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St Sophia Cathedral features many of its original frescoes, which survived Genghis Khan's sacking of Kiev. Raymond Beauchemin for The National
St Sophia Cathedral features many of its original frescoes, which survived Genghis Khan's sacking of Kiev. Raymond Beauchemin for The National
Independence Square, where Ukrainians gathered in 2004 to demand the overturning of the presidential election, is now the place to be seen on weekends. Christian Kober / Robert Harding / Getty Images
Independence Square, where Ukrainians gathered in 2004 to demand the overturning of the presidential election, is now the place to be seen on weekends. Christian Kober / Robert Harding / Getty Images
Tanks on display and Rodina Mat monument, Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Kiev. Christian Kober / Robert Harding / Getty Images
Tanks on display and Rodina Mat monument, Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Kiev. Christian Kober / Robert Harding / Getty Images

War and peace in eastern Europe through the prism of Kiev

With its bloody and dramatic history, Ukraine has long had a way of imprinting itself onto the minds of people around the world. Raymond Beauchemin explores the capital for a brief introduction.

From above, there are no scars. From the Mongol sacking of Kiev in 1240 to the Crimean War, the Civil War, Stalin's collectivisation and the Second World War, Ukraine has suffered for its geography. Eight million Ukrainians died in what the USSR called the Great Patriotic War, squeezed as they were between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; perhaps half that died in the famine brought about by Stalin's forced farming programme.

But there are no signs of struggle and hardship at three or four thousand feet. The land forgives all. The soil is black, the farms are green, and the birches and poplars look like florets of broccoli and spears of asparagus.

On the ground, however, Ukraine wears its history on its sleeve. And what history. Besides the various sackings and wars, Ukraine has marauding tribes, wholesale religious conversion, dead monks, Cossacks and nuclear accidents. And that's before independence.

The country is the largest in Europe, comprising an area of 604,000 kilometres (a bit larger than Yemen) and includes names that have woven themselves into the fabric of western collective memory: Kiev, Chernobyl, Crimea, Babi Yar, Yalta, Dnipro and Sevastopol. The country's history seems inextricable from the country's geography, and perhaps the only way to appreciate the breadth and depth of that history and geography is to visit the Big Three: Kiev, Lviv and Odesa.

To do that properly would take some time, however, so what can you do in a long weekend or a short week? There's enough to do and see by way of introduction to the capital city to keep one engaged in all ways that interest travellers. And what better introduction than to dive into Ukraine's humus-rich history?

Those marauding tribes include Vikings, Mongols, Cimmerians, Ostrogoths, Huns, Sarmatians, Khazars and Scythians and others whose names and eating habits we can't recall. The Slavic territory in the west managed to avoid invasion, however, until the eighth century, when it was overrun by Turkic-speaking Khazars from Persia. The territory changed hands again under a Nordic king, Oleh, who expanded it.

True unification of the tribes didn't happen until about 989, however, under Volodymyr, who used the cross rather than the sword to conquer. He converted to Christianity after guidance from his mother, Olga, and the entire country converted along with him. And though the country was ruled by Nordic kings, its culture remained distinctly Slavic.

St Volodymyr's Cathedral (on Taras Shevchenka Boulevard) is a good place to start exploring. It's centrally located and not overwhelming in the way so many historical places can be. The church, like all churches during the Soviet era, was turned over to the government for state use. Now, however, the church - with a Byzantine exterior and Art Nouveau interior, is ornately gilded like many Orthodox interiors. Frescoes depict Volodymyr's christening and Kiev residents being forced into the Dnipro River for a mass baptism.

A statue of Olga, the king's mother, stands outside St Michael's monastery. She is flanked by Saints Cyril and Methodius, who are reputed to have invented the Cyrillic alphabet used to express Ukrainian, and Saint Andrew, one of Jesus's apostles, whom myth says came to Ukraine, climbed a hill, erected a cross and then went down the hill again.

The hill is called Andriyivsky uzviz, or Andrew's Descent. It can be a steep cobblestoned pain to walk but worth the muscle strain. At the top of the hill is a church devoted to Andrew and designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the Italian whose masterwork is the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Russia. St Andrew's is under renovation at present because the building, after 350 years, had begun to sink into its foundation. The interior is inaccessible, but the exterior is photo worthy - if you point your camera up to keep the scaffolding out of the frame.

From here, it's a mile of kiosks (the term used loosely because some old-timers sell their goods on the pavement while others use the bonnet of their Ladas and, in a good wind, some blow over). Here, you'll find the clichés of travel such as fridge magnets and landscape and cityscape oil paintings no different than those in Paris, Istanbul or Montreal; and tasteless souvenirs unique to former Soviet republics: matryoshky (traditional stacking dolls plus those in the guise of political leaders such as Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin), old Soviet coins, medals, banners and uniforms. The best of the kiosks, however, sell hand-embroidered shirts for men or white or natural chiffon blouses for women. Given the half-decent exchange rate (eight hryvnas to one US dollar) a handmade shirt or blouse costing 800 or 1,000 hryvna is a good deal.

About a quarter-mile from the bottom of Andrew's Descent in Podil, Lower Town, is the Chernobyl Museum, which is a safe (non-radioactive) way to understand the scope of the nuclear accident in 1986. It's possible to visit the site itself, but after 25 years the place is still an excluded zone. The museum catalogues the disaster well enough with photos of irradiated people, samples of animal mutations and anti-nuke posters.

It's easy enough to walk back up the hill - an opportunity to reconsider that bronze bust of Stalin. Another approach is the funicular, the angled lift that attacks the steep hill. A ride is 50 kopecks, which is untranslatably cheap, but since you asked, 25 fils.

Back at the top of the hill, walk along the residential Volodymyska Street, which is lined with cafes and restaurants (both are recognisable for the Cyrillic - the words are the same - if not for the people outdoors enjoying a drink, a smoke or a plate of vareniki, ravioli-like dumplings, the best of which are stuffed with potatoes and topped with mushrooms and caramelised onions, or with sour cherries and topped with sour cream).

Along this street stands St Sophia Cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage site. The brickwork and stone exterior open to reveal a church interior as ornate as anyone will find in Orthodox Christendom. Many of the frescoes - depicting scenes from the Acts of the Apostles and the early days of Christianity - are from the original church, whose construction was finished under Volodymyr's son, King Yaroslav, in 1018, and survived the city's sacking by Genghis Khan.

"Sophia" comes from the Greek meaning wisdom. Yaroslav himself is known as "the Wise" and he is said to have kept a vast library in subterranean church passages to protect his collection from thieving Mongols. About 1916, a dig was begun to investigate the claims and researchers found a tantalising inscription: "The one who finds this underground passage will also find the great treasure trove of Yaroslav." Unfortunately, bumbling diggers prodded by greed and shackled by incompetence ignored archaeologists and ruined the crypts. Digging ceased, was certainly not encouraged by the Soviets, and has not been pursued in the past 20 years. St Sophia has yet to reveal her mysteries.

From the cathedral it's a 10- or 15-minute walk down Sofiyska street to Independence Square, where one enters history that is as current as history can get. Here in 2004, Ukrainians, mobilised by frustration with Soviet-like vote-rigging, donned orange T-shirts, flew orange banners and pitched tents in the square and along Khreshchatyk Boulevard, vowing not to leave until the presidential election was overturned. The voting had pit a politician from the Russian-influenced eastern Ukraine, hand-picked by the incumbent, against a pro-western opposition leader and banker whose facial disfigurement pointed to poisoning. After a month of protests, a court ruling led to a new election and the opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, became president.

The real winners, however, were Ukrainians, who learnt again to believe in their own power. Today, Khreshchatyk Boulevard is closed to traffic on weekends and Ukrainians take to the street, rain or shine, to show off their latest fashion. And in Independence Square, folks hang out by the fountains, taking photos, eating and drinking and, newly empowered, revel in freedom that includes ignoring Speakers' Corner-like rants and raves from anyone with an issue.

If there was ever any question of the pride and power of the Ukrainian people, it can be dispelled with a visit of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This is the name the Soviet Union called the Eastern Front of the Second World War, which began 70 years ago June 22 when Hitler turned against his former ally. The narrative of the museum unfolds through perhaps 10 halls, each with a different theme that tells the story of the war chronologically, focusing on Ukraine though allowing for tangents that help contextualise events. Exhibits include uniforms, such as those of Soviet army soldiers held in prisoner-of-war camps, gloves made of human skin fabricated in Nazi labour camps, armaments, motorbikes and trucks, a fallen Messerschmidt, and the death certificates of hundreds of soldiers. By each death certificate is a glass, a reminder to the living to toast the sacrifice of the dead.

Although not an exhibit in a hall, there were, in the main entrance, a group of 12 wooden school desks. They seemed small, like school desks do to adults; it's a wonder that an 18-year-old boy could fit in one. But they did. School desks throughout the country were empty in the fall of 1941, however: more than two million youths were conscripted into the Soviet army. At the end of the war in May 1945, only three of those conscripts were still living. Those desks are a silent, still and solid reminder of Ukraine's sacrifice.

 

If you go

The flight Ukraine International Airlines (www.flyuia.com) has several direct flights weekly to Kiev from Abu Dhabi or Dubai from Dh1,500

The stay The Premier Palace, a five-star hotel on Taras Shevchenka Boulevard in central Kiev, has classic double rooms from Dh2,000, and "themed" rooms from Dh2,600, including taxes and breakfast (www.premier-palace.com; 00 380 44 244 1201)

The info Panorama Tours offers a three-hour panoramic tour of Kiev, four-hour visit of the Pecherska Lavra monastery complex, the oddly fascinating Museum of Miniatures (including one of Sheikh Zayed) and the Great Patriotic War museum, and a three-hour tour of the 1.5-square-kilometre outdoor Museum of Folk Art and Architecture at Pirogovo. For two people, the tour, including car, driver and English-speaking guide, costs US$550 (Dh2,020). Group prices available (www.panorama-tours.eu; 00 44 208 283 1470)

 

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