19 May 2018
After my discovery of soviet-themed restaurant chain Katyusha, I knew I had to return for more rustic comfort food. On my second visit it was brunch time, and I opted for lemonade (I’ve discovered that in some parts of Eastern Europe lemonade doesn’t necessarily have lemon in it, it’s more a catch-all phrase for a fruity soft drink), tea with apple and cinnamon, borscht and potato pancakes (latkes) with a huge dollop of sour cream. The tea also came with some dry fruit bread to dip into it, which I quite enjoyed.
I had a cold and the weather outside was rather dreary, so a good portion of hearty food and lots of liquid was definitely in order.
My first sightseeing stop for the day was the famous Pecherska Lavra Cave Monastery, a huge complex of churches and monastic buildings decorated with a liberal smattering of golden domes and lots of baroque detailing. The complex also offers excellent views over the Dnieper River, plenty of shops selling icons and religious paraphernalia and several museums. As much as I enjoy the dark, incense-and-icon filled interiors of Orthodox Churches there is such a thing as reaching saturation point, so I mostly wandered through the complex, admiring the architecture, until I reached the main attraction: the caves.
It’s forbidden to take photographs inside the caves (and quite rightly, because the bottlenecks while people took a selfie with Nestor the Chronicler would be a nightmare), and women must also cover their heads and dress modestly. I’d forgotten my headscarf on this occasion, but luckily one can purchase something resembling a tea towel for the head quite cheaply. I was fortunate enough to be modestly dressed; women who were sporting skirts or shorts had to borrow a kind of ‘modesty apron’, the religious equivalent of having to root in the lost property box at school if you forgot your PE kit.
I’ve been reading Martin Sixsmith’s excellent ‘Russia: A 1000 year chronicle of the wild east’ in which the author visits the caves, so I had some idea what to expect, but it was still an extremely surreal experience. The caves are narrow, whitewashed passages lit only by candlelight, with nooks containing the glass-topped coffins of the mummified monks. Inside the coffins the monks are wrapped in shrouds, with just a shrivelled, black, mummified hand visible. The caves are considered to be one of the most important locations in the Orthodox faith, and pilgrims kiss the glass of the coffins, weep and pray as they make their way through the maze of passages. The most famous monk is Nestor the Chronicler, who wrote one of the earliest histories of the Russian lands. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the casket of this monk-historian, but I did jump out of my skin when an Orthodox priest with a long, Rasputin-like beard appeared from seemingly nowhere. I was glad to emerge afterwards into the fresh air; there’s a fervour and intensity about the caves that can be quite overwhelming, not to mention the dark, claustrophobic spaces.
Below: Some of the churches and buildings in the complex.
From the caves I headed towards another of Kyiv’s famous sights, the towering Motherland Monument. This enormous statue forms part of a broader war memorial complex featuring brutalist, raw concrete structures paired with reliefs and sculptures in soviet-realist style, showing heroic soldiers and scenes of battle. I didn’t have a chance to visit, but there’s also a museum dedicated to the Great Patriotic War housed inside the base of the statue.
The statue has attracted a great deal of controversy in the post-soviet era with some calling for her destruction, but for me at least it was one of the most staggering sights of my trip thus far, for the sheer scale of the monument. She still has the soviet symbol on her shield at present, but this will probably be removed in the near future as part of the decommunisation process. Perhaps then this monolithic work of art can begin to take on a new meaning, as a symbol of Ukrainian independence rather than a reminder of Russian rule and oppression.
Below: The Motherland Monument and surrounding complex.
My last stop of the day turned out to be somewhat disappointing. The ‘House with Chimeras’ is a bit of an architectural freak show, an art nouveau base topped with statues of weird and wonderful creatures, moulded in concrete. It isn’t possible to go inside or even get close to the building unless you’re on official business, as it’s part of the presidential complex. Instead I had to gawp from a gate, which is why the photographs are rather poor. It’s also really tricky to find the building, but it is worth it even just to peek from a distance. It is truly weird and the interior looks to be even stranger (google it), with moulding in the shape of squid tentacles forming a ceiling rose, and a balustrade designed to look like birds legs.
Below: The strangest building in Kyiv?
20 May 2018
After depositing my bags at the left luggage in Kyiv’s main station, I headed into the city to try and tick off any remaining sights, such as the Golden Gate (spoiler alert: it isn’t that golden), St Sophia’s Cathedral and a little alley filled with colourful, playful mosaic statues, literally called Sculptures Alley.
Below: The Golden Gate, once the main entry into the city in the times of Kievan Rus, when Kyiv, not Moscow, was the seat of power. It was rebuilt by the soviets in 1982 and there are doubts as to how accurate the reconstruction was.
Below: St Sophia’s Cathedral and her bell tower
Below: The colourful ‘Sculptures Alley’
The last site of the day was the Holodomor Memorial Complex, a museum and memorial site dedicated to the millions of victims of a deliberate famine created by the soviet government which devastated Ukraine in the 1930s. I knew that soviet agricultural policy had had devastating affects across the former soviet union, but until I visited the museum I didn’t know about the Holodomor (in Ukrainian the word means ‘murder by hunger’), which is classed as a genocide for its deliberate attempt to destroy the population of the Ukraine. For a long time it wasn’t know about internationally; two British journalists who tried to expose it were met with disbelief and ridicule and the soviets continued to deny its occurrence into the 1980s.
Although most of the museum interpretation is in Ukrainian, there is an excellent film at the entrance which can be shown in English, and a touch-screen interactive in the exhibition hall which has English language text. It’s a very moving place to visit, but vital in understanding Ukraine’s troubled recent history.
Below: The memorial to the Holodomor victims, a central tower shaped liked a memorial candle, a statue of a little girl clutching some wheat and a weeping angel, part of a pair at the entrance to the complex.
I fuelled up at the cheap and cheerful canteen chain Puzata Hata that I’d visited a few days before, stuffing myself with mushroom dumplings and sweet curd cheese pancakes, before heading to the train station. My destination? Minsk in Belarus, one of the least visited places in Europe.
Below: The gloriously ornate main train station in Kyiv.