"Ukraine is not Russia," is the title of a recent book written in Russian by President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine. Good for him! It's definitely worthwhile to remind the Russians that this Texas-sized country is, technically, not theirs. That fact tends to slip their minds. Kuchma chose to slap his own picture on the front cover, making a rather more particular claim about whom the country belongs to, but I'm behind him 100% on the not-being-Russia part.
The difficulty lies in defining precisely what Ukraine is and where the boundaries lie. The long-running FSU bitching session covers most of the things Ukraine shares with its neighbors: corruption, alcoholism, bureaucratic absurdity, rampant nostalgia for the USSR and more corruption. But with 48 million people, someone, somewhere must be having fun, uniquely-Ukrainian experiences. Finding them was the goal of a sequence of trips my wife Lesya and I took over the course of the last year.
We traveled mostly between April and September because the winters here are rough. The trees are black, the streets are black, the sky is black and the looks are black; the place is monochrome if you add the snow. But summer is everything that winter is not -- a time when the countryside and the smiling people are dressed in riotously colored clothes.
We started from our home in Kyiv, the capital and center of Ukraine. It's a nice place to live when you've got a little cash because political patronage funds a lot of restaurants, discos, and entertainment complexes. There are 10 sushi places in Kyiv that each charge a pensioner's monthly salary per meal. I should be filled with horror, instead I'm filled with sushi.
In Ukrainian tradition, Lesya and I decided we must "bathe" our trip -- drink a toast to our success. We went to the center of town to do it. In that place is a great wide avenue, wide enough to accommodate an ample street and an even more ample sidewalk. The sidewalk is lined with tall chestnuts, behind which stand buildings old enough to be graced with pre-Soviet beauty. They are now occupied by stores like Adidas, Benetton, and Christian Dior. More big name foreign brands are packed into two separate underground malls at either end of the street. None of this luxury is even remotely affordable, even to a guilty sushi-eater. We walked by the stores, headed for the small amusement park tents and kiosks congregating beneath the chestnuts. There we picked up a couple beers.
But wait, you cry, isn't public consumption of alcohol against the law? Nope, in Ukraine you can freely drink alcohol out in the middle of the street! All my fellow foreigners and I get excited just talking about that. It routinely gets on ex-pat top ten lists of good things in Kyiv, beating out worthy contenders like ancient historical landmarks, warmhearted people, and great locally-farmed fruits and vegetables. Call me petty, but having no fun police to stop me from strolling through the park on a Saturday afternoon with a cold beer in my hand -- that's what makes life enjoyable.
So I was already having a good time from the moment we raised our first toast and looked around. All along the street, conspicuously near the beer kiosks, a half-dozen groups of street musicians were performing. The crowds of Ukrainian young people gathered around them were real Kyiv people, not the graft fund babies entering the luxury stores. It wasn't summer yet, so the clothing wasn't particularly scandalous. Just a handful of girls in ultra-miniskirts and translucent shirts (the bra: no longer just underwear anymore) and a few guys in pants so tight I thought for a moment that the 80's were back. To my relief, I saw no big hair -- crew cuts were the norm.
Lesya and I joined the group around a song leader who was singing an original tune about rock and roll under Communism. He'd apparently popularized it from his street corner, because the kids in the audience knew all the words. The song was about a "planned concert" -- one of the concerts the Soviet authorities ordered rock stars to perform for farmers out in the boondocks. (and AC/DC thought it was tough to be a rock star in the West).
The scene was relaxed and groovy, and it was only with reluctance that we headed home that night. The next day, I was going to need to obey the internalized parental voice telling me to go build character at some churches and historical sites.
I'm weak and uncultured, I admit it, but I can't get in a worshipful attitude on a church tour. I can stand about 10 minutes before I begin thinking, "Maybe if the gargoyles got up and did a little dance or something, then this would be interesting." I could almost hear myself mouthing the standard flattering inanity. "Why look at the gorgeous dome on that building! We don't have those back home. It's very... vegetable looking, don't you think? Not turnip-shaped, not quite radish-shaped, now let me think..."
Then Lesya told me they had dead bodies on show at the Pechersk Lavra (Caves Monastery) and I was sold.
The Lavra has history to spare: before Soviet control, before Tsarist Russian Empire, before occupation by the Poles and by the Lithuanians, Ukraine had its independence. Finding glory years for a country that has been occupied by Lithuania is tough, but a millennium ago Ukraine had some. From 900-1100, during the "Kiev Rus'" period, the city was one of the mightiest in all of Europe.
Ukraine was a powerful trading nation and after wholeheartedly embracing Orthodox Christianity around 1000, it also became a center of scholasticism. At this time, Russia was an insignificant little backwater, a fact that tends to irritate the Russians if you bring it up with them. They just can't seem to resign themselves to changing their nation's moniker from "Mother Russia" to the historically more accurate "Feisty Adolescent Daughter Russia." The Pechersk Lavra is one of the few buildings remaining from Mother Ukraine.
Lesya and I headed directly for the cave full of dead monks. We joined a tour, picked up beeswax candles, and tromped down into the darkness. The low ceilings forced us to stoop, and the smoke from our candles added to the swirling black smudges twisting through the tunnels. We pressed around in these tight quarters, negotiating around tourists to get a look at some 40-50 glass covered coffins. Sadly for my disturbed inner child, the robes completely enveloped all the bodies, save for a single, coyly exposed hand. (it was tiny, walnut-brown and a little flaky if your inner child wants to know) Most of the twenty or thirty bodies were monks, but one pious noblewoman made it in as well. I haven't a clue why; perhaps it was some particular endowment she brought to the Monastery.
The Lavra didn't get through the Communist era unscathed. It once seemed strange to me to think that Soviet officials messed about ancient and sacred places. Surely they would have unleashed wrath like that in Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark! But, if some bureaucrats got melted there were more left over, because the churches were subject to one of two fates: either they became Museums of Atheist Culture or they were destroyed. Happily the churches are back, but I'm disappointed I missed the atheism museums. I wonder what they kept in them: Nietzsche's fingerbone? The shroud of Voltaire?
At the Lavra, some brilliant priest must have worked out how to save the bodies as well as the church by proposing a macabre sort of compromise: the Soviets would let everything be, on the condition that the dead saints be stripped naked and their coffins left open to view. Imagine the tours! "Welcome to the Mausoleum of Non-Holy Naked Guys (And One Woman). Please note the runty little religious nutcases. They're all dead. Thankfully we are now moving towards a glorious Soviet future!"
A harried 3rd grade teacher scampers by: "For Marxist utopia's sake, Sasha! Stop pestering Anya with Pius the Tenth!"
Religious devotion seemed to have won through the humiliations, though. Off to the side of the tour route, in nook almost completely filled with coffins, gilded icons and candleholders, crouched a tearful young woman in a posture of obeisance. The rest of the place was constantly filled with pious grandmothers and stern middle-aged men who kissed each coffin. Somehow those old women had survived and passed their faith to another generation. So much for the glorious Soviet future.
A person actually interested in not-quite-radish domes could visit St. Sophia Cathedral and the reconstructed St. Michael's Monastery, both in the center of town. They are quite stunning.
Amazing, truly. Did I mention that you can drink beer in the streets?
by Dan McMinn, http://www.orangeukraine.squarespace.com