The Russian invasion of Ukraine rages, and I am completely shocked and saddened and angered.
I’ll tell you what the capital city, Kiev, was like in 2019. But I worry what it is like now or will be like in weeks and months.
Standing in line at the immigration booths at Kiev's Borispil Airport, the scenario seemed a bit extreme. The immigration lines were guarded by young soldiers holding what looked to be machine guns, and if your one little toe crossed the line, they motioned you back with the tip of the gun. (My toes never crossed the line.) "Russian Nationals" were being turned away to fill out special forms. But now I know that Ukraine has a complicated history of conflict dating back centuries (especially with Russia), so maybe it is always on guard? And Borispil is apparently now bombed.
We were driven to our little apartment hotel by a driver (the simplest way when entering a huge, very foreign city, before you figure out the transit system). The newly refurbished hotel building was completely dichotomous with the oldest tram line in Kiev rattling and swaying right beneath our window. And that was a good metaphor for Kiev – the old and new melding together, remembering history but moving forward.
Kiev is a large city of roughly three million people covering 839 square kilometres, over 82% are Ukrainian and 13% are Russian (worldpopulationreview.com). According to britannica.com, which provides a good historic overview, Kiev is old, celebrating it’s 1,500th birthday in 1982! That’s a lot of candles. We were soon told to pronounce Kiev “Keev”, and that is another thing we now know – “Ki-ev” is the Russian pronunciation and, right now, they want very little to do with Russia.
Kiev.info describes the architecture of Kiev as “world treasures”. Being one of the oldest cities in Europe, it has well-established art and culture, with museums, galleries, theatres, and universities. Accounting-ukraine.kiev.ua tells us that Kiev is a “leading industrial and commercial centre” and is known as the “most green city”. There are two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kiev which speaks to it's grandeur.
Our main (and favourite) mode of transportation in Kiev was our feet. Navigating the streets was a fun challenge as there is very little similarity between the Cyrillic script and English. We also took the subway, including the deepest in the world, the Arsenalna station, 346 feet deep (businessinsider.com, ‘Take a look inside Kiev’s astonishing Soviet-era metro system . . . ‘). It was an eerie, over-four-minute, ride on escalators just to get to the platform! Arsenalna station, right now, is probably a bomb shelter.
We asked the hotel front desk clerks what they would recommend to see in Kiev and, being oblivious to the gorgeous historic monuments and museums and churches that are their every day life, they said we had to see the new transparent skybridge at Volodymyrska Parc. This is the entrance and a view of the Dnieper River from the bridge.
Although any city, especially a post eastern bloc city, is an attraction in itself, any Google search to find the main ‘attractions’ in Kiev points you to the churches. Two of the most impressive are Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Pechersk Lavra, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Touring Kiev’s churches could be the sole focus of a trip. They are truly spectacular, and their colourful domes help you navigate the city. Here's a small sample (the largest is part of the Pechersk Lavra).
Kiev has it’s war and freedom monuments, as does any good post eastern bloc city. Victory Park includes the Motherland Monument (taller than the Statue of Liberty) and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (planetware.com). But eastern Europe’s war museums are heavy and, by that point, after touring many, we chose not to go inside.
Independence Square is a huge focal point of ‘downtown’ Kiev, symbolizing Ukraine’s freedom. The column representing Ukrainian independence is found here. This is also the site of many demonstrations and open air concerts.
While I would rather just walk and explore local neighbourhoods, two streets in Kiev are popular. The ‘main’ and modern street of Kiev, Khreshchatyk, leads up to Independence Square, is lined with government offices, and is an upscale shopping and eating area. In contrast, Andriyivskyy Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent) is a historic street and is the shortest route from the upper city to the lower district (bestofukraine.com). It is a fun, steep little walk. But both are really touristy! These are pictures of the new and the old.
One of the things we loved about Kiev is the street art. The murals are now world-known and truly amazing! My bucket list includes returning to Kiev to search out every one of the 171 pieces (kyivmural.com has a map).
Another favourite was the less dramatic (in size) statues that could crop up anywhere and which still tell a story. I'm sure there are hundreds throughout the city. There is actually a list of "Top 8 Unusual Art Objects in Kyiv" (yourkievguide.com) that we did not see. Put it on the bucket list.
The blue hand at the top of this page is another 'lesser' statue but highly symbolic. Entitled "Middle Way", it symbolizes Ukraine's wish for "friendship and cooperation" (calvertjournal.com).
Kiev has all kinds of restaurants – traditional, upscale, and ‘ethnic’ and lots of coffee cafes. As our tiny apartment was just down the street from a traditional grocer, we picked up our daily supplies at the deli counter with the other locals, very cheap by western standards.
We barely touched the surface of Kiev. When we visited, it was one beautiful, smart, historic, energetic, young/old, dichotomous city.
Of course, the harm and death to the people themselves is the main tragedy, but I also can't fathom the damage being done to the city and wonder what will be left after the current invasion. Will the church domes still be standing? Will the street art still be waiting for us to discover? Will the little old tram line still rattle by?
One thing I do know is that Ukraine and Kiev will rebuild. They have done so many times before. And we will be ready.
(Pictures are all my own.)