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The journey to Chernobyl did not begin well. I tripped and broke my phone within two seconds of getting off my bus on Tuesday night; the following morning, in dawn light so clear and crisp it made even the plate-glass trashitecture around Uxbridge station look attractive, we missed the first A10 (brrrtttt) bus to Heathrow; Tom’s phone boarding pass wouldn’t scan and he got spot-checked twice by security (male, 18-25 age range, travelling east to unstable warzone with no hold baggage and a beard), before we found each other again past the lines; I got gouged 99p for a slice of toast at the ‘spoons; and our plane turned out to be broken.
The crew consulted an engineer and then shifted us over to a spare BA plane, which didn’t bother me as I gained an emergency-exit seat and its associated legroom, and we were collectively thankful that if there is anywhere in the world BA will have a spare A320 just lying around, it’s Heathrow. It was a good day to fly, with a layer of serene white cloud-puffs giving that curious feeling that you could reach out and grasp one in one hand until you look a little further down and see its shadow eclipsing an entire town. That pattern remained oddly uniform for all the 2000 or so kilometres of our trip; if you could jump from one cloud to another you could have made it to the Ukrainian border. Names familiar as ghastly Eastern Front bloodbaths popped up in the map display, the middle horizon was hazed with that lovely atmospheric lensing effect, and I could see clearly all the way up to heaven and down to Poland. At Kiev Borispol, there were warplanes and gunships lined up near the runway, but we swept past too quickly to be able to work out if they were for pleasure or business.
We met our guide, Nikolai, jumped in a white minibus with AC and low, tinted windows, and drove through Kiev to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Ukrainian version of Park Pobedy. There, the immense shining statue of Mother Motherland, stubby sword raised high,* gazes with stainless-steel eyes over monuments to all her martyred children. An artificial tunnel was lined lined with enormous bronzes of heroic Soviet figures of all ages and genders fighting with the iconic Mosin-Nagant, PPSh-41 and SVT-40 – the same attention to the details of the weapons as I’d seen in Russia. Around the (unlit) Eternal Flame, even I could make out the word SLAVA. Monuments to each of the Hero Cities stand by a little artificial lake. Below the Rodina statue, there’s a hall of Heroes of the Soviet Union, the names of every wartime award there in gold against white marble, Zhukov alone under the heading of four-time winners. The viewing platform at her feet was accessed by a little three-man lift and a nested staircase with head-banging hazards that would make a risk assessor squeal, lined with stuff which was almost certainly asbestos – Ukrainians simply don’t give a shit about health and safety. From there, we could see all around: the golden cupolas of the monastery district just up the hill, the great bridges spanning the Dnieper, the huge tower blocks of postwar Kiev, and endless flat plains in the distance.
Under the statue was a museum much like the one in Moscow, with dioramas of offensives, amazing collections of kit and relics, haunting war memorials and so on. But in the entrance hall, there was also a modern-day exhibit of photos and artefacts from the fighting going on in Donetsk and Luhansk. For Ukraine, war is very much a going concern. There is a very definite sense of dissonance here – how to reconcile all these monuments to the greatest victory in human history, won in no small part with Ukrainian blood and iron, with symbolism which overwhelmingly belongs to the Russians, ancestral oppressors and current-day bitter enemies. Nikolai explained that the Poroshenko government had ordered all hammer and sickle iconography removed from buildings and statues, leaving the enormous stainless-steel shield of Mother Motherland in doubt.
There was another section with a huge collection of assorted olive-drab armour, artillery and aircraft, including one tank painted blue and yellow in Ukrainian colours. Further up the hill – I could tell from the shape of the ground that there used to be a star fort here – three badly damaged pieces of modern kit (a Grad, BMP and BTR) stood, with signs in English and Ukrainian explaining the identifiers used to determine that these were modern Russian kit that Russia was using to kill Ukrainians and take Ukrainian land. We bought tea from a nearby stall, Nikolai explaining to the seller that we were English, so took it with milk.
In the monastery district we got wodges of hryvnia from an ATM, exchanging some of it for very cheap microwaved hot dogs at a roadside stall, and were suddenly accosted by a very enthusiastic man with respectable clothes, a big bushy beard and sunglasses. He insisted that his tour round the monastery was top-notch, and the group agreed to hand over the tiny amount he was asking, so he – his name was Igor – took us around the wonderful old monastery area, full of buildings and bits of buildings dating from the Kievan Rus’, the grave of the founder of Muscovy, and so on, and so forth. The history actually correlated very well with what I knew, and he clearly had a great love both for Kiev and the Orthodox faith – he was great fun, although I think I got more out of him than the rest of the group.
The minibus picked us up, we had some drinks at a sort of diner/pub thing in downtown Kiev, then visited a supermarket to load up on bottled water and other supplies for Chernobyl before hitting the Ibis Hotel. Which ended the day as it had begun by having had its digital booking system completely implode, and causing Ben no end of trouble and hassle sorting it all out. Dinner was at the hotel, which was not cheap but not too dear, and its slightly-Engrishy menu had lots of appetising choices – but in the end, I really had no option but to choose the chicken Kiev.
* The sword should be longer, but was cut down for being higher than the cross on the Pechersk Lavra monastery.
Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s– Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – Palace of Culture –
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital – City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments