ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: FLAUNT MAGAZINE, ISSUE 115, MAY 2011
Summer leisure in Eastern Europe can be tricky. there's the extended winter, the distance from the ocean, and the general surfeit of grim Eastern Bloc moodiness, the gray. But the late 1960s provided Kiev with something of an answer: the construction of Gidropark, a recreational complex just five metro stops away from downtown. Situated on an island in the middle of Ukraine's piece of the Dnieper River, the park is thick with forest and averages just below 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months. It's not a typical island paradise, but if the clouds free up some sky and even a hint of sunlight sneaks through, throngs of Ukrainians flock to the park and its yellow beaches to demonstrate youthful vigor, wisdom of years, and to simply get weird.
"It really is the getaway place," photographer Yelena Yemchuk tells Flaunt, regarding her first book, set at and titled Gidropark (Damiani). "It was very communist in the way they built it. This is where you go, this is where you relax, then you go home."
Since the Iron Curtain was peeled back, the park has increasingly fallen victim to the typical commercial entertainment trappings: shopping centers, restaurants, discos, and even an amusement park. It would be easy for an outsider to paint it as a kitschy tourist destination by focusing on, say, the neon lights that guide the nocturnal revelers to the packed clubs. But Yemchuk, who was born in Kiev, brings intimacy and familiarity to the narrative. She ignores the disco clubs and cookie cutter enterprise for the timeless charm of a Soviet-era open-air gym, a young couple relaxing in the woods, and old men stripping down to their summer skivvies.
"Honestly, I was trying to preserve my memory of it as a child," says Yemchuk. Perhaps that's why the work is sandwiched by two of Yemchuk's family photos taken in the park -- glazing the prints with a subdued nostalgia -- the very feeling that often comes with returning home.