Kiev is not only the largest city in Ukraine, it is the 7th largest city in all of Europe. It has been ruled, invaded, and influenced, since the 5th century, by Khazars, Vikings, Kievan Rus, Mongols, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, etc. etc. and is now the capital of proudly independent Ukraine. The city is built on several hills with grand views along the Dnieper River. We say Kee-ehv, the Russian way; in Ukraine, they say Kee-eev.
At first glance, the city is much bigger and more impressive than I was expecting. The bridges reminded me of my hilly home town of Portland. We flew in early this morning and got a glimpse of what the city has to offer as we drove into town from the airport.
Our first stop was an unusual museum that tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Chernobyl is close to Kiev, although the city was spared some of its effects because the wind blew the initial fallout to the north into Belarus and the rest of Europe. The disaster was covered up at first, until it was exposed by the Swedes who detected the fallout cloud. Some people say that Chernobyl and the subsequent cover-up was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later. The poster above refers to an exhibit that showcases solidarity between Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan. The hanging signs represent all the Ukrainian villages that were evacuated. The stairway shows the symbol of the museum, an upside down apple tree.
A museum guide showed us around so our guides wouldn’t have to. Many Ukrainians have painful personal connections to the events of Chernobyl that make it understandably difficult for them to be here. Besides the victims who lived in the area, many soldiers as well as civilians were sent to help clean up with very little protection against the radioactive materials they worked with. The displays show the process of how the accident happened, as well as what the plant looked like before and after. They are currently building the containment shell shown in the bottom photo.
The museum honored the fallen and celebrated the resilient spirit of Ukraine. I especially loved this painting by an artist and poet–only when you look very closely do you see that the figures are all made up of words. The computer screen enables visitors to see how the fallout cloud from Chernobyl moved quickly throughout Europe. Fruits and vegetables in Ukraine and Belarus are still checked for radiation before they can be sold.
Kievans know how to party, and today they were celebrating Kiev day. In the main St. Michael square are lots of government buildings and St. Michael’s monastery. A huge outdoor stage was being set up for a performance that evening. Princess Olga ruled for a while in the 10th century, when her husband died and her son was too young to take over. BTW we had this kind of beautiful weather almost every day of the tour!
After lunch we walked through lots of crowds strolling, shopping and celebrating, before visiting the magnificent St. Sophia cathedral. I had to be content with photos of the outside, inside photos were not permitted.
St. Sophia’s dates from the 11th century and the whole complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the outside you can see where some of the plaster was removed to reveal the original stonework. After checking in to our hotel, we set off on a walk to our restaurant for tonight’s dinner. It’s only a few blocks but because of the extra wide, incredibly busy streets, our guide Lyuba took us into the pedestrian underpass. This is not just a concrete walkway but a metro station and a huge underground shopping mall with every kind of store you can imagine.
The place we visited this morning is officially called Mezhigyria, but Iryna calls it the Museum of Corruption, and that fits perfectly. It was the home of Victor Yanukovich, who was president of Ukraine until he was removed in 2014. He somehow managed to privatize this 137-acre plot of public land and keep it hidden from the public. Now it’s a museum/national park crowded with visitors who can rent bicycles to see the extensive grounds. Besides the stuffed lion, there is also a whole zoo of real animals here. The house has bowling alleys and wrestling rings, and every room is a monument to greed.
Here you can see the Svarovsky crystal elevator doors, and inlaid flooring using 17 different kinds of wood. This limited edition (only 25 were made) Steinway piano bears the signature of John Lennon and one of his drawings. More about Yanukovich later.
In stark contrast to the opulence of Yanukovich’s palatial home, our next stop recalls a grim time in Kiev’s history. The Germans invaded Kiev in 1941. Before that there were about 160,000 Jews living in the city. Two thirds of them left before the Germans arrived. Early in the occupation the Soviets blew up the German headquarters, and they used that sabotage as a pretext to murder all the remaining Jews, most of whom were elderly, sick, or otherwise unable to leave. Babi Yar is a ravine that became their mass grave. Besides this memorial, Babi Yar was also commemorated in a famous poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
We drove back into the city, amazed at so much bustle on a Sunday. For some reason I enjoyed the name of this “Hypermarket,” and our bus driver let me photograph his clever t-shirt. We got to ride Kiev’s extensive Metro system, if only for a short distance, and then rode and rode forever on this multi-story escalator (thanks Maggie for the photo!).
Ukraine’s recent history is as complicated as its past. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union Ukraine was plagued with corruption. In the Orange Revolution of 2004-5, protestors objected to what they felt was a rigged election, and they succeeded in overturning the results, allowing Victor Yuschenko to win instead of Victor Yanukovich (of Museum of Corruption fame). Yanukovich still managed to be elected in 2010, and was even negotiating for Ukraine to join the European Union, which was applauded as an anti-corruption move. However, at the last minute Yanukovich declined to sign the agreement with the EU–probably under pressure from our old friend Putin. This move angered young people who began demonstrating in front of the government buildings in this busy square. When police shot some of the young people, many Ukrainians of all ages flocked to the square to protect their young people. This became known as the Revolution of Dignity. The previous constitution was restored and Yanukovich was ousted from office and is currently in exile in Russia.
We strolled back to our hotel along this street, which is opened for pedestrians on Sunday, once again marveling at the hustle and bustle of the city. For dinner we had yet another local delicacy–Chicken Kiev! It was the real deal…with a ton of butter inside! This carpet inside the hotel elevator was changed every day of the week.
We headed out today to the Lavra Monastery complex. On the way we made a stop at a memorial to the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. There is a museum underground. Many people saw this famine as a genocide, deliberately created by Stalin to stop the Ukrainians from gaining their independence.
The Lavra Cave Monastery complex is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original monks here actually lived in the caves in the 11th century. Later many churches were added.
One day wasn’t really enough to see everything here. We did get down into the catacombs, which are used mostly for burials nowadays, but photography was not allowed.
After another authentic Ukrainian lunch, we got another treat: a class in how to make the traditional Pysanky Easter Eggs. Lyuba introduced us to the master, a talented egg-painter called Tamara (she also made the dress and bag she’s wearing!). By now you may have noticed that eggs are a persistent theme in Ukrainian culture. Egg motifs go way back in prehistory, but with the acceptance of Christianity in the 10th century the magical egg was adopted as a symbol of rebirth. Although I use the term “egg painter,” the actual method is called wax-resist–the designs are written on the egg shell with wax, before being dipped in the dyes. Tamara was a good teacher and with her help, my egg (the blue and yellow one) came out way better than I thought it would. The last photo here shows the WWII monument known as Motherland. It was supposed to have a longer sword, but some people felt it should not be taller than the cross on the nearby cathedral, so it was shortened.
Tonight we say good-bye to Kiev and fly to the Black Sea port city of Odessa.
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Thank you so much for sharing. Pictures were great and I learned so much about Kiev. Love reading about your travels!