When I was in Ukraine, my cousins took me on a city tour. We covered a lot of ground and it was one of my favorite days of the trip. When Robert and I travel, we long for the local experience from a local’s perspective. I was lucky to have that on this trip, probably more so than any other travel I’ve done. My cousins knew where to go, how to get there, where to park the car, how much things cost, what to eat and drink, etc. Those things are important when you’re a tourist and can make or break your trip. I didn’t have to do an ounce of planning or prep. Thank you, family!
In a car ride earlier that week I had spotted a “Lady Liberty” type of statue in the city center. We started the tour there in the memorial complex of National Museum of History of Ukraine in the Second World War. The statue is called Mother Motherland and she towers over the area that includes the museum and the nearby famous church, Pechersk Lavra. Mother Motherland has Communist roots (“Mother Russia”), as do most things in Ukraine because Ukraine has only been independent from the USSR since 1991.
The last time we were in Ukraine, in 2004, I remember seeing a lot more statues of Lenin and Stalin and the like. This time around, I learned that the Ukrainian parliament outlawed Soviet and Communist symbols in 2015. Because this particular statue is a part of a World War II memorial, it’s allowed. Her shield has the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Especially with the current conflict with Russia, I don’t know how modern Ukrainians make sense of the horrific legacy of Communist dictators. The reminders are everywhere. The trips back to Ukraine always foster a sense of gratefulness and survivor guilt—my parents were able to leave when so many couldn’t.
Next, we walked to the nearby Pechersk Lavra Orthodox Christian church. It’s also known as Kiev Monastery of the Caves because of the underground caves containing the catacombs of male monks buried there. We did not go inside because it was a sunny day and I’m not a fan of dark, enclosed spaces. Too much to see on the outside!
We kept walking through some cool downtown districts. The buildings very much reminded me of Prague with their pastel exteriors. We came upon the Memorial in Commemoration of Famine Victims in Ukraine, also known as Memorial to Holodomor victims. There is an exterior statue called the Candle of Memory. Underground, there is a Hall of Memory museum that contains artifacts and a book of names of people who were lost in the famine. My cousins found some of the names on their family’s side.
One of the horrific legacies of the Communist era was the man-made famine imposed by Stalin in 1932-33. Holodomor means extermination or genocide by hunger. In order to stomp out the Ukrainian independence movement, Stalin sent his soldiers to take every ounce of food away from Ukrainian people. By the end, more than 4.5 million people died (the actual number is probably higher). Most of those were children; two-thirds of children did not arrive to school in September 1933. And not because of some agricultural or natural disaster, because of the actions of one dictator. I was teaching “Animal Farm” to my students and I tried to explain it to them, but no one can really explain it or make sense of it, can they?
Next on the, “In a complicated relationship” front is the Friendship of Nations Arch dedicated to the unification of Russia and Ukraine within the Soviet Union. In light of the current war in East Ukraine and those de-Communist symbol efforts, the rainbow arch is going to come down. Behind it lies a beautiful panoramic view of Kiev along the Dnieper River.
Last, we made our way to the city center’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti or “Independence Square.” Ukraine’s independence movement and political rallies started here in 1990 and it was the site of the October Revolution in 2004 and 2014’s Euromaidan, or “Ukrainian Spring.” The last conflict started when Ukraine made moves to join the European Union. But, of course, Russia opposed it and started the conflict that is still occurring in East Ukraine.
At this Independence Square, more than 100 protestors died in February 2014 as a result of sniper and open shootings on unarmed protestors. There is a memorial to their deaths including pictures of all the deceased.
Despite its tumultuous past, I felt very safe the whole time I was in Kiev. Both my mom and I were very surprised to find a modern Kiev unlike the one that we remembered from 10+ years ago. The city is beautiful and very affordable for travelers. There is no conflict in Western Ukraine where Kiev and Lyviv are located. There is no visa required for U.S. travelers. If you ever find yourself in Europe, add a couple of days in Kiev.