Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Continuing with my discovery of Easter Bloc countries, I decided to go to Kiev, Ukraine for 5 days, with my great friend Lena Verik. In typical Russian/Ukrainian fashion, hotels are more of an exception than a rule; it's far cheaper (and more comfortable) to rent an apartment, which we did (arranging it through an Ukrainian website is again much cheaper than going through typical Western booking sites).

An eight-legged baby pig
With five days, we could visit a bit. One of the places I really wanted to see was the Chernobyl Museum. It's a really touching museum, a sore reminder of the suffering of thousands of people, not just because of the effects of radiation, but perhaps even more so due to the massive economic and social problems that it created.

We followed that with a long walk along the Dripro. November in Ukraine is quite cold, and no-one is crazy enough to go for river cruises, but we could still see some of the pretty churches along the river front, until we nearly froze, and had to find a big bowl of hot soup! Kiev is set on a sort of plateau, and so from the river towards the city centre, we could take a lovely old Soviet funicular.

At the top of the funicular, is the monasteries area, with St. Michael's Gold-Domed Monastery grabbing all the attention, shiny and postcard pretty (and interesting in the sense that it is a working monastery) - even though it is in reality a very recent reconstruction (2001).

Nearby is the really nice St. Sophia's Cathedral. Named after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, it may not be as grandiose, but one does feel the power of history inside it. Nearby there once was yet another church, replaced by the Soviets with the humongous Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which I could not stop admiring, given my fascination with all things Soviet).

Entrance to the Lavra
One of the places most people visit when in Kiev is the Lavra (there's always queues of people coming off excursion buses). Despite finding our way there, we decided the long queues were not worth it. In any case, the main objective was the nearby Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Despite having seen quite a few WWII museums during my trips across Russia, this one was by far the best, and even had some explanations in English. It mostly describes the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and includes some gruelling objects, such as a concentration camp guillotine, and a bone crushing machine.

The museum has an area of Soviet realist sculptures around it, trying to depict both the heroism of the troops that fought the Nazis, and the suffering of the civilians. And sitting on top of the museum, is the absolutely stunning Родина Мать (Nation's Mother) sculpture; standing at 62m tall, and made out of titanium, it is a sight to behold.

The walk back towards the Lavra, albeit long, is worth it, passing by the touching monument to the victims of the Holodomor (the great famine, ordered by Stalin during the collectivisation campaign), and offering great views long the Dnipro river.

The Andriyivsky Uzviz, a winding descent street in the centre, is a typical spot to visit, with stalls of crafts and souvenirs, although really it felt like a massive tourist trap. It was also under renovation, to be ready for the hordes of tourists coming for the 2012 European Football Cup, so we didn't linger. Instead, we went for a wonderful Borsch, complete with bread topped with a big layer of fat, and loads of сметана (sour cream)!

Visiting Kiev with an Ukrainian-speaking friend means it's a bit easier to get around! So we could find and take a long marshutka (collective mini-bus) towards the "Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture", a large outdoor park located well outside the city, with houses and buildings brought from every province in Ukraine.

We spent quite a few hours there, peeking into farmer's houses, windmills, and even a beautiful wooden church. The dinner we had there was probably the best Ukrainian borsch I ever had (and I had many!), complete with home-baked bread, garlic, and a plate of pelmeni.

For our last day in Kiev, we went to see the Babi Yar park. This was the site where the Nazis executed most of Ukraine's jews. On the 29th September 1941, hordes of jews were ferried to this spot, and 34,000 were executed within 48h. It is now a beautiful park, especially dressed in Autumn's colours, and it's hard to imagine such atrocities, but a few monuments here and there are a sober reminder.

We still tried to go to the Water Museum, but were also greeted with a closed door (renovations for the World Cup...); still, the park where it is located offers great views of the Dnipro.

Kiev is a city full of history. In between old monasteries, reminders of the horrors of Nazi occupation, the good and bad consequences of Soviet influence, and an undeniably Ukrainian feel, it is a city of contrasts, and one that I quite enjoyed exploring. Especially with a wonderful friend!