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Kiev, Ukraine: Tapping into history

In one of Eastern Europe's loveliest cities, monuments to war dead and traces of Communist rule bring to life a rich past.

March 27, 2011|By Molly Selvin, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • St. Sophia Cathedral offers a 360-degree view of the city, including banks of high-rise apartment buildings across the Dnieper River.
St. Sophia Cathedral offers a 360-degree view of the city, including banks… (Molly Selvin )

Reporting from Kiev, Ukraine — To be honest, I was less enthusiastic than my husband about tacking a jaunt to Kiev onto our already packed 18-day European vacation last summer.

But David is a serious amateur historian of World War II and the Soviet Union, a man who has not met a 500-page tome on Joseph Stalin or the Eastern Front campaign that he hasn't devoured. So the invitation from friends spending a year in the Ukrainian capital on a Fulbright Fellowship was irresistible to him, a chance to see firsthand what remains of the Soviet empire as well as the emergence of one of its former satellites.

As it turned out, our two days in central Kiev were one of the highlights of the trip — for both of us.

Among the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe, Kiev endured some of the 20th century's most tragic and tumultuous events. The Nazis occupied the city in 1941; after they were vanquished, the Soviets brutally reasserted control. Radiation from the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, at the Soviet-made Chernobyl reactor, blanketed Kiev, just 60 miles south in the spring of 1986; dozens died quickly and hundreds more in the years since. (Several companies now offer day trips to the reactor site, but we passed.)

Ukraine achieved independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed, and in 2004, a pro-Western government came to power through the so-called Orange Revolution. However, in last year's bitterly contested election, Ukrainians voted in Viktor Yanukovich, whose ties to Russia may signal a retreat from recent political reforms. Meanwhile, Ukraine has ardently embraced capitalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in Kiev, the nation's largest city, with close to 3 million people.

Economic change is happening fast here. The Soviet-era stone monstrosities that flank Kreschatyk Street, a main boulevard leading to Independence Square, now sprout satellite dishes and super-graphics worthy of Sunset Strip. Steps off the main streets are elegant gold-trimmed buildings from the late 19th century, when the city was a prosperous trade and industrial hub for the Russian Empire. Now carefully restored, they are sought-after commercial and residential addresses.

At the top of Kiev's must-see stops for Soviet history buffs is the National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, opened in 1981 to commemorate the Soviets' long and bloody victory over the Nazis. Visitors approaching the building, set in a park on the west bank of the Dnieper River, hear Soviet war songs and pass an array of armaments and sculptures depicting crucial battles. Looming overhead is the nearly 200-foot-high statue called "Nation's Mother," her 42-foot sword held aloft. The museum itself, inside her pedestal and an adjoining hall, documents the Soviet Ukrainians' victory in World War II as well as its devastating cost in lives. Even with few English descriptions to illuminate the thousands of photographs, documents, panoramas and personal effects, it's impossible not to appreciate the sacrifice, but a guide here would undoubtedly enhance the experience.

The Chernobyl Museum does have English signage as well as English audio guides for rent. The three-story museum in the Podil neighborhood focuses on the human aspects of the 1986 tragedy. Old road signs from the many settlements turned into ghost towns hang over the main stairway, and displays feature photographs of soldiers, emergency workers and area children who died of radiation poisoning. The English-speaking museum staffer who recapped the accident for us, using an electric model of the defective Soviet reactor, caustically noted that Russia has stuck Ukraine with the continuing costs of cleanup.

Another window into still-simmering Russian-Ukrainian tensions is the new monument commemorating the famine of 1932-33. Millions of Ukrainians starved to death as a consequence of Stalin's forced agricultural collectivization, yet Soviet leaders long denied this. The monument, completed in 2008, and its companion museum are just steps from the eternal flame marking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Vichnoyi Slavy Park, forcing the Russian brass who come to lay the obligatory wreath at the tomb to also pay respects at the bronze statue of an emaciated child.

Kiev's subway system ferries you close to all this for pennies a trip. The metro's construction began in 1949 under Stalin, meaning many of the original stops are classics of Soviet public art and are worth a close look. You can't miss the humongous bust of Vladimir Lenin at the Teatralna metro station, formerly the Lenin station, or the scenes of old Kiev in the main train station. However, my favorite is the Shuliavs'ka stop. A colorful mosaic of overall-clad Soviet laborers covers one wall. Nearby, brass Cyrillic letters spelling "peace" and "work" rim the ceiling, and although the word "communism" was apparently pried off, the letters' dusty outline is clearly visible.

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