Ukraine – A Country at a Cross-roads – Avoiding protest and police in rainy Kiev

We arrived in Kiev early on a rainy Friday morning (November 22, 2013) on an overnight train from Moscow. For the portion of our trip through China, Mongolia and Russia, we had arranged a driver to pick us up at every train station to take us directly to our hotel. Starting with Kiev and for the rest of our trip we are on our own, no hand-holding. We became a little spoiled and now we feel like we are traveling a little more authentically, but kind of miss the ease and convenience.

In Kiev, we stayed at the Sunflower Bed & Breakfast, a nice little hotel well located near the city’s main square. Because it’s a small hotel, they didn’t have a room available for early check-in. Our train arrived in Kiev about 6:30 in the morning, so we killed some time at a little Scottish restaurant across from the train station, maybe you’ve heard of it: McDonalds.

We took the subway from the train station to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). The directions given by the hotel were not specific. We got only the metro stop and the street address. How to get from the metro to the hotel’s address was for us to figure out. We emerged from the Metro Station in the rain, with our luggage and bought a city map at an information kiosk. After asking a number of policeman for direction (as yet still oblivious to the increased police presence), eventually found our street and hotel. We were soggy when we arrived, but after climbing the stairs to the hotel, the hotel manager was very welcoming. Almost as soon as we arrived, about 10 a.m., other people checked out, our room was quickly prepared and we were shown to a very nice room to dry out and rest.

Here’s a photo of Independence Square looking south-east. The column with the statue is the “Monument to Independence of Ukraine”:

180 degrees from the photo above, this is a view of the north-west end of Maidan Nezalezhnosti. That’s Holly under her rain hood standing in front of Pechersk Gate.

Because of the rain the woman at the Sunflower Hotel suggested we hire a tour-guide with a car to help us see Kiev. They recommended Sergei, seen here with Holly at dinner that evening after his guided tour of rainy Kiev:

Sergei drove us around the city and pointed out some churches and other points of interest. One of the first stops we made was the Chernobyl Museum, which tells the story of the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 and its aftermath. Chernobyl is about 110 kilometers north of Kiev and some say this accident was one of the factors that lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union a few years later. Honestly, I did not find this museum very interesting, perhaps because not much was in English. I wouldn’t recommend it. For information on the disaster at Chernobyl click on this link:

The museum is basically three rooms, here’s Holly looking at the exhibits:

We also visited the Kyiv-Pechersk Dormition Lavra (Cave Monestary). Sergei took down into the caves below the churches. This WAS interesting. We walked down tunnels with white washed walls. There we found niches with glass coffins containing the bodies of monks that are 500 to 1,000 years old. The bodies are covered with intricate garments.

From: : “The Kiev Pechersk Lavra (In Ukrainian: Києво-Печерська лавра; in Russian: Киево-Печерская Лавра) is a major Orthodox monastery located in Kiev, Ukraine, also referred to as the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. Founded during the times of Kievan Rus’ (1051 A.D.), the monastery has remained a major center of Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic world. The monastery also serves as the residence of Metropolitan Vladimir (Sabodan) of Kiev, head of the autonomous Church of Ukraine (UOC-MP).”

“The Venerable Anthony is credited with founding the monastery when he settled in one of the caves that is now part of the Far Caves (also called the Caves of Theodosius). This occurred most probably in the year 1051 which is the traditional date for the foundation of the Kiev-Pechersk Monastery. As the community grew to twelve monks new cells were excavated. Among those who joined Anthony in the early years were Theodosius and the Venerable Barlaam. In 1057, Anthony, who desired a life of seclusion, named Barlaam as the first hegumen (abbot) and withdrew from the community to new cave in a hill that today is part of the Near Caves (also called the Caves of Anthony).”

Go to the link above if you are interested in knowing more about the monastery.

We then entered an Orthodox church built above the caves and observed part of worship service in progress. Also, very interesting. The singing, being done by a group of 7 monks, echoed beautifully through the church. It was getting dark but the lights had not been turned on – candle light only. It gave Holly goosebumps.

The next day was Saturday and it was cloudy and cold, but not raining, so we decided to see the city on foot. Since our hotel was near the main square of downtown, it was easy for us to walk to several sites.

The first place we went was to St. Michael’s Monastery of the Golden Domes, first built in 1108. Of interest to our friends in Santa Barbara, this cathedral once housed the relics of St. Barbara – currently kept in St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral (also in Kiev). In 1934-37 the Cathedral was destroyed along with other monastery structures – the communists up to their old tricks again. The monastery complex was rebuilt in 1997-99.

Monument to Princess Olha surrounded by the Apostle Andrew (on the left) and Sts. Cyril and Mefody (on the right). The original monument was opened in September 1911 and destroyed during Soviet times, reconstructed in 1995-96.

Nearby is this building – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – this looks like a Soviet-era building, but nicer than most.

According to local legend the Apostle Andrew (yes, one of the original 12 Apostles) came to this hill, affixed a cross to its summit, and proclaimed that this would be the site of a great Christian city. Today it is the site of St. Andrew’s Church, seen below. While we were there, a wedding was in progress and it was very crowded. An elderly lady gave me an earful in what I presume was Ukrainian, because with my backpack on, I was blocking her way. I didn’t hang out long after I received her dressing down, even if I didn’t understand a word she said, I figured it was time to leave.

The Sting – Our encounter with a Con Artist:
After the Opera we began our walk back to our hotel. We hadn’t gone more than a block or two, when Holly noticed that a man walking in front of her had dropped a small package containing some money wrapped in rubber bands on the sidewalk. She picked up the package and called to the man to give it back to him. At first he was very grateful, thanked us both and shook our hands. Then he began to look in his pockets and began to act distressed. “Did we find his other package?” he asked. “No, just the one” we replied. “Show me where you found this” he asked. Holly walked back a few paces and pointed to the empty sidewalk. The con man then started to ask in an increasingly accusing tone if we had kept one of his two packages. It turned odd very fast, and the light went on first for Holly, she remembered reading about such scams. My demur wife began shouting loudly at the man, “Get away from us.” This worked like a charm, the con man ran away and that was it. The increased police presence worked for us, because I’m sure this man didn’t want to call attention to himself.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral:

From:’s_Cathedral,_Kiev “The cathedral’s name comes from the 6th-century Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (meaning Holy Wisdom, and dedicated to the Holy Wisdom rather than a specific saint named Sophia).”

“After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Soviet antireligious campaign of the 1920s, the government plan called for the cathedral’s destruction and transformation of the grounds into a park “Heroes of Perekop” (after a Red Army victory in the Russian Civil War in Crimea). The cathedral was saved from destruction[8] (the opposite St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery was destroyed in 1935[8]) primarily with the effort of many scientists and historians. Nevertheless, in 1934, Soviet authorities confiscated the structure from the church, including the surrounding 17th–18th century architectural complex and designated it as an architectural and historical museum.”

“Since the late 1980s Soviet, and later Ukrainian, politicians promised to return the building to the Orthodox Church. Due to various schisms and factions within the Church the return was postponed as all Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic Churches lay claim to it. Although all of the Orthodox churches have been allowed to conduct services at different dates, at other times they are denied access. Most memorable was the funeral of Patriarch Volodymyr of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchy in 1995, when riot police were forced to prevent the burial on the premises of the museum and a bloody clash took place. After events such as those no religious body has yet been given the rights for regular services. The complex now remains a museum of Ukraine’s Christianity, with most of its visitors being tourists.”

Country at a cross-roads:

Before we left Russia, we read articles about the government in Ukraine backing away from signing a trade agreement with the European Union that had been under negotiation for several years. The trade agreement with the European Union is viewed as a step towards Ukraine joining and integrating with the European Union. Russia has put tremendous economic and political pressure on Ukraine to join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Ukraine is split between those who want to align with Russia and those who want to go the path of Poland and other former Soviet bloc countries by joining the E.U.

When we arrived in Kiev, we noticed a demonstration going on in Independence Square. I saw E.U. flags, so I presumed that it was a pro-Europe rally against the actions of the Ukrainian government.

Here’s a news photo from:

We then started to notice policemen everywhere. At the metro stations, on the corners, basically surrounding the square, the police presence was obvious including some with riot gear, but giving the protesters space. At one point Holly counted 15 policemen (in groups of 3 -5) within 30 yards of each other. When we walked to the Opera, we crossed the square and as we walked up one of the side streets, there were 3 buses, parked, filled with policemen being held in reserve. They sat waiting, playing cards, drinking coffee (or whatever). Holly became very nervous. She had a bad experience 30 years ago in Portugal where a rally turned ugly and she wanted to be sure we were not close in the event things got out of hand in Kiev.

As we left Kiev on Sunday morning, the protest rally we first saw on Friday morning, was still going on and we noticed a lot of mostly young people coming to the square via the subway. Again, there were police everywhere – in small groups every 20 yards, or so. We thought; “Are these people going to join the protest?” Then we thought: “Good thing we’re leaving now.” Then we jumped on the metro to the train station to catch our train to Budapest.

When we got to Budapest, we read headlines and articles, that the protest on Sunday had grown to over 100,000 people and some of the protestors had clashed with the police. It was good we left when we did.

Here’s a news photo taken later on the day we left Kiev from:

If you are interested in what’s going on with Ukraine, here are the links to some Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles on the subject:
Tens of thousands of protesters have demanded that the country shake off its post-Soviet identity and move into the orbit of a more prosperous Europe.

A Night at the Opera (not the Marx Brother’s film – but why not watch a funny clip: )

Continuing our cultural tour, we attend a performance of the opera “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi at the National Opera House of Ukraine. I have to admit it’s been a while since I attended an Opera, in fact I really don’t remember my last Opera – if you don’t count the Beijing Opera we just saw. These days Operas utilize subtitles so non-Italian speakers can follow the dialog. Since my Ukrainian is more than a little rusty, (non-existent really) the subtitles didn’t help at all on this occasion. Although we did buy a program that had a synopsis of the four acts in English, so we had a pretty good idea of the basic story (it’s set in Egypt and Aida is a slave girl who is really an Ethiopian princess).

As I’ve already established, I’m no opera critic, but the singing, the orchestra, the costumes, the pageantry, was all very impressive. The only element that Holly and I agreed was a little rough where the short dancing sequences. Holly and I believe that having three daughters go through the Goleta Valley School of Ballet qualifies us dance critics. The dancers didn’t seem to have it really together and honestly we thought the choreography was not terribly inventive.

Here’s a photo of the National Opera House of Ukraine – constructed in 1897 to 1901.

Here’s Holly waiting patiently for me to stop taking photographs and for the show to begin.

This theater was not as ornate as the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow or the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, but we thought it was very nice and very tastefully decorated.

Kiev struck us as more Russian than European:

When we left Moscow for Kiev, we thought we were leaving Russia behind and moving on to Europe. When we arrived in Kiev, to quote the philosopher Yogi Berra: “It’s deja vu all over again.” We felt like we were still in Russia. The language, the Cyrillic alphabet, the general feel of the place all felt pretty Russian to us. In Ukraine 17% of the population is ethnic Russian and there are parts of Ukraine, particularly in the east and the south that strongly identify with Russia and want to maintain close ties with Mother Russia. Western Ukraine and the younger population are itching to break free of Moscow’s domination and want to embrace Europe. It looks like Ukraine’s current leaders are embracing Russia. Short of another “Orange Revolution” as in Ukraine in 2004 it doesn’t look good for Ukraine I’m sorry to say. (See: for more background about Ukraine’s Orange Revolution)

Perhaps we need to give Kiev another shot:

I used to joke that Bakersfield is like Fresno, but without the charm. Now I’ve modified the joke to say that Ukraine is like Russia, but without the whimsy. To be fair, we were only in Kiev for a little over two days, we didn’t see the rest of Ukraine (except from the train), we were sick with colds, and the weather was gloomy and rainy. I think if we came back to the Ukraine in the summer and had more time, we would probably enjoy it more than we did on this trip. Holly had a very bad visit to lovely Venice Italy as a student and didn’t enjoy it all. When we traveled to Venice a few years ago, Holly had a completely different experience and loved her return visit to Venice. So we’ll have to give Kiev and the Ukraine another try in the future.

Leaving Ukraine on our last overnight train:

At this point in our trip we’ve spent quite a number of days and nights on trains. The trip from Kiev to Budapest is about 24 hours and would be our last overnight train on this trip. We’re happy about that because although we’ve gotten better, we still don’t get a really good night’s sleep on a train.

Our train left Kiev Sunday morning a little after 11:00 a.m. We arrived at the Kiev train station and headed down to the platform when our train arrived. We had to wait about 5 minutes on the platform while our railcar was brought in and attached to the train. As we stood on the platform, we met Mike Jacques from England. We struck up a conversation with Mike while we waited for our railcar and later that afternoon he came by our cabin for a chat and we served light refreshments out of Holly’s food backpack as we rolled through the Ukraine countryside. Mike is the Director of the International Study Center at The New Eccles Hall School. He told he had been attending some education fairs in Ukraine and was on a swing through Eastern Europe recruiting international students for his school.

We weren’t planning on going to the dining car after our previous bad experience in a dining car from Yekaterinburg to Moscow, (this was still basically a Russian train we were on), but Mike asked if we were going to eat dinner in the dining car, and the contents of Holly’s backpack weren’t all that alluring, so we happily changed our plans and joined Mike in the dining car for dinner. We had a great time chatting and interacting with our Russian (I presume) waiter Pavel or as he introduced himself to us, Paul. Paul worked really hard to interact with us in English. He was very professional and funny. The dining car was not crowded, so we hung out there for at least another hour after we had finished dinner. I asked Paul and another lady, (who spoke no English) to join us for a photo. They were happy to play along. Here’s the photo with (from left to right): Mike Jacques from the U.K., Holly, Pavel (Paul) and the lady who was cute but spoke no English.

Next blog post: Budapest. Stay tuned.

3 replies

  1. It was a real pleasure to meet you guys and it made that long overnight journey a lot shorter! The blog is fascinating and the photography (apart from that creepy guy above on the left!) in it fantastic – a really detailed chronicle of your travels; a delight to view and to read.
    All the best for the remainder of your trip and a safe and smooth ‘crossing’ of the pond!

    • Mike, it great to meet you also. Thanks for helping to make the train trip from Kiev to Budapest one we always remember.
      Let us know if you ever make it to Santa Barbara.

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