A Ukrainian Adventure to the City of the Golden Domes
Where: Kyiv, Ukraine. Eastern Europe.
When: August 2009
What: Motherland Statue 'Tin Tits', Independence Square, Orange Revolution Graffiti, House of the Chimeras, The Chernobyl Museum, The Lavra, The deepest subway tunnel in the world, Soviet-era tenement blocks, Friendship Arch, Church of Saint Michael, Presidential Palace, Lenin Bust, Kyiv Metro, Golden onion domes, Sputnik fountains, Stalin Palace architecture, Soviet symbolism.
How: International flight, walking.
Country counter: +1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Being forced to take my bathroom ablutions by candlelight in the hostel following an electrical fire in the ceiling; our stay was interrupted by electricians pulling down ceiling panels and carrying out remedial works.
Ukraine is the largest country in Europe. Just its name has the potential to conjure up indignation or concern from those who have never travelled there. Sometimes it feels as if the name Ukraine has only ever been in a pejorative context; nuclear meltdowns, revolutions, political poisonings, Russian invasions and annexations... Indeed, Ukraine has become a byword for failure - the archetypal former Eastern Bloc country struggling to find its place in the world. Its geographical location puts Ukraine at something of a threshold where Eastern and Western Europe meet; it is a country trying, like many from the former Soviet Union, to shrug off its past and look to a brighter future. For some, moving forward means looking West. Unfortunately for Ukraine, it has a large, overbearing neighbour which, geo-politically, controls the agenda in the region. Thus, Ukraine is a country pulled in two irreconcilable directions - lured by the promise of better things within the European Union but cow-towed into a submissive position by Russia which, to many, represents the old way of doing things.
Unsurprisingly, the first place we found ourselves in Kyiv was Independence Square. We were drawn to it like a magnet - no matter which direction we took, somehow we always managed to end up back there. Independence Square, in communist times named October Revolution Square, is a typically-Soviet ensemble with Sputnik fountains and beige-bricked buildings encircling a large civic space. It was a hot day and the large fountains acted as paddling pools for Kyivans - adults and children alike. Preserved on a column supporting the main post office building was graffiti from the 2004 Orange Revolution where Viktor Yushchenko was politically-poisoned and appeared to age twenty years in two weeks. Three months of protests against vote-rigging and political corruption lead to a second election where Viktor Yushchenko was declared President of Ukraine. The face featured in the graffiti is that of Yushchenko and translated for me were the words "Victory" and "Yes". Years after visiting Ukraine, the country was to face further strife, Independence Square once again the site of mass protests resulting in bullets being fired at unarmed civilians, the fleeing of the country's President to Russia and, ultimately, the annexing of Crimea by Russia.
We stayed in the Really Central hostel just off of the Kyiv's main boulevard Vul Kreshatyk. Our hostel in the capital should have been named the "Really Dangerous" hostel as, on the third night, there was an electrical fire in the ceiling and we were faced with the task of taking our ablutions by candle light. Add to this the fact that the hostel was managed by two women in their early twenties up for a party, and who seemed to think that everyone else staying at the hostel would appreciate their unique taste in Ukrainian pop music, and it's safe to say that our time at the Really Central hostel was Really Memorable. It was very Ukrainian - and, for this reason, I loved it anyway.
The Great Patriotic War complex was bizarre; Second World War hardware, the huge one hundred metre-tall Statue of the Motherland - disparagingly dubbed with the epithet "Tin Tits" by locals and, all the while, strident military music reverberated all around. It did serve for a very strange and unsettling experience and, at the time, a completely new experience for me. The Motherland Statue itself is simultaneously awe-inspiring and completely absurd. More unsettling was our visit to the Chernobyl Museum in the Podil district of the city. We both really wanted to visit Chernobyl itself - a chance to walk around the abandoned homes and streets of Pripyat - untouched since the 1984 disaster and still radioactive in places. We were certainly up for the £100 cost, but unfortunately missed the dates. I am generally not a fan of museums. It may seem controversial to say this, but I prefer to see life as it is rather than as it was; I like to be outside in the hustle and bustle where contemporary culture is thriving. However, being able to peruse a range of artefacts from the nuclear power plant, including the identity badges of those who had perished, was as potent as anything I have experienced abroad. I was completely riveted.
Ukraine is my kind of European country and Kyiv a fascinating place to visit. The Ukrainian capital is the perfect distillation of Eastern Europe: golden cupolas, Sputnik designs and Stalinist architecture. Forget Berlin, Paris or Rome - Ukraine is compelling and, whilst it isn't really set up for tourism (a distinct advantage in my opinion), this should in no way deter you, for this is a land of glittering Eastern Orthodox golden domes, bizarre statues, a serious Soviet hangover and a touch of the weird. What more could you wish for from a city break? So much more interesting than yet another city break to yet another tame and predictable European city, don't you think?
Life in the Really Central Hostel: fun, friendly and with major electrical problems triggering a fire.
Motherland Statue: I love the combination of concrete, Cyrillic writing and the Motherland statue here. A more Ukrainian sight you will not see!
Kyiv's Motherland Statue, disparagingly-named Tin Tits by Kyivans.
Stalin Palace architecture along the main Vul Kreshatyk street. The red star at the top has now been painted blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
Overlooking the River Dnieper, a more Soviet-designed city you will not find. Kyiv is the very essence of Eastern Europe distilled into a single place.
The beautiful golden domes of the Church of St Michael.
The elegant tower and golden domes of The Lavra, an active Christian monastery in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The understated golden domes of Saint Sophia.
The circular formation of Kyiv's Independence Square whose buildings during Soviet times were once draped with huge red flags of Lenin and the hammer and sickle on national days of celebration. It was later the scene of the Orange Revolution which brought Yushenko to power following his infamous poisoning by some of Ukraine's darker political forces.
travel tips, links & resources
- If you want to travel to Chernobyl and the deserted town of Pripyat, make sure you do your research and arrange with an online travel agent before your arrival. It is one of my greatest regrets of my trip to Ukraine. Book early to avoid disappointment.
- Kyiv is perfectly navigable by foot and it's quite possible to see the main sights within a couple of days. Plan for at least two days - and add at least another day if you want a more relaxing saunter around the city.
- Kyiv, and Ukraine generally, is a veritable feast of Soviet design. Keep your eyes peeled to catch glimpses of Soviet-era symbolism from wheatsheaf to hammer and sickles. While the country is slowly doing away with this politically-toxic symbolism, it is still there if you look hard enough.
- Ukraine is an exceptionally inexpensive destination in which to travel - certainly compared to more famous capital cities on the continent. You can therefore afford to upgrade choices around where you eat and sleep. I, on the other hand, kept things as cheap as possible - Kyiv is an awesome destination for budget travellers.
- Kyiv goes by the epithet "The City of the Golden Domes" - and for good reason. I've always found this style of religious architecture completely fascinating simply because such domes represent something different from that which I grew up with. A great afternoon can be had going on a 'Church crawl' through the city.
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