Kyiv 2014

My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine

March 8 (Saturday at Lavra, city parks, and malls)

On March 8, I read an editorial by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in which she wrote

"The notion that the United States could step back, lower its voice about democracy and human rights and let others lead assumed that the space we abandoned would be filled by democratic allies, friendly states and the amorphous 'norms of the international community.'"

There is something to that, but it struck me as a contrast to the one time I saw her speak in person, when she was transitioning from Stanford to the George W. Bush campaign, and spoke at a Stanford event. I noticed no mention of human rights in her speech and asked her about that. Her response seemed to pay mere lip service to the concept. Not that I should have expected differently. Perhaps her most famous speech, at least up to then, was actually given in Kyiv itself, back in 1991, by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush. This came to be disparaged as "the Chicken Kiev speech." In it, the Ukrainian desire for independence from the Soviet Union was cautioned against due to the potential for "suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred." Voters felt differently, though: 92.3% of Ukrainian voters would go on to endorse their parliament's declaration of independence, including a majority of Crimean voters. But opposing Crimea's further secession now — just like opposing Ukrainian independence then — would be consistent with the realist desire for stability above all, whether or not this view was couched in the language of human rights.

After reading Rice's article, I quickly got up for an early start to my day. I again went by the unknown soldier and Holodomor memorials, the thick fog now replaced by bright sun. Across from the latter was graffiti expressing similar thoughts to Rice's, but much more succinctly, i.e., "FUCK PUTIN." However, instead of the second "U," there was a backwards "N"; clearly the person who did this had some familiarity with English, but did not realize that, unlike in Cyrillic, what looks like a "U" in handwriting is not a backwards "N" when printed. (This is one of many "false friends" one finds between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.)

Pretty much
Pretty much

Tomb of the unknown soldier (left) and Holodomor memorial (right)
Tomb of the unknown soldier (left) and Holodomor memorial (right)

Eternal flame with the buildings on the east side of the Dnieper River in the background
Eternal flame with the buildings on the east side of the Dnieper River in the background

Holodomor memorial (up close)
Holodomor memorial (up close)

Holodomor memorial (wide view)
Holodomor memorial (wide view)

On a later day, I would see a somewhat similar mistake in a nearby museum: An English explanation with the very non-English "word," "dйcor" rather than "décor." In both cases, they're an "e" sound with a diacritic, so I could see the thinking, even though the Ukrainian for "décor" is a more straight-forward transliteration.

The museum I saw this at was at the huge Pechersk Lavra (Cave Monastery) religious complex, founded in 1051 and arguably the primary tourist and religious attraction of Ukraine. It is large enough that it is difficult to do it justice in one day; I'd try my best this day, but have to see other things — like "dйcor" — on another. Its structures are built on the hill leading down to the river, so many of them are visible in much of Kyiv.

Here my lack of ability in Ukrainian and Russian was the most evident, but also rather amusing. Two or three times I asked someone whether or not they spoke English, and the conversation turned out consisting of a mix of German and English, almost as though they didn't realize they were speaking two different languages, just whatever words were, to them, "not Russian or Ukrainian." Good thing I knew some German, and tried to use words I thought they'd know.

When I got there, it was around the opening hour, but for some reason there was no one to take either my entrance fee (about 30 cents) or my fee for the exhibits. Nonetheless, I walked around a bit, looking at the beautiful and historic (though mostly reconstructed) buildings — and views of not only the complex, but of the city and the river. However, not only wasn't it clear what I needed a ticket for, it also wasn't clear what was open. For example, after seeing that the Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art Museum's front door was locked, I asked at the Lavra entryway about that, and the person insisted it was open. I went back, and I still couldn't find an open entrance. Similarly, there was no entry to the main hall of the ornate Cathedral of the Dormition (just the side); to the Refectory Church, closed for renovation (though the ajar door allowed a bit of a peek); or to the Kyiv landmark, the Great Lavra Belltower (just plain closed, as, I'd find out later, was the Church of the Saviour at Berestove). These were, however, impressive from the outside and, making my way beyond them, I went to the caves themselves.

The Lavra belltower, with the Cathedral of the Dormition in the foreground
The Lavra belltower, with the Cathedral of the Dormition in the foreground

The Cathedral of the Dormition, with the Lavra belltower in the foreground in the foreground
The Cathedral of the Dormition, with the Lavra belltower in the foreground in the foreground

The Refectory Church, with the Cathedral of the Dormition in the background
The Refectory Church, with the Cathedral of the Dormition in the background

Belltower detail
Belltower detail

Cathedral detail
Cathedral detail

Back of the cathedral detail
Back of the cathedral detail

Kyiv and the Dnieper from Lavra
Kyiv and the Dnieper from Lavra

Originally designed for shelter, the caves eventually served as catacombs for the monks, though the exact location and construction of the caves has not remained the same through centuries of renovation, expansion, and reconstruction. If you believe the tales of 16th- and 17th-century travelers, they used to extend for hundreds of miles, all the way to Moscow and Novogorod. Currently — and, I'm told, historically — there are two cave systems, the "Near Caves" and the "Far Caves." They weren't easy to find without a guide — the Lavra complex is, well, complex — but I eventually made my way to and through each of them.

A church near one cave complex, with small graveyard to the left
A church near one cave complex, with small graveyard to the left

Before entering the caves, you must buy a candle to light your way. Though not packed, the caves were surprisingly full given the time of day. They are also big; not hundreds of miles, but certainly enough to require a fair bit of time given the various pilgrims praying at and kissing each station. They even had a religious service going on in one of the tiny underground churches adjacent to the cave paths. All the decoration lacks description, let alone English explanation, but I later learned that the underground churches include 18th-century icons, among other historic items. Each body was wrapped well in a large, heavy, detailed burial cloth which could be seen through the glass-topped coffin. (Allegedly, in Soviet times, there was no such cloth, leading to their being termed "mummies.") For those who don't have a good handle on Ukrainian Orthodox customs, belief, or history, this could get a bit repetitive after a while, but I spent time trying to figure out what I could — trying to decipher the names of the departed. I didn't know whether the partly unfamiliar old-style Cyrillic text was Russian, Ukraine, Church Slavonic, or something else.

After all that, I was hungry, so I stopped by one of the church cafeterias ("bakeries"), and, with some online searching, determined that they had a cabbage and onion coulibiac — a Russian savory pie — something perfect for snacking on while continuing to the next Lavra attraction.

After looking around a bit more, I proceeded to a sales cashier, asking about the micro-miniatures museum. She seemed not to understand what I was saying, and eventually gave me a $2.50 ticket to... something. That price was nowhere to be found on their price sheet, at least not for non-students, so I wasn't quite sure what she had given me. My best guess was that, because so many things were closed, the fee to see the main museums had been reduced. Either that or she assumed I was a student. But this wouldn't be the first time pricing would be confusing and/or flexible.

The interior of one of many buildings in the Lavra complex
The interior of one of many buildings in the Lavra complex

It turned out that paying for the micro-miniatures museum was only done at the entry to the museum itself. This collection of about 15 or 20 works of art over the last half century was housed in a single room, but could have, theoretically, been housed in a shot glass or maybe a thimble. Artwork sizes only went up to that of a cherry pit and features were far, far smaller than the width of a human hair. Mounted on the walls with magnifying glasses and minimal English-language descriptions, it was interesting and worthwhile. Perhaps more interesting was how they used the floor-space in the middle of the room: Therein was yet another exhibit on the Holodomor, the mass-starvation of Ukraine in the early 1930s. Included in this, for some reason, were letters in a 1939 correspondence between Hitler and Stalin; I don't read Russian, but I'm going to guess that neither of them came out looking good there.

Micro-miniatures museum with Holodomor exhibit in the center
Micro-miniatures museum with Holodomor exhibit in the center

After seeing the relatively small Gate Church and All Saints Church, most notable for their frescos, I went to the "Ukraine for the World" exhibit, housing a number of treasures and artifacts representing the ancient societies of what is now Ukraine. I then went to the comprehensive set of exhibits with artifacts from a thousand years of Lavra history. These were rather exhaustive, though towards the end, I noticed less and less English. By that point, though, this was almost a relief.

The Gate Church, entrance to the Lavra complex
The Gate Church, entrance to the Lavra complex

A wider view on a cloudier day
A wider view on a cloudier day

By the time I got to the museum of theater and musical instruments, I just about had my fill of museums for the day, so when they told me this one had an additional admission fee, albeit only $1.50, I started to leave. But they called after me that they'd just say I was a student and change me 70 cents, so I decided not to disappoint them. Inside, it seemed as though I was the only one in the museum, and I was led on a guided tour — albeit in Ukrainian or Russian — I didn't know which, though I think some German or English snuck in there too. In the theater portion of the museum, the playbills, posters, and photos told the story, so not much English was required.

My guide pointed out a theatrically related event that had occurred in Tiraspol. "Oh, in Moldova," I replied. "No, in Ukraine," she corrected. It turns out there is a good reason for this misunderstanding. Before WWII, Tiraspol was the capital of Ukrainian SSR's Moldavian ASSR. (ASSRs are one level below SSRs.) Moldavian SSR — later Moldova — was formed by combining parts of the Ukrainian region with parts of axis power Romania absorbed by the Soviet Union. (In this reorganization, Ukrainian SSR received the part of Romania that included the northernmost mouths of the Danube.)

This land exchange is relevant to today's Crimean crisis for two reasons. The first has to do with the notion that Crimea is rightly Russian either because it has a Russian majority or because it was part of Russia prior to 1954. In the latter case, we see that Moscow felt free to shift the borders of its SSRs (which is also how the German Königsberg region wound up as Russian Kaliningrad). Russia has as much claim to the Crimea as Ukraine does to Tiraspol, but you don't hear any agitation for the later. (If Tiraspol and other former Ukrainian lands were returned to Ukraine, it could theoretically solve a few problems, but more on that later.)

As for the population argument, that also returns us to WWII, when under the guise of being Nazi collaborators, the native Crimean Tatars were completely ethnically cleansed, with a high percentage dying in the process. Some eventually returned, but this marked the point at which Crimea's Russian minority became a Russian majority.

And that piece of Ukrainian SSR now a part of Moldova? Well, it turns out that its largely non-Moldovan population didn't want to be a part of the new state in 1990, and proclaimed a Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, the unrecognized state of Transnistria. Russia was decisive in the unrecognized state's war of independence and now has "peacekeepers" permanently stationed there. The state is arguably the last relic of the USSR, its authoritarian communist government remaining after all others had fallen, complete with flag and emblem with hammer and sickle, as well as endemic corruption far outpacing even that of its infamous neighbors. It is one of many unrecognized states Moscow uses to weaken its neighbors, the newest of which might be Crimea itself. Those who cite Russia as being far from Moldova or from Western Ukraine — thus having no pressure points on the population there — are forgetting the existence of this nuisance republic. The logical "solution" to this would be to apportion Moldova as before WWII, the majority-Slavic Transnistrian side reverting to Ukraine, and the other side going to Romania; Moldovan and Romanian cultures, ethnicities, and languages are virtual indistinguishable. Of course, the people and their leadership probably wouldn't go with this solution. Authoritarian states rarely yield power willingly, especially those with Moscow's backing.

As I walked out of the Lavra complex and passed the closed-for-renovation Church of the Saviour at Berestove, I knew I was overdue for lunch. To get back to the city center (or the nearest Metro station) required going traversing a street via a subterranean passage. These are more common in Eurasia than they are in the U.S., and, also unlike the U.S., there they usually have shops in them, for an efficient use of space. This one was complete with a food court, so I ordered a falafel wrap (tightly wrapped, so it looked deceptively small). The person asked whether I wanted "tea" as well, but the "tea" tasted more like fruit juice, so I'm guessing that was another mistranslation.

Church of the Saviour at Berestove, physically outside the Lavra complex, but considered part of it, was not the only Lavra church undergoing renovation while I was there.
Church of the Saviour at Berestove, physically outside the Lavra complex, but considered part of it, was not the only Lavra church undergoing renovation while I was there.

It hit the spot, though, so I was ready to keep walking, through the green space on the western side of the Dnieper. This led to the Presidential Palace, currently not in use due to refurbishing; I'd thought that this was unrelated to the political troubles, but later I heard that Maidan protesters marched on the Palace, so perhaps I was mistaken.

Also, across from the Palace was a pedestal that seemed to be missing a statue. I wondered if some folks hadn't decided to take down a representation — likely Soviet — of Moscow there. I know that many reading this will assume this was Lenin, but it wasn't Lenin. We'll get to him later. Long after these events, I found out that it was a monument to the "heroes" of the October Revolution, the one that swept the Communist Bolsheviks into power. I still haven't found a photo of what the statue looked like prior to the 2014 Revolution, though.

Currently unused Presidential Palace
Currently unused Presidential Palace

Base with missing statue, plague, and wreath art
Base with missing statue, plague, and wreath art

Walking further through the park, I came across a crowd gathered on a hazardously steep drop-off with one section of railing missing. Some folks were examining the drop-off and what was below more diligently than others, and at the top were teen boys on bicycles. They looked like they were preparing for a jump, though what they could land on that wouldn't hospitalize or kill them I have no idea. Every once in a while one would speed to the edge and trust his brakes to stop him a few inches short of disaster. It reminded me of the shocking statistic that Ukraine had the second-highest death rate in the world (per year per capita). First was South Africa (and that first-place distinction now seems suspect with their falling to #46 for the 2015 estimate, Ukraine retaining #2, with South-Africa-enclaved Lesotho jumping to #1). In Ukraine, much of the death seems due to "misadventure," though jumping off of cliffs is less common than the banal "adventure" of alcohol poisoning. The men are especially susceptible to such preventable deaths.

Bikers contemplating going over the edge
Bikers contemplating going over the edge

And these are a lot of people we're talking about. Ukraine is the largest country wholly contained within Europe, though Russia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan — each partly in Europe and partly in Asia — all have more square mileage. However, although Ukraine ranks in the top ten in terms of population, Russia holding the #1 spot, both of them are falling rapidly, even in comparison to countries that have some of the slowest population growth rates in the world. This is one reason why many Westerners see Russia's newfound aggressiveness as that of a nation in decline.

While the men in Ukraine (and, to a lesser extent, Russia) are known for dying, the Ukrainian women are known for their beauty. During the Cold War, this was certainly not the prevailing wisdom, our most common view of Eastern-bloc women being the steroid-popping Olympians. The idea that Ukrainian women were beautiful was, back then, good for a laugh line in a Beatles song. But today it's a different story. This is especially noticeable via the less subjective — but very relative — metric of thinness. Perhaps this, as with the high death rate, is related to cigarette usage, the sixth-highest in the world.

Whatever the reason, when Mila got here, she felt pressure to lose weight, even though she had just finished a weight-loss challenge, and wasn't overweight even before that. She claimed that she hadn't really lost weight since, but I thought differently the moment I saw her. During the course of my visit, she mentioned how — from pants to rings — things she brought with her were now too big. So clearly she had lost weight — later access to a scale confirmed it — and probably would not gain it back too soon.

After a while around the biking boys, though, it seemed like nothing was going to happen, and I moved on. The hundred-year-old, lock-laden Lovers' Bridge links the park I was in to the park adjacent to the city center, this over another extreme drop. After crossing it, I saw a statue of an elderly couple; apparently, the couple was a Ukrainian-Italian couple brought together in an Austrian war camp in 1943, and then ripped apart at the end of the war. They reunited six decades later — on TV. The poster telling this story encouraged couples to pose with the statue and share their photos via social media. This is not your father's war monument (and, to be fair, is barely a war monument at all).

Lovers' Bridge
Lovers' Bridge

Lovers' Bridge statue
Lovers' Bridge statue

Venturing further, there were horses for children to pet and a beautiful building that turned out to be a children's museum, with the antiseptic name, "Water Information Centre." A path then led down to the edge of the Maidan protest area, and I walked up to the one major central church I hadn't yet seen, St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, reconstructed in the 1990 after being destroyed by the Soviets. The reconstruction was impressive and beautiful, and all the paraffin smoke from all the candles burning inside made the sun's rays rather striking against the art deco frescos inside.

Water Information Centre
Water Information Centre

View from park to edge of Euromaidan area
View from park to edge of Euromaidan area

Memorial
Memorial

St. Michael's
St. Michael's

Adjacent was a large Euromaidan memorial, and just outside was another series of flowers and candles, though I later learned that this was a monument for the Holodomor (which later that day I would see referred to as "the Communist inquisition"). Again, the parallel was difficult to avoid. Across the street was another small encampment, and, as I went to meet Mila for a late lunch / early dinner, Google Maps said the best walking route was right through the Maidan. I guess Google never got the memo from the State Department.

Memorial to the fallen in St. Michael's complex
Memorial to the fallen in St. Michael's complex

Small memorial to the Holodomor just outside St. Michael's complex
Small memorial to the Holodomor just outside St. Michael's complex

Euromaidan camp across the street from St. Michael's
Euromaidan camp across the street from St. Michael's

This being a weekend, the Maidan was busier than ever. I had a chance to have a really good look around the square itself, not just the surrounding areas. One thing I noticed was that one of the tables, where a woman was selling various historical books and knickknacks, had a box full of tiny red and green plastic swastikas.

Swastikas for sale at the Maidan
Swastikas for sale at the Maidan

This is... not something you'd see in the states, and I was left wondering what the appeal was. Were these supposed to be historical artifacts (accurate or anachronistic)? Were they supposed to appeal ironically, to those resenting Russian accusations of Ukrainian "fascism"? Or were they actually meant to appeal to a demand — real or imagined — from far-right elements of the Maidan. I must admit, I did see two swastikas spray-painted in Kyiv, though not in the Maidan, and I'd seen and would see similar numbers in cities to the west, including the next city I'd travel to, Krakow, Poland. So I'm not sure what to make of it, but it is a shame. Never mind their anti-Semitic implications; Putin apologists would have a field day with this one vendor's choice of merchandise. (In fact, my only other instance of seeing a swastika on the Maidan was one drawn on Putin's forehead, which has a pretty unquestionable interpretation.)

When you invade and annex pieces of your neighbors, expect a swastika-on-the-forehead photo from time to time.
When you invade and annex pieces of your neighbors, expect a swastika-on-the-forehead photo from time to time.

Putin, and the history of rule from Moscow in general, was a target of Euromaidan posters, in ways I've previously mentioned: An English-and-Ukrainian poster series calling the Holodomor "the Communist inquisition," the pun on Putin's name and "so long." And then there was a poster for today's International Women's Day. As far as I can tell, it had a Ukrainian housewife asking, "Who wanted the Crimean turnovers?" to a pleading Putin, who replies, "No beating today, lady, it's a holiday!"

Euromaidan protest poster imagines a fearful Putin
Euromaidan protest poster imagines a fearful Putin

Then again, maybe if he were in the Maidan area, he would be fearful
Then again, maybe if he were in the Maidan area, he would be fearful

Fittingly, 97 years prior, International Women's Day demonstrations sparked another February Revolution, the one that overturned the Russian Empire, leading to Russian democracy and Ukrainian independence — but only for a brief while.

The sidewalk in front of one of the Maidan-adjacent subway stations.
The sidewalk in front of one of the Maidan-adjacent subway stations.

The crowd in Maidan was big enough that folks had to funnel through to move, and the streets near the protest were busy with the usual weekend commerce, including women dressed up in Renaissance style clothing, selling sweets in front of the subway at which I met Mila. As this was near the Maidan, we went back to Z.B. I suppose no one can say I sampled a large variety of Ukrainian restaurants, but Mila knows her favorites and, better yet, knows what's vegetarian. I went for the salad bar again, got another compote, and then got an apple blintz; I wasn't hungry enough for the varenyky, and, besides, I'd had plenty already, both in restaurants and from the frozen food section of local supermarkets (though not, ironically enough, at Varenicnaya Katysha).

Also, I wanted to save some room for dessert. This was the day we finally went to the Roshen store, and I bought some candy for myself and for folks back home. Not as much as I would have had I had unlimited space in my suitcase, of course. They did have quite a selection, though, and, even at the company store, candy seemed about a quarter to a third of the price as the same product in California. They even had the candy box I'd often buy in the States — liqueur-filled chocolates — but for much, much less, only $1.50. There's a heavy markup on imported items it seems, at least candy. That works two ways, though; Mila told me that Lindt chocolates are triple the price in Kyiv as in the U.S., and you can't buy peanut butter candy at all. I brought nearly the legally maximum importable in Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for her students. Though Snickers, M&Ms, and others Mars products are prevalent there, there are still some things missing (and, I'm told, even Snickers doesn't taste the same there).

Candy actually plays on outside role in politics, since the Roshen baron, Petro Poroshenko, is a billionaire backer of the Euromaidan protests and the Orange Revolution before that. Paradoxically, he also helped found the party that brought Yanukovych to power, the Party of Regions, often called "pro-Russian." Until recently Poroshenko even served under him. In response to his latest political moves, Russia banned importation of the chocolates for "safety" reasons and seized and shuttered their Russian factory and warehouse. According to the linked Guardian article, among other sources, Poroshenko is the front-runner for May's presidential elections. (Note: Since I first wrote this, he has, indeed, become Ukraine's president.)

After chocolate, we went to the nearby underground mall, this one as good as any above-ground mall. I bought several souvenirs: painted boxes, beads, a handmade mini-vase, and refrigerator magnets. The last two were bought at a booth that was uncharacteristically outside of the stores. In the Maidan, vendors were selling the magnets for $1 apiece, but here I could buy several at this price. Just after leaving, Mila told me that the vendor had said that this had been a slow day, and we were her first customers! Given the low price of the products, I wondered how that worked. Did she start late? Was it the nature of weekend shopping? Was it the infamously bad Ukrainian economy? Or did she pick a bad business and location? She seemed nice and had interesting items at good prices, so I hope she's able to hang on.

We capped off the day with a visit to a large supermarket, Novus, but all I recall from that were the sweets we bought: Ice cream, a rich pastry/cake, and more candy, both Ukrainian and international. Overall, it was a long day that, it seems, inspired more questions than answers about the state of Ukraine and Kyiv in 2014. Good thing I'm not a reporter.

start // back / next