A nudge further east: Kyiv in December

People in Ukraine were surprised that I hadn’t yet visited Kyiv. It’s true that Western Ukraine has drawn me ever since I set foot there, one reason being that it’s where my father’s family and descendants are from.

But I was asked to travel to London to pick up a dog, and I decided I’d make the journey more interesting and go from Devon to London via Kyiv.

Illogical? Not exactly; I had a hunch that going further east would help me understand the west. You get a different perspective on something by seeing what it isn’t. I’d also been assured that members of my late father’s former in-laws, who lived in the city, would be happy to meet me.

The taxi from the airport made me homesick for the local bus from L’viv airport that weaves past the trams and ancient Ladas. Ludmila, sitting next to me on the plane, had warned me about Kyiv’s dangers, which I tried to take with a pinch of salt, but her story about an ex-neighbour found dead in the forest had set me on edge.

I put on my brave face and walked out into the evening.  Used to L’viv’s cobbled squares and Central European heritage, here I faced an 8-lane highway to get to the Soviet architecture on the other side of Kreshchatyk, the central road in Kyiv.

The next morning I met my non-biological relatives in the Maidan Square, where displays reminded us of the Euromaidan revolution just a few years ago. I linked arms with Olga as she and her daughter led me through Kyiv. First was the giant metal  friendship arch erected by the Soviets, then a glass-bottomed bridge high above the Dnipro river, and down the steep cobbles of Andriivs’kyi Descent, where artists weren’t selling many of their paintings. As we walked past an office selling tours to Chernobyl, Olga remembered having to leave the city during that terrible April and giving birth just a few months later.

The Kyiv Ferris Wheel lay dormant at the bottom of the hill, but the staff set it going just for us. It was the first time for Olga and Irina, and we laughed like excited children as our cabin rose above the historic port of Podil.

Then it was time to take the metro back to their apartment for dinner. Each metro station is different, and I was staying close to one of the most elaborate: Teatralna, which is a nicer name than its pre-1992 Leninska. And with such eye-opening chandeliers and mosaics adorning the platforms! No wonder it was the venue for the weekly Saturday Night Dance down in the metro station. By chance one evening I happened to walk past couples dancing to musicians, right there in the entrance hall. ‘It’s a regular thing – the Saturday night disco for old people!’ said Irina the following day.

We disembarked at Pozniaky, a suburb of Kyiv where older Soviet apartment blocks are interspersed with new towering giants of styles you might see in London. Except the ones here are much bigger.

In the comfortable older flat with its covered balconies, I was treated to home-made borshcht and more food and drink than I could eat. I tried my best to answer the questions I’d often been asked in Ukraine. Do you like the monarchy? What do you think of Churchill? How much does a house cost? Even with a translator on hand I was a bit stumped with some of them. On subsequent evenings, depressed by the news from home and aware that foreigners often have a skewed view of elsewhere, I tried to put the UK’s average salary and pension into context by explaining the concept of a food bank.

‘My father would be happy if he could see us sitting here together.’

‘Mine too.’

Olga had never met my father – he would have been her uncle by marriage, although he’d left what had then been Poland some twenty years before she’d even been born. And I’d grown up not knowing that this family of in-laws existed. But I felt so comfortable among them. I agreed that our late fathers would have been pleased to see the two strands of the family finally making contact.

The telephone was brought to me so I could talk with Olga’s sister, with whom I’d stayed in Western Ukraine during the autumn. If you’d told me that I’d manage a telephone conversation in Ukrainian, without the benefit of body language, I’d never have believed you, but here we were having a basic conversation about the weather, where I’d been in Kyiv and why on Earth I was planning to spend tomorrow riding a tram.

The number 12 tram trundles through the Kyiv suburbs and then clangs its way through the forest. I’d expected it to be empty but it was standing room only, full of shoppers with their bags. The bare winter trees and the odd patch of snow made the forest look spooky. Now and then the tram passed a couple of men sitting on tree trunks, or a dog sniffing around the undergrowth; at one point a couple got off at a metal shelter and looked around them with bemusement. I wondered whether this was the forest where Ludmila’s ex-neighbour had come to grief.

On subsequent days Olga led me around two other unforgettable sites of Kyiv, pulling my hood up now and then to make sure I stayed warm. Climbing the steps of the Great Bell Tower of Pechersk-Lavra gives you an insight into the size of this huge monastery complex. Buildings are linked by underground ‘caves’, which are actually narrow passages lined with mummified bodies of former monks. In the first stretch we forgot to buy candles to light our way, and I walked with slow and heavy steps, fearful of stairs hidden in the blackness.

Approaching the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, we walked past heavy brutalist Soviet architecture before arriving at the foot of the Mother Motherland (Rodina Mat), a stainless steel statue built during Soviet times and now, like so much else, controversial. Some locals would like to see it melted down and used for something useful. Room after room of exhibits commemorate the tragic history of this new country, including a gallery dedicated to the ongoing war in the east.

Upstairs in an exhibition called The Unfinished War, a long, long table was laid for the dead, with empty glasses and a row of Death Notifications to set the places. Hundreds of photographs of the absent diners lined one wall, while on the other stared the faces of the family members left behind. In the corner sat the instruments of a phantom brass band.

Of all the things I’d seen during my travels this past year, this one was hard to forget. My mind returned to it on my final day when, alone, I retraced my steps to the bridge over the Dnipro and came face to face with Love Story, a sculpture celebrating love across cultures. The Italian PoW and the displaced Ukrainian woman had recently been reunited, some sixty years after the war separated them.

Love Story Kyiv

The air was starting to bite as the tower blocks of Pozniaky turned pink in the late afternoon light. I could almost feel Olga tugging my hood back up.

Kviy at dusk

I said goodbye to Kyiv with some fondness for the place, and once again overwhelmed by the kindness of people in welcoming me into their homes.

There’s also a renewed eagerness to spend more time in Western Ukraine. That is, after all, where my real connections are. Some say that a place can be in your DNA from generations of your ancestors; the soil, the food grown there, the water. I don’t know if there’s a credible science behind this.

But psychologically, there’s much to be said for filling gaps in the family narrative.

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