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a tale of two Ukraines

Even in the short time we spent in Ukraine, splitting five nights between Kiev and Lviv, we were struck by how different the two cities — and the regions they represent — are from one another.

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Before we traveled to Lviv, D’s dad warned him not to let on that he has Russian roots. In Soviet times, Western Ukraine was known as a hotbed of anti-Russian sentiment and D received several admonishments from his parents to be very careful. His father advised him to speak in English first, and only to switch to Russian after being met with incomprehension. D nodded his agreement and ignored the advice (sorry, pa).

The ill will has apparently cooled – nobody seemed particularly offended when D addressed them in Russian. Even so, very few people responded in kind despite the fact that most likely they know the language. Lviv is the heartland of Ukranian nationalism and almost everybody spoke to us in Ukranian. Thankfully the two languages are mutually intelligible and we had no problems communicating. In fact, S could not differentiate between the two and often asked whether someone was speaking to D in one or the other. In Kiev, on the other hand, virtually everyone spoke Russian — not just to us, but also among themselves.

Visiting Lviv nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find the imprint of nearly a century of Soviet rule. About the only place we saw the distinct remnants of this dark era was in the cemetery, where the monuments erected during Soviet times will perdure for centuries to come. The rest of Lviv, however, has shrugged off this part of its history like a bad nightmare. Walking around the city, one can see statues of Greek gods, a multitude of old churches, and the fanciful facades of historic buildings that date back to the Middle Ages, but few signs of Soviet rule.

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Not so in Kiev, which has retained a surprising number of Soviet-era monuments. Walking from Arsenal’naya metro station to the Lavra, we passed by a World War II memorial and a newer memorial to the victims of Ukraine’s famines, which was not even mentioned in our guidebook. This surprised us, as the memorial was fascinating, the monuments and sculptures accompanied by an underground museum that chronicled the many lives cut short by the half dozen famines that ravaged Ukraine in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Inside the metro itself, we were startled to stumble upon a station decorated with plaques bearing various Lenin witticisms and a bust of Mr. Ulyanov himself overlooking the platforms. The visual is particularly jarring giving how Western and forward-leaning Kiev has become, especially following the Orange Revolution.

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After touring the Lavra, we continued along the Dnieper shore until we reached Rodina Mat’ — a massive metal statue that towers over Kiev, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War II. Rodina translates to “motherland” and mat’ means “mother,” which makes for a redundant title in English, but makes perfect sense in Russian. The area leading up to the statue is an open-air museum, which includes an eternal flame, a sizable collection of Red Army war toys, and several extensive blocky sculptures memorializing the fierce determination of various strata of Soviet people who pulled together to win the war. There is also a World War II museum at the base of the statue and one can supposedly ascend all the way to her head for good city views, but the museum was closed on the day we were there.

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Our last day in Kiev, we took the metro to Babyn Yar. In 1941, shortly after invading Kiev, the Nazis rounded up all of the city’s Jews and marched them to the Babyn Yar ravine, where they were massacred. The following year, the Nazis also built a concentration camp nearby. It took the government three decades to erect a memorial. In typical Soviet fashion, the monument featured an incomprehensible array of vaguely cubist figures that in no way conveyed what had happened. Moreover, the sculpture was placed on the wrong spot and the inscription on the accompanying plaques made no mention of Jews at all.

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It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that a separate menorah-shaped monument was erected in memory of the nearly 100,000 Jews who were massacred at Babyn Yar. Ten years later, another monument was built to commemorate the children who lost their lives there. This newest memorial was placed right outside the metro station, and of course we had no trouble finding the Soviet monstrosity of a monument, but we had to search hard for the menorah, and if it hadn’t been for the detailed description in our guidebook we might have wandered for a long time before finding our way to the ravine.

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From Babyn Yar, we took the metro to Podil, a trendy neighborhood with many restaurants and pubs, and from Podil we went to the Opera House to buy tickets for that night’s performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The transition could not have been more stark and encapsulated perfectly the contradiction that is Kiev — a capital that is at once leading the push towards European integration and where one finds vivid reminders of its not-too-distant Communist past at nearly every turn.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I really love your story. However, I do believe that those pictures of Kiev show only Soviet heritage and overall it is not that Soviet. I am, ukrainian myself, born in Kiev, proud of all positive soviet heritage and feel sorry for all negatives that we have done, don’t really think that Kiev is a bright example of Soviet city. it has both: Ukrainian and Soviet parts. :P

    October 31, 2013
    • Thanks for your comment and allow us to clarify: First, you’re right about the pictures. We have already made two posts about Kiev (‘unplanned vacation’ and ‘monastery of the mummified saints’) and had used up most of our really good non-Soviet Kiev pictures (there also might be a fourth post in the works), which brings us to point #2 and the reason that we used all of the Soviet pictures here. You are absolutely correct in saying that Kiev is not a Soviet city – in fact, we were struck by how Western it felt. However, we were also struck by how many Soviet relics there are in Kiev – relics that were noticeably absent in Lviv. It is this contrast that we sought to explore in this post. Finally, it bears mentioning that we both loved Kiev a lot, and are definitely looking forward to returning again.

      October 31, 2013
      • Thank you for your explanation. Right now it makes sense. The only correction that I would like to add is that even though in Kiev most people talk Russian, there are a lot of people that talk Ukrainian as well. I would not call it as exclusively Russian talking city. But anyway, I do like your article it is really lovely.

        November 1, 2013
  2. I relay love your story….

    November 29, 2013

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