heed the krai
Kiev is so close to home that it’s often overlooked as a holiday destination. But the city is experiencing a heyday, and if you don’t book soon you just might miss it.
PHOTOS KATYA SCODOVA / TEXT SONYA RINKUS feedback
Cities, like ideas, have their heyday. At the beginning of the 21st century, Kiev has hit a sweet spot in its trajectory through history, making it a top destination for the zeitgeist tourist. Where other post-Soviet capitals are to be found mired in single-minded materialism or financial despair, Kiev tempers the capitalist dream with the best elements of old Rus. So, in the words of Verka Serdyuchka, the country’s drag queen entrant to Eurovision 2007, “Russia goodbye!” There’s no better time to leave Moscow behind for her cheaper, quieter, friendlier sister to the West, if only for the weekend.
Kiev’s rise comes after 800 years as a supporting character in the histories of other countries. Ravaged by Mongol hordes in 1240, the trade city on the Dnieper spent the rest of the millennium bandied between the Lithuanian, Polish and Russian empires. The result is an interesting architectural medley: depressing standard-issue Soviet, charming Middle European baroque and the beautifully mad Art Nouveau creations of Vladislav Gorodetsky, Ukraine’s Gaudi. His masterpiece is the House with Chimeras, a turn-of-the-century governmental building crowned with fantastical sea beasts.
Khreschatyk, the city’s main artery, feels cozy in spite of its menacing Stalinist architecture. On the weekends, it turns into a pedestrian street, perfect for the patented Kiev saunter usually enacted while chomping a perepichka (2 for 5 hryvnia). Like the famous Ukrainian delicacy salo (salted pork lard), these deep-fried hot dogs inject all the fat needed to bear a hard winter, or a night out on the town. Sushi joints have started to creep in from the East (Moscow, that is), and coffeehouses encroach from the West, but these foreign imports have yet to flood the market. Varenichniye, cafes specializing in boiled dumplings, are more prevalent as Kiev still prefers time-honored peasant fare — fried, fatty and topped with sour cream.
The charm of Kiev’s downtown is the feeling that you can master it. It’s small, and benevolently free of sensory abuse. No flashing casinos, no human jostling – Kiev’s streets, like its metro, are preternaturally quiet and calm. The only commotion occurs during political demonstrations, which are frequent. This is the preferred form of popular entertainment, beating coffee and sushi by a long shot. Khreschatyk feeds into Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, which acted as the central hub of discontent during the Orange Revolution. Then, thousands of protestors camped out in the snow under the monument to Archangel Michael, the city’s protector. It’s a scene that’s now being replicated on a smaller scale with the political turmoil caused by President Yushchenko’s dissolution of Parliament on April 2. Go now and be part of history — you can even take home your own t-shirt. In the underpass below the Maidan, vendors sell cutesy BYuT (Bloc Yuliya Tymoshenko) tees with a cartoon rendering of the populist politician. With signature blond braids spiraling around her bobblehead, she’s a postmodern hero, a hybrid of Ukrainian peasant and Powerpuff Girl.
The pitfall of an easily mastered downtown – Khreschatyk will be walked twice before you finish your perepichka – is that you’re soon left humming, “What to do?” Two options present themselves to tourists: the sacred and the sad. It was Vladimir of Kiev who famously chose Orthodoxy in 987 on the grounds that Kievan Rus should be allowed sensual pleasures. In St. Sophia’s Cathedral, built not long after Vladimir’s fateful decision, massive frescoes depict important news events of 1,000 years ago, such as the visit of Princess Olga to Constantinople. The Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves) was reportedly founded by a priest who wanted to be alone in a cave. Others moved in to be close to him, creating a spooky network of catacombs, which ultimately became a monastery complex. Its underground temples, accessible only via narrow passageways clogged with people holding candles, are a claustrophobic’s nightmare.
Don’t leave without giving face time to the relics of historical atrocities that are rarely spoken of outside. The last 100-year leg, in particular, was profoundly unkind: Kiev was alternately the victim of war, famine, genocide and negligence. In the north of the city, a picturesque grassy ravine lies in the middle of a park. Families picnic there, children race down its sides. It’s Babiy Yar, which served as the communal grave for nearly 40,000 people, primarily Jews, killed by Nazis over a ten-day period. The ravine is marked with a large monument inscribed in Ukrainian, Russian and Hebrew, though physical testaments to other tragedies are smaller or, in some cases, nonexistent. The Holodomor terror famine was only officially recognized last year, and then quietly marked by a day of remembrance in the city. But one need not travel far to make contact with Kiev’s pain, some from fresher injustices. Khreschatyk, previously mined with explosives by the Red Army during the war and completely destroyed, was walked during a government-mandated parade in 1986 after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded 100 km away, exposing citizens to harmful levels of radiation. You need to see these things to be sure that the 800 years of bad luck are over. Kiev is sailing through its golden arc. Kiev is rising.
• Getting There — Trains to Kiev leave from – wait for it – Kievskaya train station multiple times a day. Typically, prices hover around 1,500 rubles for a spot in a four-person sleeping compartment. The ride takes from 10 to 15 hours, depending on the speed of the train. Alternately, you can hop on a 90-minute Aeroflot flight for around 9,000 rubles.
• Visas — Ukraine relaxed its visa requirements before Eurovision 2005 so that international fans could attend the pop contest. Russians, Americans and citizens of the E.U. get in visa-free. Australians are not included, which the Ukrainian guards will kindly tell you on exit at the border if they missed you coming in without a visa. They will also probably let you off with a warning and a few kangaroo noises.
• Accommodation — The thing to do in Kiev is to get your own apartment for a few days: it’s cheaper than a hotel, cleaner than a hostel and you can save money by making your own dinners. Prices range depending on the size, and how much the owner thinks she can get that day. For example, a one-bed Evro-remont apartment that is $120 one day will be $60 the next. Rooms are paid for upfront in dollars, and they take down all your passport information in case you steal their Ikea shower curtains. Contact Ukraine Apartments to set up accommodation ahead of time. They also rent mobile phones and personal translators.
• Language — Ukrainian sure sounds a lot like Russian.