My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine
March 5 (Wednesday up St. Andrew's Descent)
Wednesday Mila showed me around the lower part of the town, the part nearer to river level, called "Podil," literally "lower part." She lives near the river, too, but on the other side from all things touristy, on Rusanivka, a small "island" formed by what seemed like a canal ringing it on three sides, the river being the fourth. It was mostly a mix of high-rise and green space, with most roads being more like alleys. Still, it has restaurants and supermarkets, as well as little booths and tables selling everything from bread to phone cards and from produce to lottery tickets. A tiny church is located just across from the pedestrian bridge I'd use once or twice a day. The island even has its own "well," though Mila told me that (a) it doesn't actual look like a pre-modern well and (b) it is easier just to buy water from the store, which is what she does. Kyiv's tap water is not safe to drink.
We wandered around Podil until we got to the Chernobyl museum, which, like the others, was rich was artifacts but a little short on description. Mila nonetheless remarked on how well done it was, and, I had to agree that the exhibits were impressive. And, in spite of my complaints about narrative, the exhibit did make it clear that the USSR kept too tight a lid on information, news of the accident only coming out when Western countries raised alarm about the amount of radioactive material being detected. We'll never know how many people died needlessly due to Moscow's refusal to allow free flow of information. The museum drew parallels with the victims of nuclear weapons in Japan, and, though I didn't see it stated there, I've heard allegations that Chernobyl was designed primarily to produce weapons-grade plutonium, with power production a byproduct. Downstairs from the main exhibit was a large display about the Fukushima disaster, with all its parallels to the far worse disaster at Chernobyl.
After this, Mila took me to one of the restaurants of the restaurant chain Varenicnaya Katysha. This was more of a traditional restaurant, but with décor — including books and artwork — based on what one would find in a Ukrainian home. Their Facebook page gives a taste of the nostalgia, if not the food. One dish we had was a bread-like dumpling stuffed with potatoes, and the other was cabbage, also stuffed. Again quite good and again, even with a latte — a habit Mila picked up in Kyiv — quite cheap.
This was the day on which NATO made a statement about the Crimean crisis, and a few hours before the statement, a woman I bought something from commented — in Russian, which Mila understands — that she heard a rumor that Ukraine would join NATO. I wondered whether that inspired cheer or fear — after all, she was speaking Russian — and Mila told me that it sounded like the former. That contrasts with what Mila's Russian grandparents had been hearing — either through the rumor mill or through Russian media — that people get shot here just for speaking Russian in public. I'd guess most people, even Ukrainian-speakers, do in fact speak Russian in public now and again; ads and other public displays are often in Russian (though more often in Ukrainian). The menu of the restaurant was also in Russian, as were the placemats. There was a bit of another language on the menus, but that language was English. (If you read neither language, there were also pictures of the food.) The students in Mila's English class, when not speaking English to each other, speak Russian, not Ukrainian. It's a bit reminiscent of Montreal, in that official signs are all in one of the widely spoken languages, but people and businesses are just as comfortable dealing with the other. Yet Russian media were telling those in urbane St. Petersburg that this is what's happening in Kyiv. Imagine what they heard in occupied Crimea on the run-up to an anti-Ukrainian plebiscite.
Rumors here have been rampant for some time. In October 2013, Mila wrote me, saying that her students were talking about the U.S. dollar buying half as many hryvnia as before. The rumor was that confidence in the dollar due to the debt ceiling crisis would cause either the dollar to be devalued by two or the Ukrainian currency to be revalued by two. That's clearly against the trend, but understandable give the low cost of living here and past experience with currency instability. She wondered if it might be best to keep the money she earned in the local currency. I strongly advised her, "This is not a currency to trust over the dollar." By the time I visited, it was worth less than ever — sliding about 20% — and she couldn't convert what she'd kept, due to new limits on transfers abroad. As this article points out, that's only more likely to cause a black market in which the currency is worth far less.
The strange thing is that currency traders are both buying and selling hryvnia for prices above the market rate, selling hryvnia for as little as seven to a dollar and always buying below the market rate of ten. This seemed at odds with reality; wouldn't the locals just show up and trade their money for dollars? But, of course, if there are currency exchange limits, there will be even stricter regulations at tourist money exchange spots. Apparently, in order to get your dollars back, you need to show them the receipt you used to buy your hryvnia in the first place.
After lunch, we went up the road used most commonly for going from Podil to the historic upper city, Andriyivskyy (St. Andrew's) Descent. Mila told me there were some of the most expensive homes nearby — many still unsold — and that there were usually many merchants selling various items along the street. Due to it being a weekday, however, we only started seeing them as we neared the top. A few days later — on a weekend with better weather — the merchants went all the way to the bottom of the hill. Due to the fog, the views walking up weren't what they'll be a few days later, but it was still an essential Kyiv experience, and I did indeed wind up buying souvenirs on the way up.
Near the top is a smaller one of Kyiv's historic churches, St. Andrew's, and, just past the top, is one of the largest, St. Sophia's, supposedly named after the even-older Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. A statue of hetman (military commander) Bohdan Khmelnytsky is in front of it. He liberated Kyiv (and much of modern-day Ukraine) from Polish rule in the 17th century, but left it under the protection of the Russian Empire to legitimize the separation from the Poles. The Russian Empire viewed this less as a protectorate than an acquisition. The original statue dates from 1888, and the Tsarist leadership convinced its sculptor not to show the heads of the vanquished — a Pole, a Jew, and a Catholic priest — under the hooves of Khmelnytsky's horse. Khmelnytsky's forces killed half the Jews in the land he conquered.
The less offensive version allowed Russia to use the monument (and Khmelnytsky's memory) to demonstrate the strong ties between Russia and Ukraine, though obviously Ukrainian nationalists have a different interpretation of these historical events; they view Khmelnytsky as a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism. To that end, on the base of the state is a plaque regarding Yanukovych's challenger in the Orange Revolution, then-President-elect Viktor Yushchenko. It reads (in Ukrainian), "At this point, January 22, 2005, the free voice of the Great Council of the Ukrainian Cossacks chose, swore in, and ordained a hetman, Ukraine national President Viktor Yushchenko. Glory to Ukraine!" That seemed a bit confusing, especially because Yushchenko wasn't sworn in until the next day. But I later found that, the day prior to his inauguration, he took part in a ceremony pledging allegiance to the Cossack brotherhood and Ukraine. This traditional (or pseudo-traditional) ceremony was clearly meant as a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, and thus opposition to fealty to Moscow. And, indeed, the phrase "Glory to Ukraine" is a slogan seen all throughout Euromaidan, including over its main stage.
The cathedral complex itself is large and historic, and the cathedral itself is chock full of 11th century frescos and mosaics. There was a lot to see, although unfortunately continued restoration worked blocked much of the view. There were also exhibit halls upstairs, with newer works, replicas, and similarly old works from a nearby historic church destroyed by the Soviets. There are plans for reconstruction, though I'm not sure what phase they're now at. Upon exiting the complex, I noticed yet another collection of hundreds of flowers and candles, with photos of and writings about those murdered in Euromaidan. You can leave Maidan, but you can never get far from what happened there. I would later see a similar display in front of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Wrocław, Poland, hundreds of miles from Ukraine.
We then walked to the Golden Gate; unlike in San Francisco, this is an actual (if reconstructed) gate to the city, not a body of water. (Both are, however, named after similar entities in Istanbul.) There is a subway station right next to it.