Standpoint Magazine: City where history is still being made

Long before either Ukraine or Russia existed, there was Kiev. For centuries, the city’s residents have been sauntering along the Dnieper River, strolling through the green hills on which the city is built and exchanging news on Krechatyk Street. The city’s architecture attests to its longevity. There’s the Byzantine Saint Sophia Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century, and has scribbles from medieval visitors on its walls. There are Soviet high-rises and severe government buildings that look like Orwell’s Ministry of Peace. And then there are hipsters and street art.

In Ukraine, history is alive and unfolding. Since declaring its independence in 1991, the country has had two revolutions. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, with fighting ongoing. Last December, my mother and I decided to visit Kiev, my birthplace.

Martial law had just been imposed in response to Russia seizing three Ukrainian navy vessels on the Black Sea. We briefly wondered whether it would be a good time to go. But our Kiev-based friends quickly assured us  that it was safe and mounting tensions elsewhere are hardly felt in the city. “It’s like when you’re a tourist in Israel,” they said. However, they added that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko might be using the current situation to postpone upcoming elections because, unlike his confectionary chain’s profits, his popularity has not increased. For further reassurance, I glanced at the Germany Foreign Office’s advice to tourists, which gives the most cautious counsel I know, and it was equally nonchalant, posting harsher warnings about the UK than Ukraine.

The metro from Kiev Boryspil International Airport is difficult to navigate. It’s hard to find the train ticket office in an arrivals hall crowded with candy and flower stalls, and the woman selling tickets did so casually while talking on her phone. It’s a short journey on the new express train to Kiev’s central station, with its remarkably chic chandeliers and murals. Crowds of people in fur coats stream onto escalators whose end you can hardly see: the metro goes so deep that it doubles as a bomb shelter. A poster of a pig in a beach hat and bikini wished people happy holidays. It was an ad for a supermarket chain.

We were staying in a rented apartment on Leo Tolstoy Square. Whenever we returned, there was someone in the courtyard having a romantic moment despite the freezing temperatures, a domestic argument, or drinks with bulky sandwiches. Once, surrounded by her anxious friends, a tall, beautiful blonde was throwing up by moonlight, startling the sleeping cats. It was impossible to keep the flat warm despite an additional heater. While the building looks unassuming from the outside, the top windows are decorated with ornate columns, remnants of 19th-century extravagance. In Soviet times, “some major communist must have lived here,” my mother remarked.

The last time we were in Kiev together, I was a toddler and my mother a young painter with dissident views. A photograph I have of us from that time has taken on a pink tinge after almost three decades, and the fountain we were sitting in front of has been replaced by a shopping centre. My family escaped after the Soviet Union broke up, and I grew up in Germany before moving to the UK. The city was completely new to me but it had plenty of familiar touches. At restaurants, people buy the dishes my grandmother usually makes: katleti, turkey meat balls, sirniki, a healthy sort of pancake, salat olivie, potato salad, and borscht. Men wear the kind of flat caps and straight-cut jeans my grandfather wears. And I heard my family’s private language on the street.

The author and her mother in Kiev

Walking through the snow in the Botanical Gardens, past the imposing red-painted university to the Bessarabka market and onto the Krechatyk, it quickly became clear that Kiev is a stunning metropolis. It is dotted with lime green and creamy pink buildings. The architecture is grand and the boulevards are magnificent. Seeing Kiev made me realise just how dull and grey Frankfurt must have looked to my family when they first arrived there.

But that doesn’t matter when you’re looking for safety. The “wild Nineties” were characterised by violent business takeovers and an absence of the rule of law, on top of horrible anti-Semitism. One thing my mother knew about Frankfurt before we arrived there was that there was a Chagall exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle museum. She decided: “It can’t be such a bad place.” Five years later, she had her own exhibition Zwischen den Stühlen (“Between Chairs”), about moving between worlds, at the same museum.

Return of the native: The author’s mother in a Nineties-themed Kiev restaurant

We spent some time tracking down our family’s old apartment on the outskirts of the city. In the Soviet era, it was communist apparatchiks and the party elite who lived in central apartments. A young family like mine, belonging to the intelligentsia and not party members, lived in a tower block, now crumbling. My toddler memories are less reliable than I thought: what I remembered as a forest outside our flat turned out to be a tree-lined street.

We took the metro back into the heart of the city, and walked past the Brodsky Synagogue, which was built in 1898. During the Soviet regime it was turned into a puppet theatre. The synagogue reopened in 2000, and was buzzing when we popped in during the festival of Channukah. Not far away is the birthplace of Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel. Sholem Aleichem, whose stories are the foundation of Fiddler on the Roof, was born just outside Kiev.

Near Leo Tolstoy Square stands the crème brûlée yellow St Vladimir’s Cathedral, built in the neo-byzantine style in the 19th century. Its domes are bright blue and laced with gold stars. Its interior is particularly striking. The saints look different. At the time it was built, most saints were painted by iconography specialists, who followed stringent rules, rather than by artists. Here, the frescoes were created by a group of famous painters, including Mikhail Vrubel and Mikhail Nesterov, the renowned Russian symbolists, and the folklorist Viktor Vasnetsov. The saints look real. Mary looks as if she’s in a hurry, Jesus looks like a real baby leaping up from her arms. The apostles look deep in thought. You can spend a long time craning your neck at the golden ornaments, reminiscent of Art Nouveau.

The inside of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is fascinating for other reasons. The building dates back to the 11th century and has thousands of ancient graffiti left behind by medieval visitors. Some of them sketched cats, others left messages. Scholars have analysed these messages. A woman called Olena carved out a prayer, asking her namesake saint to help her win over a lover. Another local declared that “Kozma is a thief” who stole his meat, and that his “legs should twist”. On the whole, these scribbles indicate that the general population of Kiev was very literate for their time.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the Pecherska Lavra, the “Caves Monastery”, a World Heritage site dating back to 1051. It is an ensemble of white churches with green and gilded domes. Walking through its maze of alleys feels otherworldly and condusive to meditation. Its history can be traced to Prince Vladimir’s introduction of Christianity as a state religion of the Kievan Rus. In Soviet times, the area was converted into a museum park. Now, its churches and monasteries are active once again.

The view from the Pecherska Lavra, once again an active monastery. In the Soviet era, it was converted into a museum park

Our tour was not what we expected. We were hoping to hear more about the history of the place, but the guide, a monk, talked about the afterlife, and claimed that unlike everywhere else the monastery miraculously avoided radiation during the Chernobyl disaster. Then, our group descended into the catacombs below. The passageways were tiny. At every turn, there was a coffin. I suddenly felt claustrophobic, and we quickly abandoned the tour.

Among the churches, there are studios for artists which have been there since Soviet times. The studios lead to an expansive terrace with sprawling views of the Dnieper on the left, and rolling hills punctuated by green roofs and golden domes. On the right, stands a giant sculpture of a woman holding up a shield and a sword, the Motherland Monument. It was built in 1981, and as soon as it was put up it began sliding down the hill. It was built on shaky foundations, and the sword had to be shortened so that the statue didn’t fall over. It’s made of stainless steel, and my mother remembers people joking that there would be “no forks and knifes left”.

The USSR emblem still adorning her shield might be removed one day, as part of the “de-communisation” law, which came into effect in 2015 and saw many streets and squares renamed. The last statue of Lenin has been toppled; it used to stand in front of the Bessarabka market. Its large plinth is still there, now bearing a small Ukrainian trident. Together they resemble a potted plant.

There is a lot to make sense of when it comes to the history of this city. Ukrainians are trying to strengthen their cultural and national identity. Part of this effort has meant that historical figures like Stepan Bandera, the nationalist leader murdered by the KGB in exile in Munich in 1959, are celebrated as heroes of the national independence struggle; elsewhere he is thought of as a Nazi collaborator. But aside from such difficulties, a reiteration of national identity is nothing new.

We met a high-flying advertising executive, Eugene Kaminskiy, one of my mother’s peers. Eugene would be cool in any country, dressed in black with polka-dot red socks and an air of jokingly resigned optimism. We talked about Ray Kurzweil’s singularity concept, Apple products and advertising in Ukraine as we strolled through the Podil neighbourhood, past a bar called London with portraits of the Queen and her corgis. He tells us that his Ukrainian colleagues who used to live and work in Russia have either returned or moved abroad. He speaks Russian with his children but thinks it’s good that the Ukrainian language will dominate in a few generations’ time.

In England, people assume I speak Ukrainian, but they’re mistaken. The use of everyday spoken Ukrainian began with independence. I speak Russian, the main spoken language in Kiev during Soviet times, while Ukrainian was more commonly spoken in rural areas. Now it is returning with the renewed sense of national identity. The two languages sound very different, to me at least, and they use different alphabets. Most people I spoke to in Kiev responded in Russian. A few responded in Ukrainian. And some replied in what sounded like Russian spoken with an improvised Ukrainian accent.

“I can’t wait to leave this place,” a young waitress at an upmarket café says wistfully when I tell her I live in the UK. “With my profession I have plenty of options. I just don’t know where to go.” The café is lorded over by a cat and decorated like an apartment. It could easily fit into Hoxton. There is a huge spectrum between shabby and chic restaurants. From cheap and cheerful self-service canteens serving traditional food, to pan-European restaurants, the food is delicious.

“Does the West even know where to find us on the map?” asked Svetlana Kislyachenko, an old friend of my mother, who is a Surrealist painter with a huge helmet of strawberry-blonde locks. Her paintings of pipe-smoking and poker-playing cats, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and the Mad Hatter’s tea party, are popular all over the world. The orders come in faster than she can paint. Her work is sold at galleries and on the Andriyivsky Uzvis (“Andrew’s Descent”), a steep, winding, cobbled street where rows of artists install their canvases. According to legend, the apostle Andrew climbed the hill to erect a cross and prophesy the rise of Kiev. At the top is the lavish 18th-century baroque St Andrew’s Church. In front of it, artists stand shoulder to shoulder, selling kitschy souvenirs and Matryoshkas with Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May’s faces on them. And yet there is plenty of Bohemian charm. It was on this street that Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The White Guard, capturing the chaos that ensued during the Bolshevik Revolution, when Kiev experienced frequent battles between the Red and White armies, German and Polish forces, and Ukrainian nationalists.

Further down from Bulgakov’s house-turned-museum is the Vozdvizhenka, an area that looks like a jar of sweets. It’s an Art Nouveau village, with candy-coloured 19th-century-style architecture, but it was built only a decade ago. It took several rounds of investment, and some false starts to build it, but it is now popular with the creative industry.

Very few tourists had come to Kiev in December. Anyone with a Russian passport was barred from entering the country altogether. Shopkeepers were desperate to sell their stock, and more charming than ever. On the Maidan Square, elderly ladies set up knick-knack stalls, and sold toilet paper with Putin’s face on it.

Everybody whose house I visit, no matter their own material circumstances, heaps presents on me, so that my bag is overweight at the airport. I never ceased to be amazed by how warm and open people were, and how keenly they interacted. When I leave my coat at the wardrobe of the National Museum of Russian Art, an old lady insists: “Why don’t you leave your hat at the wardrobe too? You don’t want to carry it around!”

As I walk through the museum, carrying around my hat, I see 1880s portraits of an old Jewish man at prayer and a young girl scholar walking down the street, painted by Nikolai Yaroshenko. I think of my ancestors. Four generations ago they were rabbis, resembling the man in the portrait.

Three generations ago, those who survived the pogroms became “emancipated Jews”, which included equality for women. Like the young scholar in the painting, my great-grandmother Lucy Loewenberg went to university in the 1930s, and became a well-known doctor specialising in diabetes. I don’t often see my family’s history represented in Western paintings, but here they all are.

This feature was originally published in Standpoint Magazine, February 2019:

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