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.
From / The National