Travel: Dispatches from Kiev, Ukraine

by Sasha Wilkins on September 11, 2013 · 14 comments

St-andrews=cathedral-kiev-ukraine

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.

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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.

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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.

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(This building dates from 1911. I wonder if Terry Farrell had a Ukranian great-grandfather)

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.

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kiev-ukraine

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.

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It’s also conveniently located in Sofiyska Square and next to St Sophia’s Cathedral in the Old Town.

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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.

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before heading to Pervak restaurant,

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for a traditional Ukranian supper.

Pervak-restaurant-kiev

Imagine my glee when Chicken Kiev appeared. Too good.

chicken-kiev

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 regime between 1934 and 1936 and then reconstructed in 2000.

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(Part of the precinct of St Michael’s Cathedral)

St-michael's-cathedral-kiev-ukraine /
(St Michael’s Cathedral)

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(Henry astonishing the locals with his joie de vivre outside St Sophia’s. I note that he is also colour matched to the cathedral.)

St-andrews=cathedral-kiev-ukraine
(St Andrew’s Church.)

All in all, not bad for before 11am.

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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.

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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:

Chimera-house-kiev-ukraine

Chimera-house-kiev-ukraine

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.

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sasha-wilkins-kiev-ukraine henry-conway-kiev-ukraine

Here is my future husband keeping me safe from the feisty felines:

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I also spotted a Ukranian sausage. Maybe they are the equivalent of Bull Terriers in Kiev?:

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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.

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Say goodbye to cliched thoughts of swirly embroidery, velvets, and headscarves: there is clearly an international bent to Ukranian fashion these days.

Days-of-ukraine-festival

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.

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The Kiev Opera House”

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which is opposite this

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Soviet-era architecture at its best worst.

Fortunately all thoughts of Brutalist buildings were firmly replaced by the beauty of the opera house and the production of Swan Lake.

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Kiev-opera-house-ukraine

Kiev-opera-house-ukraine

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.)

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swan-lake-kiev-ukraine

And then back to the Hyatt for room service, and a second round of vareniki.

vareniki

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Emma September 11, 2013 at 01:26

Stop the Press! – “My future husband” – are congratulations in order? :)

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LLG September 11, 2013 at 01:32
K-Line September 11, 2013 at 01:41

I LOVE these pics! And I can totally see your Russian roots!

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annie September 11, 2013 at 08:39

Wow wow wow I had no idea Kiev was like that. Really stunning.

My great-grandfather built a bridge in St Petersburg, It has our name on it apparently. Perhaps they knew each other!

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LLG September 11, 2013 at 09:04

You know what, I bet they did, because my family owned an iron foundry – and they were English. (Travelled to Russia under Catherine the Great and stayed.) Apparently there is still a tram stop named after them. LLGxx

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Marina(Makeup4all) September 11, 2013 at 10:03

I have been to quite a few countries and cities (have been to Kiev many times) in Eastern Europe and Lviv, is definitely my favourite – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Us_AX5Ox_Gc
I would really love to visit Minsk some time soon, only need to find someone who is willing to join me ;)

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Helen September 11, 2013 at 17:44

Am now furiously and hungrily googling vareniki……

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MamaMyselfandI September 11, 2013 at 18:51

Love Kiev. I lived there for nearly 5 years long time ago. Our apartment was near St Sophia’s. It’s such a lively and beautiful city (much better than Moscow). Brings back memories:)

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HelOnWheels September 11, 2013 at 19:00

I’m so jealous that you’re in my hometown! It’s even more beautiful than my last visit. I grew up near the Opera House, and your photos make me feel very nostalgic. There’s is an wonderful market on Sundays up and down the steep street that runs in front of St. Andrew’s (Andriyivskyy Descent). And if you can, visit the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves). There’s just so much to see and do. Enjoy!

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George September 12, 2013 at 11:01

If you haven’t got a copy, please track down ‘the Beginning of Spring’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. It takes as its focus an English printer who is living in Moscow in spring 1913 and it’s magic.

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Marilyn Michaels September 13, 2013 at 19:39

I loved reading and looking at this so much I came back back to read it a few more times. Love the photo’s especially of you and Henry in those cats. (they made me think of Japan for some reason) I have been drooling over vareniki recipes via google today, I def wish to have them again! The ballet looked fantastic, glad they went for the happy ending :-) A lovely read thank you. MM x

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