Captivating Kiev: The Ukraine

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:

History:

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.

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Riding the escalator at Arsenalna

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.

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St. Sofia and Bell Tower\

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:

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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

 

The Culture

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

 

Greetings from sunny Chernobyl

The Background:

During a regularly scheduled safety check at reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants, something went horribly wrong. Extremely hot nuclear fuel rods were lowered into the cooling water, creating an immense amount of steam. This led to an uncontrollable power surge. At 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, an  explosion blew the roof off the reactor and released a radioactive cloud 100 times more powerful than the combined radiation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The worst nuclear disaster in history, one which would eventually lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union, had begun.

The local fire department was called to extinguish the fire. The highest officials in Moscow were informed that there had been an accident at Chernobyl and 2 technicians had died. The population of the nearby town of Pripyat was aware that there had been a fire at the plant, but went about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. Meanwhile, the wind blew the cloud over Pripyat, west toward Kiev and Belarus, northward to Russia and beyond to Scandinavia where Swedish scientists picked up the abnormal radiation readings and, after eliminating local reactors as the source, alerted the Kremlin and the world to the giant radioactive cloud drifting across Europe.

The USSR slowly, reluctantly took notice. On April 27, Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the world there had been an accident at Chernobyl. Some 36 hours after the explosion,  at 2:00 pm on April 27, the 50,000 people living in Pripyat were ordered to evacuate. They were given 2 hours to pack up their important papers and food for a few days and board one of 2200 buses brought in for the exodus. Everything else was left behind. The evacuation, they were told, was temporary – only 3 days. Alas, it was not to be. The exclusion zone eventually expanded to 94 villages, 2500 square kilometers and 130,000 people, all exiled from the land surrounding Chernobyl for at least the half life of plutonium, 25,000 years.

The Tour:

Here, the story diverges into 3 threads: the political reaction to the disaster, the efforts to tame the nuclear fallout and the remains of Pripyat, a ghost city frozen in a 1986 communist version of utopia. Each aspect was explored during my 2 day tour to Chernobyl via the Chernobylwel.com tour company, where 14 of us were guided by Victoria, with the able assistance of trainee guide Yuliia.

The pre-tour email gave explicit instructions for visiting Chernobyl:

In the Chernobyl zone it is forbidden to:

  • Carry any kind of weapons
  • Drink liquors or take drugs
  • Have meal and smoke in the open air
  • Touch any structures or vegetation
  • Sit or place photo and video equipment on the ground, use drones – tripod is allowed to use in the Zone
  • Take any items outside the zone
  • Violate dress code (open-type shoes, shorts, trousers, skirts)
  • Gather, use and bring vegetable and cattle breeding products (vegetables, fruits, berries, mushrooms, plants, fish etc.), which were cultivated on the area of the exclusion zone
  • Bring in and bring out any animals (dogs, cats etc)
  • Drink water from wells, rivers and other open water sources. It is allowed to use water only from Chernobyl water supply system or water from store
  • Entering buildings is prohibited since 2012 (there are no exceptions)
  • When leaving the Chernobyl zone, it is necessary pass compulsory radiation control of clothes, footwear, personal items

We were required to be with a guide at all times and respect the curfew. The reasons for most of the rules were explained. Smoking was prohibited to prevent forest fires, an omnipresent danger due to the huge number of trees covered in potentially lethal radioactive particles. The curfew and need to walk with a guide was because of a large population of wolves in the nearby forest, prospering in the area with the lack of human inhabitants. Long sleeves, pants and closed-toe shoes limited the potential for radioactive particles touching the skin. For the cautious, paper face masks were provided, but none of our group used them.

The video Battle of Chernobyl (2006) played during the 2 hour drive from Kiev. In it, former premier of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was interviewed, providing a unique, if slanted, version of the tragedy. He admitted being informed about the accident, but claims he was given incomplete or inaccurate information about its seriousness and its disastrous consequences. Two days after the accident, Moscow television tersely conceded that there had been a fire at the plant, but it was under control. On May 1st, the annual May Day celebrations took place in Kiev; the government urging its citizens to go outdoors and participate without disclosing the high levels of radiation. Meanwhile, Sweden had instructed its citizens to stay indoors days earlier. Finally, a week after the explosion, unable to deny the high levels of radiation reported across Europe and a US satellite providing photographic proof of the blown off roof, the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, conceded that there had been radioactive fallout from the explosion.

Putting out the fires

Containment and damage control began in earnest. The worst of the fire was extinguished after a week, but the potential of a second, more catastrophic explosion remained. Helicopters flew overhead, dropping mixtures of lead, sand and clay into the reactor to douse the flames and cool the reactor. 400 coal miners were transported to Chernobyl and tasked with excavating a tunnel under reactor No. 4 so a coolant could be pumped under the nuclear fuel. A massive concrete sarcophagus was constructed, encasing reactor No. 4 and limiting further radioactive leaks into the environment beginning in May. It was completed by October, 1986.

Zelessiya

After passing through 1 of 12 checkpoints designed to control access to the exclusion zone, our tour drove towards Zelessiya, one of the many villages abandoned in the aftermath. There we walked on the remains of the main street of the village of 3,000 people. A rusted, Russian built car sat by the side of the road, devoid of tires and sprouting trees from its hood. The façade of the grandiose community center bore the date 1959 but it had not been used in 32 years. The supermarket’s shelves were bare, its glass windows long ago smashed, In the local kindergarten, plastic broken dolls littered the ground, never to be played with again.

Duga

We stopped at Chernobyl 2, or the children’s camp, but known today as Duga, a top secret Russian early warning radar detection system, built near the power plant to have easy access to the vast amounts of electricity it needed. The Soviets initially cleaned the area up to reuse Duga, but that proved impossible and the technology quickly became outdated. Today, obsolete computer shells litter the ground of this once proud installation.

The Liquidators

In the exclusion zone are numerous monuments to those who gave their lives to taming Chernobyl. Known as “liquidators’, nearly 500,000 people from all over the Soviet Union came to assist in the clean up effort. Not only was the power plant highly radioactive, but also nearby towns and forests. The red forest earned its name because the trees turned red due to the radiation. It remains one of the worst hit areas. As we drove by it in our bus, the 3 geiger counters inside went haywire, emitting the woodpecker like “beep, beep, beep” signalling high radiation. Walking in the forest was strictly prohibited.

The length of time each liquidator could spend in the zone was strictly controlled. Personnel were regularly rotated. Radioactive soil was buried, plants destroyed, farm animals shot. The early responders and the liquidators are heralded as heroes, many giving their lives to prevent further destruction or aid in the clean up. Of the initial firefighters, 6 died in the first month, along with 22 technicians who worked at Chernobyl.  Estimates suggest that of the 500,000 liquidators, at least 200,000 have health related symptoms of radiation poisoning. Memorials commemorating their sacrifice are all over the zone. If there’s a feel good aspect to this whole disaster, it is this sacrifice that forms the focus. Proof that even in the worst of circumstances, there is still some good in human nature.

Pripyat

Just before nightfall, we arrived at Pripyat. The city had been founded in 1970, purpose built to house the workers at the Chernobyl power plant. Its inhabitants were among the best educated in the USSR, and also the youngest, with the average age only 26. 20,000 were children. It was designed as an ideal communist community. Over 300 apartment buildings provided housing, with indoor plumbing and working elevators. Parks with merry-go-rounds and swings separated the buildings; signs warned of children playing and there were 5 schools. A gymnasium with a swimming pool allowed for physical activities. A concert hall backed onto the cinema. Stores sold TV sets and pianos and furniture. A new bar with a riverside patio had opened just a few months before, boasting stained glass windows. Unusual for the USSR, Pripyat’s supermarket shelves were well stocked with all sorts of food, reflecting the vaunted status the city held and its importance to the USSR.

On the eve of April 26, 1986, Pripyat was humming along. The restaurant on the main square hosted a wedding which continued the next day. Preparations were underway for the May 1st party – a ferris wheel and merry-go-round swing were built and a structure housing bumper cars was erected near the main square. There was no school on the 27th – a Saturday- but people went about their daily lives, shopping, going to the park, borrowing books at the library, practising soccer in the stadium.

With only 2 hours notice, the city became a ghost town. Cherished pets were not allowed to leave, cars had to be left, only what people could bring for a brief 3 day sojourn was allowed out. They never returned, but were resettled elsewhere in the Ukraine according to the dictates of the USSR government. The liquidators moved in and buried everything – clothes, books, cars, chairs – with high levels of radiation. Then came the looters, who stripped the city of everything of value – sinks, copper wiring, floorboard, fridges – and sold their radioactive bounty to an unsuspecting public.

As the extent of the radioactivity at Pripyat became known, people realized return was not going to be possible. Security measures were enacted to stem the flow of vandals. Using the water of the Pripyat River was restricted. Agriculture was forbidden. Running water and electricity were cut off to the city. Surrounding villages were also evacuated, with only a few stubborn elders remaining. All, but a handful, have since died.

It is against this backdrop that we visited the city. Most of the buildings still stand as they were 32 years ago, but for the ravages of time. The concrete is chipped, paint is peeled away from the walls, metal rusted. Wood floors have collapsed, glass shards from nearby windows cover the ground. The swimming pool stands empty. The streetlights, even those with light bulbs, are dark. The shops are empty, but for carcasses of their wares. In the music store stood a dozen old pianos. When a key was touched, the note reverberated in the eerie silence that envelopes the city. There are no children giggling or horns honking or neighbors yelling at each other across the balconies. The silence is deafening.

 

In the showcase hospital, rusted cradles sit empty in the nursery. In the maternity ward, what I mistakenly took for a birthing chair was the opposite. There was a huge spike in abortions of foetuses less than 6 months old following the disaster. The hospital was allowed to stay open for a while after April 26 to care for burn victims and to perform abortions. Our guide Yuliia felt herself extremely lucky – she had been born in Kiev in July, 1986, barely missing the 6 month cut-off.

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As we walked around Pripyat, the ironic reality of its abandonment hit home. Without humans, nature thrived. Trees have overtaken the soccer field, the main square, the sidewalks, the streets and will soon overwhelm the human built structures. Wildlife, like the wolves, are thriving without fear of human predators. Mushrooms grow, insects buzz around, birds fly overhead and nest among the trees. Only the dogs, descended from the pets that were left behind, miss humans. At every stop, friendly dogs greeted us, eager for a stroke or two.

The Power Plant

Our final stop was the Chernobyl power plant. We walked into one of the unfinished cooling towers, then observed from a distance the 3 remaining visible power plants that made up the 4 reactors at Chernobyl. Impossible to miss is the confinement unit, as the 2nd sarcophagus covering reactor No. 4 is known. The original one had a life expectancy of only 20 years. The new sarcophagus, with a life expectancy of 100 years, was put over the old one in 2016, following a global effort and financial contribution by many nations. Ukraine had neither the expertise nor the funds to do the job itself.

It is this legacy that many choose to remember. Ukrainians, feeling deceived by the lack of honesty from their Soviet leaders, attribute Chernobyl with sparking the march for independence.  The demand of citizens for more transparency in government prompted glasnost – openness – and allowed for more freedom of expression and freedom of the press. It culminated in the 1991 referendum in which over 90% of its population (including the 30% Russian speaking minority) voted to cede from the USSR and independence later that year. The global co-operation aimed at trying to solve the challenges at Chernobyl and assist its hundreds of thousands of victims was unparalleled.

After 2 days, we left Chernobyl for Kiev. The tour was highly informative, learning about the science behind the accident, the dangers of radiation and the horrendous fallout from the accident. But for me, visiting Pripyat was the highlight. It provided a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. The city was built as a monument to the pursuit of human aspirations and Communist ideologies. It stands now as a reminder of those failings and a tribute to mother nature, who has so poignantly reclaimed what we humans tried to take from her.