Quick Love Letter to Kiev

On a lead-coloured January morning this year, precisely six weeks before America and Russia went to war over Ukraine, I arrived in its capital Kiev to spend five weeks in that country. The Ukrainian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had narrowly but helpfully, two days prior to the departure date, issued me my visa.

It was the dead of winter in Ukraine. Perhaps not the ideal season but I had timed my visit there for the Orthodox Christmas Day and Eve which sadly I would now miss by just a couple of days according to the Julian Calendar. Anyhow, as I luckily found out, the carolling mood and yuletide spirit  would still go on till the end of month past Epiphany.

Kiev is a sizeable metropolis. With 3 million people, it ranks amongst Europe’s ten largest cities.

Although it is hard to tell from the city’s mainly 19th century façades and 20th century soviet structures, Kiev is a pretty ancient place that is anchored to a long lost past.

According to a twelfth-century Russian chronicle, Kiev was founded by three brothers – Kiy, Shchek and Khoriv who built on the site a settlement each on three separate hills. A town soon flourished around those hills and was named after the eldest.

Putting aside nationalistic legends and slavonic myths, the real history of Kiev according to archeology goes back nearly two thousand years, maybe even longer. Records tell us that it was settled in the 6th or 7th century by the Polyanians, an East Slavic tribe who roamed the northern grasslands and woods of the Dnieper basin. 

Called the ”Mother City of Rus”, Kiev is where it all started – the site where Russia was born eleven centuries ago .

My friend Tatiana warned me about Kiev’s airport touts so I rehearse my basic Russian and haul my luggage up the airport marshrutka (taxi bus) number 322. I pay the 100 Hrivna fare to the driver, a good-natured and pleasant man about sixty and he issues me an old-fashioned printed ticket. We wait for about 30 minutes for more passengers then depart on the one-hour long journey from Boryspil on the left bank to the city centre on the right crossing one of the bridges over the Dnieper.

Along the way, tall, bare and twiggy roadside trees intersperse with housing and commercial blocks alternate and dominate the view in various shades of grey.

We are disgorged finally at a stop that looks like a back entrance to a large station. Golden domes of a new cathedral glisten in the frosty sunlight, snowflakes fall sharply on naked faces and commuters wrapped up in overcoats and hats stand waiting, stamping their boots in the cold.

I was exhilarated and shivering. Like the feeling after downing a glass of fine frosted vodka – instant, intense and head swirlingly unforgettable. 

Street art at Velyka Vasylkivska – a lovely street name that flows from the tip of tongue with a bit of practice
Tasty and generous local meals at Puzata Hata – a chain of canteen style eateries found in Kiev and other main cities
The Russian shapka is still the best head covering in winter
Hot and fragrant Glintwein in Sofiyska Square where food and craft stalls, nativity figurines and a large tree with lights draw revellers day and night during the month-long Christmas season
The proud and resilient young faces of a city emerging from its long hard history
Last light at the subway entrance
Although outsiders particularly the West like to paint a picture of Ukraine as a multi ethnic place destined for irreconciliable division and strife, the country is in reality remarkably homogenous where 95% are white, slavic and Orthodox Christians.
Coffee and oreshki outside the Besarabka, Kiev’s historic meat and vegetables market at the end of Kreshchatyk
Smokers at the steps to the entrance of an underground shopping arcade
The universal language of empathy and kindness, Taras Shevchenko Boulevard
From Centre to Periphery. Kiev in the 10th century gave birth to both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox religion. Although Ukraine is not Russia the two share a common religion, history and culture.
Podil – the lower city was Kiev’s centre of commerce and trade up until the nineteenth century
Lvivski Plyatski, a popular bakery located near the Kontraktova Ploshcha Metro station that serves freshly made pastries kneaded, tossed and baked before your eyes at the shop window.
The irrepressible Kievan spirit
Kiev’s Blue Church – St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery built in 2001 on the site of an original church which was pulled down and dynamited to pieces in 1935 and 1936 by the Soviets for having “no historical value”.
The brave and faithful dip themselves in the freezing Dnieper River on Epiphany Day on 19 January
Young diners spending time together over a meal of fusion Asian noodles and beer in the Podil district of Kiev
Sweet and Savoury : stalls selling inexpensive and delicious cakes and pastries are found in around 50 stations across the city’s vast underground metro.
Skates, ferris wheel rides and Christmas lights at the Kontraktova Square in Podil
Andreevsky Spusk the charming and historic street in Podil that many say is Kiev in miniature.
Kreshchatyk – Kiev’s main boulevard and commercial street
Kiev’s stylish and creative side is evident in its many beautiful cafes, boutiques and especially people.
Cosy coffee and hookah bar in Kiev
Trains in Ukraine are no-frills but clean, comfortable and respectably fast including this one that makes the 468 km journey from Lviv to Kiev in under 6 hours.
School trip to the Maidan
Statue of Vladimir, the prince and saint who brought Christianity to Russia in Kiev
The first law passed after the 2014 coup is that removing Russian as an official language in favour of Ukrainisation. This discriminatory and ill-advised move is described by a Swiss writer as “a bit like if German putschists decided that French and Italian would no longer be official languages in Switzerland.”
Epiphany day blessings in Dnipro Park
“I was born in Russia, but ethnically Ukrainian. I don’t speak the Ukrainian language and don’t have Ukrainian citizenship. So I’m a Ukrainian to Russians and a Russian to Ukrainian “ according to Andrew Gloe, the author of Ethnicity map of Ukraine (2016)
Besarabsky Market or Besarabka – built in 1912 in the center of Kiev with stalls selling meat, fish, vegetables, dried goods, cheese and caviar on its modest 9,640 square feet of floor space.
One of greatest engineering achievements and lasting legacies of Soviet Kiev is its efficient, elegant and very far below the surface metro. Arsenalna station on the red M1 line at 105.5 meters (345.1 feet) is the deepest train station in the world.
The Kiev Funicular built in 1905 carries passengers paying the UAH 8 (USD 0.30) fare for a 3 minutes ride that connects the lower station of Poshtova in Podil with the upper station of Mikhailivska in front of the Blue Church.
Kiev’s magnificent metro stations are individual works of art and architectural gems in their own right
Closing hours chat in the cloak room of the Kiev Opera House after an enchanting evening of classical music and ballet

Copyright Reserved Kerk Boon Leng 26 March 2022