dessert this afternoon on the way to the market. Last night the clientele was largely folk from our generation, mid-late twenties and early-thirties.
It was the same in the place where we ended up last night, another bar/restaurant that opened this month, Kondrat on Chornovola Street, between the centre and the university. It occupies a building that has seen two bars that were central to Frankivsk’s cultural life in the past, Chimera and Marmulyada. Kondrat last night was also filled with people of our generation and, recognising a few faces in there, people who would be classed as young professionals (but not yuppies). Why this might be interesting is that Frankivsk is a student city, with three large universities in a city of some 240,000. However, in contrast to a British university city which would be overrun with students, here the students seem largely absent at weekends.
This is possibly a result of their relative lack of income and lack of time, but also of a habit of often going back to home villages and towns each weekend. Instead, the folk filling bars and cafes of a weekend, aside from the regulars in Soviet legacy bars, seem to be an emerging class of young professionals, suggesting some disposable income and thus the potential formation of a middle class in Ukraine among our generation.
The relative liveliness in the cafes and bars of the city this weekend, while partly a result of the improvement in weather, also suggests that the city is experiencing some degree of normalisation despite the threat of war and ongoing mourning. What is almost certain is that people were not out celebrating the signing by Ukraine of part of the EU Association Agreement. Although the Yanukovych government’s refusal to sign was the final spur to mass protests against the Party of Region’s rule, yesterday’s achievements hardly seem like a success given the cost at which they have been achieved – over 100 deaths of activists and police – and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. There is also a realisation that much is to be done t0 transform life in Ukraine. ‘Social Revolution’ is what the above graffiti calls for and this idea of a civil revolution, changing everyday behaviour and experience, particularly the phenomenon of bribery, is a desire and ideal – regardless of coverage of Right Sector or pro-Yanukovych rallies, as took place today in parts of Ukraine – ordinary Ukrainians across the country can share.
Of course, though, with the incorporation of Right Sector or Self-Defence activists into local and national institutions there could easily be greater official legitimacy attached to more nationalist interpretations of the historical past and recent events. Local MP and Deputy PM Oleksandr Sych wants to revive the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory which, modelled on the Polish IPN, will become a political instrument for seeking to construct a singular, unitary version of the past.
The poster below for an exhibition, meanwhile, suggests a particular interpretation of Taras Shevchenko’s 200th birthday,with the national bard again stylised as a revolutionary, but this time one with a nationalist bent. The event was organised jointly by the Regional State Administration’s Office for Culture, Nationalities and Religion and the Ivano-Frankivsk Stepan Bandera Regional Museum of the Battle for Liberation. I would wager that, at least on a regional level, such collaborations will only become more common, as the state apparatus comes to sponsor a particular nationalist reading of the past and present.
Shevchenko, the national bard, appears here in the guise favoured by Right Sector’s youths – a bandana masking the face, while he is “supported” by two Molotov cocktails. The exhibition was in honour of his 200th birthday and the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ of Maidan dead, none of whom were from Right Sector.
Here meanwhile there is a poster for another project, this time of a more civil type, calling for a revival of the tradition for each household to have a portrait of the national bard. Below is a poster promoting the ‘social revolution’ – rather than the dangerous national revolution desired by Right Sector and its social nationalist affiliates. The small black poster states that if you give or take bribes then you have the blood of the Heavenly Hundred of your hands.
The ideological appropriation of the Maidan dead by Right Sector is worrying and, I believe, immoral. But the message of the small black poster, a form of moral blackmail perhaps, should nevertheless be more effective in assisting the social revolution in Ukraine that will change everyday life for Ukrainians, slowly, for the better.
In local news, certain media outlets continue to peddle the myth that Right Sector and others represent ‘the city community’, as these organisations continue to oppose certain appointments, particularly in the police department. It seems mass social support is not forthcoming, while the rallies which were re-launched last week and appropriated by Right Sector and Self-Defence, seem to be having little resonance. Meanwhile, Right Sector which claims to be against all forms of traditional politics and condemned the system, has now decided that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. It has announced it will become a political party. However, Right Sector and Self-Defence refuse to cooperate with the new National Guard, a military organisation created by the state which recruits reservists and volunteers. They argue that their men cannot fight alongside former police who had been on the other side of the barricades in Maidan. The local authorities have agreed to form a separate unit for them but won’t arm the RS/Self-Defence unit, which is quite wise.
Sections of the local press, however, finally seem to be developing a critical stance towards the local patriots who consider themselves to be the voice of the community, with an important regional newspaper, Galician Correspondent, criticising the ‘double-standards’ of those calling for lustration. Indeed, it turns out the chosen candidate for head of police among those claiming to represent ‘the people’ and ‘the community’ is an ex-KGB agent!
The real army, which is raising funds from civilians who dial 565 which gives them 5 UAH or 30p/50 cents, is visiting local schools to explain what to do in case of emergency and war. Since most of my students didn’t know what to do in case of fire at the university, they might also want to come and give some talks to undergraduates.
In media news, you can catch the latest local news and debate on an online tv station, IF-TV from 6pm each day. It broadcasts live on the massive jumbotrons around the city at that time, too, and probably has more viewers there than online. Last night, there were more presenters than viewers most of the time. However, it has to be said that the level of local news sources online, in newspapers and on tv here is very impressive. Whereas my home city, larger than Frankivsk, has just one newspaper and tv news bulletins are limited to a couple of bulletins a day on BBC or ITV, here there are at least three newspapers, three full-time tv stations and over half a dozen internet news portals covering the city and region. I was interviewed by one outlet earlier this week and when asked what was most exceptional about Ivano-Frankivsk, I mentioned the media landscape, which surprised the intelligent and insightful young journalist I was talking to. The expected answer tends to concern food or drink, which brings this post full circle.