Ukraine, 2006, On My Own: Kyiv

It was the end of March in Ukraine, very cool and wet, not quite snowing. I was still wearing my coat, scarf, and gloves daily. The clouds were many and hung in the sky, steel gray puffs to flat, whitish-grey floating islands, with occasional bursts of sun.

I had changed the departure date on my airline ticket. I was on my own now – no driver, no translator, no Martin. Holding my Lonely Planet guidebook in my hand, my finger holding the page with the downtown-Kyiv street map, I was making my way to the train station in Kyiv.

The map named the streets in English. One would think that would be helpful, but it wasn’t – I couldn’t match the English street names, written with the English alphabet, to the Ukrainian street signs, written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Sometimes, I could identify a few letters that seemed the same. I identified a sight from the map that let me know what street I was on. I was counting the number of intersections between turns. That was challenging, too, since the smaller streets weren’t necessarily on the guidebook’s map, but by combining all of the “clues,” I was making progress.

I didn’t visit this church because I was focused on the train station, but it had all of the features of a church – cross on top, bells, cross-shaped structure. I found it remarkable because, before this, all of the churches I had seen were of a much older style.

I found the train station. There was a McDonalds and a modern church nearby, which I made note of as landmarks on the guidebook map. I spent breakfast reading my guidebook in McDonalds and forming a skeletal itinerary for the ten days that I had available.

The first day on my own in Ukraine included breakfast at McDonalds. Yes, I know, but, for this “stranger in a strange land,” it was also familiar, and even though I couldn’t read the menu or the prices, I knew that no matter what I ended up buying, I had a general idea of what it would taste like and I had enough Ukrainian Hryvnia currency to cover it.

I was grateful for the OSCE mission because I was able to get some orientation to Ukraine and to see a side of Ukraine that was unavailable to most visitors, but, there was so much more to see. I had ten days to explore Ukraine with only public transportation and I had to make choices. I decided that, through the mission, I had been able to see some small towns, so now I would visit the larger cities. I would make use of the overnight trains to travel while sleeping, and see three places: Kyiv, Lviv, and the Crimean Peninsula.

I left McDonalds and went to the train station, which was beautiful. I don’t know when it was built, but it reminded me of Grand Central in New York.

The Kyiv train station looks somewhat like a smaller Grand Central.

There was an electronically operated display that was clearly a train schedule, but there was not an English word in sight – it was displayed entirely in Ukrainian, i.e. Cyrillic alphabet.

I stood, staring at the schedule. My smattering of French and Spanish wasn’t going to help me here. I kept staring, hoping that I could pick up a clue of some kind – a pattern. In English, “e” is the most common letter, but of course, that’s based on the sounds we use to speak English, so I couldn’t count on the most common Ukrainian letter being the equivalent of “e.” Visions of hieroglyphics and Navajo code talkers danced through my head….

“Are you an American?” Someone behind me was asking. I stood out, even from the back, something I was getting used to. Working on the OSCE mission with all the other non-Ukrainians, people still immediately noticed the Americans. We were “a thing.”

I turned around and saw a young man looking at me, smiling. I said yes, I am, and smiled back. He introduced himself, an American Peace Corps worker from Indiana. I can’t remember his name now, but he was the first of several pinch-hitting English-speakers that I met during my travels in Ukraine. It seemed whenever I desperately needed someone to speak English, someone appeared.

After the pleasant exchange of where-are-you-from and what-brings-you-here, we got to the where-are-you-going part, which was my present quandary. The train schedule was almost literally Greek to me – the Ukrainian alphabet incorporates several Greek letters that I recognized from my DePauw days, but also has other kinds of letters about which I had not a clue.

There was not enough time for us to go into linguistic detail, but he helped me find the arrivals and departures columns, pointed out the words for Kyiv (which I recognized) and Lviv (which I had not,) how to read the times, and where to buy my ticket. He was on his way to somewhere else, but I was very grateful to have been found by him.

Buying my ticket was the next challenge. I could use the pronunciation guide in the guidebook glossary, I thought. I was wrong.

It was a simple phrase: “I want to go to ….” Then finish the sentence with my destination. I tried. I did. Three or four times. But I got blank looks from the person on the other side of the glass. She was nice. I tried English. I could see that she wanted to help, but she couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Neither did she suggest a different agent, which made me think that my luck would not be better in a different line. Other people were waiting, so I stepped out of line to ponder.

I decided the solution was to copy the phrase, in Cyrillic letters, onto my little notebook that I was carrying, including the name of the city, from the guidebook. I got back into line and, when I reached the front of the line again, I pressed my notebook up to the glass. Big smiles from the ticket agent. Success! A big smile from me, too, and a feeling of relief. Another hurdle cleared. I would not end up in Timbuktu, at least, not tonight.

I was taking the train to Lviv, second-class, as recommended by my guidebook. It would leave later that evening, so I still had the entire day in Kyiv. I began walking from the train station toward the older part of Kyiv, generally toward St. Sophia.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Kyiv, is built in the Byzantine style. It was begun around 1882 and finished in 1892. Monks from the nearby Pechersk Lavra produced one million bricks to be used in the cathedral’s construction.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral was built to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the baptism of the Kyivan Rus’ by Prince Volodymyr I of Kyiv. The Kyivan Rus’ was founded by the Viking Oleg, later called King Oleg, who began to gather East Slavic lands into what would become the Kyivan Rus in the late 800s. Kyiv, already a city located on trading routes, became the capital of an area of northern and eastern Europe. This included what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia.

Christianity was first brought to the territory that would become the Kyivan Rus’ by Saint Andrew, an Apostle of Jesus. Saint Andrew traveled across the Black Sea to the Greek colony of Chersonesus Taurica in Crimea.

However, paganism hung on for the next few centuries, and it was not until the conversion and baptism of Prince Volodymyr in 988, that Christianity gained a permanent foothold. The prince who would become known as Volodymyr the Great, ruler of the Kyivan Rus’ (958 – 1015,) was baptized at Chersonesus, in the Crimean Peninsula. He then baptized his family, followed by a mass baptism of his subjects conducted by priests of the church. Laggards were encouraged to participate so as “not to become enemies of the king.” A persuasive argument.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Kyiv. From this angle, you can see the golden dome and the smaller domes with golden stars floating in night-blue skies.

St. Volodymyr’s was the first Orthodox church I had ever been in, so it was especially interesting to me. The first impression is that the interior is incredibly elaborately decorated. It is cruciform-shaped, meaning it is shaped like a cross: a functionally central portion, intersected by another section that served as side areas. Priests conduct their services in the “top” of the cross, and behind a screen that separates them from the worshipers, who stand in the central section. Women cover their heads. There were no pews.

In the two side areas of the cathedral, there were places to light the long, thin, wax candles that would carry a worshiper’s prayers to the Virgin, a saint, or Jesus. There were icons of religious figures everywhere, and there was a body preserved, elaborately dressed, and encased in glass, situated on the left, in front of one of the pillars holding the cavernous ceiling. That person, I learned, was of importance to the church, something I found frequently in the churches – not necessarily a saint, but an important priest or metropolitan. The interior was rather dark, but I could still see the walls covered with murals that represented stories from the Bible.

The Zoloti Vorota, with the Church of the Trinity on top, is a replica of the original from the 11th century, which in turn was modelled on the Golden Gate of Constantinople.
From the other side.

The original Zoloti Vorota was built around 1022 – 1037, and is said to be modelled on the Golden Gate in Constantinople. It was begun during the reign of Volodymyr the Great, and completed by his son, Yaroslav the Wise. The original gate was the main entrance to the city of Kyiv in the 11th century, complete with the Church of the Trinity on top of the gate. Most of the gate was destroyed in 1240 by the Mongol invaders, and what was left was seriously eroded over time. In the 1970s, the foundations were measured, and plans made to reconstruct the gate. What you see today was completed in 1982. Today’s gate has added a statue of Yaroslav I, holding a model of the city gate.

Yaroslav I, Volodymyr’s son, contemplating a model of the Zoloti Vorota. Purportedly, Ukrainians refer to it as the “monument to the Kyiv cake.”

In the several hundred years between Yaroslav the Wise and 1793, Ukraine, like much of Europe, underwent changes of rule and changes of boundaries as small ruling families rose and fell and intermarried. Mongols, Turks, Lithuanians, Galicians, Germans, and Poles all played a part. But in 1793, Ukraine was handed to Catherine the Great and the Romanov dynasty in the Second Partition of Poland.

Ukraine language and culture were actively repressed under Romanov rule, and many Ukrainians migrated to the west, which tried to retain the name Ukraine, but there was much competition for the territory. Into this confusion rose Taras Shevchenko.

Taras Shevchenko statue and park in Kyiv.

It is next to impossible to overstate the importance of Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861) in Ukraine. Shevchenko was born in Ukraine and became what we would call a “Renaissance man” – poet, writer, artist, folklorist, ethnographer, and political figure – a major influence in the Ukrainian national revival. Shevchenko is credited as the founder of modern written Ukrainian language, building on the beginnings laid down by Ivan Kotlyarevsky in the late 17th century. There are monuments in his honor in Kyiv and Lviv, and numerous place names throughout Ukraine.

Tsarist Russia was not friendly to political activists, and Tsar Nicholas I took special interest in Shevchenko because of his enormous influence. Shevchenko opposed serfdom, and believed in rule by the people and in Ukraine’s sovereignty, so the Tsar imprisoned Shevchenko for about ten years in Russia, specifically forbidding him to write or paint anything. The Tsar kept surveillance on Shevchenko for years, but even so, Shevchenko managed to write. Friends and colleagues of Shevchenko continued to try to intercede on his behalf. After the death of Tsar Nicholas I in 1855, his name was removed from the traditional amnesty list, but Shevchenko’s friends were successful a couple of years later, and he was finally released.

At this time, he was allowed to return to Ukraine, but his political activities once again caused his arrest. He was barred from Ukraine. Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg, where he fell ill and died in 1861. Shevchenko was initially buried in St. Petersburg, but, in keeping with his wishes, he was moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is buried on Chernecha Hill, near Kaniv, overlooking the Dnipro River.

Ukraine fought the Soviets in the years immediately following the February 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg, but again, there were many competing interests fighting for control, and according to some historians, the years were completely chaotic for Ukraine. Somewhere in the 1920s, Ukraine lands were taken by Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and, of course, the Soviet Union. In the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 – 1991, Ukrainians held a referendum to declare national independence, which was overwhelmingly approved, and became Ukraine again.

I realize this is an enormous simplification, but it would require a full-length book rather than a blog post to properly cover it. And, although Shevchenko did not live to see the resurgence of Ukrainian national feeling in the twentieth century, his writings, poems, and life provided a focus for Ukrainian people to recover the culture which the Romanovs, then the Soviets, and now the Russians, have attempted to take from them.

The Taras Shevchenko National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv, built around 1901, hosts ballets and concerts, as well as operas.

Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was built in 1017 – 1037 to honor Prince Yaroslav’s victory over the tribal raiders attacking Kyiv. Most of the frescoes and mosaics are original, depicting religious scenes, the traditional decoration of Orthodox churches. The cathedral is named for the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (Constantinople in pre-Islamic times,) and is built in the Byzantine style, with arches and multiple domes. The golden domes were added in the 18th century. The style symbolized the ascendancy of Kyiv as the center of religious and political power in the Kyivan Rus’.

Along the side walls are portraits of Yaroslav and his family, and Yaroslav himself was entombed in a chamber within the church. This was purportedly confirmed in 1936. His remains were removed during WWII by a priest, and believed to have been smuggled into the U.S., specifically a church in Brooklyn, NY. This is unconfirmed.

Especially notable is the large image of the “Virgin Orans” in the central apse. “Orans” is Greek for “praying.” This depiction of the Virgin Mary is unique to the Orthodox church. It is symbolic of the church interceding on behalf of humankind for salvation. The image in St. Sophia is a six meters (about twenty feet) tall mosaic, picturing Mary praying with her arms outstretched toward heaven.

I stood in the stillness and wondered about the people who worshipped here. Like so many cathedrals in Europe, people had spent years of their lives building these monuments to their religious beliefs, almost a thousand years ago. This building stood, looking as it had for much of those thousand years, in a silence that shouted their faith.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral is the oldest church in existence in Kyiv. The golden domes were added in the 18th century.
The tomb of Patriarch Volodymyr Romanyuk. His story is long, but suffice it to say that he had deep disagreements with the USSR, spent years in their prison, & advocated for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He was a founder of the UOC in 1992. The Patriarch died of a heart attack in 1995. Due to ongoing religious and political disputes, Ukrainian efforts to bury him inside the St. Sophia complex were rejected in violent confrontations, and so he rests just outside of the gates, in St. Sophia Square.
The 76 meter tall bell tower in the St. Sophia’s Cathedral complex, added in the 18th century.
The statue is of a Cossack hero, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, late 1800s. The view is from St. Sophia’s Square. In the distance is St. Michael’s Monastery. Originally built in 1108, it was torn down by the Soviets in 1937. The current church was built in 2001. St. Michael is Kyiv’s patron saint.
Street scene in Kyiv.
Street scene in Kyiv.
Street scene in Kyiv.
This building is on Andriivs’kyi Descent, described as a very steep, very old cobble-stoned street in Kyiv. The street name translates as “Andrew’s Descent,” referring to St. Andrew. Legend says that the saint climbed to the top of the hill and declared that a great city would grow on this spot.
Another view of Andriivs’kyi Descent. The guidebook called it a “quaint cobblestone street,” with shops and art galleries.

My first ride on the Ukrainian train was to begin in a few hours, so I returned to my hotel to gather my luggage. The train was a question mark. I grew up riding trains in the U.S., but I didn’t know quite what to expect here. I was going to find out.

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