Goodbye Kyiv, bonjour Genève! / by Niels Ackermann

Photo © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13

Photo © Niels Ackermann / Lundi13

1995 days! On February 10 2014, Anna and I signed the papers to rent the lovely flat we left yesterday.

Two phrases I've heard these days marked me. In Ukraine, friends to whom we announced our departure nearly systematically asked "You're leaving... forever?". While in Switzerland, some people asked if we're moving to Geneva after living for a bit in Ukraine because "it didn't work the way you wanted?".

Let's start with the latter. Do the four years look to us like a failure? It's quite the opposite. It worked much better than we'd have ever dreamt of. Perhaps even too well or too quickly.

By moving back in Kyiv after her studies abroad in 2015, Anna wanted to contribute to her country's environmental and energy policies. Many laws passed, ministers lobbied and great projects achieved or still ongoing later, she played her modest part. Even if impact is always difficult to measure with NGO's. Her colleagues and she pushed the country toward the right direction.

For my part, I wanted to experience Ukraine from within. To tell nuanced and surprising stories about this transforming country. Four years later, two books and , over a dozen awards and more than 30 exhibitions around the world later, I can confirm that moving to Ukraine was one of the smartest moves I've ever done. Both on a personal and professional level.

The country I look at right now has very little in common with the one I first explored in 2009. From the cliché of a 3rd world post-soviet country, it evolved into a vivid and innovative economy. Small businesses are booming and you can see great ideas everywhere. Old soviet canteens with barely edible food are replaced by a myriad of tasteful cafés and restaurants. Rusty neon-lit office spaces where grumpy bureaucrats try to hide their uselessness are replaced by tech startups (see: spark, grammarly, petcube...), creative agencies (I’m a fan of Banda’s work), fintech, stylists and talented designers.

Politically, the country just elected a new parliament a few months after electing a new president in a process that was recognised as fair and transparent. With 80% of new people, the Ukrainian parliament is undergoing an unprecedented renewal. Decentralisation gives resources and power to local authorities to serve their communities more efficiently than ever. Ukrainians can travel to Europe without any visa. Online public tender system is cited as example abroad. The notoriously corrupt health system is undergoing a massive transformation (with the support of international partners among which Switzerland). E-administration is making it quicker, cheaper and simpler than ever to obtain administrative acts. Not even mentioning the roads which -while still not perfect everywhere- saw massive improvements during the last years.

It feels to us that a lot changed and even more change is happening and will happen.

Are we "leaving forever?". Since independence, Ukrainians are used to see their friends and relatives moving abroad and never coming back. Brain drain is one of the challenges Ukraine still has to face for the coming years. Leaving without looking back is not in our plan. With friends, family and investments in Ukraine, we'll come back whenever possible. It's just that we'll now spend more time in Geneva than Kyiv.

What do we bring with us from these four years abroad?

Switzerland and Ukraine have two antithetical economic situations. The former is extremely rich and you can see only marginal changes. The latter is challenged by a war, a difficult economic situation, ageing infrastructures, brain drain, bureaucracy and corruption. This context forces honest entrepreneurs to innovate constantly. Searching for good ideas around the world, working days and night to develop products and services fit for their time and the new culture of customers.

There's a trove of these small innovations that can benefit Swiss much more conservative environment. Whether it is in media, food business, IT or political communication. In a rapidly changing environment, nothing is more dangerous than passivity. Ukraine can be an inspiring laboratory for Swiss entrepreneurs, politicians or artists and I'd be delighted to show them how.

Being one of the richest countries in the world is no reason not to question oneself from time to time. I was surprised to see that while less corrupt, society is similarly -if not more- crippled with cronyism and that in some situations it's the only way to make basic things work. I've experienced more of that in 2 months of administrative tasks in Geneva than in 4 years of life in Kyiv.

Don't take my words for granted. Go and see for yourself!

If you don't know where to go for your next holidays, I warmly recommend you to try this country you've probably never thought of. You'll be surprised by the generosity and curiosity of people.

If you go there, try some of the places in our list of favourites restaurants, coffees and shops in Kyiv. You won't be disappointed.

For a richer understanding of this country, I can point you to some of my closest friends. Read the articles of Sébastien and his colleagues of Daleko Blisko. Local correspondents can depict with much more accuracy than international reporters sent from Europe the subtle local nuances.

While there, visit my friend Zhenya's restaurants (Noodles Vs. Marketing, Banh Mi Vs. Marketing, Navi Bar) to see how small entrepreneurs can develop delicious, affordable, locally sourced food and train talented staff. You can also experience Leonid Ostaltsev's Pizza Veterano: a reintegration of war veterans through work and business development (and excellent pizzas). Also, experience the boom of the cultural scene. Cinematographers and producers such as Nadia Parfan, contemporary artists such as Nikita Kadan, Sasha Kurmaz, festivals such as Gogolfest are making the capital a vibrant cultural city. These people, among many others, gave substance to my reportages. They gave a purpose to my stay there.

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