Kyiv! Oh wide and worthy city, forgive me for almost passing you by. As brilliant as any capital city in Europe, Kyiv combines so much good into one metropolitan area. If you want to get the sense of a big-time city of hustle, power, and glamor, Kyiv can give it to you. And if you want to reflect quietly on the nature of man, reality, or of God, Kyiv can give it to you. And if you want to take a quiet stroll under the arborous shade of horse chestnut trees, sipping a coffee and listening to children laugh and jazz drift gently out through café windows, Kyiv can give that to you. And if you want to shop ‘till you drop and afford not only your next mortgage payment, but the one after that, Kyiv can give that to you.
Kyiv is a very old city, likely founded originally as a trading and resupply post on the River Dnieper by Vikings or Norse traders from Sweden. Vikings were famous for pillaging England, Ireland, France, the Baltic Lands, and more besides, but those from Sweden tended to venture east, and their exploring of the various major rivers of western Eurasia — like the Volga, the Dnieper, and others, which connected the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea, saw the founding of many small settlements which would become large cities, such as Yaroslavl, Novgorod, and Kyiv. There is a statue in Kyiv today of a long sailing boat which one might recognize as Viking, bringing bronze figures to the shores of Ukraine’s fathers. It is a major religious center, with many significant cathedrals, as well as the famous Pechersk Lavra, established in the 11th century CE, and containing 112 buildings. Having never seen Russian Orthodox holy sites before, it was marvelously refreshing from the catholic basilicas my travels in Western Europe have monopolized.
But Kyiv can’t waste any time fading into retirement, as it is the capital city of a country that has had a rough couple of years, with a civil rebellion in its eastern half, a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état and a potential war with a superpower which only just seems to have abated. And it’s a good thing too, since having escaped destruction during the First and Second World Wars, much of the city has had over a hundred years to age into a New York-like state of ruddy-brick architecture covered in murals, art nouveau, and fading paint. According to veteran foreign policy reporter Scott Horton, Putin has told White House officials in English some years ago, “We can be in Kyiv in two weeks,” which I personally believe because I don’t think we can cross Russia’s yellow and orange lines for 30 years without ever suffering a reversal in our needless and antiquated game of world geo-strategic competition. 30 years of breaking every promise of NATO expansion, moving our military block right up to their borders has proven our willingness to belittle and antagonize Russia, while their seizure of Crimea proved their red lines exist, and will be defended. Yet culturally speaking, and as much as I sympathize with Russia’s position, (curious readers can read more in our World & Conflict section) there’s going to be more tough roads ahead, as a progressively Euro-focused Ukrainian population and student body age into the workforce, they’ll wonder why anyone would look back at Russia with longing. Instead, I reckon more and more people will see the wounded bear as she is, an over-burdened and dysfunctional bureaucracy, governing a primarily petro/arms/resource-dependent economy, that contains very few things that any normal person wants to buy. Honestly, the next time you hear a conservative or a centrist Dem say that we have to be tough on Russia, and Russia is our great nemesis, just ask them when was the last time they bought a designer Russian label, a stake in a Russian company, a luxury Russian car, a superior Russian food item, or anything that even had the words “Made in Russia” on it.
Back to Kyiv though. It’s great; it’s honestly one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever been to. As mentioned earlier, golden cupulas and towers shoot up above New York style architecture, making a stroll down her wide sidewalks very enjoyable. Wikipedia has this literary tidbit about the city: “It’s said that in summer one can walk from one side of Kyiv to the other without ever leaving the shade of horse chestnut trees”. It’s considered a green city, containing many parks big and small, and instead of leasing or selling all the land to developers, the island in the middle of the river which divides the old city with the new city is almost completely forested; such that people can go camping there; just a 20 minute bike ride from the Central Bank building.
One thing which I loved but which I didn’t get to enjoy on account of COVID were the city’s wealth of theaters, and the ballets, operas and plays which they crank out. I’ve written a piece already on one area of Kyiv: the Podil neighborhood, the oldest, and one of the most character-driven parts of the city. When I was there, I stayed in a hotel commissioned to celebrate the Soviet Union’s success in space. It’s tower covered in concentric circles reminded me of the Guggenheim Museum on 5th Ave. in NYC, and I was delighted to find out that to stay in this piece of rather-comfortable history was less than the price of a Super 8 Motel. Speaking of architecture, it was really an amazing city for building watching. Tons of different colors and styles of houses and towers built for all different purposes in all different decades made the streets and the skylines fascinatingly eclectic. I know I mentioned it earlier, and that it must be the most overused travel-specific literary trope to compare some far away city to a certain part of the Big Apple, but it really did remind me of the buildings there, especially in the Meat Packing District, only more colorful. If you are reading this, seeing the pictures, and think I’m out of my mind in that comparison, please alert me of it.
One of the best parts about Kyiv is how cheap everything is. Imported goods are expensive, but anything produced in Ukraine is a third of the price, even a fourth or a fifth in some cases, of its equivalent in my own nearest city of Milano. It really means that if your work pays in dollars, euro, or yuan, you can really live it up in Kyiv. Food, drinks, coffee, cabs, hotels, and tickets all fall under this category, and if you feel like going down to Independence Square and looking over the none-too-shabby Ukrainian fashion labels, you still could do your pocket book worse elsewhere. I never felt in danger of being accosted for money at any moment, and I must have walked 100 km or more during my 3 and 1/2 days.
I’m not going to get into recommendations, but if you want to eat some of the best food in the city, I would say Tsarske Salo, past the Lavra for dinner one night, and 100 Years Ago, near Podil, for dinner the second night. I’ve heard that Kyiv has 40 museums. I can’t speak of their quality as they were all closed, but I was more interested in the city itself. If you’re looking for a quick bite, street food under the Georgian flag is a nice thing to try, especially Kachpuri, a kind of pizza.
I think it would be an absolute shame if the 21st century concluded without Kyiv in it, due to some such destruction, and I would add that her UNESCO World Heritage status doesn’t conclude justice on the beauty and joy in the city, to be experienced outside the boundaries of her monuments.