Last week I paid another visit to Donetsk, a city in Eastern Ukraine where I’ve been regularly working as a teacher over the past few months.
In November, I came across the most breathtakingly beautiful thing I’ve seen in the city so far – even more so because it was completely unexpected. While on a hunt for Ukrainian linen, I ended up in the central market, ЦУМ. A large neoclassical block of a building, ЦУМ is fairly impressive from the outside, if a little dull. There’s certainly no hint of dazzling creativity from its grey exterior.
Inside, it looks pretty much like any other department store in Europe, but at the more rundown end of the scale. Wires trail, there’s a distinct lack of heating and it seems that the decorators never quite finished after the fire that gutted the building in the 1980s.
To reach the fabric stalls on the top floor, I head for the stairs, weaving through a maze of glass-topped jewelry counters and glassy-eyed security guards to the back of the building. I push open an unassuming little door – and stop dead in my tracks. The bare walls of the stairwell are lit by the brilliant colours of one enormous stained glass window that spans the three floors of the building. It’s hard to do it justice in photos, but that’s what I tried to do with these, taken a few days later, when I returned, armed with a camera.I know little about the window, except that it was made in the 1960s when the original 1937 building was rebuilt (having been nearly completely destroyed during the Second World War).
The window seems to flow up through the building, with its central composition of near-life-size figures set against a swirling, semi-abstract background. In typical Soviet style, it depicts the ideals of culture and industry: elegant dancers wearing traditional costume, scientists gazing nobly into test tubes, farm workers proffering baskets of fruit, and broad-shouldered figures at work in the mines and steelworks that Donetsk was originally built on (the name of the city’s football team Shakhtar means ‘miner’, the equivalent of Northampton ‘cobblers’ or Arsenal ‘gunners’).
The whole enormous composition is full brilliant bits of detail. Pieces of glass have been cleverly cut and arranged to depict the shadow of a jacket lapel, smoke rising from factory chimneys and the light cast by a miner’s torch. Even in areas of the background where only one or two colours have been used, the orientation of triangular-shaped pieces suggest the outline of the distant, mountainous slag heaps on the outskirts of the city.
The colour scheme reflects the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, itself supposed to be based on the broad sky and fields of the country’s landscape. The designer has used it to great effect to contrast blue-shadowed workers against the flames of the forge roasting their backs.
Of course, this also reflects the temperature of Donetsk, ranging from 30 in August to -30 degrees in January. In these pictures, a cloudy and dull -20 degrees day lights the window; I look forward to seeing how the warmer rays of summer will illuminate it.
On a final note, there are plans to redevelop the building, but, according to a recent article, the new owners are planning to keep the windows. I’ll certainly be keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.