Is it the feeling of being Elsewhere but still in Europe, the bizarre Soviet legacy, the country’s raw history, the unexpected travel experiences, the openness of locals or the stories tall and true of life under post-war communism? Or is it the star-dusted, blacker-than-black nights in Myrhorod, the Nutcracker at the opera house in snow-bound Kyiv, empty churches on rainy autumn Wednesdays in Lviv, or the endless bus journeys across the steppe in the company of Gogol and Kurkov. I suppose it’s all the above and volumes more that have me returning to this magical Slavic hinterland time and time again.
-Marc Di Duca, "Why I Love Ukraine"
After three months spent withering under the brutal summer sun in Spain, I welcomed Ukraine’s crisp, September air like a long-lost friend. I arrived in the capital city of Kiev ("Kyiv") ready to knock nearby nuclear disaster site Chernobyl off my life's bucket list, not bothering to plan anything beyond that. Before my visit, I didn't know much about Ukraine; I'm embarrassed to admit that I associated it with glum communism, bone-chilling winters, and babushkas waiting in long bread lines. But before judging me as ignorant, which I most certainly can be, you must understand that Ukraine is a complicated country that's dealt with so many staggering changes in my lifetime that I've lost track. And having the 1980s US education system drill into my head that anything related to communism is B-A-D didn't help, either.
Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991, when the USSR collapsed, so Ukraine is heavily influenced by neighbor Russia and the history they share. In fact, since Ukraine's independence in 1991, their future was looking bright until crippling political corruption (backed by Putin?) and Russian territorial aggression brought Ukraine's ambitious arrival onto the world scene to a screeching halt, so the two countries aren't parting ways any time soon. In late 2013, things came to a head when president President Viktor Yanukovych squelched plans to join the EU and citizens led massive demonstrations and protests in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti ("Independence Square"). During these Euromaidan protests, citizens were peaceful and persistent, braving the bitter winter and the government's aggressive response because they'd had enough. By February 2014, almost 130 people died in the protests and Yanukovych resigned and fled to Russia, but the Euromaidan protests were overall a success and things started moving in the right direction again. Until Russia's unexpected and barbarous annexation of Crimea and fighting in the Donbass, that is, complicated issues the two countries are presently mired in.
Before going to Ukraine, I wasn't concerned about political unrest or violence, and it certainly wasn't anything I encountered during my stay. The country functions as any normal country does, albeit a country rife with political corruption. I noticed that public transportation and infrastructure had been grossly abandoned and I imagined that its funding was directed instead to projects like building insanely luxurious presidential estates. Life in Ukraine didn't feel glamorous and sexy like that of Spain but muted, frustrated, hopeful, and a bit desperate. Some people refused to speak to me since they didn't understand English (especially annoying when that person is the information desk at Kiev's central train station), others went out of their way to help me. Signs promising wives and quick marriages littered telephone poles and taxi drivers were quick to scam me. Street vendors sold toilet paper with Putin's face, packed trains reeked of booze, tour guides were bastions of information, smiles, and patience. Consumerism isn't prominent in Ukraine and tourism has sadly been cut in half since 2013, making the country the perfect place to experience rich, authentic culture without fighting hoards of tourists and high prices (prices rival those of Southeast Asia). Overall, if I had to summarize my experience in Ukraine, I'd say that I have never been so challenged as a tourist... and rewarded so generously.
Churches + cathedrals + monasteries
Ukraine has ascribed to Orthodox Christianity for over 1,000 years, as evidenced by the country's abundance of spectacular and richly-decorated places of worship. In Kiev, Saint-Sophia Cathedral and Pechersk Lavra are pastel-hued jewels listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1990. While Saint-Sophia was built to rival Istanbul's grand Haga Sophia, Pechersk Lavra ("Monastery of the Caves") boasts an incredible series of tunnels and a microminiature museum that will blow your mind.
Much like Ukraine's political history, the country's religious history has experienced periods of great difficulty. Most notably, under Soviet rule religion was banned and the majority of the country's regal churches were demolished to further communist atheism, although some churches were kept to discredit religion. Most of the churches that remain today in Kiev look vastly different from their original appearance, as many were reconstructed following significant damage from World War II or had their simple red brick form updated to elaborate, golden-domed Baroque styles. Judaism is another prominent religion in Ukraine and there are some beautiful temples in the city that I didn't get to explore (it's worth quickly noting that the religion's prevalence declined greatly during World War II when the country persecuted a significant portion of its Jewish population).
Kiev recently celebrated its millennium, making the city much older than it looks at first glance. I say that because the city today is notable for its brightly-colored brick architecture built in the 1940s, buildings that replaced the rubble left behind after Nazis destroyed the city during World War II. I've never seen such lovely, detailed brickwork and most of the buildings were in excellent condition.
Many of Kiev's stunning pre-WWII buildings have been lovingly restored and make the city feel warm and cultured, while newer Soviet architecture felt stark, imposing, and bland.