Friday, 24 January 2014

The Missing Link: Part 1.3: Kiev

world-map konotop


Kiev, (or ‘Kyiv’ as it is pronounced in Ukrainian), is a city that’s been in the news a lot of late. The political epicentre of Ukraine, questions are being asked and a variety of answers being provided. Should  they look to Russia or Europe, inwardly or outwardly; economic prosperity or democratic freedom? The answers are far from sure even today, but when I visited two years ago, they were bubbling away then as the protest camp in the main street and the EU propaganda display in the park attested. These are interesting times in Ukraine: watch this space.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:



1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 


3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

3.4: The Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

3.5: Targu Neamt, Agapia and Sihla

3.6: Suceava to Viseu de Sus

3.7: The Mocanita and Viseu de Sus

3.8: Viseu de Sus to Bucharest

3.9: Bucharest (I)

3.10: Bucharest (II)

My Flickr Album of this trip



Kiev (I)

Back in the capital, I travelled with the Michigans on the metro to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where we said goodbye and I went to recover from a day spent tramping along radioactive streets by taking a bath. Just off Maidan Nezalezhnosti are the Central Trade Baths. Up several flights of stairs in a Stalinist block, these traditional Russian baths are aged, filthy, skanky and brilliant. I spent several hours overheating in the sauna, (whilst all around me burly mafia types whipped themselves with birch twigs), before then cooling down in the cold pool before then repeating the entire process. It was a vivid reminder of my trip a decade before to Moscow’s most famous bath house, the Sandunovski, and I enjoyed it just as much although a dull headache reminded me that things are not quite the same these days – with age, alas comes an increase in blood pressure.

I left the Central Trade Baths rejuvenated and sauntered onto Maidan Nezalezhnosti which is the heart of Kiev and was the setting for the Orange Revolution of 2004, (some of the graffiti on the pillars has been lovingly preserved, although, alas, the hope that the revolution sparked seems to have all been washed away). It’s a stunning space and vibrant with cafés and Euro 2012 paraphernalia. I’d seen little of Kiev so far save a brief trip to the Podil district on the evening of my arrival and a jaunt to Maidan Nezalezhnosti after returning from Konotop the previous day. Then I’d walked from the square down the main drag, Khreschatyk, past the TsUM (former state department store) to the Bessarabian Market, stopping en route at a traditional restaurant where I’d enjoyed some fantastic creamy bacon and potato soup served in a hollowed-out cottage loaf whilst being treated to a display of pretty Ukrainian girls folk dancing in traditional costume. Cheesy perhaps, but he-ho, when on holiday such things are allowed.

ML038 Maidan Nezalezhnosti

The highlight of my evening expedition though, had been the Blok Tymoshenko Camp, a strong of tents strung out along one side of Khreschatyk uneasily shoulder to shoulder with the official Euro 2012 Fan Zone. Yulia Tymoshenko with her trademark peasant-plaited blonde hair was the right-hand woman of Viktor Yushenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution. Together they stood hand in hand in Maidan Nezalezhnosti as they defied the powers of darkness and toppled the dastardly Viktor Yanukovych. After their victory Yushenko became President and he made Timoshenko his Prime Minister and all seemed well. But in the game of politics things can change quickly and their relationship soon turned sour with the two turning against one another and forming their own parties which, along with their old foe Yanukovych who instead of rolling over and dying, instead resurrected himself and is now President again, have dominated Ukrainian politics ever since and have produced a number of fractious and antagonistic parliaments and a thoroughly disillusioned electorate.

However, in 2011 things got even nastier when Yanukovych had his old enemy put on trial for abuse of office over a gas deal that she’d signed with Russia during her second spell as Prime Minister in 2009. Found guilty she was sentenced to seven years in gaol where, despite pressure from the EU who described her trial as “politically motivated” she has stayed ever since, twice going on hunger strike. This Blok Tymoshenko Camp has been set up permanently to protest against her imprisonment and to raise awareness of Yulia’s plight. The beardies on the bus to Chernobyl had described her as a bad guy (or girl…) who got caught doing what all Eastern Bloc politicians do: getting rich quick by dubious means, but the these folk she is a heroine, the potential saviour of Ukraine, the only pure and noble soul in parliament, martyred in gaol by the forces of evil. Their camp abounded with emotive imagery; her symbol was a heart and there were posters everywhere of her with a large cat (a leopard?), and there was also a large banner depicting figures from the past – Stalin, Hitler, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Yanukovych – a continuum of evil from which only Yulia can save us. But my personal favourite was an icon of Tymoshenko portrayed as a saint with symbols of Ukraine behind her and doves resting on her hands. St. Yulia the martyr or Inmate Tymoshenko, abuser of public office, which is the truth?

ML039 Blok Tymoshenko Camp on Khreschatyk

ML040 ML041

Yulia v Yanukovych: Good v Evil Ukrainian style

ML042 St. Yulia the Martyr the Kiev

Today the Blok Tymoshenko Camp was still there, as too were hundreds of boys and girls all dressed up as if going to a ball and all wearing blue sashes over their shoulders. They were school leavers celebrating that most magnificent of days when the exams are over and adulthood awaits, but I had no time to dwell on such milestones for reaching into my pocket to pull out my camera to photograph them I discovered with horror that my camera had disappeared.

I returned to the obvious place, the bath house, but it wasn’t there either and I began to get worried. What if I had truly lost it and all those images of Pripyat, Chernobyl and Natalie were gone forever? I returned to my hotel a worried man and the two helpful, (if somewhat morose in a classically Soviet fashion), receptionists helped to phone the tour operators from the Chernobyl trip who then got in touch with the minibus driver who eventually turned up at midnight with, joy of joys, my little black camera in his hand! I could have kissed him and I tried to tip him but he would have none of it. So much for crime-ridden Eastern Europe full of dishonest individuals who only care for personal gain, eh? I returned to my bunk that evening a thankful and relieved man, a smile across my face which, sadly, was not reflected in those of the receptionists who still look as if the sky was about to fall on their heads.

Kiev (II)

Despite sleeping in the city for three nights already, beyond Maidan Nezalezhnosti and the railway station I had seen very little of the city and as I had booked a train out to Odessa that evening, then I knew that this was the day to rectify matters, so after another breakfast at the fake McDonald’s I headed out to Kiev’s premier attraction: the Lavra.

In AD988 the great king of Kievan Rus, Vladimir, decided that he needed a new state religion for his growing empire so he sent out emissaries to the four great faiths of the day: Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. When they returned he dismissed the Jews and the Catholics out of hand, for the former had far too many restrictions whilst the latter, based in a Rome that was now but a shadow of its former glories, he deemed to be a spent force. But if Rome was dying, Constantinople and the Empire of the Arabs were going from strength to strength and Vladimir was particularly interested in Islam until he offered the envoy a drink at which point he was told that alcohol is forbidden to Muslims. “What? Tell the Russians to give up alcohol? They will never accept that!” declared Vladimir and so Orthodoxy won the day.

That is the legend, but whereas its literal truth is questionable, what is beyond any doubt is that in that year Vladimir returned to Kiev with a new Orthodox Christian wife and converted his kingdom to her faith and ever since the land has remained a bastion of Orthodoxy. And as part of that grand conversion, in 1051 St. Anthony of Lyubech left Mount Athos and settled in Kiev. There he lived in a manmade cave on the banks of the Dnieper and so began the Lavra. The word ‘lavra’ literally means ‘caves’ or ‘cells’ of monks and over the years following St. Anthony’s arrival the complex was extended so that today it includes two sets of interlinking cave monasteries – the Near Caves and the Far Caves – as well as two enormous complexes above ground – the Upper and Lower Lavra – including a cathedral and eight churches.

I entered through the main gate of the monastery and explored some of the buildings of the Upper Lavra complex. I looked into the reconstructed Cathedral of the Dormition, (the original was destroyed by retreating Soviet troops in 1941), and then attended a beautiful service in the Refectory Church which was crammed with worshippers whilst the clergy in their finery paraded the Good Book around.

After that I headed down to the first set of caves, the Near Caves, which are accessed through a packed chapel. The caves, (or to be more precise, subterranean tunnels with niches in them containing the mummified bodies of a thousand and one saints), could have been a moving and deeply spiritual place, but alas, as Ukraine’s holiest site as well as Kiev’s Number One Tourist Hotspot, they were more like hard work, shuffling along with a lit candle in my hand as part of a steady stream – or queue – of pilgrims. I tried to pause at each tomb and pray but after several dozen it became impractical and so I just walked round before climbing up the stairs and re-emerging into the sunlight.

The landscape in-between the Upper and Lower Lavras was beautiful and with small plots of vegetables, vines and other crops, it seemed more fitted to a village than a spot in the heart of the city. By the pathway, in amongst the stalls of religious trinkets, there were also stern monks selling the produce of those plots: honey, kvass and other organic products.

ML043 The Lavra: a village in the heart of the city

I walked down a fine covered walkway of the type that you often see in Central Europe to the Lower Lavra and the Far Caves. This was more of the same although the tunnels were slightly less congested and in a small underground chapel I managed to sit and pray properly. However, as I departed and walked back up to the street, I reflected that the Lavra had been something of a disappointment to me. Several months earlier I’d visited Częstochowa, the spiritual heart of the Polish nation and, despite its artistic and architectural style being less to my taste than the golden domes and icons of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, I’d felt a strong presence of the Divine. Here however, at the home of Ukraine’s soul, I’d felt little. Why? Who knows? Life is just like that I suppose.

ML044 The Cathedral of the Dormition, Kiev Lavra

Heading out to Konotop two days before, I’d spied an enormous metal statue of a lady perched on a hillside near to the Lavra; a sort-of Ukrainian Statue of Liberty as it were. A dip into my guidebook revealed her to be Rodnya Mat, (lit. ‘The Nation’s Mother’), the colossal Soviet memorial to all those who fell in the two battles of Kiev during World War II. As a long-time seeker of communist sites, this was definitely a place to visit.

And I chose the right day for that visit for as I neared I could hear Soviet military songs blaring from tannoys and a battalion of smartly-attired soldiers marched past. Far less regimented and somewhat older were hundreds of other men – and a few women – in uniform who were milling around, taking photos of each other by tanks and guns and polishing their many medals.

ML045 A battalion of soldiers at Rodnya Mat

They were all members of the Party of Afghan Veterans, an organisation promoting the needs and voice of the veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89), which involved some 115,000 Soviet troops and claimed over 14,000 lives. The Afghanistan War was very much the USSR’s Vietnam, (or to be more contemporary, the UK and USA’s current war in Afghanistan). In Vietnam the USA intervened to stop an allied capitalist regime with little support amongst the people from toppling to communist forces. Whilst the USSR did supply the communist Viet Cong with arms and funds, they wisely did not commit ground troops whereas the USA did and so got seen as an imperialist aggressor. In Afghanistan though, it was exactly the reverse with the USSR committing the ground troops to prop up a tottering socialist regime whilst the USA supplied arms and funds to their foes, the Mujahedeen. In both cases the defensive force suffered horrendous causalities but triumphed, largely because they could soak up more human blood. But also, in both cases, the war transformed the society of the foreign intervener: Afghan veterans and the protests of the mothers of the fallen are seen today as being major factors behind the collapse of the USSR and judging by the numbers milling around Rodnya Mat, they are still very much a force to be reckoned with.

Wandering in amongst the crowds was a fascinating experience for the entire Soviet Union was on show there: round-faced Kazakhs and swarthy Georgians mingled with the pale Slavs of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. All were united by the past and a shared tragic yet powerful bonding experience. Most were waving red flags and crowded around a stage upon which an ex-general spoke forcefully in-between bursts of military music. It was a meeting of a bygone world, a generation largely forgotten by the Westward-looking Ukrainians of today.

ML046 Kazakh veterans of the Afghanistan War pose for photographs

ML047 Rally of Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan War under the watchful eyes of Rodnya Mat

To further understand the spectacle all around me I popped into the Wars on Foreign Soil Museum just before the main memorial complex. This was a fascinating two-storey exposition commemorating all the wars fought by the USSR in the name of socialist fraternity. Whilst the upper floor was dedicated solely to Afghanistan, the lower looked at a myriad of half-forgotten conflicts and interventions which the Soviet Union undertook to help support its socialist allies/puppet states. I browsed through fascinating exhibits on wars in Ethiopia, Vietnam, Cuba, Hungary, Cambodia, Czechoslovakia, Angola, Somalia, Korea, China, Mongolia and others, many of them bringing back memories of visiting those countries myself and seeing their own, sometimes very different, take on the conflicts.

But that was merely the hors d’oeuvre, the main course was up ahead surmounted by a colossal sixty-two metre-high titanium statue. Kiev’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War, (which is how the Soviets always referred to the conflict that we call World War II), is immense and impressive. Opened in 1981 it covers every aspect of the two very costly and hard-fought battles for the city.

The first raged from the 23rd August, 1941 to the 26th September and it resulted in a crushing German victory. By diverting troops south from the Central Front the Nazis trapped the Soviet troops defending the city in a gigantic pincer movement which resulted in the largest encirclement of troops in military history with the Soviets having to surrender 452,700 soldiers, 2,642 guns and mortars and 64 tanks. It was a disaster for Stalin whilst Hitler gleefully called it the greatest battle in history.

The Second Battle of Kiev in which the Soviets retook the city was far less dramatic but perhaps equally telling. It lasted from the 3rd October, 1943 to the 22nd December and resulted in a total Soviet victory. However, as with virtually all engagements on the Eastern Front, Stalingrad excepted, the Nazi retreat was orderly. There was no dramatic encirclement here and the German losses for far less; a mere 6,491 troops although also 286 tanks and 156 planes, (note the huge difference in tanks between the two, a clue perhaps as to why the Soviets lost everything prior to Stalingrad – they had the men but not the equipment). Soviet losses were similar in number.

The museum covered both of these battles in detail as well as many other aspects of the war including the horrific massacre at Babi Yar where 33,771 of Kiev’s Jews were shot by the Germans in a single day. It then reached its grand finale in a large circular chamber in the base of the great lady herself on the walls of which the names of the 11,600 soldiers and 200 workers who were honoured as Heroes of the Soviet Union or Heroes of Soviet Labour during the war were inscribed.

ML048 Rodnya Mat

After learning all about the Kiev of seventy years ago it was now time to move forward four decades and so I took a bus and then thro to the Chernobyl Museum in Podil in order to garner a bit more background information on all the surreal sights I’d taken in the previous day. However, it was all a bit disappointing as the museum provided little in the way of information being instead more of an “experience” as seems to be the fashion amongst many museums these days. Whatever. Beyond the emergency vehicles parked outside, I personally “experienced” very little save for a mild sense of annoyance at having had to pay for a ticket to such a crap institution, so after wandering around rather quickly, I exited and made my way back up to Maidan Nezalezhnosti for there was one more thing that I wished to see before I headed south.

ML049 Emergency vehicles parked outside Kiev’s Chernobyl Museum

I’ve long been a fan of large communist statues, (after all, why had I made sure I paid a visit to Rodnya Mat?), and there is one in Kiev that is famous. The Friendship of Nations Monument depicts two muscular brothers – Ukraine and Russia – raising their fists in mighty union. Whilst many Ukrainians today might not share such noble internationalist ideals, I do and the site is popular and commands incredible views over the Dnieper Canyon. When I visited though, I found it none too awesome; after Rodnya Mat it was probably always going to be a bit of a damp squib but the main problem was that the monument itself was virtually hidden by a large “European Village”, a propaganda enclave erected as part of the Euro 2012 celebrations in which representatives of the EU were dishing out freebies and promoting their various projects in Ukraine. Self-serving propaganda or not, I’m very pro-EU anyway and so found it all rather interesting and besides, I got several good teaching resources which I popped into my bag before photographing the rather ho-hum monument that I’d come to see and then heading off to the railway station to catch my train south.

Next part: Kiev to Odessa

My Flickr Album of this trip

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