I boarded my flight to Kyiv on Ukraine International Airlines and was seated next to a younger Israeli woman who was headed to Kyiv for a business assignment. Like me, she was on her visit to Ukraine, and we commented approvingly on the efficiency of the passport control process at Boryspil Airport. My hotel sent a driver to pick me up for the drive into the heart of Kyiv. He was a sad fellow, who related that he’d come to Kyiv from the Donbas to flee the Russians.
The drive west from the main airport was on an eight-lane freeway that passed some large residential towers under construction and then crossed the wide Dnipro River into the city center. The hotel was tucked into a small alley behind the main boulevard, Khreshchatyk Street, and just a short stroll from the famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Freedom Square), the site of the bloody 2004 and 2014 color revolutions. The reception folks at the Crystal Hotel were lovely and my room was well-appointed and very quiet.
Right around the corner were some attractive restaurants, so I grabbed an outside table and ordered a big salad and a glass of Georgian red. A couple sat next to me who turned out to be a Canadian Embassy staffer and his lovely Ukrainian wife. I spilled a little wine on my jeans and asked the server to bring some soda water, but the Ukrainian woman poured a little salt on the stain, which happened to be on my right quad, and dabbed at it. The salt worked; however, I was surprised by the intimate gesture. She told me that if I met a Ukrainian or Russian woman, I’d stay in Kyiv. Her Canadian husband agreed, and told me that he far preferred Kyiv to Canada for a number of reasons and suggested that his comments would cause him trouble if known to his employer.
The hotel receptionist told me that she had a special pass for me so that I could grab a good spot to watch the next day’s big military parade. After a good night’s sleep and a coffee, I wandered around the corner and passed through security and presented my passport and found a great place to stand just a hundred meters from the tribunal on the Maidan. I chatted with some young Ukrainians who had pictures of the berets denoting the regiments that would be marching by. Many of the units were fighting on the eastern Donbas front. In 2022, many Westerners forget that Ukraine and Russia have been at war since 2014.
Finally, the moving national anthem was played. Then the current president, Petro Poroshenko, gave a speech and then presented decorations to soldiers serving in the Donbas. I noticed the band played the old German hymn Ich Hatt’ Einen Kameraden during the presentation ceremony.
The other notable sight was the presence of Ukrainian Orthodox priests blessing the formations. The whole parade structure was similar to Russian and Soviet military parades, which makes sense given Ukraine’s long history as part of both.
It was quite an experience watching such a massive military parade, the first I’d seen since the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 1997. There were units from Poland, Romania, Georgia, Lithuania, the UK, Canada and the US. I learned that Polish President Andrejz Duda and US Defense Secretary Mattis were also present.
After the parade, I was to meet a woman who was a friend of my Croatian acquaintance. I asked her to meet me in the lobby of the hotel and we then went to lunch. She was a political activist and had participated in the 2014 Maidan revolt, the Revolution of Dignity. Her assessment of the political situation in Ukraine was enlightening. After lunch, she asked if I’d like to meet a volunteer soldier for a coffee and we headed across the Maidan to a cafe. Her friend was a Polish volunteer and had just returned from the Donbas, where he was serving with a volunteer regiment that would become legendary in the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war. He said the combat was sporadic but intense and that regular Russian Army troops were active participants. After parting, I walked around the Maidan and looked at the various posters celebrating the lives of Ukrainian patriots including Bogdan Khmelnystky, Symon Petliura, the leader of the Ukrainian People’s Republic after 1917, and the controversial Stepan Bandera, who fought against the Soviets during WW2 but who is accused of being a Fascist, especially by the Russians who condemn virtually all Ukrainians that way.
I had booked a bike tour of Kyiv that afternoon, but the guide had to postpone it until Sunday because of the security cordon around part of our proposed route. I walked a few miles around the surprisingly green city before grabbing a light dinner. I had booked a day trip to Chornobyl the following day, so I wanted to get a good night’s sleep.