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“It is not possible to study space without exchanging ideas” — An Interview with CRC 1265 guest researcher Olena Kononenko on her life and research in Kyiv and Berlin

6. August 2022

27th of July 2022

Olena Kononenko works at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv as an associate professor at the Department of Economic and Social Geography, Faculty of Geography. She headed the scientific laboratory of regional economic and political problems at the Faculty of Geography from 2003 to 2012, during which the laboratory was involved in the implementation of a number of projects related to the creation and development of national nature reserves as well as regional security and nature management studies. Her current scientific interests relate to problems of sustainable development of regions and cities, the resilience of cities to social and environmental challenges, and the development of a green economy, and modern methods of urban research.

Olena Kononenko has been a guest researcher at the CRC 1265 since mid-May 2022. With Lucie Bernroider and Sarah Etz, she spoke about Kyiv’s past, present and future, similarities and differences between Kyiv and Berlin, her experiences at the CRC 1265 and her hopes for future returns – to both Kyiv and Berlin. 

Lucie/Sarah: When did you make the decision to come to Berlin? Why did you come to Berlin rather than another city?

Olena Kononenko: The decision to leave Ukraine was made in mid-March 2022, when the risk of an occupation of Kyiv was very high. My story is not unique. Like most forcibly displaced people, I first moved to Western Ukraine. In the beginning, there was a sense of security, but then the Russian army began shelling this part of the country as well. I got to Berlin partly by accident, as my relatives were living here at the time. In Germany, I was interested in the possibility of collaborating with colleagues – communication in a scientific environment that was familiar to me. Now, this interest has been fully realized within the framework of the CRC 1265. I had no connections with Germany or local scientists, neither any experience of living abroad. I consider this period of my life extremely important for me, as I am a direct witness and participant of significant social transformations. The war is a great test not only for the people of the Ukraine, but for all Europeans.

Lucie/Sarah: The CRC 1265 has a special interest in how processes of globalization, transnationalization and digitalization impact space. How do these processes unfold in Kyiv?

Olena Kononenko: Kyiv remains to some extent a Ukrainian provincial city with a small number of ethnic minorities. Another feature of the Ukrainian capital is the absence of immigrant neighborhoods and ghettos in the classical sense. So-called social mixing can be observed in most residential areas, which is definitely a positive effect of the unfinished post-socialist transition. Yet, Kyiv is also a world city: according to the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) classification, Kyiv is included in the group of Beta level cities[1]. But this is globalization with a post-Soviet background. The processes of deindustrialization, revitalization and commercialization of space are actively taking place in Kyiv. Capital dictates the terms of use of space in the city, which, for example, is manifested in uncontrolled housing construction and the rapid development of shopping and entertainment centers, restaurants, cafés, hotels, etc. At the same time, there is a decline in social infrastructure: municipal hospitals, kindergartens, and schools.

After the war, globalization processes will intensify, but perhaps they will be less spontaneous and more controlled by local authorities and the public. European integration will open opportunities for wider cooperation with EU countries, which will manifest first in Kyiv as the capital. We can expect branch offices of Multinational Companies to open in the city, further digitization, and the implementation of mega-projects as a part of the post-war reconstruction of the country. Migration processes caused by the war will have a significant impact too. To date, 5 million Ukrainians have crossed the EU border, 2 million of them have returned to Ukraine. Many of them had not been abroad before, and did not even have a document to leave at the start of the war. Now they have had their first European experience; European values have ​​become more relatable to them, which will contribute to greater globalization – not only of Kyiv, but of the Ukraine as a whole. Risks and conflicts are and will certainly continue to be present in Kyiv as a big city. In the pre-war period, the main conflicts were between the urban community, on the one side, and the government and business sector, on the other. Uncontrolled housing construction and the distortion of the historical part of the city were the main topics of discussion. In the post-war period, conflicts, in my opinion, will move from conflicts against to conflicts for. For example, for the development of transport, green areas and public spaces, real control of the community over the actions of the authorities.

Lucie/Sarah: You have worked on inhabitants’ geographic imaginaries in relation to different residential areas in Kyiv and found that certain Soviet-era residential areas are infrastructurally as well as culturally unsettled places within the cityscape. What remnants and ruptures of Soviet-era planning did you observe in this context?

Olena Kononenko: The planning of the spatial development of the city was carried out during the period when Kyiv was a large industrial center. Residential areas were planned and built near the industrial zones. Accordingly, most residents worked in the immediate vicinity of their place of residence and did not need daily trips to the city center or other remote areas of the city. The geographic distribution of mass housing districts in Kyiv is very broad (Fig. 1). After Ukraine gained independence, many changes took place in the spatial development of the city. First of all, no unitary city development plan was implemented, and residential development in Kyiv was carried out in a chaotic manner. Second, the city lost most of its industry. Consequently, residents of mass housing estates had to look for new places of employment, often in remote areas of the city, which became a challenge for the city’s transportation system. The largest Soviet mass housing began to decline due to a number of reasons: poor transport accessibility, low level of housing comfort, stigmatization. As our research showed, the development of public transport is a condition for the integration of residential areas and prevents their further ghettoization. The city authorities have, for instance, been planning to build a metro line to Trojeschyna for more than 40 years, which, however, has not yet been implemented.

Fig 1. Location of the largest residential areas of the city of Kyiv

Lucie/Sarah: You use mental maps in your research, what advantages does this method have in your work and how do you use it?

Olena Kononenko: I use the method of mental maps based on the concept developed by Kevin Lynch[2] and his followers. A mental map is a sketch map of the city, a form of simplification of reality, on which respondents mark the most recognizable and important objects for them: paths (roads, streets, alleys), edges (rivers, railways, walls), districts, nodes (crossroads, transport hubs, intersections, squares), as well as landmarks (monuments, buildings, mountings etc.). Having studied Kyiv in this way, we concluded that this method is universal and can provide more basic information than a traditional survey or interview. The maps reflect physical and socio-cultural features of the city, the respondents’ perception of the city (including emotions), as well as ways of knowing and navigating the city. So, for example, public transport plays an important role in knowing the city. Respondents often draw the metro system and specific stations on their mental maps of Kyiv. Accordingly, the areas around these stations are more frequently visited and recognizable (Fig. 2). Conversely, the most remote areas are stigmatized and associated with complex problems. Districts like Trojeschyna are very slow to integrate into the wider cityscape.

Fig 2. Distribution of landmarks on mental maps in relation to the metro system (Gnatuk, O., Kononenko, O., Mezentsev, K. [2022]: Kyiv metro and urban imageability: a student youth vision.  AUC Geographica 57(1), P. 22).

Lucie/Sarah: Berlin’s eastern areas also materialize soviet housing legacies – what has been your impression of Berlin’s cityscape and these specific sites?

Olena Kononenko: Modernist mass estates were built in many European countries according to similar principles, namely, short duration and low cost of construction, use of prototypical projects and comprehensive approaches to spatial development planning. As a rule, the housing of the Soviet era was built on the previously undeveloped territories in the peripheral parts of cities. I visited several such districts in Berlin (e.g. Marzahn, Hellersdorf) and I could observe the typical modernist planning, the large number of green areas, the development of a network of shopping and entertainment destinations. The transport accessibility of this part of the city is worse than other residential areas of Berlin, and the simplicity and monotony of the architecture is also striking. Perhaps because of these reasons, the districts are not considered prestigious, although they seemed very comfortable to me. What is strikingly different about the appearance of large housing estates in Berlin is the absence of glazed balconies, which significantly worsens the appearance of residential areas in Kyiv.

In general, the situation with housing estates in Kyiv is similar to Eastern Berlin, but the physical condition of buildings and infrastructure is significantly worse. From my point of view, the fact that, in Berlin, most people rent housing has a significant influence. The condition of residential areas and individual buildings is controlled by housing management organizations and other bodies. Large housing estates in Berlin were at some point renovated, which increased the comfort of housing and improved living conditions in these areas to a certain extent. In Ukraine, the majority of residents are homeowners and they take responsibility only for their own apartments. The common problems of the houses and neighborhoods have not been solved for decades.

Lucie/Sarah: What was your experience like conducting research in Berlin? Did you observe any differences in research cultures between Germany and the Ukraine?

Olena Kononenko: I have been conducting interviews with refugees from Ukraine currently living in Berlin, again using the method of mental maps. This is an interesting field study that can be widely used, especially in the CRC 1265 Subproject A01 “Geographic Imaginations II: Ontological (In)Securities in Rural Areas”. The residence of temporarily displaced people in Berlin constitutes an effort to find a safe place to live, and then to orient yourself within a new place. The research questions include: What objects in the place of residence create a sense of safety and security? What do Ukrainians lack in their new place of residence? The experience of field research in this context has given me a better understanding of how the integration of migrants from Ukraine in Germany takes place, but it is too early to draw conclusions, as I continue to conduct interviews.

Scientific research in Ukraine is often devoted to local problems, which, from my point of view, limits its integration into the global scientific community. I feel that we need more communication with colleagues, as well as more knowledge about the development of regions and cities around the world. I found many like-minded people and colleagues dealing with similar topics to mine in Berlin. I do not see significant differences in the research culture, but an interdisciplinary approach to research is used to a greater extent. For example, the CRC 1265 involves scientists from all over the world as well as different scientific disciplines. This opens up new horizons. In Ukraine, I was used to work only within the framework of the school of human geography, which does not correspond to the current situation and global challenges.

Lucie/Sarah: So, did the exchange spark any new impulses for your own work?

Olena Kononenko: Space and time are key concepts for geography. How do spatial relations change over time? What kind of changes take place? These questions have been studied for many years. Therefore, the concept of the refiguration of space is very relevant, especially in the context of the emergence of new interdisciplinary scientific theories. Space unites researchers of various fields and specialties: geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, architects, artists. Conflicts arising in relation to space create dynamics and contribute to the changes of both society and territories (cities, regions, countries). It is not possible to study space (physical or virtual) without exchanging ideas, concepts, methods, because we all respond to the same challenges. The goal of communication between researchers is not only the development of new concepts (although this is very important), but the opportunity to look at your research subject from a different angle, to open up new research directions for yourself. For me personally, it was interesting to get acquainted with different approaches to the study of climate change, especially from the point of view of society’s reaction to this problem. Moreover, the CRC 1265 collaborates with artists giving them space to introduce another significant layer to the discussion of current problems. For example, the artist Sonia Schönberger, through her installations, talks about Berlin during World War II, as well as how things from the past affect our lives now. Society’s reaction to her exhibitions shows the importance of the memory of place.

Lucie/Sarah: The present is marked by an agonizing simultaneity of “ordinary” everyday life and the reality of war – reflecting on your life here in Berlin and your life in Kyiv, what are your current plans? 

Olena Kononenko: Like most Ukrainians, I feel highly dependent on circumstances. This does not allow me to plan my life for the long term. From my compatriots who now live in Berlin, I very often hear, “Someday I will definitely return to Ukraine.” I, too, will definitely return to my home and to the University, as I feel a sense of responsibility for the things that I have started there. At the same time, I thank Germany, Berlin, and my colleagues for the hospitality with which they have welcomed me here. And I say, “Someday I will definitely return to Berlin.” I believe that at some point I will be able to plan my life again for the long term, and such circumstances as exist now will no longer stand in the way.

Lucie/Sarah: Thank you so much for your time, Olena! We hope you’ll return soon as well!


[1] Cities are ranked by the Globalization and World Rankings Research Institute based on their connectivity to the rest of the world by their economic potential, cultural and political influence. Beta level cities are cities that link moderate economic regions to the world economy. See: “GaWC – The World According to GaWC 2020: Classification of Cities”. Available at: https://www.lboro.ac.uk/microsites/geography/gawc/world2020.html (accessed 27.07.2022).

[2] Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.