Kiev’s subway disco

March 3, 2013

Kiev, Ukraine

By Gleb Garanich

Passing through a pedestrian subway in central Kiev about twenty years ago, I saw elderly people dancing. I stopped for a few moments and then proceeded on my route – I was 25 years old at the time and, frankly speaking, this story was of no interest to me.

By pure accident, I ended up in the same place one evening in early February, and all of a sudden I felt a completely different attitude to what was happening… I was no longer indifferent to the lives and destinies of these people. What makes some 200 people gather in this passway on weekends for twenty years and dance for four hours?

Why gather in this very subway? Well, it is understandable – they have no money to rent a spacious room and dance indoors, and the mayor’s office allows them to gather underground instead of allocating any funds.

The reason they dance is also well understood – this is probably the most affordable way to while away their spare time and communicate.

Yet the main problem of the elderly generation in this country is that they feel unneeded by the state and people that surround them. This generation grew up in the Soviet Union. Many cannot adjust to a completely different lifestyle or reconcile with new realities and values. They don’t understand communication via social networks, but they still clearly remember the way all holidays were celebrated during their childhood and youth; when tables laden with food were brought out, and neighbors from the same street or house would sit down together and then dance to the tune of an accordion through the night.

These dances are recollections about their youth and about that time. It’s an opportunity to return there – if only in their thoughts, only for a few hours. I have noticed that many of them never smile, and even dances cannot draw them away from gnawing problems such as the misunderstanding of their own children, poor health, the death of their loved ones, abject poverty and despair.

The same dances, however, literally transform others. It suddenly seems that they look younger, with kingly bearings and glittering eyes. For many of them, these meetings are a rare chance of lively communication and an escape from loneliness after the loss of close friends.

They have known each other for ages. They are friends and celebrate holidays together. Nikolai Milevsky (born in 1938) and Natalya Stolyarchuk (born in 1955) got acquainted at these dances and have now lived together for nearly five years. Despite their age, they still have to work because their joined pensions consists of a mere 4,000 hryvnias ($490) per month. About twenty similar couples have emerged during the 20-year span of these dances.

Just like many years ago, young people rush by. Those in their mid-thirties and forties stand-by for a few minutes to take a look at the dancers, while the elderly ones stand and watch for a long time to return here next time. I feel bitterness, realizing that a whole generation of an entirely different epoch is passing away…

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