We had planned to fly to Kiev from Vienna, as we wanted to avoid Aeroflot and any Ukrainian/Russian border disputes in the final week of our trip. But, because of weather or something, it looked like that flight from Vienna would be canceled. We got early word of this and so we were able to book a flight through Munich. It meant spending four hours in the airport, but at least we were moving toward our destination and, in fact, we did arrive that evening for dinner at our hotel, The Intercontinental on Velyka Zhytomyrska Street. It was directly across from the massive police building, which took up a full square block.
Kiev was founded by Slavic people in the 5th century. In the mid-800’s Vikings arrived from the direction of Poland. By 882, Kiev was ruled by the Kyivan Rus, or the “red-haired.” Byzantine culture and religion arrived by the 11th century, but after Mongols invaded in the 13th century, the city and region fell into decline until Russia claimed it in the 18th century. From then until the 20th century, Kiev enjoyed a period of prosperity which ended fatefully with the Nazi invasion in August 1941. The city suffered terribly during the war, and my guidebook says that 80% of the people were homeless when the Soviets liberated Kiev in November 1943.
On September 29 and 30, 1941, the Nazis rounded up all the Jews - men, women, children, infants - and made them go to the Babyn Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of town. There the Jews were made to strip and walk defenseless down into the ravine where they were strafed by gunfire and slaughtered. Our guide told us of one woman who somehow survived the slaughter of the first day and managed to crawl out of the ravine at nighttime. She was taken under the protection of some local women who had come to see if anyone was still alive. They sheltered and got her undercover to safety. She was able to testify to this atrocity at Nuremberg.
Even the Nazis understood that the soldiers couldn’t psychologically withstand the brutality of such widespread murder of innocents. It was after Babyn Yar that the Nazi high command came up with the “final solution” of how to murder the Jews by working them to a slower death in concentration camps.
The Babyn Yar was the first place our guide took us on our tour of Kiev. I didn’t know the history and was deeply moved by the horrific story and the solemnity of the place. It is now a sprawling park with some statues commemorating the slaughtered Jews. Interestingly, a group of Jews from San Francisco started the cleanup of Babyn Yar and its dedication as a monument to the holocaust. There is a hauntingly lovely statue of a child with her arms outstretched and broken toys at her back.
Recovering from the tragedy of the Babyn Yar, we drove back to the Podil area, the historical center of Kiev, near our hotel. We started at the top of the hill at the National Museum of Ukranian history and took in panoramic views of the city and the Dnipro River. Onion domes and gilted spires peaked through the trees. We saw the Baroque St. Andrew Church, built by the Empress Elizabeth in 1744, which survives today as a museum. We also saw St. Michael’s monster and bell tower, which were demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s so that government buildings like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could be built. Starting in the 1960’s, efforts were made to reconstruct the Byzantine church and construction of the present buildings was completed by 2005.
From there we drove to St. Sophia Cathedral, which includes a magnificent complex of bell towers, monastic complexes, and the cathedral itself. St. Sophia, of Byzantine origins, is named “holy wisdom” for the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Inside, mosaics covered the walls and ceiling.
From here we had a Ukranian lunch and then drove past the Golden Gate with its statue or Prince Yavoslav. We then drove to the Jewish district and made a brief visit to the Brodsky Synagogue, so named for its 19th century benefactor who made his fortune in the sugar industry. On the street close by there was a statue of Shalom Aleichem, the author of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Our guide also pointed out the house where Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel from 1969-1974, was born.
It was an extraordinarily full day, and our guide was deeply informed on all things historical and political, as well as cultural. For dinner we walked past the police headquarters to Spotykach (Sputnik) which had a funny cosmonaut theme. Unfortunately for Barry, Kiev is the world’s capital for beets and borscht. There was a beet popsicle on the menu. Instead of that, I ordered chicken Kiev which arrived raw and had to be sent back to the kitchen. We survived.