I had the pleasure of spending Easter Sunday in Kyiv on my last day in Europe. This was an unexpected surprise as I had celebrated Easter back in March and had forgotten Easter was a different day in Ukraine. For those who don't know, countries that follow the Eastern Orthodox Church still follow the old Julian calendar, at least when it comes to religious holidays. This moves religious holidays later into the year, such as Ukrainian Christmas which is January 7th.
This year Easter Sunday also happened to be on May Day, which is an annual celebration of spring and for honoring workers. Think of it like Labor Day but with pink ribbons, booming music, dancing, carousels and, this time, with giant hand-painted Easter eggs.
Being as it was both a national holiday and religious holiday, I gave up on my idea of visiting some of the museums and instead headed towards the churches and religion monuments. Everywhere I went there were crowds, but the whole city had a buzzing, celebratory atmosphere to it, so I didn't mind it that much.
Kyiv is not only a beautiful city, but an incredibly historic one. It was established as early as the 5th to the 9th Century. The reason for this dispute is because it is unknown if the area was permanently or temporarily inhabited during that time period. Regardless, by the 9th Century the city had been erected, and would changed hands over two dozen times afterwards. It has been the center of countless wars, invasions, takeovers and battles that have been paramount to the formation of Eastern Slavic civilization.
Following Soviet independence in 1991, Kyiv changed the spelling of their name from "Kiev" to "Kyiv", claiming it was a more accurate translation. Governments around the world have adjusted to the name change, but media networks still continue to use "Kiev", which leads to some confusion.
Setting out on my only day in Kyiv, the first place I visited was St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, a massive yellow church, about 2 kilometers away from my hostel. Outside the cathedral were throngs of people looking to get baskets of fruit, wine, bread and eggs blessed. I managed to take a picture of one of the baskets, as well as the crowd surrounding the church. While I was admiring the architecture, the noon bells began to ring. They filled the entire neighborhood with music. It was absolutely incredible to hear!
St. Volodymyr, or Vladimir the Great, is one of Kyiv's most notable rulers. His history is fascinating and is an example of the complicated and brutal lifestyle of kings and queens during the first millennium. Once Vladimir's father Sviatoslav died in 972 CE, his brother Yaropolk murdered his other brother Oleg and Vladimir fled to Scandinavia. Yaropolk then became the ruler of the Kievan Rus' (the area of modern Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia). While in Sweden, Vladimir was able to get help from his cousin Ladejarl Håkon Sigurdsson. Together they formed an army of Vikings and retook the Rus' from Yaropolk in 980 CE.
Being the new ruler of the Rus', Vladimir the Great then had a decision on what religious direction to take his new country. Being a Slavic Pagan, he was pressured from surrounding countries to adopt their religion to improve relations. The first religion he considered was Islam, but upon realizing that Muslims weren't allowed to drink alcohol, he dismissed the religion, claiming "Drinking is the joy of all Rus'. We cannot exist without that pleasure." He then examined Judaism, but after hearing about their loss of Jerusalem, he decided that their God had abandoned them and he rejected their religion as well. Then he approached Christianity, but wasn't impressed by it either.
It was around this time Vladimir was looking for a wife and upon setting his eyes upon Anna Porphyrogenita, the sister of the Queen of the Byzantine Empire. Accounts differ on how the marriage came to be, but the only way they could get married was if Vladimir was a Christian, so he agreed, converted, married Anna and destroyed all the pagan statues in the Rus'.
From St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, I walked past the stunning National Opera of Ukraine. It is here on September 14th (or September 1st, depending on the calendar), 1901 that the then Prime Minister of Ukraine, Pyotr Stolypin, was assassinated in front of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The assassin, Dmitry Bogrov, was caught immediately. Bogrov was a local revolutionary who worked for the secret police, and many believed he was attempting to start a revolution. He would be hung for his crime ten days later. Sixteen years later, in 1917, the promised revolution would grip Russia and Tsar Nicholas II and his family would be executed. His death would bring the Bolsheviks, and ultimately the USSR, to power.
From the National Opera I arrived at the Golden Gate, one of the original three gates into Kyiv. The Golden Gate, originally called the Southern Gate, was created by Yaroslav I (or Yaroslav the Wise), Vladimir the Great's son. Historians disagree on when it was originally built, but it is believed to have been built in the early 11th Century. Later a church with a golden dome was built above the gate, and the gate became known as the Golden Gate.
In 1240 it would be partially destroyed by the invading Mongols, who would later go on to attack Krakow and ultimately sack and destroy Rome. It was never repaired and fell into ruin. Excavations began in 1832, and in 1982 the Soviets would rebuilt the gate in honor of the city's 1,500th anniversary. The restored gate is controversial, however, as there are no official records to how the gate once looked.
Nevertheless, the new Golden Gate, the attached church and gardens to the side are all very impressive. The museum inside is also very interesting, although a little small. While I can't remember the entrance fee, I think it was around 20 Ukrainian Hryvnia, which is about $1 Canadian, or 80 cents American.
From the Golden Gate I walked towards Saint Sophia's Cathedral. Outside the cathedral was a massive display of Easter eggs. Some eggs were woven into designs and hung for display, while others were large structures created specifically for the occasion. There were also children painting eggs as well. In total, there were easily over a thousand Easter eggs in front of the cathedral.
After checking out the Easter displays, I entered the cathedral's bell tower. While the cathedral itself was built in the 11th Century, the bell tower is actually modern, built in the 18th Century. It wasn't meant for tourists to climb, however, so the staircase is very narrow and the steps are very small. The whole tower is about 10 stories high, but there are places to rest on the way up. The view from the top was absolutely incredible, so I very much recommend making the climb.
One thing to remember is that you are inside a bell tower, so when the bells ring they are very, very loud. The first time they scared me pretty bad, so prepare yourself while you're up there.
The cathedral complex is also very interesting, encompassing 12 different buildings, such as the Bakery, the Seminary, the Refectory, and the Metropolitan's Residence, among many others. Guides of the complex are offered but being as it was Easter Sunday, everything was closed. Normally I would be a disappointed that all the buildings were closed, but since I was actually expecting the whole complex to be closed, I was just happy to walk among the grounds.
After leaving the complex, I meandered through the crowds and Easter eggs until I got to the street. I then stopped to get a bite at the Black Pig, which was an underground pub that advertises that they spoke English. While the English they spoke wasn't the best, it was the first time I could order food in my native tongue since arriving in Europe, so that was really nice. The food was pretty good too!
From there I walked towards St. Andrew's Church, a massive gold and green structure perched on a hill, which overlooks Podil, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Unfortunately, and I was told this earlier, St. Andrew's Church was under major reconstruction and it was closed to the public.
Running past St. Andrew's Church is Andriyivskyy Descent, a cobblestone street that leads down into Podil. This street is lined with shops which sell everything from Ukrainian dolls to little wooden animals to anti-Vladimir Putin t-shirts. Restaurants line this street, as do artisans. There are many museums, churches and points of interest in this area, but knowing as I only had one day in this city, I picked the one I found the most interesting: the mysterious Castle of Richard the Lionheart.
The castle is interesting as it has nothing to do with English King Richard the First, and also isn't even that old, being constructed during the 20th Century. The owner, Dmitry Orlov, wanted to build the castle and use it for lodging. As construction began, however, strange things started to happen in the castle, such as a massive fire which burnt much of the original structure. Many believed this was caused by evil spirits who didn't want the castle to be built. The rumors were solidified when Orlov was gunned down in another part of the city. His widow was forced to sell the building to pay off their debts, and the building has changed hands multiple times ever since due to "mystical events" that occurred inside. Some of these events were so horrifying that the lodgers fled the building in terror, claiming wild moans and howls emitted from the walls themselves. By this time the citizens of the city were convinced the building was a den of evil spirits and wanted it torn down.
It wasn't until the building was examined that it was discovered that the howling and moaning was made artificially by pipes placed into the walls by the original construction workers, who possibly put them there to get back at Orlov for underpaying them. Once the pipes were removed, the howling stopped and it became a place for artisans, musicians and Bohemians. After the Soviet Union took control of Ukraine, the castle was closed, and has since been fenced off, with plans to make it into a hotel.
I found the story fascinating, so I made sure to visit it while on my trip.
I then wandered the streets and ended up at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, which is directly across from St. Sophia's. Just like St. Sophia's, the front of the building was covered in May Day celebrations, such as carousals, rides, and people. Had it been another day I would have gone inside the Monastery, but there was one destination I really wanted to get to and I was running out of daylight. The Monastery looks beautiful, however, and I will make sure to visit it if I ever return to Kyiv.
On the outside of the Monastery walls were posters, pictures and memorials of solders who have died fighting for Ukrainian independence. While Kyiv is peaceful, Eastern Ukraine is currently at war. The war has been ongoing since 2014 and has brought about the deaths of over 8,000 people and the annexation of Crimea. The fighting in Eastern Ukraine is also responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, killing almost 300 people.
The conflict began after the 2014 Revolution, in which the government was overthrown and an intern government was put into power. After gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine's government has had extreme corruption and socioeconomic problems, and many believe the country can be restored by removing ties with Russia and growing their relationship with the European Union. The revolution's purpose was to improve these relations, but an opposition force appeared and began the conflict near the Russian boarder. Russia then invaded and took over Crimea, claiming it rightfully belonged to them. The crisis is still unfolding, and the faces of the deceased soldiers on the side of St. Michael's Monastery is a stark reminder that peace always comes with a cost.
On my way towards Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, I passed by the Friendship of Nations Arch, which is an arch built to honor the unification of Russia and Ukraine. Since Ukraine gained independence, the country has enacted a "decommunization policy" which is to remove all Communist statues from the country, minus war memorials. It was decided three weeks after I saw the arch that it was to be destroyed and replaced by a memorial to veterans serving in the current conflict. I will never see this arch again.
I then arrived at Independence Square. The last time I remember seeing the square was back in 2014 with images of it flashing all over social media when the revolution had just begun. Back then, the square was covered in burning tires, chocking black smoke, rioting protesters and pandemonium. The scene was absolutely hellish. Today, however, the square is quiet and peaceful. While there I was approached by one woman looking to sell bracelets made by local children, and another who wanted to take a picture of me holding her trained eagle (who would then charge me for the picture, I'm sure). It was strange to see how much had changed since the revolution had begun.
My final destination was Mother Motherland, a war memorial built by the Soviets for Ukraine's involvement during the Great Patriotic War, which is what they call World War II. I found getting there to be incredibly frustrating and it took me over two hours to make the journey on the subway, while the walk would have only taken me an hour. I had to take three trains to get there, with the first taking me way past the statue, the second taking me to within half an hour walking distance from the statue, and the third taking me within half an hour walking distance of the statue the other way.
I arrived at the statue exhausted, but it was the final location I wanted to visit in Kyiv. The statue was beautiful, and the war memorial surrounding it was a testament to not only the Great Patriotic War, but also the current and past conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. While some believe the statue should be torn down and the metal should be used to improve the economy of the country, I felt it was absolutely beautiful and ranks alongside that of New York's Statue of Liberty.
I stayed here until the sun went down and photographed the statue under spotlights, and then slowly made my way back home. While I saw almost everything I wanted to see while in Kyiv, there was also a lot that I missed. One of them was the beautiful Kiev Pechersk Lavra, which is one of the city's most iconic structures. Actually, I did see the tower of it while walking away from Mother Motherland, but I didn't know what it was at the time. Pechersk Lavra is one of the gems of the city, and is a must-see while in Kyiv.
Another place I missed visiting was the Ukrainian Genocide Holodomor Memorial Museum. While everyone is familiar with the Holocaust, not so many are familiar with Holodomor, which was the systematic starvation of Ukraine by the Communists prior to World War II. Holodomor killed between 2.5 to 7.5 million people. The Museum has a statue of a young, starving Ukrainian girl who symbolizes the suffering the entire country felt. An identical statue is located in my hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan.
Before traveling to Ukraine, I was warned about corruption, about thieves, about crime and about the current conflict, but I never had any problems in the city. I had some trouble getting around because of the language barrier but other than that I never felt unsafe. Kyiv is a beautiful city with a long and incredible history that is being written with every passing day. I highly recommend visiting this city and exploring the beautiful gems that it has to offer. There is a lot to see and do in Kyiv, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time while there.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.