Kievan Rus – the powerful East Slavic state founded in the 9th century – is seen as the beginning of Russia and the ancestor of Belarus and Ukraine. The shining copulas of the many churches and monasteries are clear evidence of Kiev’s historic importance. Nowadays many Ukrainians would rather have all historic ties to Russia cut and forgotten.
Madjan Square – Historic Center
In the bitter cold winter months of 2013/2014 mass protests on Kiev’s Madjan led to lethal clashes with the police. The issue was whether Ukraine should move closer to the EU or Putin’s Russia. Despite the bitter cold thousands camped on Madjan. Today it is a peaceful square, but the past is omnipresent. A sea of blue and yellow flags stresses Ukraine’s nationalism, gigantic photos show armed soldiers and many small memorials remind and honor civilians who were killed in these February days.
The architecture along Kiev’s Khreschatky Street looks monumental, but it not old. All buildings along this 1,5km long street were destroyed during World War II by the retreating Red Army. They put explosives into the houses when the German Wehrmacht approached in 1941 and blew them up. In the shadow of this neo-classical post-war Stalinist architecture vendors are trying to make a living by selling woolen scarves of soccer teams, fridge magnets and cigarettes. Young men pose with doves and monkeys, students dressed in weird costumes have their photos with locals and the few tourists, 4 US they get for doing this per day.
Dynamo Kiev against Wehrmacht
My hotel was right across the entrance to the Dynamo Kiev Stadium and one day I discovered a small memorial displaying a few soccer players. This is the touching story. In 1942 after conquering Kiev, the German Wehrmacht tried to create some kind of normality by organizing soccer games between members of the Wehrmacht and locals. The most famous one was against “Flakelf” and “Brotfabrik”, the workers of a bread factory who were actually mostly players for Dynamo Kiev. Although they Ukrainian players were threatened prior to the game, not to defeat the German team, they did so, as a matter of resistance and national pride. Communist propaganda turned this into a fake gruesome story by claiming that all players were shot immediately after the game. This is not true, some of them were even honored after the end of the war. Some of them died fighting or in concentration camps.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra – Kiev Monastery of the Caves
The shining onion-shaped domes of Lavra Monastery identify it from afar as an important center of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. The monastery consists of various buildings, the most dominant is the church. It is a replica though, the original church had been destroyed by the Communist and only rebuilt in this century. From the edges of the terrain you have a great view of the River Dnipro, other churches and the most prominent the Motherland Statue. Evening are a great time to take photos. Another eye-catcher is Lavra Belltower.
The most unique attraction though is the maze of low tunnels to the underground church, which gives the monastery its name. During its founding days in 1080 monks lived in caves, because they felt this was the way to be in touch with god. Even when the first building went up, some remained in the caves. One of the two founders is said to have been so ascetic that he only ate a few times a week. What a difference to the monks nowadays who drive around in big Range Rovers.
Pilgrims jammed the narrow tunnels when I visited on a rainy Monday afternoon, but I was told that it was a quiet day. Usually there are long lines outside. What I found absolutely crazy was that all visitors get little candles to find their way around. CANDLES that smoke up 16th century wall paintings and altars and make breathing difficult. When I asked why candles, I got the answer flashlights would be improper.
War Museum – Motherland Statue
The 100m high Motherland Statue sits on top the huge National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. Naturally the items on display cover exactly that part of Ukraine’s history: weapons left behind by the Germans, photos of heroes, spies and heart-breaking stories of Ukrainian slave workers in Nazi Germany. When I visited there was a new exhibition about the current situation in the “Ukrainian East”.
The official Ukrainian wording goes like this “The story of the victories and sacrifices of the patriots of Ukraine, who in the eastern territories of our state defend its sovereignty against the Russian aggressor.” The display includes Russian armored vehicles conquered by Ukraine troops which serve as proof that Russia is behind the conflict.
Actually a large part of the museum is outside in the park: tanks, trucks, planes and even intercontinental missiles are on display. These weapons had seen Afghanistan and other countries where the Soviet Union got involved mainly during the Cold War.
The Motherland Statue was opened in 1981 in a ceremony attended by Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev. Even then the immense costs were criticized and this controversy continues till today. Critics insist it should be torn down and the metal used for more meaningful purposes. Due to the high cost for keeping the flame going it uses up to 400 m3 of gas per hour) it can only burn on the biggest national holidays.
In April 2015, the parliament of Ukraine outlawed Soviet and Communist symbols, street names and monuments, this law exempts World War II memorials. In February 2018 it was ordered that the state emblem of the Soviet Union on the shield of the monument should be removed. However, it is still there today.
Corruption Museum – former home of ex-president Yanukovych
Honka, a Finnish-style hunting lodge, was ONE of 12 residences the Ukrainian ex-president Yanukovych’s (2010-2014). The décor and furniture of this mansion are obscenely expensive and reveals the dimension of his corruption. Cold, soulless luxury. I posted 40 photos after my visit, not enough to help understand the enormity of this theft of public funds.
The grounds are so vast that some areas are only conveniently reached by golf carts. Within easy reach are the private zoo, an underground shooting range, a 18-hole golf course, a tennis court, a bowling alley, a gigantic spa and small farm. By wandering through he building I could literally sense how greedy hawks gathered around this billionaire and planted the craziest ideas ever in his head, like chandeliers totaling €36.000.000.
After visiting this disgusting display of corruption I completely understood why 1.000.000 people gathered on Kiev’s Madjan to protest against Yanukovych. Over 3000 people camped there for three months during arctic temperatures. Some of those took over this mansion and now organize guided tours.
The video by the NYT shows the mansion right after Yanukovych fled to Russia, where is still lives.
On the way to the corruption museum I passed a flea market and could not resist stopping. I came across a very different world. The poverty showed in the people’s clothing, their looks and what they sold. But I did find something, a beautiful belt buckle with the Soviet Star on it. It must have once been part on a soldier’s uniform.