Kiev / Kyiv guide -2

Ukraine has its share of the thoroughly modern, but even the capital, Kiev [Kyiv], is replete with Gothic, Byzantine, and Baroque architecture and art—reminders of the many foreign overlords who have left their mark on the country. Nearly every city and town has its centuries-old cathedral, and many have open-air museums of folk architecture, caves stuffed with mummified monks, and exquisite mosaics wherever you look.

Kiev, a scenic city of some 2.6 million people situated on the Dnipro River, is the bustling capital of Ukraine. Ancient Kievan Rus' was a center of trade routes between the Baltic and the Mediterranean. The city of Kiev and the power of Kievan Rus' were destroyed in 1240 by Mongol invaders, and lands of the Kievan Rus' were divided among principalities located to the west and north: Galicia, Volynia, Muscovy, and later, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Once a powerful player on the European scene, Ukraine's fate has in modern times been decided in far-off capitals. As a result, modern Ukrainian history, for the most part, was defined by foreign occupation.

Kiev suffered severely during World War II and the Stalinist era; many irreplaceable architectural and art treasures were destroyed and the city center systematically demolished. Extensive restoration has revived much of historical Kiev.

The city hit the headlines in April 1986, when the nuclear reactor at nearby Chernobyl exploded. The prevailing winds spared the city any significant rise in background radiation levels. Produce in the local markets is inspected before being sold. The Embassy also conducts regular testing on the grounds of the compound. Daily radiation testing done by the Embassy and the Ukrainian Government does not reveal any elevated levels of background radiation in the city.

Despite repression, centuries of foreign domination, political turmoil, and ecological disaster, Ukraine's spirit and national identity have never died. On August 24, 1991, after the aborted coup in Moscow, Ukraine proclaimed its independence. As of early 2000, Ukraine has diplomatic relations with 169 countries, and there are 118 accredited ambassadors assigned to Kiev. News correspondents, business representatives, and students from all over the world reside in the capital. The flow of foreign tourists and official delegations is year round. The resident American community consists of Embassy personnel, business representatives, clergy, professors, Peace Corps volunteers, and students.

Enthusiasts of art and architecture will have a field day in Kiev. The Cathedral of St. Sophia, where the princes of Kiev were crowned in the years of Kiev's grandeur, has intricate mosaics and frescoes dating back to the 11th century. The Cathedral of St. Michael's Monastery (built 1108-1113) has recently been rebuilt, after being destroyed by the Soviets. The Pecherska Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, a short bus or trolley ride from the center of town, has two 11th-century cathedrals on its grounds, in addition to its world-famous catacombs. Closer to the center of town stands the Golden Gate, a structure, which dates back to 1037. This recently refurbished fortification defined the western limits of the city in centuries past. Several blocks away stands the magnificent Cathedral of St. Volodymyr.

Theater buffs will find much to choose from. Most performances are in Ukrainian or Russian. The renovated Kiev Opera House presents very good opera as well as a broad repertoire of ballets. The Kiev Young Theater is very popular and stages innovative plays in Ukrainian or Russian. The Russian Dramatic Theater features a repertoire of classics. There are also many musical concerts, ranging from classical to jazz and pop.

The modern center and remains of the old city are both on the hilly west, or right bank of the Dnipro River. The main street, the Khreshchatyk, runs along the bottom of a ravine toward the Dnipro. Running parallel about half-a-kilometer west, is Vulytsya Volodymyrska, the main street of the Old Kiev area. Woods and parks cover most of the western bank slopes along the Dnipro River. The capital's newer sections lie on the eastern bank. Large apartment developments and industrialized regions characterize this area.

Shopping in Kiev is always rewarding as a cross-cultural experience. Western products are increasingly available. Several state-run stores carry Ukrainian pottery, embroidery, and handicrafts. More expensive Ukrainian crafts are available throughout the city, in particular at stalls on Andrievskyj Uzviz, and at several of the churches and monastery souvenir shops. Quality and quantity vary from shop to shop. A growing number of supermarkets stock Western food, alcohol, clothing, beauty and health items and electrical appliances. Prices compare to those in the West, but stock availability is unpredictable. Kiev, with its churches, museums, art galleries, libraries, historic places and parks, is a sightseer's dream. The city can be explored on foot, by excellent public transportation, or by boat via the Dnipro River. Cruises down the Dnipro to towns such as Kaniv, where National Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko is buried, or longer cruises to the Black Sea and even the Mediterranean are possible. Culturally, Kiev is a rich city. The Kiev Taras Shevchenko Opera House has a very good opera company as well as a broad repertoire of ballets. Innovative plays may be seen at the Ivan Franko Theater and the Kiev Youth Theater. The classics are performed at the Russian Dramatic Theater. The musical scene varies as well, from symphony concerts to jazz clubs and folk music. Walking tours to the many architectural and historical landmarks are a good way to get a feel for the city. One essential stop is Babi Yar, the memorial to Kiev's Jews and other Ukrainians who were slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II. Visit Andriyivsky Uzviz, a cobblestoned street lined with vendors of Ukrainian crafts, arts and souvenirs, which descends to Podil from St. Andrew's Church. Buildings on Andriyivsky Uzviz now house artist's studios, galleries, cafés, and theaters. This picturesque street is also the site of the annual spring Kiev Days festival in May. Flea markets also dot the city with treasures waiting to be found. The principal hotel restaurants and many new restaurants offer good ethnic Ukrainian cuisine. Many restaurants throughout the city offer foreign cuisine including Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, French, Italian, Argentine, Turkish, American and others. Major hotels also have cafés, bars, and souvenir giftshops. If you are wandering about the city you will find any number of cafés and bars to stop in for refreshments. New restaurants and bars seem to open each week.