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Monday, July 29: Day 98 – This is the city: Kiev, Ukraine

Today we opted for a professional tour guide. Our hotel concierge scheduled her for us. Mariya speaks excellent English. She told us that she spent a year in Boston at age 15.

We walked around the central area of Kiev for 3 hours. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine. About 3 million people live here. The city sits on both sides of and on several islands in the Dnieper River which is the fourth largest river in Europe.

Historians believe that Kiev existed as early as the 5th century. At one time, Kiev was the capital of a forerunner of Russia.

First we stopped at St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Many of the churches here have Golden domes.

St. Michael’s is a Ukrainian Orthodox
Monastery. The outside is beautiful. We couldn’t go inside because it is being refurbished. Previously they had vineyards here for making wine. The Soviets cut down the vineyards during Communism stating a control on alcoholism.

Soul of the city below is St. Andrews church on high mountain. It was for the royal family, the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth.

According to legend the Apostle Andrew came to Kiev and said that Grace will spread over this land. Today there are 900 churches.

From the hill where this statue is located, Volodymyr the Great baptized his family and the city in 988.

Like other countries we have visited recently, Ukraine has had a difficult history. The Tatars invaded Kiev in 1240. They reduced the population from 50,000 to 3,000.

At times since then Ukraine has been ruled by Lithuania and Poland. Russia/Soviet Union (USSR) has controlled Ukraine for much of the last 400 years. Following World War I, Ukraine tried during 1918-1922 to become an independent nation. The USSR retook control in 1922 and initiated steps to wipe out Ukrainian culture.

The Bandura is a Ukrainian stringed instrument. Mostly banduras were played by blind men called kobzars. A child would help them. They were the social media of the times. Since the USSR couldn’t effectively wipe out the Bandura players a few at a time, in 1930 they invited all of the kobzars to a conference to discuss the building of socialism and give them new priorities. 337 kobzars attended. After some resolutions were adopted, they were packed into train cars on the pretext of traveling to another congress of folk singers in Moscow. Instead they were unloaded at the edge of town, shot, dumped into an already prepared ravine, and their bodies covered with dirt. Their musical instruments were burned.

Here are a couple of modern day bandura players.

In 1932 and 1933 there was an artificial famine in Ukraine called the Holodomor caused by the USSR. It is estimated that between 3 and 7 million people died in Ukraine as Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR, took grain from Ukraine to alleviate famine in Russia and also to destroy people seeking independence from his rule.

The USSR ruled Ukraine until 1941 when Germany attacked Russia.

Sixty percent of Kiev was destroyed in WWII. Seven million Ukrainians fought in the Soviet army. They represented 23% of the total Soviet army. Official estimates say that about 8 million Ukrainian military and civilians died during the war.

Ukraine has good soil. We traveled through vast fields during our train ride to Kiev. This is part of a Eurasian area called the “steppe”. The fields reminded me of the US Midwest, but not as flat. During the war the Germans even took some soil back to Germany.

When Germany was defeated in 1945, the USSR took over again. They settled Russians among the Ukrainians to better assimilate the country into the USSR.

Ukraine separated again in 1991 when the USSR broke up. Since then Ukrainian politics have been a tug of war between people leaning toward the East (Russia) and the West (free Europe).

Some good things have happened in Ukrainian history. Taras Shevchenko, a gifted writer, poet, and artist produced works that formed the foundation of Ukrainian literature. Born to serf parents, he eventually was bought out of slavery at the age of 24. Mariya said that Shevchenko’s writings are still relevant to the freedom struggle today.

Mariya also told us that several famous people familiar to us were born in Kiev: Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel; Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple: and Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter.

In 2004 the Orange Revolution occurred in Ukraine. People protested that the election of Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian leaning candidate, was unfair. Following significant protests, a second election was held where the western leaning candidate was elected instead. Then in 2010 Yanukovych was elected again in what was deemed a fair election. In 2014 his government passed legislation that restricted freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. While negotiations between the government and the opposition caused the laws to be repealed, armed clashes had started. In February 20,000 protestors filled Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). In some ways it was a Facebook revolution because that is how the people communicated. A 200-foot tall victory Column stands in the middle of the square. It was erected in 2001 to commemorate Ukraine’s Independence.

State forces operating armored vehicles stormed the protestors’ barricades. Protestors threw Molotov cocktails. The state forces set the trade union building on fire. Within a few days on February 22 Yanukovych fled the country to exile in Russia. He is wanted by Ukraine for high treason. It is stunning to me as we stand in the square that this “revolution” happened only five years ago.

The next day Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, sent masked Russian troops into the Crimea area of Ukraine. They took over the parliament building and captured other strategic sites. The head of the Ukrainian navy defected along with half of the Ukrainian military stationed in the region. Russia had taken Crimea. An uneasy standoff with daily fighting continues between Ukraine and Russia in the Crimea. Ukraine is at a disadvantage because they are much smaller and because Russia destroyed much of the Ukrainian army during Communism.

Today the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a comedian by profession. In his TV show, Servant of the People, Zelensky’s character accidentally becomes the Ukrainian President. In real life he used the same PR firm as Trump. The mayor of Kiev is the professional boxer, Vitali Klitschko. Ukrainians were tired of the same old politicians. Our Ukrainian guides have expressed concern that these people have no experience with how government functions. I guess the USA sometimes goes down that same path to elect a bodybuilder and pro wrestler as state governors. We also heard comments that the populace here is not educated, and there is a lot of apathy.

In 2014 Ukraine became a Priority Partner of the European Union, but they are not a full EU member. The politicians seem to go back and forth about whether Ukraine should stay aligned with the EU or join the Russian trade bloc. Mariya cited that “other countries don’t want to invest in our country. We are unstable.”

We heard a Ukrainian song being played in the metro. Mariya told us the lyrics, “While the sun is shining, and while we are still breathing, we have hope.”

St. Sophia

We finished our tour at St. Sophia Cathedral and climbed the Bell tower. Vladimir the Wise built built this cathedral in the 11th century. He is buried here.

The cathedral has the world’s most complete ensemble of 11th century mosaics and frescoes. Ancient graffiti confirms the date. One mosaic has 300 colors. Amazing!

The statue in front of St. Sophia shows a Cossack. The Cossack is the symbol of Kiev. Cossacks were free men and fierce warriors. The Ukrainian Cossack has come to symbolize Ukraine’s ethnic image, much like the medieval knight of Western Europe or the Samurai of Japan. It is a Ukrainian compliment to be told you are a true Cossack.

In the evening we ate dinner in the rooftop lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel where we are staying. What a spectacular sunset and view of St. Michael’s Cathedral!

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