So - Kiev! First of all it turns out that you're now supposed to spell it Kyiv. Kiev is the aglisized version of the Russian spelling, whereas Kyiv is the anglicised version of the Ukrainian spelling. In Ukraine it's now officially Kyiv, and even the Lonely Planet spells it that way so I suppose I should get with the times. I know this about the Lonely Planet, by the way, because the Intrepid Raul had already blazed the trail to Kyiv and loaned me his LP, which was my constant companion during the four days I had in the city.
But what about Kyiv itself? It felt comfy. Perhaps it's my increasing familiarity with former Soviet states, but I felt like I recognised it. It's got its share of Stalinist architecture and wide Soviet style streets. And there's Cyrillic everywhere, and the stick-to-your ribs food and the hopeful sense of a young country that's shaking off its subjugated past. And as a Canadian prairie kid, I grew up with friends and neighbours called Misanchuk and Shevchuk and Boyko, ate my share of perogies and cabbage rolls and sat though more than enough Ukrainian dance performances. About 1.2 million people in Canada identify as at least partly Ukrainian, giving Canada the third largest population of Ukrainians in the world (after Ukraine itself and Russia). So like I said, I was in familiar territory.
I had the best part of four days in Kyiv, which was plenty of time to hit the high points. And it turns out that Kyiv has, literally, got a lot of high points. Something I noticed right away is that its very hilly. The Dneiper river dominates the city, part of which sits on a high hilly ridge along the river, and part - the older bit - lower down along the river itself.
After my bacon and cheesecake breakfast and a suitable loll about in the apartment on Friday I set out to visit the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra, one of Kyiv's not-to-be missed sites. "Lavra" is the word for a senior monastery, and Pecherska means "of the caves", so it's a monastery of caves. Sitting up on the high banks of the Dneiper, it's been the site of a monastic settlement since the 11th century, when a reclusive group of monks set themselves up in some existing caves and gradually enlarged them over time. The monastery grew, including more caves and buildings above ground as well, until the site now covers about 28 hectares. It was a 30 minutes walk from the apartment, though on the way I stumbled across another spot that really deserves mentioning.
It seems astonishing that I can not have known about this, but until the fall of the Soviet Union little was known about the event in the West. The Soviet government vehemently denied the scale and causes of the famine, and it only began to become widely recognised in the 1980s. Interestingly, the first Holodomor memorial in the world was erected in Edmonton, Alberta in 1983. And Saskatchewan was the first jurisdiction in North America to recognise the Holodomor as genocide (a topic that is still widely debated). In Ukraine, public denial of the Holodomor was declared illegal in 2006.
The museum under the memorial is small and mostly in Ukrainian so I didn’t spend a lot of time there. But as I was leaving the women at the front desk asked me to stop and sign the visitor book, and then when they found out I was from Canada they gestured me into a side room where they played a short video in English. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but think the accent of the narrator sounded familiar, and at the end I was surprised and proud to see that the film had been produced by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Oh, and there’s a memorial statue near the Kyiv Holodomor museum called “Bitter Memory of Childhood”, a copy of which stands on the grounds of the provincial legislature in Winnipeg. It was all very full-circle-y.
After that poignant detour, I continued on my way to the aforementioned monastery. There are six churches and numerous other buildings at the site, but really everyone comes for the caves. And it's not even really the caves that they come for. They come for the ancient mummified monks IN the caves. Of course. Over the centuries when monks of the monastery died their bodies were kept in the caves, where the unique combination of cool temperatures and dry atmosphere caused the bodies to be naturally mummified. They’re now revered as saints and holy relics and the caves are open to worshippers at no charge. If a heathen like me wants to see the whole complex they need to buy a guided tour for 250 UAH (about £7.50). This got me a personal guide who who showed me through the entire Near Caves complex. (There’s also another set of caves down the hill called, unsurprisingly, the Far Caves.)
Entrance was through a church where I picked up a loaner wraparound skirt, because even if your female limbs are all covered with long trousers it’s still not modest enough for entry. I also got a long skinny candle to carry for light, because though I could see the caves have been wired for electricity, the lights weren’t on and the whole place was lit with candles. "Caves" makes one expect damp drippiness and (hopefully) some good stalagmites, but this was not like that at all. I suppose it’s been centuries since they were so primitive. Now the walls are smooth and white and the whole thing was pleasantly warm and dry. (For Astute Saskatoon-Savvy GSWPL readers: It reminded me of nothing so much as The Cave restaurant on 8th street, but with less lasagna and more mummies.)
However, this blog is already a bit long, so I think I’ll pick up Part 2 later. Rest assured there will be more sites and more bacon and, finally, perogies and Chicken Kiev!