Destination: Kyiv

  • Mission 1: Take a special tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (see Destination: Chernobyl) (ACCOMPLISHED – TWICE);
  • Mission 2: Witness the last of the Soviet-era monuments before their removal (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3: Descend into the deepest metro station in the world (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Sample a Chicken Kyiv in Kyiv (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 5: Visit Pervomaisk Missile & Rocket Base (DEFERRED);
  • Mission 6: Watch the Victory Day parade in Kyiv on 9th May (ACCOMPLISHED).

[Update March 2022: Few of us could have imagined that a war of the current scale would break out in Ukraine in this era, owed to a brutal and unwarranted Russian invasion. Although I cannot begin to compare it to the plight of Ukrainian people, I can only share my experience of trying to evacuate my dad from Kyiv the week the invasion began which, if nothing else, gave us a first-hand insight into what an ordeal the people are going through. Will document our account here shortly.]

Highlight: Driving into the city from the airport, it feels like transiting through a vast concrete jungle on an unprecedented scale. How I longed to have one of those little boxes of my own within the gargantuan blocks.

Lowlight: Buckwheat. In spite of my best efforts to enjoy it, it just didn’t pass the try it ten times before you make your mind up protocol with that earthy aftertaste. Not only is it the breadbasket of Europe; Ukraine is the buckwheat basket of the word.

Feat of Architecture: The Motherland Monument (Батьківщина-Мати) in Kyiv, standing 102m from the base, making her twice as tall as Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.

Recce Fact: The longest, heaviest aircraft was produced in Ukraine in 1988 and is still in service [Update March 2022: is very sadly no longer in service due to ruthless Russian sabotage, but we pray to see her likeness return to the skies again one day]: the Antonov An-225 Mriya, originally created for the purpose of carrying a Soviet space shuttle like a little parasite.


Kyiv must be amongst the mightiest concrete jungles on earth but these are not high rise slums by any means. These are colossal monuments reminding you that you are merely mortal.

Ukraine is a country I would be happy to return to again and again. So far, I have been to Kyiv twice; once in May 2015 for my original Mission Ukraine and a second time in May 2017 for the Eurovision Song Contest. Both times I took the opportunity to visit Chernobyl to see if anything had changed since. Much can change in the space of a couple of years, as my first attempt to visit the capital was thwarted by Euromaidan protests in 2013-2014, shortly followed by the annexation of Crimea the same year. When the war in the eastern Donbas (Донба́с) region remains hot even now, one wonders if Ukraine will ever find peace, let alone restitution.

You can read all about visiting the Exclusion Zone in the Chernobyl Special here.


HighRise

First Impressions
While the main motivation for this trip was visiting Chernobyl itself, Kyiv turned out to be an eye-opening city and exceeded all expectations. I am relieved that my visit coinciding with the Eurovision Song Contest was not my only one, as I strongly believe that the worst time to visit any place, if you want to get a genuine feel for it, is when a major event is being hosted (e.g. Formula 1, FIFA World Cup, the Olympics etc.); whatever it may be that draws masses of tourists from far and wide. Prices temporarily double or triple and everywhere is packed with a sea of people. I learned my lesson and will 100% be watching Eurovision on the telly in future; glad as I was to see the artists perform live.

The cultural similarities between Ukraine and Russia are striking, but one can be under no illusions that they are in Russia while visiting; except perhaps for the fact that Russian language is still widely spoken/written. As a foreigner, you can be forgiven for not being able to tell the difference between Russian and Ukrainian languages as there are stark similarities. The letters і and ї are often giveaways to identify Ukrainian. The effort to differentiate themselves, in spite of cultural similarities, was clear at times. You can buy some not-Russian matryoshka dolls from the souvenir shops or pick up some Putin toilet roll from a kiosk in the subway.

The population of Kyiv is approximately the same as Rome (2.9 million). Yet, despite Ukraine being the second largest country in Europe, it only has the 7th largest population. The central streets contain a mix of ornate and Stalinist style architecture. The incredibly wide main street, Khreshchatyk (Хрещатик), with its mix of restaurants, cafes, luxury shops, high street retailers and street performers (including a dancing Minion who was a little harrassy) was constantly buzzing with animation. It particularly comes alive at night with musicians and dancers of all varieties; a vibrant place for youth to hang out.

During the Eurovision week in May 2017, Khreshchatyk was completely taken over with Eurovision fever. I deliberately avoided the days of the competition final, opting instead to watch one of the evening rehearsals. The Celebrate Diversity slogan seemed more aspirational (the sort of token motto that Eurovision fans and the EBU desire and demand) than a mission statement since the country is not known for putting socially liberal concerns high on any present agenda. No doubt they did so, not merely as a front, but to assure the Eurovision community that they would be safe and welcome.

Maintaining a hard line on pro-Russian empathisers with respect to Ukrainian sovereignty, the Security Service Ukraine made no concessions for Yuliya Samoilova on the basis of her visible disabilities in banning her from competing for Russia the same year because of her visit to annexed Crimea. But in spite of trepidation of Kyiv’s far-right groups sparking violence, everything went ahead smoothly and all visitors, a diverse collective as they were, appeared very at ease. I speculate that there must have been some discussions in the lead-up with these groups to reach an understanding. After all, Ukrainians of all creeds and affiliations would have been elated at Jamala‘s victory at Eurovision in 2016 and well-understood that hosting the following year would be the natural outcome, as well a chance to boost investment and tourism for years to come (for a steep initial price tag of $32 million).


Maidan and the Revolution Aftermath
In my eagerness to visit Chernobyl, the trip to Ukraine had been planned back in July 2014 in spite of the political unrest and Euromaidan shootings earlier in the year, by which point things seemed to have settled down again. But then on 17th July, the MH17 Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Donetsk, killing all 283 passengers on board; a tragic civilian casualty caught in crossfire. In light of this, it wasn’t until April the following year that it seemed safe to go without disruption. The aftermath of Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Revolution was still evident, and in the week just prior, legislation had been passed banning the promotion of symbols of Communist and National Socialist totalitarian regimes. Several weeks later, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, would sign the bill to initiate the removal of Soviet statues and monuments over the next six months – time was of the essence to see them whilst I still could.

Independence Square (Майдан Незалежності – referred to as simply Maidan) was filled with memorial candles, flowers and plaques in 2015, which seem to have become a permanent fixture as were seen again when I returned two years later. Among the photographs and tributes, military uniform-clad individuals stood around collecting charitable donations towards the Ukrainian cause. I say military uniform-clad individuals, as I’m not 100% sure if they are presently/were active soldiers themselves or volunteers.

Maidan2

Military conscription ceased in 2013, but was reintroduced by 2014 after Russian military intervention in Crimea. Ukraine aimed to increase their troops by more than double by 2015 (and they did). Since 2017, their military spending has continued to increase exponentially. Even though the majority of able-bodied young men should, in theory, have carried out their compulsory military service, I couldn’t help but notice that wearing camouflage and khaki gear was a bit of a fashion statement, from boys in their late teens courting their girlfriends to elderly men fishing by the Dnieper; they were all casually sporting outdoor military gear.

The glass dome in the middle of the Maidan houses a large underground shopping centre. The Independence Monument stands proudly in front of the state-owned Hotel Ukrayina (formerly Hotel Moscow until 1991). The hotel’s original grand design was de-scoped by Khrushchev as part of his de-Stalinisation reforms which resulted in the towering, unremarkable façade that can be seen today. During the Euromaidan sniper shootings and clashes between police and protestors, this very hotel became a makeshift hospital and morgue. Facing the square stood the Trade Union Building, draped with an exterior curtain to hide the extensive fire damage said to be started by police who stormed the building during the Euromaidan unrest in February 2014.


Victory Day Celebrations & Remembrance

As of 2015, Ukraine officially celebrates Victory Day over Nazism in World War II on 9 May, as decreed by parliament. Additionally the term Great Patriotic War as a reference was replaced with Second World War in all Ukrainian legislation. Since 15 May 2015, Communist and Nazi symbols are prohibited in Ukraine.

Following the amassing crowds towards the Park of Eternal Glory (Парк Вічної Слави), I passed through security search points with metal detectors on Ivana Mazepy Street. I remember the street because of the iconic Hotel Salute building with its lid ajar. It was there that I bought a commemorative red felt poppy and noted its distinctive design. We wear paper poppies in the United Kingdom for Remembrance Day (which for us is on 11th November; not in May) but I didn’t expect that Ukrainians would don the same symbol. I later learned that the Ukrainian-poppy designed poppy had been adopted as an official alternative to the orange and black ribbon of St. George, which had earned hostile connotations among Ukrainian people.

Following the procession up to the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in the Park of Eternal Glory, people young and old carried framed photographs of their beloved relatives who had died young in the war. They were still in mourning for them even with the passage of time and generations, continuing to honour them in the same way year after year so they may never forget their sacrifice.

Eventually arriving at the Motherland monument surrounding memorial complex which was buzzing with a family atmosphere. Children were using the tanks and military equipment on display as climbing frames; not deterred in the slightest by the war machines. I had the delight of listening to a Ukrainian women’s choir (the women were dressed in traditional clothing and looked very elegant indeed). I wish I had been able to translate the speeches. If I had, I might’ve had some warning about the gunshots about to be fired from the overlooking hill (video) up above that practically made me jump out of my skin.


Separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

I distinctly recall being mesmerised by the vibrant bright red vestments of an Orthodox priest/clergyman walking in front of me as part of the Victory Day procession. He was almost illuminated like a beacon of hope.

Ukraine has many beautiful churches; with some of the most prominent in Kyiv being: St. Andrew’s Church on Andriyivsky Uzviz designed by Italian architect in Baroque style in 1747 (it’s a bit of a steep ascent to get to it but one can enjoy the touristic market stalls along the way) and the gold-domed St. Michael’s Monastery.

As it was close to Easter week, outside St. Michael’s, rows of giant decorative Easter eggs were lined-up in celebration of the Ukrainian cultural tradition of dyeing and decorating eggs at this time of year; much more impressive than my childhood attempts, where we used to draw smiley faces on hardboiled eggs with a permanent marker before rolling them down a hill on Easter Sunday (or along the back shelf of the car when it was raining).

After hundreds of years of unity, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is seeking to part ways from the Russian Orthodox Church [Update: They officially did in 2018], already having more than one active independent patriarchate unlinked to Moscow. While many Orthodox churchgoers may disregard politics entirely and focus on shared dogma, many Ukrainians feel they cannot ignore the strong relationship between Russian church and state that they feel is inappropriate and serves the state more than it does the church. Patriarch Kirill is seen as a controversial leader, not least of all, due to his support of Russia militarily and objectively in contested regions of Ukraine. When the practice of Russian priests blessing nuclear weapons is still commonplace, the rite certainly does raise legitimate questions about influence and authority.


Final Remnants of a Soviet Era

The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War (as it was at the time) is home to a giant lady (Motherland Monument), a UFO-like (Eternal Flame) monument and is the central site of the annual Victory Day celebrations. The very same month of my visit, the name of the museum was changed to the Museum of The History of Ukraine in World War II as part of the effort to sever USSR Communist ties.

The exhibition includes decommissioned military equipment including the USSR S-20; a solid-fuel, two-stage, theatre-based ballistic missile complete with transporter erector launcher. Oh how I do have a predilection for missile launchers akin to the Topol M (no doubt Freud would have some theory of other about that). This was the next best thing.

Ukraine has military graveyards all over the country and I have read that it was possible to pay to drive tanks. Likewise, there are exclusive tours available to the Pervomaysk Strategic Missile Base, but I had to save that adventure for next time; faced with the predicament of choosing between that and the Chernobyl Tour with the time permitted.

Strand

Walking alongside the Dniepro (Дніпро), there were a few surprises in store. Who knew that Kyiv had its very own golden sandy beach strip? It is an ideal for a spot of relaxation on a summer’s day and thankfully wasn’t like a Where’s Wally scene, as with most of the Black Sea coast in summertime.

In the distance, a gigantic steel arch protruded out over the treetops like a Soviet style steel rainbow. Wondering if I would find a pot of hryvnia at the end of it or some other reward, I pursued a direct line of sight towards it. No rewards sadly, but it was still mighty impressive; the recently defaced Friendship of Nations Arch (Арка Дружби Народів). It was subsequently announced in May 2016 that this symbol of union and friendship between the people of Ukraine and Russia would be dismantled imminently. I remember being thankful to have the opportunity to see it before it vanished forever, like many others of its kind.

However, I was both pleasantly surprised and rather horrified at the same time to see it still intact when I returned again two years later; horrified because the arch had been painted in garish bright rainbow colours, rendering it an eyesore. It was only later on that I read that this had been an initiative to promote diversity in line with hosting Eurovision. I had wondered why there were random portions of the rainbow left unpainted; was it deliberate or not? It turns out it was not deliberate, as the initiative was halted when the right-wing political organisation, Right Sector (Пра́вий се́ктор) took to protest at this abomination, branding it as homosexual propaganda. Ukraine would almost certainly not have introduced new anti-discrimination laws in recent years without pressure from the EU, but they must tread carefully to balance protection of the most vulnerable groups against discrimination with antagonising the socially and/or religiously conservative population. To say that these concerns are held only by extremist far-right nationalist groups or conversely the pro-Russian population is simply untrue.

The perverted symbolism that has spoiled the colours of the rainbow has provoked indignation among Ukrainians with traditional values.

Right Sector (APRIL 2017)

The last Lenin statue in Ukraine (I believe) can be seen now only in Chernobyl, standing alone in a small park, now that over a hundred of his other comrades have fallen as part of the Ukrainian government’s decommunisation initiative.

A famous non-Soviet era building is the Golden Gate (Золоті ворота), rebuilt since its original construction in 1017. It is situated not far away is the Hedgehog in the Fog statue who stands intact today despite having been through the wars, much like Copenhagen’s Little MermaidThe little hedgehog is an example of one Russian creation that has survived the cull. Vandals tried to steal his pouch and defaced him, likely trying to obtain the metal for salvage. The 1975 Russian cartoon was nominated as one of the best animated stories of all time and is fondly remembered by Ukrainians alike. But honestly the animated story was wasted on me as a complete head-melt-of-a-tale, even with English subtitles. The message I took from it was just surrender to the current of life and go with the flow, for better or worse and hopefully it will wash you up somewhere better eventually. I’m quite positive that wasn’t how it was meant to be interpreted? The final stop was the Red University (Червоний корпус Київського університету). I was about to ask my new local friend why it was called the Red University as we were about to turn the corner (assuming it was a Communist association) and immediately felt quite silly as it appeared in view. It’s not red brick. It’s just… red. As red as a Royal Mail post box.

Do you, when booking your flights, consider aircraft type as a deciding factor? Do you refer to airlines by their callsigns or IATA codes (e.g. Speedbird or BA)? Can you describe in detail what happens when you flush the loo on a plane? Congrats, you must be an aviation geek. Boasting a vast number of aircraft exhibits, the State Aviation Museum out by the international airport is quite the treat for aviation geeks and non-geeks alike. Alas, you won’t find the Antonov An-225, but you will find, amongst the bombers, fighter jets and helicopters, very large civil aircraft from the USSR, i.e. the Ilyushin Il-86 which was eventually banned due to excessive noise levels in 2002. For a few extra UAH, you can even take a butcher’s hook inside.


The World’s Deepest Metro Station
At a depth of 105.5m below ground level, Arsenalna (Арсенальна) in central Kyiv is currently the deepest underground station in the world. It looked just like any other Kyiv metro station upon entry, but for a mere 2 UAH (the price of a single metro ticket, less than €0.10) one can enjoy a steady 4-5 minute escalator descent down to the platform. It really is a long way down indeed.

Just a word of observatory caution when boarding the metro. Stay well clear when the doors open. I got bulldozed on more than one occasion (entirely my own fault) for standing too close to the sides. Ukrainians may be pleasant people, but they certainly don’t dilly-dally!

After some time, I found myself mentally clocking the number of macho looking fellows walking around with bunches of delicate posies in-hand. Who says romance is dead? Initially I had assumed it was some sort of Ukrainian Valentine’s Day but spotted the same thing the next day and the following. How charming that Ukrainian men aren’t ashamed of being seen walking down the street with flowers for their ladies. Western men, in my experience, only give flowers on special occasions or whenever they are guilty and will try to discreetly smuggle them into the boot of their car without being seen or losing street cred. I know it well because I worked in a flower shop with my mum for many years. My lovely friend Katya bought me a bunch of lily of the valley from a street vendor so I wouldn’t feel left out, aww.

Of course, if you aren’t into flowers, you can always stop by the luxury Rochen confectionery outlet and pick up a box of chocolates; confectionery courtesy of President Petro Poroshenko (who is incidentally a diabetic and hence can’t actually eat the chocolate himself). In accordance with Sod’s Law, I managed to pick up a box of beautifully-presented-but-vile-tasting chocolates containing rum to enjoy at home. Now that my Russian language abilities have somewhat improved, I won’t be making that mistake again. I always wonder what sort of people enjoy biting into a chocolate and getting a mouthful of liquor. I don’t know a single one; who are they? Nothing but a means of spoiling an otherwise perfectly good chocolate if you ask me.


Food of Ukraine

Let us put the buckwheat issue aside for the moment. In Kyiv one can find a very unique kind of fast food chain establishments with traditional style, cheap-yet-good-quality Ukrainian cuisine, canteen-style, e.g. Puzata Hata It turns out that Chicken Kyiv really is a Kyiv invention (although some sources suggest it may have originated in St. Petersburg), but it’s not overwhelmingly popular. Be sure not to leave without trying Ukrainian/Russian honey layer cake (medovik) and yeast drink, kvass (квас)- albeit a bit of an acquired taste. I became so fond of kvass that I attempted to make my own at home one time. As I glossed over a minor detail of occasionally letting out the gas that builds up gradually during the fermentation process, I ended up with my own kvass fountain in my kitchen.

As a dumpling-lover, I also enjoyed varenyky (варе́ники); similar to pierogi and usually with a potato, mushroom or cheese filling. Ukraine’s national dish is of course borsch (борщ); a hearty red broth with meat and vegetables. It’s practically vitamins in a bowl; a complete dish.

I must give mention to the giant pink coffee snails seen around the city. I thought they were cute, but it seems they have been causing a bit of controversy.

As for restaurants in central Kyiv, I couldn’t help but notice that Ukrainians have a bit of an obsession with Georgian cuisine. I could count more Georgian and sushi restaurants combined than I could national restaurants. My Georgian partner loves borsch too, so it seems to be mutual.

The highlight of the day was waking up to a little wheelie breakfast trolley being delivered right to our room in the mornings at the Sunflower Hotel. You wouldn’t get that at the Ritz without a hefty price tag for the privilege. I wish someone would wheel me that little trolley of croissants and coffee into my bedroom every morning.


Sounds of Ukraine
If there’s one thing that stands out as unique in Ukrainian folk music, it is the style of singing known as white voice (Білий голос). There is an interesting documentary about Go_A singer, Kateryna Pavlenko, called MonoKate where she explains and demonstrates this style.

Jamala‘s winning Eurovision entry 1944 has been somewhat of an anthem in Ukraine since 2016, especially due to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It describes the tragic circumstances of Jamala’s own grandmother and her family upon their forced deportation of Crimean Tartars by the Soviets under Stalin to a remote part of Central Asia.

Rock bands are also vastly popular today in Ukraine, for example the band Okean Elzy (Океан Ельзи) from Lviv have been going for decades. Their most famous hit that has been covered in many styles far and wide is Обійми. As for something different, the rendition of a Cossack folk song by Kozak System & Taras Chubai – A Vzhe Rokiv 300 (А Вже Років 300) is a real banger with its mix of powerful sung harmonies and lively reggae beat.

If you’re ever in Kyiv, the Musical Fountain show is not to be missed, although it tends to be covered over and hibernated during the winter. There was one particular old Ukrainian song that I enjoyed so much, but never managed to find out its name or artist (if anyone recognises it from the clip, do tell!).

See Reconnaissance Jukebox for a collection of my personal favourite songs from Ukraine.


Mission Ukraine Summary
Five days in Ukraine is nowhere near enough, and that’s in Kyiv alone, without visiting other major cities like Odessa and Lviv. Kyiv is a modern, yet historic city that just keeps on giving. I even managed to squeeze in an impromptu tour off the beaten path to Bunker 402 in Bilohorodka Village (which I had no idea but was right up my street), courtesy of some local pals. My only regret is that I did not make it to Crimea (namely Sevastopol to ship-watch and Yalta/Gaspra to see the amazing Swallow’s Nest castle) while it was still part of Ukraine, as now it would be somewhat more difficult (especially as a persona non grata with a British passport) and bittersweet. Not to be defeated, I shall make there it one day…