Saturday, August 20, 2011


I'm at the Peace Corps office in Kiev right now, and every time I am in this city, I love it more. It's both the largest city and the capital of Ukraine, with a population of about 3 million.
Although I've been here many times, I still haven't seen everything I want to, so this blog entry is just about the main things I've seen so far.

The Dnieper River runs through Kiev, dividing it into different regions (that same river goes all the way to my town in southern Ukraine!)

The Dnieper River in Kiev

The Dnieper River in Nova Kakhovka

Wikipedia says that Kiev was most likely founded in the year 482, making it one of the oldest Eastern European cities. The city is (now, at least) a blend of Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers (it's the city where the East meets the West.) Whenever I come here, I'm always initially taken aback by all the Ukrainian (and Surzhik - a mix of Russian and Ukrainian) that I hear here, since I've become used to hearing only Russian in my town.

The Golden Gate is a landmark not far from the main train station; it was one of the entrances to the once-surrounding fortress to Kiev. There's a museum there but I haven't gone into it yet.

In the center of Kiev is Khreshchatyk, a fancy (pedestrian on weekends) street with a lot of events (right now there's a pretty sizeable, on-going protest against Julia Temaschenko), tourists, restaurants, tourist attractions, cafes, hostels, hotels, expensive American and European stores, and over-priced Ukrainian souveniers. You don't have to spend any money, though, to love hanging around the area. It's fun to walk the length of the street from the huge indoor bazaar (in the "Besarabska" area) to the Arka Druzhbi Narodiv (the "friendship arch") which was built in 1982 in dedication to the unification of Russia and Ukraine. There's also a statue underneath the arch of a Russian and a Ukrainian together.

Nestled in the heart of Khreshchatyk is Independence Square... in 2004 that's where the Orange Revolution took place (and where I spent my 2011 New Year along with some PC friends.)

Khreshchatyk (stole these pictures from my sister):

To take another Wikipedia reference (about Khreshchatyk):
"In World War II, the city again suffered significant damage, and was occupied by Nazi Germany from 19 September 1941 to 6 November 1943. Shortly after the city was occupied, a team of NKVD officers that had remained hidden dynamited most of the buildings on the Khreshchatyk, the main street of the city, most of whose buildings were being used by German military and civil authorities; the buildings burned for days and 25,000 people were left homeless, and in retaliation the Germans rounded up all the local Jews they could find and massacred them at Babi Yar."

So, that explains why Khreshchatyk is now very polished-looking (the buildings are mostly new, compared to in other areas of Kiev.) It's the unfortunate reality of why much of "posh" Eastern Europe's appearance is the way that it is.

Needless to say Kreshchatyk is a small sliver of Kiev.
There's a lot more to see. The churches are one of the unique features here in Ukraine, and there are a lot of them in Kiev. Here are a few of the most famous ones.

This is in my favorite area of Kiev and it's my favorite church I've seen in Ukraine (other than one in Kharkiv.) This is St. Andrew's church, which was built in the mid-1700s. It's in the region of Podil, which is nicknamed "old Kiev" by people here (more on that below.)

St. Volodymir's Cathedral - this one was completed at the end of the 19th century and it commemorates Prince Volodymir of Kiev (to put it briefly.)

St. Sofia's Cathedral - this is a huge complex, with caves underneath (where monks used to live and pray) and was built in the 11th century. Luckily, this one wasn't destroyed (so this is still the original building, not a reconstruction.)

St. Michael's church - it was originally built in the 1700s. It was reconstructed in 1999 (it had been demolished in the 1930s by Soviet leaders.)

The Podil region, where St. Andrew's church is, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It's a hilly, beautiful area of Kiev that has unique architecture and a really cool vibe to it. It reminds me of the atmosphere of a port city like Seattle or Odessa.

There are several more major monuments in Kiev; I'll highlight two that are important.
One is the Motherland statue which is equated to our Statue of Liberty. It's a mighty, powerful-looking woman standing over Kiev (you can see it from far away; it looks cool from across the river.) The statue honors soldiers and is in the museum of the Great Patriotic War, which I don't have pictures of but which I visited during PC training (in very heavy fog.)

The other monument I'm going to write about is a statue simply called "Girl" which is part of a memorial dedicated to the famine (Holodomor) that happened in (the) Ukraine. It was a form of genocide inflicted on this part of the USSR in 1932-33. Millions of people died during this famine, which was caused by Soviet authorities. To read more:

The girl here is holding a little bit of grain; anyone caught with any more food than that (more than their "fair share") was arrested. The apples around the girl are put by passerbys now as an offering. And the millstones in the background are symbols of the near-impossible labor put into gathering the small amount of grain that there was.

A more uplifting area in Kiev is where the Botanical gardens are located. There are 2 botanical gardens, but I've really only seen one, where a good family friend works. She took my sister and me there for a day and we got a tour of the grounds, and we met the director of the gardens. We saw some labs, too, and we tried a bunch of different kinds of honey, and learned about pollination of different plants. It's beautiful!

And here are some government buildings in Kiev:

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Building

The Presidential administration building (right) and the House of the Chimeras (left)

There's something about Kiev that makes people (ok, at least me) want to stay longer. The people aren't particularly friendly compared to anywhere else (like most other big cities); there are a lot of old, crumbling buildings and there's a lot of industrial, post-Soviet scenery. The city is annoyingly expensive and in the summer there are a lot of tourists. But for some reason, I am in love with this place! I remember reading an article in the Kiev Post written by an American saying the same thing:
(Never mind - I was going to post a link to the article, but I searched the archives and gave up after 2 minutes.)
The article is about an American who lives in Kiev and how it is his favorite city in the world, despite the fact that he's traveled to New York, London, Paris, Prague, etc. (continued list of popular, powerful cities in the world.) "There's just something about Kiev" - I'll repeat that again.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Everything is Illuminated in Bratslav

This past Sunday I got to take part in something very cool/a little surreal. Jessie (fellow PCV), who is leaving in a few days, wanted to see the town of her great-grandmother. Her name was Malka and she was 15 when she had to flee Ukraine (alone.) She was Jewish, and along with many other Jews in Eastern Europe, she definitely didn't have the easiest life. According to the Ellis Island records, she had to travel to London (she only had 3 days to get out of Bratslav) and then take a ship to New York. The journey on ship took five days, and she came into the States with no money at all.

Jessie's Peace Corps site is in Berdychiv, which is conveniently about 3 and a half hours from Bratslav, so we were able to do this trip in a day. The population is about 6,000 and it is in the Vinnitska oblast. Bratslav used to be a prominent city (it's an old medieval city) and because of the Jewish population being driven out in the 1900s, it is now a very small town that most people haven't heard of.

According to Wikipedia:
"Bratslav is famous in Judaism as the place where Rabbi Nachman lived and taught between 1802 and 1810. Rabbi Nachman was the founder of one of the major branches of Hasidism, Breslover Hasidism, and an author of Jewish mystical works."

We got there in the afternoon and walked through the town and towards the river. We climbed up a hill so we could see a view of the river and the surrounding farmland.

Then we walked to the Jewish cemetery, where Malka's father is buried. We couldn't find his specific grave, but a guy who was guarding the cemetery grounds told us what section he is buried in (by year.) He died in 1904.
The grounds are well-kept, but several of the gravestones have fallen or have broken. Jessie said that Jewish law prohibits those visiting a grave site from fixing the gravestones if anything happens to them. The graves are originally standing so that a person's soul will be sent upwards; therefore, if the grave falls, it's not our right to interfere with the grave, thus interfering with the soul.

There's also a new cemetery next to the old one.

Anyway, it was a great experience. It's rare for people to get to stand in the same spot as their ancestors and pay respects. It got me interested in doing the same someday!

A Ukrainian-American birthday

A fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Jessie, had her birthday on August 9th, and our friend Stephanie and I went to her town (Berdychiv) to help her celebrate. She's been in Ukraine since April 2009, so this was her third and final birthday in Ukraine. We made American food, but stuck with the Ukrainian traditions for the party.

In the States, it's customary for family/friends to pay for the birthday lady/gent's celebration. In Ukraine, it's the opposite - the person whose birthday it is should decide how to celebrate, then invite whoever they want, and pay for the whole thing. So, Jessie decided to combine her American-ness (the food) with Ukraine's way of doing things (paying for all the food and cooking for a majority of the day.)

We had a really fun day picking out what American foods to make and having a cooking party at Jessie's house (just the Americans), then going to Jessie's organization for the party with Jessie's closest Ukrainian friends. We made mac and cheese, chicken fingers, chocolate-covered pretzels, a 7-layer Mexican dip (Steph and I had to represent the Midwest), and bruschetta on toast. We of course also baked a cake and used a frosting mix that our friend Rachel had sent to us from the States. We even put sprinkles on it!

At the dinner party, Jessie got many toasts, many gifts, and lots of balloons popped in her ear. :)

After the dinner party, we went to a nightclub near Jessie's apartment, and danced to the genius creations of Lady Gaga, Ruslana, and Madonna. Jessie graced us with a solo dance in front of our table. As is evident in the picture, I was really sick that day (the sickest I've been in Ukraine) but I still had fun.

It was a great day!