My phone being smashed, I couldn’t take blog notes on it, so used a PEN, like some sort of backwards savage, first on a receipt and then on a little WHSmith notebook provided by Tom.
We stuffed ourselves at the Ibis then headed for the Kiev Metro, buying batches of shockingly cheap green plastic Metro tokens. The station design resembles Moscow’s, with each stations a fixed unit of two platforms flanking a central space, escalators at each end, and a staircase in the middle leading to another unit if two lines are connecting. The trains do, too, though they’re painted a merry Ukrainian blue and yellow. It was a bright morning, and our group leader tried to wangle our way into the Olympic Stadium for the photography nerds in the group – but there was some sort of sporting event on, so back on the Metro.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – previously known as the Square of the October Revolution, Kalinin Square (twice), Soviet Square, Khreshchatyk Square, and Parliament Square (also twice). People just call it Maidan (“Square”), and who can blame them? It’s a huge cartouche-shaped plaza, bisected by the Khreschatyk, Kiev’s main thoroughfare; the upper half features a stone column topped by a bronze statue of Berehynia* waving a golden branch, and beyond it a huge hotel; the lower half of the square is full of dry, broken fountains and glass domes which illuminate the shopping centre underneath.
The rioters and barricades are gone from Maidan, but have left their mark: graffiti, scorch marks, stone slabs chipped, scarred and smashed. In some places the cobbles have been torn up for missiles; in others, they’re neatly piled, ready to be put back into the ground; along one road they had been carefully stacked into little shrines holding framed photos of the dead. People had formed the shape of a vast Ukrainian trident from lines of little coloured glass lanterns, and I suspected messing with it would get you beaten up by literally everyone. Flower and lamp offerings were scattered everywhere, memorial stuff of all sorts surrounded the column, and there was a haphazard display of photographs of the riots, surrounding events and fighting in Crimea and Donetsk. One photo showed Mother Motherland with the Ukrainian trident projected over her shield, obscuring the hammer and sickle. The burned building which had held Yanukovych’s snipers was covered with an immense stylised Ukrainian flag – bright yellow cornfield below endless blue sky – emblazoned with “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” in huge blue letters.
There were all sorts of characters feeding off the tourists to the square – we were variously accosted by:
– a pigeon-thruster (one of many) who went straight for Bill and put stylish-looking doves on him until we made it clear we weren’t taking any pictures;
– a twink in short shorts who wheedled about taking donations for the soldiers fighting in Donetsk, in quite good English;
– a pair of old ladies with tins who didn’t even try speaking, just gesturing;
– an older, worn-down bloke in legit-looking camo who didn’t push it and may just have been genuine. Or may have been a beggar – there were plenty about.
Neither the furries, nor the girls dressed as sexy Minnie Mouse, tried it on. They must have been boiling.
There was an undercroft full of shops below the main road, with florists who were clearly doing a booming business and Perspex-box stalls flogging tourist tat, Ukrainian flags, bogroll printed with Putin and Yanukovych’s faces. Past it and down some escalators, under the glass domes is a glossy modern shopping arcade which would have been at home in any soulless out-of-town centre in the West.
We walked to European Square (which has previously been named after Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Third International and Tsar Alexander – the name “European Square” actually dates to 1851 rather than the modern desperate desire to be part of the EU) and enjoyed the awful sound of six lanes of fast traffic driving over fist-sized cobblestones. Uphill, in a park where the unmown grass was almost overwhelmed by the dandelions, a stall sold us more cheap microwaved pastries, and, having not learned my lesson from Funny Drink in Budapest, I tried a carton of something called “Rich Kids”, which tasted like the crotch of an additive refinery.
The funicular to St Michael’s is a legitimate form of transport, rather than a tourist attraction, but is of course made in the glorious Soviet metro style – gorgeous stations with brassy luminaires and fluted gold-effect panelling. We went up and down once, its cars packed with commuters going both ways. Oddly, it had only a single track, with a passing point in the middle. At the top were little homemade bird-feeders cut from plastic bottles; a pigeon with no tail feathers fluttered around a bit. Half the group bought espressos from a pink coffee snail.
The Monastery of St Michael boasts many golden cupolas and curiously massive flying buttresses; trying to climb the bell tower, we found ourselves in a museum, with a huge gold Archangel Michael, little models and photos of the monastery through the ages, and a mural of Jesus poking someone in the eye. The bell tower itself contained a vast nest of bells, with a sort of bell keyboard in the middle. Walking southwest down Volodymyrskyi Passage, there were soldier types everywhere, a rogue’s gallery of recent Eastern Bloc camouflage; in the chequerboard square itself stood a huge statue of Bohdan the Zaphorozian Cossack, waving a mace. St Sophia’s bell tower was twice the size of St Michael’s, and contained a few bells and a curiously vast emptiness in its four walls it. Many, many stairs later, we could look down on all Kiev, and take ironic selfies.
The group stopped for fancy tea and coffee, from a menu with weird names like “Uncle’s Whim”, “Preserved Verginity” and “Breath of Hell” – I had a “Blonda Coffee” (it came with jelly beans) and a salmon pie with sour cream and pickled tomatoes. Then we continued north, to a long line of souvenir stalls hawking every kind of tat – clocks out of MiG-29s, cookbooks, space helmets, lapel pins, diving helmets, carved wooden plates – where it started to drizzle.
Above a long flight of rain-slick iron steps, beneath a lovely teal and gold roof, the Church of St Andrew was utterly gorgeous and utterly bizarre: a sort of Orthodox rococo, halfway between a basically Slavic configuration and an aesthetic that belonged in a French palace. The roof gold, the altar screen was a huge five-storey red-and-gold structure; there was a pulpit, amazingly, and gold curlicues and cherubs on everything. The altarcloth showed a Ukrainian trident (with an Orthodox cross as its central prong, banners behind the bar with a black X symbol), and there were double-headed eagles everywhere.
Descending, we watched a great twenty-metre string of ants crawling along a roadside wall, and took a detour up a set of metal stairs with distressing wobbles and hilariously wrecked handrails – Ukrainians don’t give a shit about health and safety. Then, further down a steep, winding cobbled lane lined with street art and crumbling buildings, we stopped under the parasols of a cafe to get out of the rain. Tea came in big cups with giant open-ended tea-scrotums suspended on lollipop sticks, accompanied by white Jaffa cakes full of strawberry jelly. The pancakes we ordered were, curiously, green (“from leprechauns”, the English-speaking waitress unhelpfully commented) but satisfyingly full of cheese and sour cream. The radio played lounge versions of Tainted Love and Gangnam Style, marijuana smoke drifted over from a nearby table, and the rain beat down hard on the parasols for a while.
Further down the hill, around the entrance to Kontraktova Ploshcha station was a run-down markety bit with shops and kebab stalls in square glass cabins – flower sellers under awnings, the sound of an unseen violinist. We boarded, changed to the red line after two stations, came to Arsenalna, the deepest station in the world, and realised that we’d lost Tom. So we rode up to look for him (the escalator didn’t look much longer than the one at Angel, then we got to the vestibule at the top and I realised that there were two of them), went all the way up to the top, still unable to find him (“dammit, Tom, this is just like Left 4 Dead”), and all the way back down – to, eventually and inevitably, find him right back at the bottom, grinning and saying “what took you guys so long?”.
* A folk goddess recently invented for the purposes of Ukrainian nationalism, about as legitimate as any other neo-pagan nonsense. The statue was built in 2001.
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