Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kiev On Your Own


Protests against the government continue in Ukraine, but I would like to return you to a more peaceful time there, August of 2010, when I visited. 

If you like Orthodox churches, you’ll love Kiev. The main sights in the capital of Europe’s second largest country are all churches—St. Sophia’s, where Ukrainian kings used to be crowned; St. Volodmyr’s, with its blue onion domes sprinkled with gold stars; St. Mikhail’s, recently restored after having been destroyed in Communist times; and the most important of them all, the Pechersk Lavra., a cave monastery where monks have prayed and been buried in catacombs for close to 1,000 years. There you descend carrying a candle through narrow passageways, and if you lean against anything it is likely to be the glass-enclosed remains of a saint.

There are other sights—the tree-lined shopping street Khrashatyk, the Maidan with its fountains and government buildings; and on the outskirts, Babi Yar, a memorial to the Jews and others who were massacred there during World War II.  Andrei’s Descent is a steep cobblestoned artistic and shopping street crowned by St. Andrei’s church, a turquoise and white edifice that bears a striking resemblance to the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, probably because it was designed by the same architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Kiev was one of the earliest Russian settlements, built by the Vikings in the 10th century. In 995 the rulers and their followers adopted Orthodox Christianty, and despite 70 years of Communism the religion seems to be flourishing again. I was in Kiev to catch a slow boat to the Black Sea, A river cruise on the Mikhail Lomonosov. Whenever I take a cruise, I like to add on a few days to explore on my own, to get a better feel for what it might be like to actually live in a particular place, and I like to do it without spending much money.

I stayed at the Roosiya Hotel, an air-conditioned Soviet-era behemoth  located near downtown. It proved to be very comfortable and to provide a lavish and tasty breakfast buffet as well as a mini-bar in the room.. The nightly rate was just $70, a big bargain compared to Moscow.  The dining room was very large, as were the tables. The hotel had clearly been designed for the group tours that flourished in Soviet times, but it had adapted to capitalist reality, with English-speaking front desk staff and waiters.

 I decided to visit St. Volodmyr’s Cathedral first, since it was clearly within walking distance. It was a beautiful place with its star-studded domes and yellow brick, and also quite active. It is the headquarters of the Kiev-centred Orthodox Church. Inside a ceremony was going on with singing by young people and blessings from priests in gold-embroidered vestments.

It was August and very hot, so I tried to time my sightseeing for cooler parts of the day. The next day I headed downtown, through a long perekhod and beside the Bessarabia market, crammed with all the produce for which this region, which used to be called the breadbasket of the world, is famous. Now much of the produce is imported.. I had to ask directions to Kreshatyk, the main street of Kiev which is lined with greenery and strolling shoppers. The buildings along Kreshatyk are mainly Stalinist-ere. solid and spacious, often with Art Deco flourishes. I stopped beside a fountain where a fuzzy dog was cavorting, watched over by a doting middle-aged woman. I asked whether it was her dog, and she seemed pleased that I wanted to photograph the animal.  I also bought an ice cream cone to fuel my sight-seeing.

Soon I arrived at the large open square called the Maidan, where in 2004 enormous crowds carrying Orange banner. had succeeded in overturning election results. There were lots of water sprinklers with people running through them to cool off. I headed for McDonalds nearby for lunch.   In former Communist lands I find its familiar food and clean restrooms are a boon. From there I climbed a steep hill to St. Sophia’s, a green and white religious complex that is now a museum. Admission fees are low, just a few dollars, and the wide green lawns offer a respite from traffic chaos. I saw the graves of some of Kiev’s earliest rulers, and for once did not have to wear a head scarf. Leaving St. Sophia’s I spied St. Mikhail’s church across a large square, but contented myself with taking pictures from afar. Then it was time to head back to the hotel, stopping along the way  to pick up bread, cheese and beer for dinner.

Another day I took a taxi to Andrei’s descent and wandered down its uneven paving stones, very glad I had worn tennis shoes instead of sandals. It was too early for many shops to be open, but one man was taking luxurious-looking sheepskin jackets and rugs out of his old Lada. Unfortunately it was too hot to even contemplate buying sheepskins. At the bottom of the hill I wandered past a small park with a statue of one of the Cossack hetmen who had ruled over this region in the 16th century, then got lost.  A young man who, to my surprise. spoke English directed me to the Metro. I took it back to the Maidan. On the way to the hotel I went in search of a building called the House of Chimeras, a concrete home covered with strange gargoyles, built around 1900 when Kiev was enjoying prosperity.

Once I joined my cruise, we took a tour of the Pechersk Monastery. The street outside was decked with flags and we were hurried along, because it was the day of a visit by the Moscow patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Chruch. Religion in this part of the world is complicated. The lavra is enormous, with many different buildings. The most interesting are the catacombs. This trip is not for the claustrophobic, but it is a fascinating testament to the faith of the early monks in this them remote part of the world. And the service I attended on Sunday at a small but beautiful church near my hotel showed that the faith is still strong. The church was filled with worshippers, and nuns outside were soliciting funds for the Holy Land.
For more about the 2010 trip, please refer back to posts for the fall of that year. The image above is of a small chapel connected to one of Kiev's many churches.


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