life,  Ukraine

Kyiv, not Kiev: pre-war thoughts

A post about Ukrainian capital was on my list for quite some time. You see, I have always felt strong affinity towards the Ukrainians and the truth is, I have no idea why. Western Ukraine used to be part of Poland until WWII and, especially in my region, which was close to the new border, everyone still remembers the atrocities done by Nazi collaborating Ukrainians against their Polish neighbours. I definitely wasn’t born to be a Ukrainophile, just like most of my compatriots I supposed to be a Ukrainophobe instead. But since it’s pointless to talk about being oppressed and offended by someone whose life you practically owned (yes, the Polish may not have had colonies in Africa, we colonised the East instead), we will not mention history. After all, we stopped blaming the Germans living now for what happened 80 years ago. While remembering the past, we need to focus on the future. This introduction was just to let you know, that me, like most of the Polish, didn’t really think of citizens of Ukraine as my most favourite neighbours.

My attitude has changed with time, when I started to meet some of them. I’ve been there few times as a teenager and I’ve learnt that they were literally the same as me! A while ago, when we went to Kyiv, my husband, who is Polish from the southern, ex-Austro-Hungarian part, actually said that there are more similarities between me and them, then between me and him – superstitions, behaviour, customs, food, and so on. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, I have supported it wholeheartedly and I felt so proud as a Polish citizen when Poland was the first country in the world which recognized it. Yes, there was some tension in the air, especially since the symbols of newly built Ukrainian identity were chosen and ones of the most popular were of the anti-Polish origin. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, after all my country together with the Soviet Union strongly opposed pre-war independence for Ukraine.

When the Orange Revolution of 2004/2005 has started, I have already known much more. There were some Ukrainians living in Poland, at first illegally, the same way Polish were living and working in the West. And the rightful access to the EU labour market created a big demand in Poland for people who could take the less paying positions to keep the economy going. Because of an almost non existing language barrier (I’ve read that it takes only about 6 weeks for an average Ukrainian speaker to start communicating in Polish, I’m not sure how does it look the other way), my home country became for Ukrainians what the UK, Ireland or Germany were to Polish. And our attitude has started to change too; our neighbours were suddenly real people living among us. And since that time, I believe, every Polish knows someone with a Ukrainian passport.

Poland is currently clearly the biggest supporter of Ukraine. Not only in the political terms. Millions of Polish are involved in helping both – the refugees and those who decided to stay and fight. I must admit, I am a bit surprised. It is different to believe in people, and to see that in action. Both of us, my husband and I, try to do our best too. What do we do? Because we are both Polish and know the needs, as well as people, we focus on individuals instead of organisations, but I am not going to tell you how to help or that what I do is better. I am sure you can find something in your country and your area of interest. You can help the kids, you can send money to buy pet food, beauty products (yes, it is important not to be stripped of dignity, even when you just lost everything), feminine care etc. One of the ways is to buy the entrance tickets to museums, theatres or zoos all over Ukraine. You may not use the ticket to visit, but the management can feed the animals or take care of people working there. You can also spread awareness on the internet or in real life among your friends and co-workers. It’s equally important because the Russian propaganda is immense. And if you really have no idea what to do, just ask me and I will gladly, without singling out, send you the list of NGOs which would be gracious for any donation.

Oh, and before we move to the main part of this post – I have always used the Ukrainian spelling, not the Russian. These days it is even more important. I admit it may be hard for someone who is used to the older way. In Poland we normally say “on” Ukraine, because it was once part of my country so when, in support of Ukrainian independence, some people switched to “in” (which in Polish is used in most of the cases when referring to countries), it doesn’t sound natural. I will get used to it, I’m sure. Even the British already eat chicken Kyivs, all major supermarket chains and restaurants changed the name to Ukrainian!

Kyiv – the city older than Russia

The idea for this particular post came to me when I was reading the official Russian propaganda materials, where Ukraine is always called Malorussia (literally Little Russia). For someone who does not know much history, and let’s face it, if Ukraine would not be Polish neighbour, I wouldn’t neither, it sounds legitimate. After all, Russia has been the vast and powerful empire, first with the tsars, later as the main “republic” of the Soviet Union. It cannot be further from the truth! Simply speaking, saying that modern Russia is the same entity as the old Ruthenian countries (there were many of them, and as a matter of fact, the ones related to current Russia showed up relatively late in history) is like saying that medieval Holy Roman Empire (you know, the one started by Charlemagne with a capital in Aix-la-Chapelle or Aachen, first Frankish, then German) was a direct descendant of an ancient Roman Empire.

The US Embassy in Kyiv beautifully trolled the Russian propaganda with this tweet. When Kyiv has already been a thriving Christian city, Moscow founders were not even alive yet! One of the oldest “purely” Russian cities – Novgorod, was legendarily founded in the 9th century, when Kyiv has already existed as early as late 5th century; by the way, I do know that at some point Oleg of Novgorod (a Viking, not the Russian!), conquered Kyiv and moved its capital there. That was the true beginning of the Kyivan Rus.

This post is not supposed to be an elaborate history paper, so I will spare you the details which fascinates only few of my readers; well, it is truly as interesting, as detailed, but with nuances which only some would enjoy. Instead, I’d like to tell you about a number of very old and beautiful places which every visitor to Kyiv, at least before the Russian invasion, could appreciate. The places which prove how original and unique was Kyivan Rus culture.

The first edifice from the US Embassy tweet is the first stone Christian church in Rus. Unfortunately it does not exist anymore, being demolished by the Mongols in 1240. Thankfully the second one still stands in a prominent place. It is St. Sophia’s Cathedral, which was named after Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, that’s why Sophia mentioned here refers to wisdom, and not any particular person.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral

inside of the Cathedral

This is a truly magnificent monument, part of human cultural heritage (the first Ukrainian site to be inscribed on a UNESCO World Heritage List, together with the next complex I write about) and a must see for everyone who visits Kyiv. Currently it operates as a museum, I am not sure if it is possible to attend the religious service inside, as far as I know, it’s not. This place is so beautiful, it’s almost magical. And after visiting the main building, you can check other ones in the same complex. I highly recommend the bell tower, not for the faint-hearted though.

Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra

Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra

The second place mentioned on the UNESCO list is Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra. It is basically a cave monastery encapsulated inside the grand complex of buildings, and unlike the Cathedral is still filled with monks and priests. The “lavra”, which describes a high-ranking male orthodox monastery, has been founded in 1051 by a monk returning to Rus from Mount Athos. He decided to settle in one of the caves facing the river Dnieper and start a community. The whole area consists of not only the caves, but bell towers, cathedrals, chapels, seminary and lots of different service buildings.

It is the largest museum in Kyiv and apart from being visited by tourists, it serves as a destination for pilgrims (just remember, if you are a woman planning to visit, you need to have a head cover, not only inside the churches, but on the whole area). And there are many places inside the monastery complex people can visit, including the caves. It’s enormous.

Kyivo-Pechers’ka Lavra

view from the Lavra

There are plenty of old religious buildings in Kyiv, and I have seen many of them. But I do want you to come back so in order for you not to get bored, there is one more, and this time not religious, at least not strictly (there is a small church in the middle). It is the famous Golden Gate of Kyiv which was a central entry point to the 11th century city, being built more or less at the same time as St. Sophia’s Cathedral. This place is a little bit controversial, because: firstly – the original building has been dismantled in the Middle Ages and completely rebuilt by the Soviets in the 1980s, secondly – there are no existing images, so there were many competing designs.

the Golden Gate of Kyiv

I still decided to include it in this post. Mostly because there is no historical doubts that this structure ever existed. It was famously imitating the Golden Gate of Constantinople and was known in the whole medieval Eastern Europe. It is also related to the Polish history. According to the legend, Polish ceremonial sword used during coronations (and the only existing medieval crown jewel of the Kingdom of Poland) gain its name “Szczerbiec” (a chipped one) when king Boleslaus the Brave damaged it against this Gate.

Every time I visited Ukraine, I’ve experienced Kyiv as a modern and vibrant city full of friendly people. There are lots of interesting sites to visit. I may write about some in the future, but as mentioned at the beginning, it was the response to the Russian misinformation about Ukrainian heritage. Kyiv is big, so probably majority of tourists would use efficient and cheap underground transport, but if the weather permits, I highly recommend walking. The city is very green and walking around is actually a pleasure. Just remember about good shoes and the height difference, there are plenty of hills. On the other hand, if you’d ever get tired, sit down in one of the cafes and the amazing view is guaranteed.

Kyiv from above. I pray to get back there again.

Ps. Thankfully most of my Ukrainian friends were able to flee the country and it is hard to say if they will come back. If they ever decide not to, I hope it will be their own decision, not the aftermath of this horrible war. Again, please consider help in ANY form you’d like. There are not more or less important cases, every penny counts. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Ps2. Moscow was founded in 1147 😉

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