November 14, 2012 by dsalkowski
This first leg of our adventure takes us to Kiev, Ukraine. With all due respects to Peter, after a couple months there, we were all ready for a change in scenery, so Kiev, with its sunshine and rolling hills was destined to be an instant favorite.
Kiev, “the Mother of Russian Cities,” has about five million people in it, and for some reason, they all seemed to smile on us for the two days we were there. The city straddles the same Dnieper River that united Byzantium and Scandinavia, making it the first metropolis of Slavdom. The obvious historical centerpieces of the city are the ancient churches and monasteries. The highlight of these religious endeavors was the catacombs. Our tour guide made it clear that these were the solemn graves of Saints and deceased monks: “Do not point or take pictures. Do not use the word ‘mummy’: better yet, don’t speak any English at all. Just don’t speak, please.”
It was an interesting scene; it reminded me of the drama surrounded the death of the renowned monk in The Brothers Karamazov, and the controversy that ensued when his dead body began to emit a smell two days on. Obviously, he wasn’t as saintly as these guys. The man in front of me in the catacombs kissed every casket and the old women around me were weeping. And an American girl’s hair caught on fire from one of the candles.
Despite the deep Slavic roots of the city, I couldn’t help noticing that Kiev seemed rather European, or dare I say, American even. I know I’m treading on dubious ground in saying this, but to make a Left Coast comparison, if Saint-Petersburg is Eastern Europe’s San Francisco, and Moscow is Los Angeles, Kiev must be its Seattle. Such comparisons only go so far, but with its healthy integration of green space, modestly tall buildings, and clean, friendly public spaces, this is how I, a stranger in a strange land, managed to contextualize the city.
The legacy of the Soviet Union presents itself differently in Kiev than in Russia, as well. Ukraine’s experience is closer to that of Poland’s, though the ethnic and cultural proximity to Russia complicates the relationship with the nuances of family infighting. While I did chat with one kind old street vendor who insisted that Lenin was in cahoots with his fellow Jew, J.P. Morgan, and Churchill and Hitler were cousins, all out to get Ukraine, the official historians seemed to have a slightly more balanced interpretation. And, while I hate to stereotype sellers of old Soviet doodads, this gentleman seemed to be a bit on the eccentric side.
We visited Kiev’s really masterfully orchestrated museum on the Great Patriotic War (WWII). They are willing to acknowledge the alliance between Stalin and Hitler, since they bore the brunt of it, as well as the Baba Yar massacre. Ukraine only lost their independence after the war, so the war takes on another dimension there.
The museum is looked over by a massive statue, a distant, soviet cousin of our own Lady Liberty, and it is flanked by an equally impressive collection of vignettes from the war. Many other monuments and statues are peppered throughout the city, including a memorial to the Ukrainians who died in the Soviet war with Afghanistan, and a statue of Lenin, which is now guarded around the clock by the current Communist Party, due to repeated attempts to vandalize ole’ Vladimir Ilyich.
Although two days in Kiev only allows me some pretty obvious and shallow cultural observations, it is quite a gem of a city with a beautiful river (now free of nuclear waste, by the way), a very diverse history, and some really tasty fried chicken.