Ukraine Redux: August 2019

As a preface, I’m writing this in January 2023 so I’ll update my 2019 notes accordingly.

I enjoyed my 2018 visit to Kyiv and L’viv so much that I booked a return visit for Independence Day 2019, arriving via LHR from SEA on 23 August. This time I decided to book an Airbnb right off Khreschatyk Street, a short distance from the famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti. I was right across from Kyiv’s version of Whole Foods, Le Silpo, in the Mandarin Palace Center. Like many European Airbnb apartments in Europe, the flat was inside an older building with a large staircase rather than an elevator.

It was fun being back in Kyiv for a longer stay. The city looked great, people seemed well and the streets were full of recent-model cars. Since I’d been there a year earlier, a new president, Volodymyr Zelenski, had been elected, defeating Petro Poroshenko in the latter’s reelection bid. The sumptuous military parade, a staple of previous Independence Day parades, had been scrapped in favor of a simpler ceremony at the Maidan. Since I was 10 hours behind, I ate some charcuterie from Le Silpo and retired early.

As noted, the 2019 Independence Day military celebration was a more modest affair. I walked down to the Maidan and grabbed a decent spot near the main post office. There were several renditions of the national anthem and a speech by the president.

After the ceremony I joined a free walking tour through the historic district with Kostya, a guide who would become an acquaintance. We walked through Podil, a hilly district with old churches and houses, including the residence of Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote the opaquely anti-Stalinist novel The Master and Margarita, during the Great Terror. The novel wasn’t published until after the fall of the USSR. It’s worth a read.

After the tour, Kostya and I walked back to the city center the long way and then I took him to lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant. We discussed other interesting ideas and agreed to do a WW2 tour and also a drive out to a decommissioned Soviet ICBM site.

Later that day I visited the neoclassical National Museum of Ukrainian Art, near the Maidan. The collection of icons and portraits of historical Cossack hetmans was most interesting.

After visiting the museum I jumped on the metro to visit the Arsenal Station, at 105.5 meters the deepest in the world. The Kyiv metro was built in the Soviet era so it resembles the Moscow metro in its grandeur, far unlike anything in New York.

It’s wonderful to travel around a capital city on spotless trains that are punctual and utterly safe, not to mention cheap.

The following day I planned an architectural tour with Alex, who met me in the morning at my Airbnb. He had studied architecture and we spent about 3 hours touting the center. We viewed the Soviet era and 19th c. buildings in the central area before heading over to Podil, where he showed me an area of interest to the Slavic pagan revivalists with an image of Perun, their Odin. Recalling that Kyiv was founded by Vikings who established Kyivan Rus’ and ruled as descendants of Rurik, it’s not surprising that the local Slavs adopted some of their gods.

We then made our way to Khreshchatky Park, which sprawls over the wooded bluffs on the right bank of the Dnipro. Now that the war with Russia is about to mark its first year, one wonders what Kyivans think of the stainless steel arch and the “brotherhood” statue, both built during the Soviet era.

The government quarter was our next stop, with the neoclassical Verkhovna Rada, the unicameral parliament of Ukraine, as the centerpiece.

After visiting the government quarter we made our way to the broad Volodymrska, a major artery lined with stately neoclassical and Stalinist-era buildings and apartments. We came upon a display of Soviet era cars, which Alex was kind enough to photograph with me standing next to them.

Kyiv’s cathedrals and monasteries are superb. It’s a miracle that they weren’t destroyed by the Bolsheviks, as so many were in other parts of the USSR. St Volodymyr, a Rurik king, converted to Christianity in 989, establishing Kyiv as the center of the Eastern Church when Moscow was an unknown field under the Tatar yoke.

In particular, St Andrew’s Church stands out as an example of Russian imperial splendor. It was the private chapel of Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose a German minor princess to be her successor, Catherine the Great.

No tour of historic Kyiv would be complete without a visit to the bronze cat Patyusha statue near the Golden Gate.

I made Milk Bar, a little restaurant around the corner from my Airbnb, my breakfast spot. The staff wear pajamas and serve excellent food.

After breakfast I met Kostya and his friend, also Kostya, for the drive southwest to the former Soviet ICBM base in Pervomaysk. Kostya #2 drove a Jeep Cherokee with a propane engine. I found it odd that Ukrainians never seem to fill their tanks, evidence of their relative poverty. Finally, I paid to have it filled so we didn’t have to worry about running low.

In 1994, Ukraine agreed to disarm its nuclear forces, which at the time ranked third after Russia and the US, in return for a quadripartite guarantee that Russia would never violate its neighbor’s territorial integrity. Looking back, it’s certain that the Ukrainians bitterly regret this decision. The ICBM site at Pervomaysk was allowed to remain open as a tourist site after its disarmament. The ICBMs siloed there could’ve reached New York City in 25 minutes. The old site is now a graveyard of old Soviet missiles and tanks, but the elevator down to the launch center is the main attraction. It was eerie to sit at the console and push the launch button which during the Cold War would’ve resulted in the destruction of major US cities.

The tour was really well done. There was a hush as the visitors heard of the base’s tremendous nuclear power and Armageddon-like consequences of a launch. After the tour we battled epic Mad Max traffic back to the capital since everyone was returning from Black Sea holidays after the Independence Day holiday.

After we dropped Kostya off at his bus stop, Kostya #2 drove me back to my Airbnb. On the way he repeated a common Ukrainian narrative that the Russians weren’t Europeans like them, but a Tatar and Mongol hybrid population that represented an existential threat to Ukraine. Two and a half years later, that eastern horde invaded Ukraine. I wonder how many of the young soldiers I saw during the Independence Day ceremony are still alive after almost a year following the Russian invasion?

Kostya and I met at a pre-arranged spot the next day for our WW2 tour. I was again amazed by the stunning stations of the Kyiv metro.

Our first stop was Babyn Yar, which in September 1941 was a ravine in a rural suburb of Kyiv. The SS requested that Kyiv’s Jews assemble there over a period of a few days so that they could be transported to “safer” areas behind the front lines. The Jews were curiously compliant, since they too had suffered under Stalin’s capricious Great Terror owing to the large numbers of Jews who were Old Bolsheviks who were liquidated by the NKVD. Also, older Jews recalled the benign occupation of Kyiv by the Imperial German Army after Lenin ceded vast areas of Western Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. Since Stalin required that all Soviet citizens carry an internal passport with their nationalities clearly marked, the “evrai” (Jew) on the fifth line made the job of the SS even easier. It is estimated that 34,000 Jews were shot on 29-30 September of 1941 and their remains bulldozed over, similar to the NKVD practice after the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyń in April 1940.

The next stop was a visit to the impressive WW2 museum complex a short bus ride away. The 335’ Motherland Statue dominates the site high above the right bank of the Dnipro.

In the interim almost a thousand Grads and other Russian mobile rocket launchers have been destroyed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion.

Kostya and I have kept in contact on WhatsApp since my visit. He’s currently stationed near the Belarus border in the reserves and is still healthy and optimistic. I hope to see him again after the war’s end.

After breakfast at Milk Bar the next morning, I took a long walk around the center, including a visit to the updated GUM department store on Khreshchatyk. I revisited St Sophia cathedral and toured the Armed Forces Museum on what turned out to be National Memorial Day. As I made my way back to my Airbnb, I happened upon a somber remembrance ceremony for those who had died on the Eastern Front since the Russian occupation of parts of the Donbas is 2014. The Ukrainians referred to this as the Anti-Terrorist Operation. I can only imagine the breadth of the ceremony that will occur after the end of the war with Russia.

On my way back I thought to call my English friend Matt, who was last heard living with his Ukrainian girlfriend in L’viv. Shockingly, he was in Kyiv and we agreed to meet at the Maidan Monument on Independence Square. Although brief, it was great to see him again.

Afterwards, I checked out and grabbed a Bolt for the short ride to Zhuliany Airport, the former main airport, for my flight to Minsk.

Given the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and the remarkable resistance and ingenuity of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in forcing the Russians back, I’m so happy to have visited this remarkable country in 2018 and 2019. The people are fantastic and welcoming. It’s really one of my favorite European destinations.

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