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The City That Has a Soul


Oleksa Pan offers his somewhat disjointed reelections upon the history and present day of the ancient city of Kyiv which has been sitting on the hills overlooking the Dnirpo River for at least fifteen hundred years.

Mykola Ivashchenko, Mykola Shkoda, Oleksandr Horobets


I find it exceedingly difficult to say anything coherent about Kyiv, the subject of an untold number of historical opuses, treatises, dissertations, essays and books, highly scholarly and downright amateurish, of a great many novels and poems; innumerable number of paintings and drawings portray Kyiv in all of its aspects, in all seasons and all moods. So mine will be just idle musings that reflect my awe of this city.

Once upon a time, there lived a boy with a name which is unpronounceable outside the Slavic world — the name can be transliterated as “Kyi” but if you are not fluent in Ukrainian or Russian do not even try to pronounce it.

This boy had two brothers and a sister whose names are even a less jumpable hurdle — so never mind them. The boy grew up and occupied himself with running a ferry across the river which he called Slavutych (and which now is called Dnipro, or in a funny English way “Dnieper”). He hardly knew that the Greeks who settled down in the Crimea which a couple of millennia later would become a part of Ukraine, called the same river Boristhenus — and he could not care less.

He ferried humans and their domesticated animals from the flat left bank to the hilly right bank of the river (left and right if you look downstream) and backwards, little knowing that on those hills a big city would spring up.

He and his siblings — accepting they actually existed and were not the stuff of legends and gullible chroniclers — were later saddled with founding a settlement on the hills which grew into a major city which honored the founder by calling itself Kyiv (a relatively recent spelling, again unpronounceable; the traditional English spelling looks hardly less funny but has the advantage of having been handed down to us by a long English-language tradition). The town of Kyi — that’s how the name of the city is usually interpreted.

Early chroniclers did not possess any sophisticated means, such as radiocarbon dating, to determine the age of artifacts dug out in vegetable gardens and were very vague about the dates of pre-history. Archeologists of more recent times dug out things which they say bear some relations to the early history of Kyiv and they claim that Kyiv must have been founded about fifteen hundred years ago, give or take a century or two. But no plaques or road signs saying “To the City of Kyiv” that date to those distant times have ever been recovered. So we remain in the dark as to the foundation time of Kyiv — neither do we know whether the story of Kyi and his siblings has any historical value.

If you are of a credulous kind, go to the embankment on the “right” bank of Kyiv, close to one of the bridges across the Dnipro, locally known as Paton Bridge (no relation — God forbid! — to the US General George S. Patton, Jr. — Paton was an academician who invented new kinds of welding) and find a rather silly looking monument of a huge boat with three men and a woman in it. They are the founders of Kyiv (I do not know which of them is supposed to be Kyi). For some totally preposterous reason, many newlyweds come to the monument to lay flowers and have their pictures taken — you can do it too (I mean to have your picture taken, not laying flowers as newlywed — but on the second thought: why not?).

Note that Rome also was founded by brothers and also on the hills — and though Rome is considerably older than Kyiv and is incredibly rich in culture of many epochs, Kyiv is not just “a poor relative” — it is a place with its own uniqueness, an ancient town in its own right. If one assigns a gender to Kyiv, I think it should be feminine — it has the feminine character rather than masculine; besides, early chronicles refer to Kyiv as “the Mother of all towns of Rus (pronounced rOOs).”


Through history

As we move through the history closer to our times, dates and persons and events tied to them become more distinguishable. In the ninth century the city of Kyiv was captured by the bands of Scandinavians who made the city known to Byzantium and to some counties in Western Europe. The Scandinavian rulers and their direct descendants, who gradually lost their Scandinavian names (Helga, for example, became Olga, and her son already had quite a Slavic name of Svyatoslav which can be roughly translated as “The One of Holiday Glory”). These rulers and their Viking troops expanded their domination over vast areas of Eastern Europe that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and from what is now Belarus to the Volga.

They adopted Christianity hoping to become more civilized, they married their sons and daughters into western European royal dynasties, they built churches — and they fiercely fought with one another for the supremacy over the lands in their possession, Kyiv in particular.

There is nothing wrong or demeaning in admitting that some of the ancient rulers of the country you happen to be living in, came from abroad. Take Britain, for example. In the eleventh century the Danish king Cnut was also the king of Britain; the Norman nobles and judges and knights of William the Conqueror (a Norman was just another name for a Viking, or Varengian as they were called in Byzantium and in Kyivan Rus) spoke French for a couple of centuries before they bothered to learn some English and become fully integrated.

Kyivan Rus, as the state ruled by Kyivan princes, was inhabited by Eastern Slavs who gradually absorbed the Scandinavians making them their “own.”

One of the churches of the eleventh century still stands — though its Greek architects and builders who were invited from Byzantium to do a tricky job of building a church of great dimensions, would not recognize it as their creation — in later times the exterior was subjected to many changes and facelifts. But the interior has survived almost intact from the eleventh century — and deserves to be admired.

It is the Cathedral of Holy Sophia, which is a tourist must-see when you visit Kyiv. Sophia in Greek means “wisdom,” so if in any of your guide books you find it called “St Sophia’s”, know it is wrong — the church was dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, Wisdom of God, not to a saint named Sophia. The cathedral is a sort of the umbilicus, the focal point of ancient Kyiv — it is a very visible and palpable, living connection with the past. It’s not just a well-organized pile of stones — it’s a living thing, and if you have a good ear, the church will whisper into that ear many exciting stories. Kyiv changed hands many times; it saw a lot of fighting in its streets; it saw fires but it licked its wounds and went on prospering. It was the thirteenth-century invasion of Mongols and Tartars that did a lot of irreparable damage and Kyiv sank into a decline that lasted for several centuries.



The city emerged from the almost complete obscurity only in the seventeenth century but it was in the nineteenth century that it earned the right to be called a major city rather than a provincial town. The construction boom of the end of the nineteenth century brought it in line with other European urban centers, and such architects as Horodetsky adorned it with their fanciful creations, one of which continues to exercise a magnetic pull on Kyivans and visitors alike — it is known as The House with Chimeras and it does have all sorts of fabulous monsters climbing its walls and sitting on its roofs. Do go and have a look — it’s located in the very center of Kyiv, right opposite the stupendously ugly building which used to house the central offices of the Ukrainian Communist Party under the soviets and now houses what is called “The Administration of the President of Ukraine”. Incidentally, the Ukrainian presidents choose to live elsewhere.

Since the seventeenth century until 1991, Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire (called then Malorosiya — Little Russia) and later “a constituent republic” of the Soviet Empire which called itself in an Orwellian manner “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” And Kyiv for most of its soviet past (with an exception of a short spell) was Ukraine’s capital.

The soviets did a much more thorough job of destruction than the Mongols, the Nazis and other invaders combined — the Bolsheviks wanted to obliterate the past and build a new glorious and glittering present.

But Kyiv proved to be amazingly resilient and managed to preserve its special charm — the hills, the languid river, the golden cupolas of churches, sprawling parks, the unhurried pace of life, all of it (minus some churches raised to the ground by the militant soviet atheism) were all there to create an atmosphere that could be immediately recognized as thoroughly Kyivan.

Unfortunately, independence also spawned those who are called “oligarchs” and whose only concern is personal enrichment, and who could not care less about Kyiv’s ancient charm — their contribution to the effacing of old Kyiv is much greater than that of the soviets.


Leisurely walks

Kyiv, that is, the central part of it (suburbs are nondescript apartment blocks all looking alike and offering no sights worth seeing) invites a leisurely stroll rather than a tourist-bus ride. If you begin your walk, say, from the central street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk (pronounced khresh-CHA-tyk), you can climb the hill moving up from the central square towards The Cathedral of Holy Sophia whose shiny gold domes are visible from afar. Wander along the streets, taking in architectural landmarks (ignore the eyesores of new hotels and office buildings), absorbing the atmosphere of “true Kyiv”.

Ask how to get to Pechersk — and take a stroll through the parks that run along the top of the hills, studded with palaces and monuments. You can walk all the way to the Pechersk Lavra Monastery, part of which is still a historical preserve and the other part of which has been given back to the monks (who do not do a good job of maintaining the thousand-year old monastery the way it deserves to be maintained).

Look from the top of any of the hills down at the flat left bank stretching into infinity (the distance hides the monotony and facelessness of its architecture), and with a little effort of imagination you can see how gorgeously the town must have looked in not so distant past — graceful churches, topped with golden domes, the greenery of the parks and of the forested plains on the other side of the river, sand beaches along the banks, nothing to annoy the eye but only to please it… The list of the sights that “must be paid visits to” can be found in any guide book — but what cannot be found there it is the feel of an ancient town that continues to withstand the hard pressures of nouveaux-riches’ money, and preserve its ancient soul still discernable in the old sections of town, in the parks, in little public gardens, in the timelessness of the river.




The languidly flowing Dnipro River reflecting the city lights.


Horse chestnut trees are ubiquitous in Kyiv, and their springtime blossoming makes a gorgeous sight.


The monument to the seventeenth-century Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the square near the great Cathedral of Holy Sophia.


Mist enveloping St Andrew’s — one of the most handsome of all churches in Kyiv and the imposing building of the National Historical Museum.


Andriyivsky Uzviz is a street that is occupied by artists and their art.


The artist Mykhailo Khymych painted this mural on the wall of the building that stands right in front of his windows, and provided it with this inscription: “This mural has been created with God’s help, with love for those who will look at it and in honor of Yury Khymych, the painter who painted views of Kyiv. Mykhailo Khymych, Yury’s son. 2005.”



Children enjoying themselves in the new Park of Smiling Beasts in Peizazhna Alley.


At Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kyiv.


The monument of the soviet times that is supposed to symbolize the victory over the Nazis Germany. Many Kyivans find it to be an eyesore spoiling the view, but for foreign visitors it's one of the most attractive sights.







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