Kiev – a city on the edge
You don’t need to have mastered much of the Russian language to know that the name "Ukraine" is derived from the word "Krai", edge. However the same word in Polish means "country" and given that Ukrainian language sounds like a concoction of the two, one could arguably describe Ukraine as ‘a country on edge’. On the edge of precisely what, is another question - perhaps of itself as Ukraine struggles to decide which way it wants to go. The more populous, industrialised eastern half is extremely Russified and looks to motherRussia for a combination of economic assistance, security and guidance, while the western part identifies more with Ukrainian nationalism and views Russia as a potential threat to its European ambitions. Granted most Ukrainians would like to join the EU, if only to allow visa-free travel to the Eurozone, but you’re best off not mentioning any NATO ambitions here.
So where does that leave Kiev, smack in the middle of the country? For a start, even a uniformed spelling in English can’t be agreed upon, and ‘Kiev v Kyiv’ may at first glance look like a local football fixture but is in fact an on-going debate on how to spell the Ukrainian capital’s name. Traditionalists stick with Kiev, a transliteration of the Russian spelling, whereas modernisers prefer the less-familiar Kyiv which apparently is closer to how it would sound in Ukrainian.
Kiev is one of Europe’s older cities, dating back to at least the 9th Century AD. Legend has it that over a millennium ago there were three brothers and a sister living there, and one of the brothers was called Kiy. Kiev means ‘of Kiy’ which I guess makes some sense, although we know little else about this family. Nowadays Kiev is home to around four million of Ukraine’s estimated population of 48 million, and is by far the largest city in the country. In fact it was the third most populous place in the Soviet Union and despite considerable emigration from the country since independence in 1991. Kiev continues to be a magnet for Ukrainians from poorer parts of the country, allowing glimpses of a lifestyle most can only dream of.
Arriving from Moscow is a revelation in that neither Europeans, North Americans nor CIS citizens require a visa, with Ukraine finally realised in 2005 that tourism means money, and that the draconian visa regime they had in place meant that most people simply didn’t bother trying, and last year they even scrapped the (somewhat pointless) migration card. So unless you come from a country that Ali G believes shouldn’t be allowed a vote at the UN, you just rock up, have your passport stamped and you’re in. Even the ubiquitous taxi mafia are wimps compared to their Moscow counterparts.
The second observation is that whereas most menial tasks in Russia are generally performed by immigrants from the Former SovietRepublics (Uzbeks sweep the streets, Azeris drive gipsy cabs, Tajiks build building and Kyrgyz mop the floors), you’ll be pushed to see an Asian-looking face in Kiev. When communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, so with it disappeared the safety net that provided basic goods and services (however pitiful) plunging millions into even deeper poverty overnight with little clue as to where they should go from here. Cynics joke that Poland went through a shock therapy that was indeed tough but eventually put them on the slow road to relative prosperity, yet Ukraine got the shock without the therapy. Those who could, emigrated to both the West and Russiaresulting in a drop in population, not helped by a plunging birth rate and a virtual collapse in law & order allowed various mafia groups to flourish, enriching a select few who usually hold strong ties to the authorities.
The past decade has seen a relative calm compared with the chaos of the nineties, coupled with a general improvement in standards of living although this is most restricted to urban areas and one wonders how much Ukraine could have achieved with a decent government in place. The Orange revolution in late 2004 made international headlines, as has the recent jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko as Victor Yanukovich appears to be steering his country down a dangerous path in the face of international protest (which for now is falling on deaf ears).
Politics aside, Kiev makes for an easy weekend destination from Moscow, yet it’s surprising how few of even Moscow’s longer- term expats have still to visit Khokhlandia. The centre is focused around Independence Square (known as Maidan) and the main drag is Ul. Khreschatik which is lined on either side by large, imposing, Soviet-style buildings now containing boutique stores but there’s more to the old centre that a Zara store and a Porsche showroom. Ul. Khreschatik is where crowds come to mingle throughout the year, whatever the weather and on Sundays they close it off to traffic. It’s only half a mile long so give it several trips, and then make your way up the hill past the Golden gate to start off with St. Sofia Cathedral, which is an outstanding architectural monument of the Kievan Rus (this will mean something if you’ve studied the history of the region). No less impressive is the nearby St. Michael’s golden-domed monastery, both from the inside and out. It’s downhill from here, but only in a physical sense as you’ll walk down Andreiyevsky spusk past the jaw-dropping St. Andrew’s church, perched high up above the multitude of stalls selling the usual mix of modern tat souvenirs and communist memorabilia. They mask a number of small restaurants and cafes before you reach Kondratkova square in the Podil part of town. Here you can visit the Chernobyl museum if you don’t fancy, or don’t have time for a trip to the actual reactor (although having been to both, the real thing is worth the 140Km drive).
During the summer, boats offer an hour-long excursion along the mighty Dniepr river (it’s frozen over in winter) with views of communist-style monuments to Soviet-era achievements. Much of the rest of Kiev comprises of high-rise tower blocks for living accommodation which is most of what you’ll see when you take the funicular back up the hill to the panoramic viewing point. A trip to Kiev wouldn’t be complete without a ride on the metro. It’s unsurprisingly similar to the St. Petersburg metro, with exceptionally long escalators, and Arsenalna currently ranks as the world’s deepest, at over 100 metres and takes 5 minutes in either direction! Exit here for a visit to Pecherska Lavra, better known as the Cave monastery which was founded in 1015, and if you only make one excursion away from the centre, then make it the caves! Weather permitting, walk back towards the centre through the park above the Dniepr by which time you will just about have earned a night out on the town.
You’ll see some oddly matched couples in Kiev, usually a foreign man on the wrong side of fifty with a cute ‘date’ less than half his age. Ukraine reportedly has more marriage agencies than travel agents, and when you look at the beauty of the local ladies, it’s not hard to see why. It’s not that Ukrainian girls have a particular fetish for overweight, balding men from abroad who are reaching pensionable age, but rather this ‘match’ is driven by the disparity in incomes between most Ukrainians and Westerners, and the situation is not helped by the old ‘the grass is always greener’ saying that a life abroad with automatically bring prosperity, and happiness. Consequently if you travel to Kiev either as a single man or in an all-male group, expect the assumption to be that there’s only reason why you’re here, and it’s not to take a course in folk dancing, although if you do speak some Russian then you’ll certainly stand out from the crowd as locals won’t expect you to speak any and will be surprised that you do. On the plus side, since Ryanair don’t fly to Kiev (yet), the city has yet to be overrun by stag parties from the UK, in the way that Bratislava, Riga and many other ‘Eastern Block’ capitals have been spoilt, so whilst you might not be a novelty, you won’t be a nuisance either. Therefore the only dilemma is whether or not to take your own ants to the picnic…
Tips for travellers:
Getting there: Flights from Moscow take an hour and twenty minutes to reach Kiev’s Borispol airport – there are anything up to a dozen a day depending on the time of year, so you can choose from Aeroflot, Aerosvit, Transaero & S7. Taking the train might sound romantic but it’s a bumpy, overnight ride and costs only slightly less than a flight, although at least the border formalities are no longer carried out during the middle of the night.
Staying there: Decent hotels (Intercontinental, Hyatt, Radisson) cost a fortune, and ‘local’ ones (Khreschatik, Dnipro, Libid) are also ludicrously overpriced for what they are, which is basically a communist’s idea of a 5 star hotel. Your best bet is to rent a flat via one of the many agencies who offer short (from 1 night) and long term leases. Most offer airport transfers and can arrange local guides for sightseeing excursions. I’ve used www.homeinkiev.com and always found them to be excellent.
Spending there: Local money is called the Hryvna – there are plenty of ATMs around town & quite a few Bureau de Changes, and an increasing number of places accept credit cards. Except prices in up-market establishments to be almost on par with what you’d pay in Moscow, although costs drop considerably when you leave the downtown area.
Speaking there: Due to the recent influx of western tourists who are usually first timers to the CIS, local will be surprised that you know even passable Russian and if you speak it fluently then they’ll think that you are Russian! More & more Ukrainians, especially the younger generation now speak some English, but as a rule most outside of hi-end places won’t know more than the odd word. What you’ll hear on the streets is Russian, even though many signs are now in Ukrainian.