I’ve visited Kyiv numerous times, last time was in 2018. I quickly adapted to get around by using the metro, learning the key stations for changing between the three lines and practising reading Cyrillic by reading the names of streets and stations.
Kyiv is built on hills overlooking the Dnieper river which already at Kyiv reaches an impressive width of 500 to 1000 meters, cutting the city in half. The metro stations are richly decorated with mosaics and commercials, and accessed by sometimes very deep escalators.
The center is Maidan (Independence Square) where much of the protests against Viktor Yanukovych in 2013-2014 took place, with the wide boulevard Khreshchatyk forming a busy and impressive accessway. Metro stations are conveniently accessed by underground passages littered with small shops — especially convenient in the winter where snow and ice make sidewalks less attractive.
Trains are noisy but frequent, fares are cheap, by far the best way to get around.
Also in the center you find the Golden Gate as well as Saint Sophia Cathedral. The Golden Gate is a reconstruction of one of the gates protecting the city on top of the hill. The Sofia Cathedral is a beautiful orthodox church with origins back in the introduction of Christianity and the first rulers of Kievan Rus. In peaceful times you will find Bandurists playing sad songs about the days of the Cossacks.
In Podil just north of Maidan you get cosy small town streets with merchants and beautiful parks with a view overlooking the river. In this direction is also where you will find the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian people. Another gift from Russia during Soviet times, it has now been renamed and given a new meaning. With friends like Russia, Ukraine needs all the help we can give.
South of the center you find the giant Titania guarding the city next to the war museums. One realisation when you visit the museums is that it is rare for Ukraine not to be involved in a war outside the period following the independence: Many Ukrainian men lost their lives fighting for USSR in Afghanistan and foreign countries. Soviet monuments follows a certain style like oversized Warhammer 40k figurines and here you will find a rich collection.
Visiting the Lavra or Kyiv Monastery of the Caves is something special: To be closer to God, early Christian monks isolated themselves in underground caves dug out in the hills, leaving only a small opening from which to get food. While nobody lives there anymore, you can still enter the tunnels, see the small dwellings and kiss the relics. If you don’t like confined spaces and crowds, don’t go there on Orthodox Easter.
Away from the city centre, clustered around the metro stations, satellite cities rise out of the ground. Tall concrete apartment blocks with 2 or 3 room flats provide housing for the masses. Small shops and street sellers litter the footways leading to the trains. From old babushkas selling home produced eggs and a bag of nuts to minuscule coffee shops, flower shops and in the season: freshly cut water melons from Kherson.
The presidential estate
At my first visit to Kyiv after the Euromaidan, a friend took us to see the estate of the former president north of Kyiv. Remember the stories about the corrupt president who had his own private zoo? Yup, that palace. Victor Yanukovych embezzled the national budget and channeled the money into his own pockets and to private projects to the point where the country was close to bankruptcy. A lot of the money went into improvements of the presidential representational palace. Clearly, projects were chosen based on their cost as the only aesthetic. An oversized Norwegian mountain cottage overlooking the reservoir, a private restaurant replicating a wooden sailing ship, loaded with chandeliers and ornate furniture in gold and marble.
The zoo was more like a pantry, animals were chosen for the taste of their meat. Birds, goats, deer. North of the palace, a collection of rare and luxury cars were on display. Soviet replicas of limousines next to western sport cars.
Visiting the place gave me a better understanding of the oligarch culture, the utter belief that if you are rich enough you are above the law, that other people exist to serve you instead of your role as a public servant is actually… to serve the public.
One of the first videos coming out after the 2022 invasion that I saw were of more than a dozen Russian helicopters coming in over the reservoir. It’s filmed from the pier at the palace. Ukrainians are attacking them with anti aircraft missiles, as the second one is shot down, a voice calls out “Two! Two!” in Ukrainian.
A lose-lose game
Having visited Ukraine so many times and having friends and family still in Ukraine makes the unfolding war all too real and too close. What makes such a tragedy particularly hard to understand is that it is man-made. In my daily life I’m creating win-win outcomes, this war is not even a zero sum game: For a long, long time, there will only be loses to be counted.
I’m writing this the day ofter the yearly commemoration of Holodomor, the great famine of 1932-1933 that killed millions of Ukrainian farmers in Stalin’s crusade against independent farmers. Timothy Snyder’s lecture on Holodomor is particularly strong.
For our belief in humanity, and for the better outcome long term for humanity, Ukraine must win this war.