Before I travelled to Kyiv, I did not think much about the city. Not that I had planned for that (not) to happen or had been ignorant – the busy weeks (months? year?) before my trip simply left no room for planning. Already during the first hour (after 19 hours in the train), however, as I made my way up hilly cobblestone roads, trudging through streets lined by autmn-coloured chestnut trees, I realized that I had brought some prejudice with me. Unconsciously, I seemed to have had quite some expectations (but what? Grey? an unaesthetic concrete jungle?) of the Ukrainian capital. Whatever it had been – my prejudice was not served between the Ukrainian capital and the old districts a little up North.
According to statistics, 3 to 4 million people live in Kyiv, but the old Kyiv – without an ancient city centre as I am used to from Poland – has a manageable size and is best discovered by endless walks, uphill, downhill. Despite many wide roads, the city appears quite placid at times even. That is not last, because many of the main roads remain cobbled and, lined by many trees, send out tranquile vibes. That is, until the traffic lights jump from red to green: The trees, many of which are chestnuts, symbol of the city and found in many facades, logos and emblems, cannot possibly absorb the noise from an ongoing stream of cars which remind me that I walk through a metropolis.
Many modern skyscrapers, looming 30 storeys high above five-storey-high, colourful chains of buildings from the 19th and early 20th century, are not only a reminder of the sheer size of Kyiv, but also give notice of, in the dystopic words of a friend, the slow and steady destruction of the city as it used to be. The high constructions do not only distract the skyline of the historic city where every era of European archtecture is represented. More than that the often illegally constructed blocks are sky-high examples of the rampant corruption and informal practices which are still omnipresent in Ukraine. For the clueless visitor (as myself) they are however yet another part of the (architectural) diversity of the Ukrainian capital where baroque churches, art nouveau facades and richly ornamented balcony rails in front of moulded walls, classical buildings and a few medieval remains of the Kievan Rus show the sheer diversity of Kyiv which, as part of independent Ukraine, looks back on a long and fascinating history separate of the Soviet historical narrative.
In fact, the foundations of Kyiv were already laid in the 6th century, becoming the capital of the Kievan Rus by means of the – probably not quite voluntary – baptism of all its inhabitants through Wladimir the First in the 9th Century. It is thanks to him that Kyiv has many beautiful churches to offer whose golden dome roofs sparkle teasingly in the warm autumn sun as I am walking past them, enchanted. Many of these church were destructed by the Nazis in the course of the 2nd World War or by the Sowjet oppression which did not want to know any religion, did not accept any ideology besides the own. After the independence of Ukraine in 1991, many of these churches and monasteries were reconstructed, true to the original, many until this day. I was particularly fascinated by the St. Michael monastery which had been detonated by the Nazis in the 30s and reconstructed – including the overboarding golden decoration inside – in the 90s, becoming a sanctuary for victims of the Maidan protests in 2014. Equally a new (old) construction is the church is the complex of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves which, as the oldest religious site of the country, is honoured as “Lavra”.
A tourist highlight of the Lavra Tour is apparently a visit to the cages of the monastery where many metres down the ground monks have found their final resting place (it is questionable how peaceful it really is with daily visitors pacing in the flickering light of candles along the mumified friars). I am no fan of anything remotely connected underground vaults, cages and Halloween and spared the visit. Instead, I rather climbed the bell tower to enjoy the panorama of the far-reaching monastery, the river Dnipro and the hazey “Sleeping city” on the other side of the river where people live and sleep.
In my opinion, a visit to Lavra (and also independently of that) must be connected with a visit to the memorial for the victims of the Holodomor, just a few walking minutes away. The Holodomor describes a horrific famine between the year 1931 and 1933 as a result of the forced collectivisation of the farmers who had resisted the voluntary communitisation when becoming part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine had been the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, and expected to deliver despit a severe draught 4 million people died as a consequence of the famine which escalated due to the ruthless policy of the Soviet government. An interactive exhibition, recently translated into English, informs under the memorial. Furthermore, the museum fights for international recognition of the Holodomor as genocide (which is globally disputed). The European Parliament has instead categorised it as crime against humanity.
The Soviet era obviously plays, even if church domes and coffeeshops in pastel houses deceive it at first, a crucial role in the (recent) history of Kyiv. To learn more about this, I joined a Free Walking Tour of which several are offered in Kyiv. I am a big fan of such tours, especially if they stay true to the original idea (by Locals for curious travellers). In recent years, I am often enraged about tourists who put their money in expensive hotels and restaurants, but then scrimp on tips for passionate volunteers. That only as a side note, back to Soviet Ukraine.
When Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Kyiv was not the first capital of the “Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic”, but replaced Kharkiv only in 1934. The inhabitants of Kyiv quickly felt the oppression by the new regime: the Ukrainian intellectual elite was systematically persecuted and murdered and many historical buildings were destroyed. In their place came new buildings, constructed in Soviet style. At first in the early constructivist style, later in Stalinist and Brutalist design. Today, many accept those supersized constructions with never-ending columns, where the individual feels small and defenseless, only teeth-gnashingly. In the very centre of the city for example, just down the Maidan Monument, the Chreschtschatyk – a main road – invites for a stroll through the creme de la creme of classical Soviet architecture. This area of Kyiv had been mostly demolished during the 2nd World War and Stalin ordered the reconstruction within his stylistic ideal: high buildings, dominant structures, brought together in a harmonic interplay. I understand the dismissal of these buildings by Ukrainians and others who experienced Socialist opression, but I also equally appreciate the different styles and the artistic element of Soviet architecture. For me, the Soviet architecture in Kyiv adds another layer to the moved history of the city.
Soviet history and the pro-European present of the country are interestingly bridged at the “Memorial of Friendship”, errected in the 70s to represent the friendship of the people – Russian and Ukrainian. Pro-European protests of the society, most famously the Maidan protest in 2014, show that this obliged friendship was definitely over in the 2000s. Nonetheless, the memorial stayed, because the de-construction came with a hefty price tag. Instead, guerilla artists climbed the arch on night to symbolise with a black arrow the final break up. Such creative protest can be found throughout the city and supports the lively vibe of Kyiv.
At the same time, many parks, green areas and hip coffee shops invite to take a step back and unwind. Originally, I had planned to spend about 5 days in Kyiv, ended up staying almost 2 weeks though, because I could not become tired of my walks and still did not see it all.
Kyiv is a city in transformation, Ukraine is a country in transformation. The (young) people refuse to stand still, change is calling. New cafes and coffeeshops open and close in lightning speed, the city is always busy, people rush through the day – only interrupted by quick photo sessions for Social Media – and I, with my tracking boots and backpacking outfits, feel out of place between stylish and hip Kievans.
Of course this did not stop me to mingle with the people and to take a closer look at some parts of modern life, with great support of friends in Kyiv and some political institutions in the city. Just as it is impossible to discover Kyiv in a week it is however impossible to cramp all of this in just one blog article. About Kyiv, a city in transformation, I will write next time.