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Vladimir Chaika has spent years installing ornamental plaster mouldings and art reproductions in a Soviet-era block of flats

From the outside, number 11A is a drab block of flats like any other in Troyeshina, a scruffy Kiev suburb of identikit Soviet-era housing. The entrance door is daubed with graffiti, the ground floor hallway dingy and depressing.

But exit the lift between floors six and eight, however, and the contrast with the grey, snowy winter outside could not be greater. The stairwell has been plastered, gilded and ornamented so it resembles a Tsarist palace more than a Khrushchev-era block of flats. Set in gilded frames, reproductions of the Mona Lisa and other well-known portraits stare out. Cherubs and ornamental flowers adorn the ceiling; set amid the swirling plaster are colourful vistas of desert islands fringed with palm trees.

The rubbish chute, a mainstay of the Soviet apartment stairwell, has been clad in patterned plaster and topped with a number of gilded figures of Atlas. To one side is Viktor Vasnetsovs 19th-century painting Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Grey Wolf.

The exterior of the apartment building gives no clue of what lies inside. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Prime for the Guardian

The surreal creation is the work of 64-year-old Vladimir Chaika, a seventh-floor resident of the block who has spent 15 years bringing his unusual vision to life. Chaika worked for three decades in the Kiev metro system, responsible for water supply and engineering. At the depot, he met a man responsible for the plastering and ornamental moulding for the workers areas, and Chaika begged him to teach him how to do it.

I had been dreaming of doing this since childhood, when I watched films about palaces, but I never thought Id get the chance, Chaika said.

When his colleague retired, he left his plaster moulds to Chaika, who gradually had the idea to begin work on the stairwell.

He had long been disturbed by the lack of care for the communal spaces in his apartment block, where he and his wife have lived since 1978. During the Soviet period, he said, authorities would carry out renovations once every few years, but since Ukrainian independence in 1991, the building has been left to decay, he claimed.

Although residents kept their flats spotlessly clean they had no interest in maintaining the communal areas. People dont understand that your home should start not from the door to your apartment but from the street the entrance way, the lift. Its all part of your home; you have to look at it every day and you should take care of it, Chaika said.

Chaika has limited his work to his own floor, plus one above and one below. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Prime for the Guardian

He worked weekends and evenings, making the plaster moulds and then fixing them to the walls and ceilings. Later, he painted his creations, and added reproductions of famous paintings.

In 2011, after a decade of work on the stairwells, he decided the light blue colour he had chosen did not look good, given the lack of natural light in the stairwell, and realised his project would look far better in green.

I completely removed everything, and started from scratch again, he said. He retired from the metro in 2012 and spent the next three years working every day for 10 to 12 hours, he said.

People on other floors of the building have asked him to transform their stairwells too, but Chaika said his pension of 3,000 hryvnia (91) a month is not enough to fund the purchase of materials for more work, and although he has had offers of money, he refuses to accept, limiting the palatial stairwell to his own floor, one below and one above.

Chaika removed a decades worth of work so he could redo it in a green colour scheme. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Prime for the Guardian

If I took money, it would become work, and I would have to do it every day by obligation rather than for pleasure, he said. Instead, he is considering again redoing part of his previous work, believing he can improve it further.

Chaikas own apartment is remarkably absent of any gilding or ornamentation; it is a tidy two-room flat filled with typical 1970s Soviet furniture. His initial idea had been to go palatial with the apartment interiors, he said, but his wife forbade it.

Indeed, she has been less than impressed with the amount of hours he has put into the stairwell. She complained that Im always out there decorating and never do anything to help around the house, and I said at least its a better use of my time than if I had started drinking.

As for what his wife of 38 years thinks of the results of his labours, it remains a mystery, he said. She hasnt ever commented. I guess that means she likes it.

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