My great-great-grandmother was born in a village near Kyiv, and although ties to our family line in Ukraine have long been lost, I feel the tug of my ancestral roots as I step onto Kyiv soil.
Within minutes of our arrival at Hotel Ukraine in central Kyiv, my husband Rick and I take the short jaunt to Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) filled with folks enjoying the 30-degrees-Celsius day. People of all ages splash about in the refreshing water cascading over a wide staircase. The tiers of concrete seating around the square are packed with people sharing picnic lunches; a phalanx of pigeons at their feet waiting for crumbs. I gaze upward at the statue of the protective goddess Berehynia rising from a marble column atop a sizeable arch. It was erected in 1991 to commemorate Ukrainian independence in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. I can only imagine the profound significance given the country’s history of over 300 years of invasions and occupations.
We take our first walk of many down Khreschatyk Street that flows from the square. Agog with its beauty, it is hard to believe this street was destroyed by the retreating Red Army in the face of the invading Nazis during the Second World War, and then completely rebuilt in the pompous style of the Stalinist era. Being the weekend, this main commercial street is closed to traffic. The atmosphere is one of mild chaos with the sheer volume of locals and visitors strolling and partaking in the delights of sidewalk cafes, or the world’s best ice cream from one of the many kiosks (whose trade we contribute to daily).
Street entertainers compete for attention. My favourite is the podgy juggler standing motionless as a block of ice. A few coins placed in the hat at his feet results in a swift thaw. His face beams and his girth jiggles in time to the balls being tossed and caught with great finesse for a 20-second interval, after which he fast-freezes again - until more coinage is dropped into his hat.
The moniker “city of golden domes” attached itself to Kyiv for the abundance of majestic gilded cupolas on the numerous churches. St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest standing church, was built in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise, whose body is entombed within. After beholding the incredible frescoes and mosaics, some dating back almost a millennium, we are leaving the church when melodious voices draw our attention to the street.
A procession of thousands spills into the church square. Men and women in traditional embroidered shirts and blouses are interspersed with clergy in full regalia of flowing robes of gold; the bishops’ ensemble topped with golden crowns. I search the crowd for a young person, who will probably speak English. A teenage girl says, “This is the anniversary of when Christianity came to Kyivan Rus.” This historic name dates back to when the Varyagi (or Rus) a Swedish Viking civilization, ruled a vast area of Eastern Europe with its capitol in Kyiv between the 9th and 11th centuries. Prince Volodymyr, upon visiting Constantinople 988, accepted and brought Christianity back to the powerful state of Kyivan Rus.
It is then on to the smaller but stunningly beautiful Michael’s Cathedral with its bright blue exterior and statues of saints in alcoves, and St. Volodymyr’s in brilliant yellow and wealth of frescoes. Other gems we visit are the fantastical Chimera Building with giant frogs, mermaids, gargoyles and the Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota), a reconstruction of the original entry into Old Kyiv.
By now, we figure our clambering about hilly Kyiv has sufficiently built-up our calf muscles for the long undulating walk to what is commonly known in English as the Caves Monastery (Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra). This 28-hectare complex on the slopes of the Dnipro River is said to be the “Rome” of Orthodox Christianity with several churches and museums of folk art and historical treasures.
The focal point for me undoubtedly is the underground monastery founded by monks Antony and Feodosiy in 1051. “The monks who entered dug the caves themselves,” says Pete, an English student on hand to translate our guide’s Ukrainian. “Their mission for the rest of their lives was continuous prayer, only interrupted by sleep and being passed food through a small window by monks who took on this duty. After death, the cave became their tomb and given the cool temperature and perfect humidity, their bodies mummified naturally.”
With a candle to light our way, we move slowly along the dimly lit passages lined with glass-topped coffins where the corpses now rest. The reflection of my candle flame flickers in eerie tendrils as I peer into coffin after coffin, scanning the decoratively shrouded corpses to find the ones that reveal exposed hands. Black as basalt, but not in the least shrivelled, the hands resting across their chests are as detailed as my own with knuckle creases and fingernails. The fact that the monks’ bodies remain in this uncanny state of preservation to this day heightens the conviction of believers that they were true holy men. Pilgrims and visitors come in droves; the complex is the cradle and spiritual heart of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Chornobyl Museum is high on our list of sites. There’s no English signage, but an audio device leads us through the disaster that occurred at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986 when two explosions blew the top off reactor No.4; the radiation released is believed to be 100 times that of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Photos line the walls of the heroic men who risked their lives being exposed to lethal amounts of radiation, some with barely more than facemasks, in order to encase the reactor in concrete and steel. The horror is brought to life on a screen with pictures of before and after the tragedy, and of the devastation to homes and farmlands, deaths, sickness and deformities - as disturbing as it is highly informative.
A stone’s throw from the museum is Andriyivsky Uzviz (Andrew's Descent), one of the oldest and quaintest streets in Kyiv. Souvenirs from fine crafts, to tacky, to bizarre – it’s all here. I scour the lean-to-shops that fill each side of the rough cobblestone roadway and come away with some great pieces of wooden jewelry and matryoshka (nesting) dolls.
Feasts of traditional fare top off our Ukrainian experience; vareniki (dough filled with potatoes and mushrooms, or meat, or cottage cheese), holubtsi (rice and meat rolled in cabbage), the list goes on - making Rick gleefully comment, “It’s worth a trip here for the food and beer alone.”
There is no doubt we were witnessing a great time in Kyiv’s and in Ukraine’s history: the forging of its new independent identity full of challenges and potential. The locals we encounter on our ventures are friendly and welcoming. I leave with renewed pride in my ties to this rich heritage, and both Rick and I agree there is much left to see - next time.
JANUARY 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
Ukraine’s Cyrillic alphabet: Carry a Ukrainian/English phrasebook for sign recognition and pick up a “Kyiv in Your Pocket” brochure from your hotel, which has the streets/hotels in Cyrillic and English.
Spelling of cities/sites:
Ukrainian - Kyiv, Chornobyl
Russian - Kiev, Chernobyl
With Ukraine-s newfound nationalism, the Ukrainian spelling is preferred (although Westerners may be more familiar with the Russian spellings).
Visas: Canadians can enter Ukraine visa-free for up to a 90-day stay.