Ukraine, 2006, On My Own: Yalta to Kyiv

The regional buses were well-organized, had numbered seats, and ran according to a schedule and marked stops. I was headed to Yalta, but I wanted to make a stop to see the Swallow’s Nest, a much-photographed building high on a cliff looking over the Black Sea. I asked the driver about where I should get off, and he told me the third stop would be best. When we got to the third stop, he told me not to get off, I should get off at the next stop. I was confused – the signs had indicated this stop was the one, but he insisted, and so I rode to the next stop.

There were three Ukrainian women who had seen and heard this discussion, and – lucky for me – they got off at the next stop, too. They didn’t seem to speak a lot of English, but their gestures and tone indicated that they thought the driver was wrong. They talked among themselves for a couple of minutes.

I should come with them, one said. So I did. We walked along a side road and shortly came to a gate across the road, and the gate had a security guard with a rifle. The women proceeded to explain to him (I surmised from tone and gestures) that the driver had been mistaken and now here I was through no fault of my own. The guard looked at me, standing there with my rolling L.L. Bean book bag and carrying my coat, and decided I was just a hapless tourist and it would be okay to let me in by what I imagine was the service gate.

He pointed, emphatically, at the pavement on one side of the middle stripe. I should walk on this side of the road, not that side, pointing at the other side. He walked to the side of the road, pointed, and shook his head vigorously. Do not wander off the road. Do you understand? (Or words to that effect.) I nodded. “Okay,” he said in English, and waved his arm, indicating I could go on. I thanked the women, and we all smiled and nodded, and I waved as I turned to go forward.

The Swallow’s Nest, Crimea

I was good for my word, of course. I just wanted to look at this building, and walked up the hill, which was pretty steep. I think it took about fifteen minutes to get to the top. It satisfied my curiosity. The views were incredible, but the building itself was a complete disappointment. In photos, it has a fairy tale air about it, but in person, close up, it’s just a tiny, rather artificial-looking building (those doors and windows are not extra-large) surrounded by pavement. When I was there, it appeared to be completely closed up and abandoned.

The walk down was shorter, just like always. The guard was still there, I said thank you again. He nodded, said something akin to “Have a nice day,” and I went and stood by the road, waiting for the next bus to Yalta to come by. I appreciated the help getting to see it, for sure – everyone was very kind to take time for me. But, lesson learned – when the guidebook says it’s not worth your time, you should think about reconsidering unless you have other reasons to go.

The Bristol Hotel, my “home” in Yalta!
McDonalds was in Crimea in 2006, but I don’t know about 2023.

Crimea, and Yalta in particular, was a different place from the rest of Ukraine. Sunny and warm, life seemed brighter and more relaxed there. Probably because it served the country as a resort area. I have no idea what it is like now.

The waterfront in Yalta
Lenin – There are hundreds of these statues in the old Soviet Socialist Republics. In later travels, I saw them in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The Republic of Georgia had taken most Soviet symbols down.
Anton Chekhov in Gagarin Primorskiy Park in Yalta, Crimea. He wrote many short stories, but when I think of him, I think of his plays, especially Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. He was a physician by profession.
A shopping area in Yalta
A store in Yalta, an automat (food vending machines,) I think. I was after the bright, almost fluorescent yellow store interior, but the young store clerk added some character!
And, of course, another gorgeous church! The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named for Saint Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince of the 13th century. It was built to honor Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, that “liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire” – although “liberate” may depend on who is telling the story.

I couldn’t come to Yalta and not see the site of the famous Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin came together to plot the end of WWII – how to handle the liberation of Europe from Germany, and how to handle post-war Germany itself. In February, 1945, the war wasn’t over in Europe, but there was a definite “matter of time” feeling in the air.

Before Livadia hosted the Yalta Conference, however, it was the summer retreat for Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The Livadia estate had become a summer residence of the Russian imperial family in the 1860s, but the original palace was demolished and this palace, larger of course, was built of white Crimean limestone in 1911, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the tsar who was overthrown in 1917.

There were about 119 rooms. I don’t remember many of them being open – a couple of palace rooms meant to convey palace life, and the principal rooms of the conference. But the most beautiful part of the palace was outside – the view of the Black Sea, the terraces, the white limestone building that sat at a low profile against the coast.

A reception room in Livadia Palace.
The courtyard of Livadia Palace.
One of the lions of Livadia, surveying the Black Sea.
Ukrainian musician, in traditional costume and instrument.

“After the February Revolution in 1917, Nicholas’ mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, fled to Livadia with some other members of the imperial family. They were eventually rescued by the British ship HMS Marlborough, sent by the Dowager Empress’ nephew, King George V.” [Wikipedia, “Livadia Palace,” History.] They were lucky to have an escape. Handy, having this palace by the sea!

A view of Yalta from Livadia Palace’s terraces. Although it was called the Yalta Conference, the site was about a mile and a half from Yalta itself.
The Yalta Conference rooms, above and below. The newspaper is Pravda. “Pravda” means “truth” in Russian. Pravda was the official publication of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1918 until 1991. (Numerous publications and websites have continued using the same name, but are not official, apparently.) If you enlarge my photo, you can see Churchill on the right, at the table, in the Pravda photo. It’s the round table pictured below. I think Stalin is on the left side, and Roosevelt is on the far side of the table. The photo is not clear, so I can’t promise! (Churchill is a distinct persona, however, and hard to miss, fuzzy or not.)
The Vorontsov Palace (in Alupka) is where the British delegation, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, stayed during the conference. The Yalta Conference was held among three local palaces – Vorontsov, Yusupov, and Livadia. Yusupov Palace was where the Soviet delegation, led by Joseph Stalin, was housed. The Vorontsov Palace was not open when I was there, and I didn’t visit the Yusupov Palace in 2006, but it is apparently now open for tours.
I thought the lions guarding the door of Vorontsov Palace were beautiful, but when I got close, I discovered that someone had broken off their teeth!
This is Georges, who was my guide around Livadia. He is holding up three fingers to represent the Ukrainian trident symbol. Like so many Ukrainians I met, he was a nice person and very proud of Ukraine.

I had chosen to take the bus from Yalta to Simferopol to catch the train because it would take me through countryside I hadn’t seen. “Experienced” by now, I had bought my bus ticket and located my bus. Also by experience, when I stepped on board, I asked the driver if this was the bus to Simferopol – never hurts to confirm! He said yes, so I turned to walk up the aisle to my seat.

About halfway, I saw a smiling blonde woman, probably about my age then, glasses on her blue eyes, clearly trying to get my attention. I smiled back, and as I came closer, she said, “You speak English?”

“Yes,” I said. I rather had the impression this meant that she wanted to converse with me. I had found that people I met were curious about Americans and sometimes wanted to practice their English. My seat was right behind her, and she turned so she could look at me, still smiling.

“Where are you from?” she asked. The universal ice breaker.

“The U.S.,” I said. Her face fell. “Where are you from?”

“Moscow,” she said. She turned around, and that was the last word she spoke to me.

Trying to talk with Russians can be problematic for Americans, I think. Russia put out a lot of anti-NATO propaganda in Ukraine, displayed in Kyiv’s Maidan Square during the election campaigns going on when I first arrived with OSCE. There were drawings of a skeletal soldier in combat fatigues, with a knife in its mouth, pirate-style, and “NATO” etched on its helmet, crawling over a wall in a threatening manner towards (presumably) Ukrainians or Russians. The same pamphlet had a drawing of Uncle Sam holding an American flag planted in a map of Europe.

The woman on the bus was abrupt, not rude, exactly. She answered my question, after all. But, she made it clear that she was done talking to me. I have no idea if she was afraid to be talking to an American, or if she believed that we are all up to no good. I have had different experiences since Ukraine in the Republic of Georgia and in Kyrgyzstan, where I was able to have good conversations with Russian visitors, so it seems the conversations depend on the listeners, on both sides.


I was within a couple of days of my flight home. There was one more place that I very much wanted to see, and that was the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. It is near, but separate from the St. Sophia complex that I had seen earlier in my Ukrainian visit.

The Pechersk Lavra was founded by Saint Anthony and Saint Theodosy in the 11th century. It became an important cultural and educational center, as well as spiritual. Contained within the Lavra complex is the Dormition Cathedral and several smaller surface churches, among them the Exaltation of the Cross and Nativity of the Virgin, and the Church of the Saviour on Berestovo. []

Sergei, my guide at the Pechersk Lavra (“lavra” meaning monastery) complex that overlooks the Dnipro River. The bell was originally at the top of the Great Lavra Bell Tower.
The Great Lavra Bell Tower, built 1731-1745. The lower columns are Doric, next are Ionic, and the top tier has Corinthian columns, before reaching the golden dome at the top.
The Holy Church of the Dormition, Kyiv. This rebuilt church is in the Baroque style. The decorations are fantastic and effusive, while still built around classic icons. And gold, lots of gold.

“Dormition,” strictly defined, means “death resembling falling asleep” (Merriam-Webster,) but in an Orthodox context, it reflects the belief that Jesus’ mother, Mary, died without physical suffering and at peace in spirit. So this cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary at her moment of earthly death.

From a different angle.

The main church – the Holy Church of the Dormition of the Lavra – was destroyed in World War II. The Soviets blamed the advancing Nazi armies, and the Germans blamed the “scorched earth” tactics of the retreating Soviet army. Regardless of how the church was destroyed, it was not rebuilt after the war. The Soviets had no plans to restore the church, and converted the monastery into a museum park in 1928.

In 1989, however, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the “Kyiv Theological Seminary was resurrected.” [(c) Kyiv Holy Dormition Caves Lavra of Ukrainian Orthodox Church 1991-2023.]

And in 1995, following Ukrainian independence, the Dormition Cathedral was restored, and consecrated in 2000.

The relics of more than one hundred twenty saints are resting in peace in caves below the Lavra, making it one of the most important Christian pilgrimage centers in the world. []

With Sergei, I was able to visit a part of the caves and view the remains. I have no photos of this part of the tour, but I remember very clearly standing next to Sergei in a small cave where there were several bodies lying in rock niches or on rock shelves. There were people in front of us, praying with a priest.

The only light came from candles burning in sconces. I wondered about the air supply! The relics were dressed in what looked like cassocks or vestments. The bodies looked dead, not “just sleeping,” but the stable temperature and cool, dry air has kept the relics from deteriorating as one would have expected.

The caves are spread through an area of about 20 hectares, about 50 acres, so it was not possible to walk through all the caves, plus they are, because of the geology, contained in two separate sections. There are six ancient underground churches, but we did not visit those.

The faithful believe that these “venerable fathers” are responsible for numerous miracles and healings. [] The candle lights, and the relics themselves, resting in the stillness of the caves, creates an emotional atmosphere. Even as one of the not-faithful, it was an absorbing experience, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye. I did not have any revelations, and no lightning bolts found me underground. I experienced a simple, quiet, meditative mind.

This was the room where Sergei and I took a break after visiting the Caves. We sat on a bench like the one you can see in the right corner. In the left corner, you can see the start of a display of crafts and religious items for sale. Here, this part of the room is empty, but there were women selling shawls, hats, and a variety of crafts to the left. Sergei gently hinted that perhaps I would like to look at them? I bought a shawl and a couple of icons that are in my storage unit in a box. Someday, I will see them again!
I’m not sure of the name of this church. There were several churches in the complex, both above and below ground, in addition to the Dormition Church.
Another church, but by now I no longer had Sergei to answer questions, so I’m not sure of the name.
This is over in the monastery portion of the complex – you can see the church domes in the background on the right. I never saw domes like this on any churches in Kyiv, Lviv, or in Crimea, so my guess is that these are waiting for shipment to a more rural place or even another country.
More pieces of decoration. The churches in Ukraine were amazingly beautiful.
The monasteries and monks, just like the rest of Ukraine, have adopted wireless technology.
A street scene nearby.
Part of the National Museum of Ukrainian History near the Motherland Monument, which is not far from the Pechersk Lavra.
The Motherland Monument

The last thing I did in Ukraine was to visit a local department store to buy gifts and souvenirs for my daughters and the people in my office. It was a little challenging because none of the clerks spoke any English, but they understood basically what I was after. And, we established that they accepted credit cards. I went through the section, trying to figure out what people at home might want, and what I could carry. Since I had managed to travel through Ukraine with just my book bag, I knew I would need a suitcase as well. It all worked out in the end. I was happy with what I was able to get, and they seemed pleased, too. I’m sure their families all heard about the American lady when they got home.

My trip home was uneventful, but the trip itself still lives in my memory – the people, the culture, the OSCE – all of it was pure adventure for me and I am still grateful that I was able to go. I have been on other adventures since then, but the first is always special.

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