As the cradle of Slavic civilization for the past 1,500 years, Kiev might be expected to be a stodgy old grandfather of a city, but Ukraine’s capital refuses to act its age. Even on a weekday, the heart of the city, Independence Square, ripples with rock music as drunken teenagers stagger between monolithic Soviet buildings and vendors do a brisk business selling “Orange Revolution” T-shirts.
They’re all still reeling from the events of last winter, when the Orange Revolution — a popular uprising — shocked Europe, changed the face of international politics and proved once again that it’s impossible to take anything about Kiev for granted.
Today, Ukrainians are ambivalent about their country’s 1,000-year relationship with Russia (as Kievans point out, Russia was originally part of Ukraine, not the other way around). At its best, that partnership brought about achievements such as the Allied victory in World War II, commemorated by Kiev’s enormous Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Here, artifacts from Nazi prison camps and photos of a devastated city bear witness to a generation’s suffering, even for visitors who do not speak Russian. At its worst, the Soviet Union’s domination of Ukraine brought its own kind of misery. The breaking point came in 1986, with an accident at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a disaster now documented at the small but powerful Chernobyl Museum. Its mix of exhibits — religious paintings and radiation suits — may seem obscure, but watch the faces of the children whose classes are touring the museum, and you’ll understand how the devastation helped bring a nation together.
Since Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kiev has reasserted itself as the home of the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the first Orthodox kings, Yaroslav the Wise, modeled his 11th century Cathedral of St. Sophia after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. On the other side of Sofia Square stands St. Michael’s Monastery, whose sky-blue walls are capped with gilded bulbs and whose walls resound with Orthodox chanting. The entire cathedral complex has been restored in the past decade, after the original 12th-century structure was demolished by the Soviets.
Kiev’s most famous religious site is the Kiev-Pechers’ka Lavra, a hillside monastery that sits above a network of caves. For the price of admission ($2), visitors receive a candle — there are no other lights underground — and a tour through the eerie chambers. Magnificent icons rest there in smoky grottoes, while the bodies of the monastery’s venerated dead lie, perfectly preserved, in glass coffins.
Some Kievans claim that the city’s hills are the source of its positive energy. You can decide for yourself after walking up Andriyivsky Uzviz, a curvy cobblestone street lined with artisans’ shops and carts selling matryoshki (nesting dolls), spiky wooden maces, lacquer boxes and embroidered goods. If that journey doesn’t restore your youth, ask any roadside vendor for a glass of kvass, a sweet brown liquid that tastes like gingerbread and is virtually the only thing you can drink in Kiev that won’t leave you with a three-day hangover. The food, however, is excellent: as a capital at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Kiev offers a terrific range of cuisine from both continents. But don’t bother checking your menu for chicken Kiev — no chef here would be foolish enough to try to capture the history, mystery and ever-changing nature of the city in a single dish.
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