Walking in the footsteps of my ancestors: Kyiv, part 1.

My dear readers (all 20 of you!) may have noticed by now that I’m hugely interested in slavic culture and in the histories of the slavic nations. What you may not know is that my ancestors (my great, great grandparents) came from this part of the world (at a time when it was a part of the Russian Empire), and fled during the pogroms.

I don’t know very much about it, but I do know that they were orphans, and apparently bribed border guards as part of their escape. I remember my Mum telling me that they came from the Ukraine, but more recently I found mention of Kholopenichi, a small Jewish village in Northern Belarus (I don’t think it is inhabited any longer), so there may be a Belarusian connection too.

I’ve always had these little snippets of family history in my mind and I have a fascination with my ancestry, which I think is why I’m so interested in this part of the world and its cultures, art, food and histories. One day I’ll research it all and do a longer Eastern European trip to properly explore where they came from, as I know there is also Polish ancestry on that side of the family (my great-grandfather, I think).

Although I won’t visit the towns and villages that my ancestors came from on this trip, the more I understand about the histories of their homelands, the better I can paint a picture of how their lives might have been.

A bad taxi ride and a bowl of my favourite soup: my first couple of days in Kyiv.

16 May 2018

I’d imagined visiting Kyiv for so long that I was like a child at Disneyland when I finally arrived.

Every golden domed church elicited an ‘aaaah’, and I had to stop myself from doing excited jumps when I spotted the famous, towering ‘Motherland’ statue from afar. Twiddly Baroque architecture, onion-domed orthodox churches and socialist era public art are three of my favourite things to look at, so Kyiv was an absolute visual feast.

I have wanted to see this statue in person for so many years!

It’s a beautiful but somewhat chaotic city: there are people selling stuff on every inch of the street, heavy traffic and advertisements everywhere – perhaps an attempt to compensate for the lack of commercialism during the soviet period. Unfortunately this rampant capitalism at times disturbs the architectural aesthetic of the city. The country has recently been ‘de-communised’, that is to say that any obviously communist symbols have been removed from public buildings, monuments and artworks, often with no sympathy for the work (offending parts of mosaics hacked off, for instance).

The same lack of respect seems to go for buildings and artworks created during that period but permitted to remain as they lack overtly soviet ideological imagery – I found a street of incredibly beautiful mosaics (see below), that had been partly obscured by shop signage. The metro system (the deepest in the world!) has the most breathtaking stations, like a pared-down Moscow Metro, however the aesthetic is often spoiled by advertisements. I can understand why people don’t wish to be reminded of an oppressive regime, but I also believe that art can and should be detached from the original propagandistic function it held, and enjoyed either purely for aesthetic pleasure or used as a tool for learning about the past.

I’ll close that can of worms (for now) and continue detailing my adventures.

*

Arriving into Kyiv by sleeper train from Chisinau, my first reaction was shock: the train station area was bewilderingly chaotic, with stalls and kiosks at every turn, at least 3 branches of McDonald’s and billboards everywhere I looked. I knew I could take a metro to my hostel but I couldn’t find a lift or escalator into the metro, and my second choice option of an uber was impossible without wifi. In hindsight (and please note, I have learned from my mistake!) I should have gone to McDonald’s and used their wifi, but in my hot, tired and bewildered state I wasn’t thinking properly, and so made a costly error: taking a taxi.

I insisted on using the meter, and followed the journey using offline maps on my phone to make sure I wasn’t being taken a long route. When we arrived at the hostel there was a huge string of digits on the meter, which I quickly worked out to be the equivalent of £80! The driver must have had a fake meter, because there was no way a 20 minute journey should have cost that much. The driver started to get pretty annoyed with me as I sat and argued with him (my stubbornness knows no equivalent) – in the end I handed over the equivalent of around £30 and told him that was all he was getting. Luckily he accepted (I think he’d had enough of me), and even proceeded to carry my heavy bag down the stairs towards the hostel – I wonder if he felt bad?!

I was so angry at myself for getting fleeced: on the way back several days later I took an uber, which cost just over £2 (and the driver gave me a cough sweet for my sore throat, so it was win-win really).

*

Once I’d checked in I decided to cheer myself up in my favourite way: with food, and lots of it. I’m a huge fan of stodgy, warming Eastern European fayre (dumplings, pancakes, potato pancakes, soup etc) and I quite often try to cook these dishes at home with ingredients sourced from Polish and other Eastern European grocery shops. I stumbled upon my ideal restaurant, and it completely cheered me up after the taxi fiasco.

Katyusha is a chain of restaurants where the decor is a throwback to the days of the USSR, with vintage living-room furniture, TVs showing sci-fi films from that era, shelves of kitsch crockery and bowls of boiled sweets everywhere. The menu has food from different countries of the former USSR (such as Georgian & Russian), and there are hundreds of choices. I opted for borscht with sour cream (my favourite type of soup, in joint first place with Heinz cream of tomato) followed by potato dumplings and more sour cream, all washed down with a jug of lemonade. It was so good, I went again later that week.

Fortified and feeling less angry with the world, I returned to the hostel and slept like a baby (not surprisingly, given that the previous night had been spent aboard a sweaty sleeper train).

17 May 2018

The first stop for my first full day exploring the city was Maiden Square, famously a site of revolution and protest, which during my visit was being decked out ahead of the Champion’s League Final, as was the rest of the city. Seeing Liverpool FC banners so far from home was quite surreal.

Underneath Maiden Square is a shopping centre with a big food court, including a branch of the Ukrainian canteen chain Puzata Hata, where you can eat cheap and cheerful traditional food including soups, salads (dill in every bite!), dumplings, pancakes and nice stodgy desserts. After a quick lunch I headed up towards the ‘One Street Museum’, passing the glimmering St Michael’s Golden-domed Monastery and St Andrew’s Church on my way.

Below: Maiden Square, St Michael’s golden-domed Monastery & St Andrew’s Church.

The premise of the One Street Museum is to tell the story of Andriyivskyy Descent (the hill on which the museum is located). The street has had a lot of famous and important residents, and due to its location in one of the oldest parts of the city, the history of the street also reflects the story of Kyiv. It’s a very sweet museum, with objects belonging to former residents and recreated period interiors displayed in glass shop windows. There is an English language pamphlet, but even without this the objects on display and the manner of their display would still be interesting, particularly to a museum fanatic like myself. There was also a temporary display of famous people’s death masks, including Trotsky, Ned Kelly and Eva Peron. The photos are a bit creepy, so I won’t share them here lest you have nightmares.

Below: Inside the ‘One Street’ museum

Next on my museum tour was the National Chernobyl Museum, dedicated to the story of the world’s worst nuclear disaster and the many thousands of people who were affected by it. It’s a very moving museum, and an essential visit for anyone whether they plan to visit the exclusion zone or not. It’s a powerful reminder of just how catastrophic a disaster it was, and how the soviet regime worsened the situation with misinformation, lies and cover-ups. The exterior of the museum has a small display of emergency services vehicles used in the cleanup, as you can see below.

Feeling rather sober, I made my next stop the nearby ferris wheel for some lovely views over the city, and then headed to the funicular railway to save my weary legs from a long uphill walk.

Below: Riding the ferris wheel!

I’m quite a fan of a funicular, and the one in Kyiv, like the one in Montmartre, forms part of the city’s public transport infrastructure. A ride costs less than a bag of crisps, and it’s worth it for the station architecture even if you’re not a nerd about old-fashioned forms of transport like myself (don’t get me started on how much I love trolleybuses). The vaulted ceiling, stained glass and amber-coloured wall lamps are especially beautiful.

Below: The very lovely funicular.

Exhausted from all the museum-going, and in need a pick me up, I stopped into a cafe chain called Stolle, which serves huge slices of pie in lots of different flavours. I opted for mixed berry pie, with a refreshing glass of cranberry mors, a slightly tart (and sometimes smoky-tasting) juice drink found in neighbouring slavic countries too. It’s very refreshing, and I’m definitely going to be drinking a lot of it during my hot, sticky train journeys across Russia.

I had an early bedtime ahead of an early start the next morning, for my tour to the site of one of the most infamous and tragic events in recent Ukrainian history. I’ll follow up with a post about that and the rest of my Ukrainian adventures very soon.

To be continued

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