Among the buildings that represent the Soviet style of architecture, the most famous are of the Stalinist style. Moscow’s Seven Sisters, built in the 1940s and 1950s, are perhaps the best known and preserved examples of Stalinist architecture. Similar birthday cake-esque buildings can be found throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence, from Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science to the Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga, but there is precious little literature on the Soviet-era buildings that predated them. Completed in 1928, the Derzhprom in Kharkiv, Ukraine, is one of these pre-Stalinist buildings, and the proto-skykraper that gave rise to the more famous buildings constructed 20 or more years in the future.
While these Soviet buildings take a lot of inspiration from the early American skyscrapers, the Derzhprom actually predates both the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. Despite lacking the traditional Muscovite Baroque/Neoclassical embellishments, the Derzhprom achieved the nearly the same physical scale as Moscow’s Seven Sisters, but decades prior. When the Derzhprom was built, the more Spartan, Bond-villainish Constructivist style was far more in vogue in the USSR, while Stalin later much preferred the buildings gracing his capital to loom large and resemble more classical (think Greek or Roman) structures. I’ll let you guess which style I personally prefer.
Once arriving in Kharkiv, the Derzhprom is impossible to miss. Sitting at the west edge of the city’s Freedom Square (Ploshchad Svobody), an impressive site in and of itself, the Derzhprom complex is huge, and wraps itself around a sort of glorified cul-de-sac forming a de facto border of Kharkiv’s downtown area. We stayed at the Hotel Kharkov, which happened to be a five-minute walk from the building. In fact, the walk from the hotel to the Derzhprom included a host of the city’s sites, including Freedom Square, the Derzhprom Metro Station, the local Kharkov Government building (built later, in Stalin’s preferred Neoclassical Style), and Kharkov National University, whose main building was completed six years after the Derzhprom, but in a similar style to blend in with the city’s modernist icon next door.
To the average tourist uninitiated into the cult of Soviet architecture and design, the list of attractions in the previous paragraph would likely hold very little interest. But, to this weirdo and his equally off-kilter husband, that same list inspires a great day off the beaten path in Eastern Ukraine.
We arrived in Kharkiv after a couple of long flights on the world’s least reliable airline, Ukraine International, from Tbilisi, then Kyiv. After failing at finding an Uber into town, we hitched a ride with a cab for what of course seemed like too much money. I can only imagine that the price our cabbie quoted us was because he thought we were going to the super-posh Kharkiv Palace Hotel. Sadly, we were going to the similarly named, but far less luxurious Hotel Kharkov. I’m guessing from the two hotels’ exteriors that guests at the former have a bit more spending money than those staying at our humbler accommodations. But such is life, and as I’ve said before, if you think four dollars is too much to pay for a coconut (in this case, ten dollars for a taxi from the airport), think about what you pay for the same thing at home. Chances are, any commodity is going to cost more in the developed world than in any developing nation, so feel good about supporting an economy that likely needs as much help as it can get.
The whole of Freedom Square was being repaved (or under some kind of construction) during our visit, so a Mary Tyler Moore moment in one of the world’s largest public squares was sadly out of the question. Google Maps had indicated that there was a Tourist Information Center inside the Derzhprom itself, so the trip became a multitasking opportunity. We would not only spelunk inside the concrete beast of my dreams, but also pick up some maps and tips on what to see and do in the area.
I followed directions to the letter, entering first based on the building entrance number, then ascending to the correct floor. Antique turnstiles take you from outside to in, and the spiral staircases loop around an original elevator of dubious operational status. Don’t make eye contact with the woman working the front desk – she will pretend to not see you sneaking around if you allow her to continue eating her lunch in peace. The rumored Tourist Information Center was on the fifth floor. No English was present indicating the location of the office, so I relied on my inadequate Russian to find it. And while I did eventually find the two rooms on the floor with the Russian word for “tourist” engraved on their doors, brochures and friendly looking youths, brimming with enthusiasm for their city were not what I found. Instead, I was met with the more stereotypical cold, Slavic stares from a group of middle aged government paper-pushers sitting around an imposing but simultaneously ramshackle meeting table. What I had inadvertently stumbled upon was the office of the local tourism council, not an information center. “Sorry to interrupt, guys, when’s the hostel pub crawl?”
(Pro tip: there are several actual tourist information centers in the city – the one we found the most helpful also happened to be located on Freedom Square, at Ploshchad Svobody 8. The center is located on the first floor, up half of a flight of stairs, and to the right. Interestingly, it’s in the same hallway as the Slovenian and Czech Consulates.)
The Derzhprom complex is massive, with three main sections housing multiple towers each. One of the main architectural curiosities of the complex is the skybridges connecting the larger sections of the building – some from level three, some from between levels five and six, some functioning, and some condemned. All sporting charming exposed rebar. The guts of the building, though still occupied by commercial and government tenants, exist as a time capsule, with cracked, faded tiles, and scraps of wallpaper peeling haphazardly like hangnails.
The next morning, the three of us, feeling much better for wear than the day before, headed back to explore more thoroughly. The weather was sunny and crisp, comfortable enough to walk around in short sleeves for the first time the entire trip. We took our time photographing the outside of the building while enjoying 50 cent (15 hryvnia) Americanos from a Batman-themed coffee van pouring hand-pressed shots of espresso*. Though not usually museum people, we succumbed to the siren’s song of the large “музей” sign above an entrance leading to the building’s underground.
The museum was free to enter, and we were received graciously by a student volunteer and less so by his surlier babushka counterpart. The museum contains no English explanation or signage – luckily for us, our college friend was eager to show off his command of English. Maybe lucky isn’t the right word, for while we were captivated by the artifacts and local kitsch on display, we didn’t necessarily need the verbose explanations around every exhibit’s origins and significance. That said, I now have limited expertise in identifying Poltava, Sumy, and Kharkiv regional textile patterns. So there.
Before continuing our journey through Kharkiv’s other concrete treasures (Megan Starr has a great guide to the city’s concrete, and I highly encourage you to check it out) we attempted to enter the building from its grand main entrance. Seeing a gruff, older man at the same type of turnstile I had seen the day before, I launched into my well-honed, American tourist goon speech (in my same gobbledyegook Russian I take on all our trips to the region) that has afforded us greater access to restricted areas in the past. Ivan, as I’ve named him, was not feeling my Soviet tourist fantasy at all, and quickly shooed us toward the main entrance’s multi-story pane glass doors. No harm, though – we’ve learned enough times that entry to such fantastical buildings in the former USSR is by no means guaranteed, and are happy to take photos and explore as much as we’re able.
The Derzhprom was the absolute highlight of Kharkiv for us, and Kharkiv itself was a perfect laid back break after nearly two weeks of misadventures in Post-Soviet transport. The world of tourism seems to be taking notice of Ukraine, with more and more content like “Kyiv is the Next Berlin” popping up all the time. Kharkiv is still relatively off the Ukrainian tourist beaten path (tourism is concentrated heavily in Kyiv and Lviv, in the central and western parts of the country), but with the Derzhprom on UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage status, its discovery is inevitable. I fear for Ukraine’s secondary cities that the flood of tourism could hit like it did in Tbilisi, causing irreparable damage to cultural heritage under the guise of becoming more foreigner-friendly. I fear the Derzhprom becoming the next (or next-next, let’s be honest) Chernobyl, where stag parties take day trips in between drinking binges.
That said, our travel experience in Kharkiv goes to show that Eastern Ukraine is ready for tourists, with alternative types of attractions (who doesn’t like a good Soviet circus?) catering to the tourist in search of authenticity over tourist artifice (or dare I say kitsch?). You should go there, and soon. Don’t worry, the Ukrainian tourist wave hasn’t reached the east yet – it’s just now washed over the Dnieper in Kyiv, some 500 kilometers to the west. You have a little time – at least until the Derzhprom’s spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list has been finalized.
The Derzhprom is easily accessible from just about anywhere in Kharkiv. You can reach it from two of three of the two subway lines – either via Derzhprom Station (Oleksiivska/Green line) Universitet Station (Saltivska/Blue line). From either station, you’ll have to turn west from the exit and walk to the terminus of Freedom Square (or Ploshchad Svobody), which is surrounded by a glorious arc of constructivism in the form of the Derzhprom and the National University of Kharkiv.
The main “tourist” area (for lack of a more accurate description) of the city is located south of the Derzhprom around the History Museum (near the Istorychnyi Muzei/Історичний музей station). It’s a quick one station metro ride from there to Universitet Station, or you can walk fifteen or so minutes through Shevchenko Park and the Botanical Gardens if you prefer the more scenic route.
For more information about off the beaten path travel in Ukraine, check out these posts: a collaboration by Megan Starr on places in Ukraine to visit other than Lviv and Kyiv, and an A to Z of Ukraine by Kathmandu and Beyond. I’d also be remiss to not mention Katherine from 8 Months in Ukraine, who lived in and wrote about Kharkiv way before it was cool.
*Did I mention I LOVE Ukraine?