I am not a fan of tourists who race into a country, see the particular sight that attracted them, leave and proclaim they have “done” the country. Yet I was in danger of doing just that to the Ukraine. I knew very little about the country, except it is renowned for beautifully decorated Easter eggs, was known as the breadbasket of Europe and former Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, spent her youth in Kiev. The Ukraine’s sole appeal for me rested in the abandoned nuclear wasteland near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (see previous post), but I decided I would stay a week in the capital city, Kiev, and see what it had to offer.
It turns out, quite a lot. Being a history buff, I watched YouTube videos about the history of the Ukraine and scoured the internet for the top things to do in Kiev. The list was long and included churches, monuments, museums and a few quirky suggestions. What I discovered was a city steeped in history, architecturally fascinating and prices that provided a welcome relief to those in Paris.
I like to look at a country through its historical context. Others prefer to see it through its art, its literature or its food. If you are any of the latter, please just skip the history section, which I learned through a combination of YouTube videos, Wikipedia and a private English tour at the excellent Ukrainian Museum of History. For only $12, my English speaking guide took me on exhaustive walk through the region’s history. It goes like this:
The Ukraine has been settled for over 10,000 years. Its early civilizations traded with the Greeks and Romans. Fast forward to 600 AD and Slavic tribes became the predominant inhabitants, with small princedoms the norm. The city of Kiev was established on the banks of the Dneiper River and quickly became an important trading post marking the midway point between the Vikings in the West and Byzantium in the East. In 988, King Volodymyr united many of the tribes and Christianized the area which was then known as Rus. His descendants ruled the area for the next 200 years and, in a moment which in retrospect, was deeply regretted, founded a small trading town in the north in 1147 called Moscow.
Enter the Mongols, or the Golden Horde, under the leadership of Ghengis Khan’s grandson in 1240. They sacked Kiev, killed, exiled or enslaved most of its 50,000 inhabitants and stuck around for 150 years. In turn, the Mongols were ousted by the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth who tried to foist Catholicism on the largely orthodox population. Predictably, this was not welcome, particularly by newly emerging tribes called Cossacks. Always pictured with a gun over their shoulders, militaristic and with a democratically elected leader (the hetman), they viewed themselves as the protectors of orthodoxy. Fiercely independent, the Cossacks established their own states in Eastern Ukraine and, after repelling the Commonwealth from their lands and battling the Tartars (a Turk language Muslim group in the Crimea), joined whichever army struck their fancy at any given time.
By the mid-18th century, Moscow had become a regional power, with ambitions to become the third global empire (after Rome and Byzantium), so it invaded, captured and annexed all of the Ukraine, including the former Commonwealth territories, the Hetmanates of the Cossacks and the Crimea. Russia stayed until 1917.
In 1917, Ukraine took advantage of the chaos in Russia and declared independence. Russia was having none of it and invaded yet again. A bloody 4 year war ensued, with Russia emerging victorious. It kept Ukraine firmly in its grips, including the Stalin engineered famine that starved an estimated 5 million people. But in 1991, it allowed the Ukraine to again declare independence, saddling it with Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster power plant that rendered a fair portion of the Ukraine uninhabitable and with gigantic pension obligations to the millions of Ukrainians suffering from the ill effects of radiation poisoning. Happy Independence!
In 2013, the Ukraine was set to enter into a pro-European Union agreement when its pro-Russian president had a change of heart and decided not to sign. Rebellion reigned, the main square in Kiev was occupied by “militants” and the army was sent in, killing more than 100 protesters. In February, 2014, the Ukrainian president fled to Russia and the Sochi Olympics went off with a beaming Vladimir Putin ogling prepubescent Russian figure skaters. Three weeks later, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea, ignoring global condemnation. Ostensibly, Russia claimed the need to protect the Russian speaking minority there; the more likely reason was Russia’s desire to maintain access to its only year round port. It occupies the Crimea today still.
Seeing the Sights:
Kiev would be the perfect walking city but for two problems. First, where street signs exist, they tend to be in Ukrainian which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, with no Latin translation. Second, the city was built so a castle could take advantage of the high, expansive hill overlooking the river, which means a lot of steep climbs to see the major sights. Fortunately, the second problem basically takes care of the first since whenever I got lost and couldn’t figure out what street I was on, if I went either up or down, I would eventually get to my destination.
When I didn’t feel like walking up the hills, I had two options, a funicular or the metro. I was partial to the easy-to-use metro, with signs and announcements in both Ukrainian and English, and live people selling tickets rather than computers with touch screens. It cost a mere 80 cents a ride. Most importantly, like many Soviet metros, its stations tended toward the artistic or unique; each station was a visual feast or an architectural delight. Arsenalna holds the record for the deepest station in the world at over 100 meters. Its two escalators take a combined 5 minutes to go up or down and lay claim to being the longest escalator in the world, although in 2007 I traveled on one in an art gallery in Tokyo which made a similar boast.
As Kiev is over 1000 years old, it is not surprising that its buildings run the full gamut of architectural styles. The iconic St. Sofia, is modeled after its namesake in Istanbul, and is built in the same Byzantium form.
St. Michael’s and the Cathedral at Pechersk Larva sport equally bulbous domes.
Naturally, Soviet realism style dominated in the city squares and the blocks of buildings on the outskirts, but in the center of the city, especially the Podil region where I stayed, were examples of roccoco, art nouveau and the common brick ribbon, all ornately decorated and painted in a kaleidoscope of pastel colours. On one walk, I challenged myself to find building in 10 different colours. It took less than 5 minutes:
Monuments abound, but none from the communist era as they were all pulled down or toppled in the protests of 2013/2014. The motherland statute, larger than Christ the Redeemer in Rio or the Statue of Liberty, stands over the city:
Other monuments commemorate the Humidor (famine) victims, soldiers from the world wars and the war of independence. Prince Volodymor has his statue, as do the Founders of the city.
Museums are equally plentiful: History, Art, Natural History, Chernobyl Disaster Museum, Miniatures (think cameos sculpted on a pear seed) , Folkart, etc. Given these choices, I opted for the History of Toilets Museum, devoted to all things toilets. In addition to a Guinness World Record certified largest collection of ceramic toilets, it provided a history of toilets. Some interesting facts learned there include:
- the oldest toilet uncovered is in Scotland;
- The Chinese invented the urinal
- Leonardo Da Vinci designed the world’s first mechanical toilet
Ukrainian food is typical northern European- Dumplings (Varenykya), potato pancakes, borscht- and, of course, Chicken Kiev. Turkish food – spicy kebabs and tasty hummus- from the Tartars is available but sadly, one of my favourites, steak tartare, has no relationship to the Tartars despite the same names. Vegetarians would be hard pressed to find many choices, except at the main indoor market, Bessarabka, where, for some unfathomable reason, 2 of the 3 restaurants were vegetarian and the other Chinese. Sparkling wine is grown in the Crimea, but much too sweet for my liking,
Best of all, prices were cheap. A glass of wine could be had for under $3, beer for less than $1. Restaurant meals rarely cost more than $10. Uber rides to the center, taking about 20 minutes, cost $3 and the 40 minute ride to the airport was less than $20. Admission to most museums was under $3.
A lively hip scene in Kiev, with clubs, fashion houses, music concerts etc. all promote the new Ukraine, but those do not tend to interest me so I didn’t go to any of them. I doubt my foray to United Colors of Benetton (for t-shirts) or the craft store in search of DMC embroidery thread count but I do note that the embroidery thread was 1/3 the price of the same item in Paris, even though it is made in France.
It was not all good. The population is uniformly white, with the occasional, fairly light Muslim from the Crimea. My tour guide at the History Museum reluctantly conceded the Muslim Tartars from Crimea who moved to Kiev after the 2014 Russian invasion are having a difficult time. In the ramen noodle restaurant I frequented, I never saw a non-white person, not even the staff. In terms of dealing with its responsibility for its decimation of the 3 million strong Jewish population, the History Museum attributes it completely to the Nazis, conveniently omitting the pogroms of the 1800’s which saw a million Jews either slaughtered or expelled.
Despite these failings, Kiev has a lot going for it. It’s a young nation but one with a long and glorious past which is reflected in its music, art and architecture. It is slowly struggling to find itself and its voice on the international stage, but this task is made difficult by its omnipresent neighbour, whose long shadow threatens every time the voice gets too loud. The only regret I have about the week I spent in Kiev is that I did not stay longer and visit other parts of the country.