My trip to a post-revolutionary Ukraine
March 11 (Tuesday wandering)
We spent another morning at the café, where I ordered a cappuccino, and we discussed future career plans; with my looking for work and Mila having a job that couldn't last forever, it was an obvious conversation to have. We continued our conversation by circumnavigating (on foot) the island which housed both the café and Mila's apartment. It was then that I learned that most of the apartments were owned as condos, not rented from a building owner; renters sublet theirs. Mila's in particular was sublet through the school she worked for, giving her one less thing to worry about. (The school was on the island too.)
We then started to talk about the linguistics of Ukraine. Yanukovych, having lived grown up near the Russian border, did not learn Ukrainian until he was an adult, having to learn it for the sake of politics. This I had heard. What I had not heard is that, in spite of this, he still "speaks Russian like a Ukrainian." What does this mean? Well, the letter that signifies an "H" sound in Ukrainian is a "G" sound in Russian. So many Ukrainians, such as Mila's students, who preferred talking in Russian to Ukrainian, would pronounce Russian words with an "H" sound. For example, the English word "grapefruit" was taken into Russian without a significant change. So a Ukrainian might pronounce this "hrapefruit," which would be correct in Ukrainian, but wrong in Russian. In Yanukovych's Russian speech from exile in Russia, he still used the "H"s. That unmistakable accent is one reason those in the know believe it highly dubious that, per Russia's assertions, the Moscow-accented militants taking over parts of Ukraine such as Crimea are in fact Ukrainian.
(Lest you be left with the idea that the Ukrainians have a tougher time than Russians at pronouncing Western words, an example that cuts the other way is Homer Simpson, or "Gomer" in Russian, which the Russian-speaking Ukrainian in this news report still pronounces "Homer.")
Russian — like, I'd assume, Ukrainian — is very difficult to master, with a complex and confusing grammar that makes Western languages look very simple by comparison. Perhaps because of this, Russians and Ukrainians study grammar throughout their schooling, and thus likely have a better handle on it than Americans, who stop at the end of, well, grammar school. I was just starting to get a taste for Russian's complexity in my Russian class when the trip to Kyiv took me away from my language studies. But Mila said that Russian is a very beautiful language that lends itself to poetic description. She gave an example of how some museums would have a beautiful, long-winded discussion in Russian, and only a short, to-the-point sentence in English. She thought this was not due to laziness on the part of the translator, but due to the nature of the languages themselves.
Since my plans for visiting Mezhyhirya were nixed, I had to come up with other plans, and the National Art Museum was closed, so I went the Russian Art Museum. Although I didn't realize any of this until after I returned, the Metro station I'd use, Teatralna, was originally known as "Leninskaya," and still had Lenin monuments, covered up two weeks earlier, just after the revolution, to spare them the fate of Lenin's statue.
With Russian and Ukrainian text, the museum once again put my Cyrillic skills to the test, though some rooms had an English placard describing the highlights. Unfortunately, Russian painting and sculpture did not seem to be terribly exciting (and, for a few hundred years, seemed to consist of nothing but icons and portraits). The museum itself was also poorly lit. Still, there were some quality works there, such as those of Vasily Tropinin, a Russian Romantic painter who made the portraits he did come alive (at least compared to his contemporaries). You can't rule hundreds of millions for hundreds of years without producing at least some good talent.
The university-adjacent Taras Shevchenko Park was a good place for people-watching, and the Soviet-era statue of the eponymous Ukrainian poet and polymath had hundreds of flowers at its base, celebrating his 200th birthday, posters for which could be seen throughout the city.
Another good place for people-watching was the entrance to the Lva Tolstoho Square metro, surprisingly lively for a Tuesday. Some of the more trafficked Metro stations — though I don't recall which ones — had various works of art: chandeliers, sculptures, mosaics of themes like St. George and the dragon. They're not as fancy as those in Moscow, but they were quite nice.
I was right by the Maidan area, so I decided to have one last look, since there's always something new there.
After that, I really wasn't sure what to do, so I headed to Hidropark, an outdoor amusement park on an island in the Dnieper river. It seemed to be highly seasonal, the season being summer, not winter, and thus had that uncertain feeling about whether it's been abandoned for the winter or abandoned for good. In spite of this, a handful of people enjoyed the sandy beaches of the Dnieper.
Walking back across the Dnieper, I read an article which used the river as a convenient East-West divide. Though it may be a convenient East-West shorthand, not only does the river bisect two of the three largest cities in the country, but there are several solidly pro-Western regions well to the east of it, and well to the west is Odesa, which had been as solid a base for Yanukovych as much of Crimea. Ukrainian media, unlike Western media, knew that the Crimea in the south was much more tenuous than anything bordering Russia. To many of us in the West, Crimea being the first piece to go was a surprise, but it shouldn't have been. Anyway, the media should have long ago stopped acting as though the country is hopelessly yet cleanly split in two, which plays into Russian spin. One would think that we'd have known that things weren't so simple from our own experience in 2000.
It was at this point — not in Maidan, not hearing about the latest Russian encroachment — that I felt the most unsafe. The walking instructions for Google Maps had left me stuck between a rail line and an expressway, with no way out but to either cross the busy expressway or walk all the way back, miles out of my way. Eventually I found a good break in traffic in a place that seemed much safer than the others I'd seen, but that wasn't a fun way to end my stay in Kyiv. Mostly, however, it was a good stay, and longer than I'd otherwise spent in any city overseas.