My long deceased paternal grandfather was born in St Petersburg, but the family left in a hurry, after hundreds of years, in 1917, and so my connection with both Russia and the countries of the former USSR is somewhat tenuous these days. Pretty much all that remains are stories, some silver, and my name, so I’ve always wanted to reinforce my ties with this part of the world.
Unfortunately I have made it to Moscow just once — for three days, and have never visited any of the former Soviet Republics. Until yesterday.
So I find myself in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, as a guest of The Firtash Foundation, exploring the city as part of their cultural diplomacy remit to strengthen Anglo-Ukraine relationships. They have other plans afoot, but more of those later.
Kiev is a mere three hours by plane from London, but the cultural difference seems much further. Look around the streets, and everything from the architecture (large gilded cupola-topped churches) to the language script (Cyrillic) seems completely novel. Three hours in America takes you roughly from New York to Miami to put the distance into perspective.
So I’m annoyed with myself that in the twenty years or since Gorbachev’s instigation of Perestroika that I haven’t taken the opportunity to travel to somewhere so beguiling. I’m also embarrassed to discover just how big Kiev is: the eighth biggest city in Europe, with a population of over 2.5 million people. Not exactly negligible.
We’re staying in the Hyatt Regency Kiev which, for what I would call an international bed in a box hotel (anonymous corporate comfort), actually delivers rather more than the sum of its parts.
It’s also conveniently located in Sofiyska Square and next to St Sophia’s Cathedral in the Old Town.
Last night (Monday), we arrived in time to check emails (Kiev is two hours ahead), before assembling for drinks on the Hyatt’s bar terrace, with its stupendous views over St Micharl’s as the sun set.
before heading to Pervak restaurant,
for a traditional Ukranian supper.
Imagine my glee when Chicken Kiev appeared. Too good.
This morning, after sleeping through my alarm clock (I suspect the effect of the delicious carb bombs, otherwise known as cheese vareniki, which I ate at Pervak), Henry and I went for a perambulation around the area, managing a triple religious whammy of St Sophia’s, St Michael’s and St Andrew’s.
St Michael’s is fascinating because, although it looks wholly authentic, it was destroyed by the Soviet régime between 1934 and 1936 and then reconstructed in 2000.
All in all, not bad for before 11am.
We then had a charabanc tour of the city, to get our collective bearings, with a brilliant guide, Helen, who anchored her comprehensive history of the city in her own family’s experiences during and after the Second World War, which brought home how much the Ukrainians have been through to get to the present day.
The city has some extraordinary sights. Truly there have been some hardcore eccentrics living here. (See also Pervak above.)
Take the once privately owned House of Chimeras:
And an entire park given over to mosaic cats and tall pillars of mosaic cushions topped by miniature Brides of Chucky (my description, not Helen’s). Henry and I, predictably, loved the cats.
Here is my future husband keeping me safe from the feisty felines:
I also spotted a Ukranian sausage. Maybe they are the equivalent of Bull Terriers in Kiev?:
We spent the afternoon at a press conference: the next stage in Anglo-Ukraine relations will be the Days of Ukraine festival in London, from 17–19 October, bringing literature, fashion, food and culture to the South Bank. I’m all for this, especially if I get to eat vareniki in my home town.
Say goodbye to cliched thoughts of swirly embroidery, velvets, and headscarves: there is clearly an international bent to Ukranian fashion these days.
This evening was spent, not at the Ukraine England match here, (everyone else went but me who requested ballet instead) but at the Kiev Opera House watching a ravishing production of Swan Lake by the Kiev Ballet.
The Kiev Opera House”
which is opposite this
Soviet-era architecture at its
Fortunately all thoughts of Brutalist buildings were firmly replaced by the beauty of the opera house and the production of Swan Lake.
I was pleased that the Kiev Ballet followed the original story, and have Siegfried and Odile defeat Rothbart for a super romantic happy ending. (I’ve only ever seen the tragic version in England, but understand that Russian ballets often use the original instead.)