Kiev (Ukraine, Part Five)

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Kiev (KNIB)

Ukraine, Part Four



    In every crowd, and every group, there is always someone known as the caretaker. This soul is always honored one moment, and kicked around the next moment.
    Inside this soul beats a strong, steady heart able to keep tempo with the band, yet also beating sad and heavy and low at the sound of the horse-drawn caisson.
    Every ounce of my being wants me to shoehorn Ukraine's Capitol City into a stereotypical "old city" with "old people" who are sedentary and set in their ways. But visiting the city opened my eyes to a city and a people who not only strive to stay young and exciting, fun and active. This city breathes fun and excitement. It protects the old ways, the old structures, but it also draws in from every new and charismatic idea from all over the globe.
    The late, great Satchel Paige once said, "How old would you be, if you didn't know how old you were?" He went on to pitch baseballs beyond the age of 60. He went on to recite rules of living for longevity and staying young, including gems like, ""If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts" and "Avoid running at all times."
    I would imagine hearing such things from a Ukrainian. They are part hard work, part philosophy. They work at their dreams. And should their dreams be dashed, they get new dreams.
    One such dream deferred surely must include the friendship, then hatred, then mild distrust, and now mild annoyance towards Russians. In many ways, that relationship starts with the story behind the Friendship Arch and the Brotherhood Statue in Kiev.

Brotherhood Statue in Kiev, Representing Russia and Ukraine
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



Statue underneath the Arch in Kiev
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



Dnepro River, looking South
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



Dnepro River, looking North
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber


    The city is laid out in a fairly simple way, looking at it historically. Roads were built to and from the river, the main water source for hundreds and hundreds of years.
    Roads were built to follow the river. These roads lead to and from ferries and bridges crossing the Dnepr.
    Around major buildings, other roads were built to them, from them and around them. When they intersected with each other, they adjusted and became the same road.
    And if you look at it this way, historically, how and why a city was built, it makes complete sense. However, our driver this was a great guy, but was not a history scholar. And he didn't have any maps. So he overshot the city. Then, he made a series of phone calls. We were going from late to later. People in the van, and people outside the van were getting more and more upset.
    We came in on the East side of Kiev on E40, drove by the river and the city it was built on, then stopped and turned around on the western end of the city, just after one of those intersections where 12 roads all come into one intersection and people take turns and almost run into each other. To add to the insanity of the day, there are many places in Kiev where you can't make a left turn. That's fine, but the highway and roads department forgot to take the next step, and give you a place to turn around when you are lost. (This is called "busting a 'U'" in Texas.)
    Many Ukrainians bust a "U" by creating turn arounds in areas without as much traffic. Other towns create turning lanes and special green arrows. And in some cases, we just took a lot of right turns and went around a few blocks. Eventually, we found our way. But at that point you are so turned around you aren't sure how you got there or how you'll ever get out. UPS drivers allegedly set up their routes to only take right turns, saving money and petrolium. But I honestly don't know how they keep a mental compass and know where they are by the end of the day. We were lost.
    Like I'd mentioned before, just like most other river towns, the first roads lead to and from the river. In this city, the most famous hill would be this type of road, called Andrew's Decent.
    Roads would also historically start or end at crossing points of the river, bays, boat docks and go to other points along the river or sources of food or raw materials and maybe even high strategic lookout points along the bluffs of the river.
    The next roads would have been built to major buildings like town centers, then regional government centers, churches, gardens, palaces, and even military encampments. Every city since the beginning of time has been set up this way and I'm always shocked when people have trouble grasping this idea as if some cities must be different. Nope. They aren't. They're all basically set up the same. Boys know from a young age, when they're building forts, you gotta have a nice high vantage point or lookout point. City designers set up a grid for roads later. And that is fine, and it's easier to build, but nothing beats the curves and movement of a river and the road alongside her. This alone can tell a large part of why a city was built a certain way. Once the city is big enough, this simple thing is always overlooked. The first to overlook this fact are the very historians trying to figure out why some roads seem to make so many intersections, they appear to lead to nowhere.
    Depending on funding or manpower or even basic need, roads receiving the most travel are typically the ones chosen for strategic military or political reasons. They see the most construction, destruction, traffic, and often the best most boss names. Stories about these roads stretch through history. In one example, a main road into Kiev was laced with landmines during World War II. Nazis drove over the mines, as planned. However, the Nazis retaliated with a massive genocide to teach Kiev and Ukraine a lesson. A mass grave outside Kiev remains as an example of one of history's latest experiences of unbridled hate turned towards Ukrainians.
    And so it is we crossed the river on the main highway, and eventually made our way in on several of the main roads leading to the city center of Kiev. We were way behind our times on DiAnna's schedule, and without a map we perhaps could have found our way by reading a little history of Kiev, following a river road towards the city until we found Andrew's Decent. We also could have followed any of our crappy tourist maps (all of the free maps are always crap), until we found a major attraction like the Rodyna Mat, a large statue overlooking Kiev and the Dnepr River. They call her the Motherland Statue, just like the other Motherland statues in several of Ukraine's cities.
    We arrived at the rental office, and Derrick and I coordinated with the driver to get the van into a place where we could drop our bags and get started on our tour of the city. We were renting an apartment, a much cheaper alternative than hotel rooms in a place that thinks every square foot is worth a small fortune. You would swear they've been taking lessons from Moscow in how to overcharge for everything, but there are loopholes everywhere if you spend a little time on the web. We would soon find how important DiAnna was in our search for the perfect Kiev apartment. I highly doubt anyone could have done a finer job of finding our home away from home. Nicole and Derrick and I are all so greatful for the hours she put in on planning this trip.
    After leading our driver through the labyrinth of parking lots to the office door, he dropped off our bags and then stayed to work on fixing his driver's seat. I needed my duffel bag back, and he would no longer have it for a backrest, so if he didn't fix it then and there he was pretty much S.O.L.
    We were late for our tour of the city, our tour guide operator was upset, the office manager was caught in the middle in part because she had set up the tour, and this made DiAnna very upset. The rest of us were just trying to figure out what was being said, but we were also stuck not knowing how to assess the situation and offer a helpful idea.
    Derrick was smooth and apologetic, saying the office had very little to do with the mixup and that we were the ones who got lost. He thanked them for being patient with us.
    The tour guide and the driver were at the apartment a few blocks away, instead of at the apartment office. And to boot they were angry at us for being late, and before meeting us were trying to get us to pay for the tour in addition for a $50 charge to us for being late. When they arrived, they then tried to talk us out of the tour, saying traffic would be too heavy, and that we should just forget about taking it and just pay for it so they could go home.
    Here was somebody with a lot of practice in taking advantage of tourists. In the time they were waiting for us, the tour guide and the driver had practiced what they were going to say to us to get us to pay for a trip they didn't want to give us. What was starting as a difference in opinion seemed to be escalating into a shouting match. But before this happened, I spoke up and simply said that we should just go on the tour anyway because paying to go see at least one thing is better than paying to see nothing. Derrick agreed and backed me up on this. We just needed to put our pride back into our packed bags and try to get one thing done. We tucked our tails between our legs and got into the van.
    The office people were great, and told us to drop our bags there, and someone would carry them down to the apartment located a few blocks away. This was no small undertaking. Take it from a guy who carried and pulled one of DiAnna's bags through the airport in Kiev. (That's right! I'm talking about you DiAnna! Were you carrying lead or bricks in your suitcase!? Just kidding! He he.)
    Derrick thanked everyone in the office for everything they had done and apologized for us being short with them, then DiAnna came in and apologized for being short with them. We could see how much DiAnna wanted everything to go perfect. And this, for once, was a great moment because I was enjoying everything. But I was especially enjoying how we could work together to make things work even when everything wasn't perfect.
    The traffic, the driver and the tour guide were so worried about, was mostly due to protesters in Independence Square, and the traffic was well worth seeing the peaceful protests up close. They filled the parks and square, and there was an immediate feeling that the protesters and the military keeping an eye on them were all well aware of each other and conducted themselves with what I could only call an ultimate professionalism. Protesters set up tent cities, set up schedules and kept people rotating from the tents to the square, most likely making their biggest moves when speakers were taking the stage or it was known that cameras were powering up to tape or put the people up on live TV. They tied up traffic, making it difficult for government officials to move around and get things done. However they worked the schedules, it was also very clear that all the while and every day they all have a constant prescence in the public's eye. They were visible to tourists' cameras, to politicians, and are always visible to cameras fixed on them for broadcast to the always-on 24-hour-a-day internet.
    Ukraine's first elections as a country independent from Russia happened with their declaration of independence in late 1991. And in the past 16 years, the government has experienced quiet and not-so-quiet revolutions since then. In part, they protest because they only thing that politicians seemed to do right was stabilize the currency, which a small group of politicians did by stashing hundreds of millions of Hrivnas (pronounced Griv-Naz) outside the country often in offshore accounts.
    Scandals and shady business deals became too much for the Ukraine people, and they took to the streets after a regime tried to steal the election in 2004. The Orange Revolution lead to a call to the supreme court, and they decided to annul the elections.

May 2007


Protesters in Independence Square
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



Independence Square
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber


    International election monitors were invited, and the country chose Yuschenko. He later became world famous when he was poisoned by the opposition, then lived through the ordeal to keep his position as President.
    Independence Square was packed with people waving and holding flags of different colors and styles representing different political parties and factions. It is often said that the people of Ukraine follow politics of their own country and of the world much more so than they follow their own sports teams. And for a country that loves soccer so much, that says a lot about how they feel about their politics.
    How the country follows politics also shows how much they all strive to meet international standards as a country. They want EU status (European Union). They want WTO status (World Trade Organization). They want NATO status. And the people won't stand for anyone who wishes to take their country in any other direction.
    EU status at this point may feel like the most reachable goal of those three organizations. But they have a long road to get there. EU members will be gaining an incredible amount of power and knowledge from Ukraine and watching them work toward this goal. With such a powerful backbone of agriculture and a long history of feeding the world, Ukraine brings with it a lot of knowledge other EU states have forgotten generations ago. Their needs for those agricultural products will continue to grow over the years, too. And if they haven't already, everyone will be begging countries like Ukraine to produce more and export more. And I sincerely hope that the trend doesn't continue to move toward quantity rather than quality. Because if that happens like it has happened in most of the rest of the world, so much more will be lost in Ukraine. It won't ever be a tangible loss, but we will all literally taste the difference.
    Travel has already opened up so much of Ukraine. And yet EU status changes not only border and airport control in these countries, but it also changes the attitude of the people working these crossings and these passport controls. The attitude of the people processing your request makes so much difference on a trip like this, and can either ruin your day or make your day.
    NATO status for Ukraine will take so much longer, for so many reasons. But again, with agriculture, you wield a lot of power. Especially when your product is sought after more than any other place on earth. Quantity feeds the masses, but quality is sought all over the world.
    Take, for example, the Pillsbury company of Minnesota. You can sit at the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota or nearby Superior, Wisconsin and watch boats being filled with wheat from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and the Dakotas. That wheat is heading out to other places in the world. It is mass-produced, most likely a lot of the same variety of wheat, or at least of three or four different varieties. However, the Pillsbury company of Minnesota gets the ingredients for its flour from Canada. Why? For one, it's barley flour, and Canada produces more of it. It's also believed by some that there is something going on with price gouging, but I'm less apt to believe in the conspiracy theories and believe instead in the fact that Pillsbury flour tastes better. My grandmother grew up down the street from the Pillsbury company in Minneapolis, and she will use nothing but this brand of flour. If she doesn't have Pillsbury when she goes to make bread, she goes to town on a special 20-mile round trip from her farm in the country.
    For a whole generation, in my parents generation, this was lost. Brand loyalty and quality control with a lot of things has gone out the window. And now that my generation is holding some power, it's pretty recent that it's starting to come back. It comes back in food, homes, cars, and many other sundries. This next generation will have two, one or even no kids, and will have more spending power.
    My generation is willing to do an end-run (to borrow a football colloquialism), and ask their grandparents why their jam tastes better than the store-bought jam. The reason is quality. The reason is sometimes because of a lack of preservatives. And our reason, without a lot of explanation, is that our taste buds know the difference. It's a big enough difference, and important enough that we are becoming more willing to put in the time, the money, and the effort to get what we want. This will be a fragile thing for Ukraine to take on considering how fast Ukrainians have progressed over the last sixteen years of independence.
    The driver first dropped us off at the large Friendship Arch, Brotherhood Statue, and Statue of the Pereiaslav Treaty. Behind that group of sightseeing treasures is a large viewing platform of the Dnepr River. The driver then took us past independence square, into the center of town where two churches on the hill overlook the town and the Dnepr River.

St. Mikhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



St. Sophia's Cathedral Belltower
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



Belltower at St. Mikhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



St. Mickhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



St. Mickhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



St. Mickhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber


    These two churches were pretty key to a lot of Kiev and Ukraine's history. We went in to St. Mickhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes, a church often shown on book covers, magazines, brochures and web sites about Kiev and Ukraine. There was a service going on while we were there, which was actually quite common at cathedrals and churches in Kiev. Some of them have several services each day. Nicole and Derrick were both told they could not take pictures, another thing common in Kiev and Ukraine, but Derrick managed to quietly snap off a nice wideshot before we made our way out the door.
    During the service, men sang in an unseen part of the back of the church, and thanks to the amazing accoustics, their voices filled every corner of the Monastery's Cathedral.
    One of the priests moved people aside and cleared a path, while another priest or monk carried and shook burning incense in a small dish hung from 3 chains. Inside a ball with little holes, the incense was shaken out, and ash and smoke fell and flew from the burner, in a sort of blessing of the walls, murals and relics. What we were watching was a 1500-year old (or older) ritual that had been carried on every day, sometimes up to 3-times a day or more depending on the church or cathedral.
    The church was beautiful, inside and out, but was not an original, old, ancient building. The original was destroyed in 1937 during Stalin's regime. But luckily some artifacts, including but not exclusively including stones set into the nearby Ministry of Defense.

Note the columns and intricate detail on top of them between the trees. They came from the original torn-down stones of the original St. Mickhayil's Monastery of the Golden Domes.
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber


    Keeping some of the look from the old churches, it was believed, might help the people adapt to atheism. Atheism was demanded by the state, and the state worked very hard to keep it this way. Strange how so many churches, practices and traditions survived. It is one of Ukraine's biggest puzzles, even amongst Ukrainians.
    However, the church's destruction was truely just another punch in the face of an already extremely cruel dictatorship. Just 4 to 5 years before tearing down that Monestery in 1937, Stalin did his best to try to starve the people of Ukraine, and in addition to rebuilding the church by 2001, the people of Ukraine added one more memory for everyone, religious and atheist to an area just outside the manastery walls. An iron and stone cross in the shape of humans, adult and child, tells of the Ukraine famine caused by stalin and his regime in 1932 and 1933.
    Behind the monument, is a rather lengthy description of the famine, including the listing of several books and special memorials about the famine.
    But the story starts even before that. Stalin already had placed years of suffering upon the backs and heads of the people of Ukraine. Many peasants wouldn't sell grain for a tiny fraction of the market price he demanded in 1929 and 1930, and after pressing them for a time, Stalin finally packed them all up in freight trains, sent them to Siberia and told them all to work that impossible land. Most died of exposure or starvation.
    Stalin continued to kill market prices and overworked the land of Ukraine. And when the 1931 drought hit, this set up the impossible situation for the farmers. Troops basically took any grain or crops that were left, leaving 3 to 6 million people there to starve, and leaving those left on the land no seed to plant for the next year. The U.S. and even Russia knew very little about the situation in Ukraine. Most people in the world still don't know about this major event of the world's history.

Monument remembering the Ukraine famine of 1932-1933. Millions died after Stalin stole their food supply.
Photo courtesy Nicole Weber



St. Mikhayil's Monastery of the Golden Dome
Photo courtesy Nicole Webers



St. Mikhayil's Monastery of the Golden Dome
Photo courtesy Nicole Webers

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