Kiev cityscape & Dnieper river

There is Only One Ukraine

23rd February 2018

The eastern European country of Ukraine mostly crosses our consciousness when it is consumed by crisis and conflict. But beyond the headlines is a destination with a rich culture and a welcoming attitude. Neil Matthews visits the capital, Kiev.

It doesn’t matter how much Russian you speak, or how fluently. When the polite late-middle-aged lady taking you round the house gestures at the inside of an empty wardrobe, you’re bound to wonder whether you’ve misunderstood her – especially when she opens the back and tells you to walk through. It’s an unusual point of entry for an appreciation of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.

The empty wardrobe leads to the next room in the Bulgakov Museum, halfway down Andriivsky uzviz, in the house in which Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) lived from 1906 to 1919. His masterpiece is The Master and Margarita (1966), a savage satire on Soviet society in which the Devil and his henchmen go to Moscow. The mysterious wardrobe is an elliptical tribute to its surrealism. Apart from various original belongings of the writer’s family, everything else is painted in white with various objects referencing The White Guard, Bulgakov’s novel about the Russian Civil War. One room houses two pianos, one in white and one in wood: one ‘fictional’, one real. You can also view the consulting room Bulgakov used in his early career as a doctor. With the help of theatre-style lighting, it’s all very playful, and surprises abound.

Kiev, like Ukraine itself, has seen many turbulent times, from its 6th century origins as a Polianian settlement to its role as the capital of Kievan Rus and its subsequent invasion, occupation or rule by Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles and eventually Russians, latterly as part of the Soviet Union. Recently, the Foreign Office has advised against travel to eastern or southern Ukraine – but, happily, Kiev is safe to visit, though some of its most significant attractions have undergone restoration, reconstruction or even recreation. St Michael’s Monastery of the Golden Domes has existed in many forms since the 12th century and was blown up in 1937. The current version was completed in 2001. Of the magnificent complex of buildings which makes up the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra (also known as the Cave Monasteries), only the light blue Troitskaya Church, which now serves as a gatehouse, is original, dating back to 1108. The eponymous caves, expanded by a series of tunnels by St Anthony and his followers after he settled in Kiev in 1051, are also open for you to visit and to see the preserved bodies of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity’s oldest saints. The ambience of devotion and respect survives for the most part – despite the occasional small boy who pushes past you, threatening inadvertently to cause you to drop your lighted candle or set another visitor on fire. The restored and recreated churches and monasteries are not just for tourist show; they are active places of serious worship.

To understand Kiev and Ukraine’s more recent history, two places are essential. The Great Patriotic War Museum tells a sombre tale of the conflict between German and Soviet troops on Ukrainian battlefields during World War II – the country was occupied by the Nazis between 1941-3. Various rooms divide the displays into two to emphasise the nature of the fighting. As many as five million Ukrainians, and half of all Kievans, may have died during the war, compared with between five and 6.5 million each for Germany and Russia (and 350,000 for Britain). If you take an organised tour, the bespectacled young guide will tell you: ‘Nobody won this war. Everyone lost.’ The final exhibits are a hall of remembrance, with drinking glasses for Ukrainian soldiers who survived and other artefacts symbolising those who didn’t, and a German and Soviet helmet together on one plinth. The display in the National Chernobyl Museum in Podil district is, if anything, even more moving. Hundreds of old signs list the towns and villages that no longer exist, because of the explosion on 26 April 1986 at number 4 reactor of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant.

To understand this terrible event better, increasing numbers of tourists take the two-hour trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It’s the closest you may ever come to stepping into a JG Ballard novel. Overgrown, abandoned villages and nursery schools lie silent; the Duga radar installation, closed in 1984 and never re-opened, looms. The occasional fox is so unafraid of humans he may come close enough to look at your Geiger counter; and the town of Pripyat has an amusement park where snakes slither around the dodgems and the seats of the never-used ferris wheel remain like giant yellow dots against the sky.

Remarkably, 5,000 people still work in the area. Even more remarkably, some of the residents insisted on returning after the accident to resume their lives, and a few are still there, in their eighties, hale and hearty. The whole zone is a patchwork of high and low radiation spots but, if you act sensibly, your short visit will irradiate you less than most international flights.

There is, though, plenty of opportunity just to relax in Kiev – and to learn the truth behind three myths, the first of which is musical. Parallel to the main street, Khreschatyk, is Volodomyrska, in which you can admire the Golden Gate, a replica of the last remaining part of the city ramparts before the Mongols invaded. It was ‘golden’ because visitors had to pay in gold to enter the city. It is not, however, the Great Gate of Kiev featured in Mussorgsky’s classical composition Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky’s friend, Tibor Hartmann, for whom the eponymous exhibition was a posthumous retrospective, designed a ‘Great Gate’ as an entry for a national competition to celebrate Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. Hartmann’s design won the competition, but the gate was never built. Khreschatyk street seems to have a coffee kiosk every ten paces as well as the same High Street brands you see in other European capitals. It leads to Maidan Nezaleshnosti or Independence Square which, your hosts might tell you, ‘is where we have our revolutions’ (there have been two since independence from the USSR in 1991). As you walk up the hill from Independence Square towards St Andrew’s Church, feast your eyes on as many bright gold church and cathedral domes as you can imagine. From the top of Volodymyrska Hill, the funicular connecting the historic Uppertown and the district of Podil gives an excellent view of the Dnieper and an easy way down to the riverside. The metro is cheap and easy to use, partly because English-language signs came into use for Ukraine’s joint hosting of the 2012 Euro football championships. (Signage, menus and so on are often in Russian as well as Ukrainian, reflecting the origins of many inhabitants.) Kiev’s green lungs are abundant, with plenty of park walks to choose from, such as Khreschatyk Park between the street and the river, or the Park Vechnoy Slavy (Park of Eternal Glory) on the way to the Lavra.

For a sweet treat, try the Lviv Handmade Chocolate Shop at the foot of Andriivsky uzviz: the chocolates are delicious and the chocolate tea is something else. Dinner options are many, though not necessarily high on quality, but Pervak on Rohdnidynska offers Russian salads, Ukrainian grills and a side-order of crazy themed décor, live music and ringneck and rosella parakeets. Food leads us to the second myth: chicken Kiev is not a Ukrainian creation, but was invented by a French chef for a Russian Tsar.

Ukraine’s proud independence has come at a heavy price and, like any nation new or old, it has continuing problems to overcome. Nonetheless, if you visit Kiev, you’ll return home with admiration for the engaging and resilient people.

And that third myth to correct? It’s Ukraine, never ‘the’ Ukraine. No definite article is necessary… there is only one Ukraine.

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