There is a lot in common among the people - culture, language, religion, food and art - of Russia and Ukraine. Sadly, such similarities are not always enough to build bridges and promote affinities between countries
eeling the refreshingly cold mid-April air on my face, as I came out of Boryspil Airport, I thought I couldn’t have asked for a better climate for my visit to Ukraine. Spring was in full bloom after the end of another harsh winter in the sprawling city of Kyiv. It looked like a city undergoing development and modernisation at a fast pace with new structures popping up in every block. The wide boulevards, utilitarian apartment blocks and efficient transport links already existed as a familiar legacy of decades of communist rule.
Old apartment blocks were decorated with huge mosaic murals depicting journeys into space and coming together of proletarians for the collective progress of the nation. Newer artistic expressions on other buildings matched the old ones in size but were more vibrant in expression, offering additional stimuli to the imagination of observers. Restaurants offering cuisines from the east and west were everywhere, as were plenty of cafés. But if you were in search of a freshly brewed cup, you didn’t need to go far – around every street corner there was a mobile coffee shop operating from the back of a van.
One of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe, this ancient capital of Kievan Rus’ has been around long before the states of Russia and Ukraine came into existence. It is the birthplace of East Slavic civilisation. As expected, the major landmarks of the city were places of worship, constructed during periods when Eastern Orthodox church held sway over the lives of people and affairs of the state. Despite seven decades of discouragement of religious worship, most of the distinctly recognisable orthodox churches survived to welcome once again worshippers and tourists alike. Some of the iconic cathedrals and monasteries that were demolished in catastrophic wars and the onslaught of godless regimes have been rebuilt in recent years.
Most churches were topped with onion domes and had exquisitely ornate interiors full of frescoes from floor to ceiling. Kyiv’s oldest standing church, St Sophia’s Cathedral, has green and golden domes on the outside and original frescoes and mosaics from a thousand years ago inside. At the time of my visit to the Lavra monastery complex, cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, scattering their petals all over the ground, prompting one to note that nature and architecture had collaborated to create a stunning atmosphere. Some people were there to pray; others, like me, had come to appreciate the marvels left behind by architects, painters and sculptors. As I admired the lustre of gold-domed churches, sitting on a bench under a tree, I wondered if in such lavish surroundings, one could indulge in divine engagement and be inspired by human mastery at the same time.
Approaching St Michael’s Monastery, I couldn’t help noticing how striking its shining cupolas looked against the clear blue sky. It is a fresh replica of the original church that was torn down by the Soviets in 1937. In its solemn hall, filled with the pleasant smell of burnt candles and the floating whispers of lingering ghosts, slanting beams of lights filtered through the skylights to reproduce their shapes on the floor. At the nearby candle-stand stood a girl, praying with her eyes shut. Outside the church, a woman in a red floral scarf was selling baskets and purses, which according to the English sign on her stall were made from “the leaves of the head of maize”.
Kyiv is overlooked by a hill, on which stands a massive steel figure holding a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. It’s called Rodina Mat, the Nation’s Mother – a 62-metre-tall statue with broad masculine shoulders. The park surrounding this monument is dotted with bas relief sculptures showing dramatic scenes of war: armed soldiers valiantly charging on their enemies. Rodina Mat reminded me of similar giant statues at prominent vantage points in other capitals of the region, like the Mother of Georgia in Tbilisi. Wanderings later that night brought me to the reddest building I had ever seen. It was the imposing building of a university. Its red colour illuminated by light of the same hue, created an extraordinary effect that night.
One day, I found myself in a street with baroque mansions on either side, painted alternatively in pastel colours of green, blue, orange and pink. From there, I found my way to a landscaped park, where a corner had been dedicated to Alice in Wonderland. The lead character from the famous English story had transcended cultural and temporal boundaries and sat there in a frock with her legs stretched out. Oversized and slightly scary, her face had a bewildered expression. Not far from it stood another installation no less bizarre in appearance. It had four young boys passing water in colourful projectiles that formed an archway for you to pass under.
Going further, I unexpectedly chanced upon the author of my favourite work of surrealist satirical fiction who sat there on a bench in the form of a statue. It was Mikhail Bulgakov. Right away, I sat next to him, crossing my legs and folding my arms to mimic his style. I handed my phone to a passer-by to take my photo with the creator of the Master and Margarita.
And how could I wrap up an account of Kyiv without mentioning the one of its kind Toilet History Museum. It showcases tools, pans and pots used from prehistoric times to present for disposing and cleaning human excrement. If you harbour a fondness for toilet symbols and souvenirs, you will not find a bigger collection anywhere else in the world. And right outside the museum, you may find an expression of political protest in the form of Vladimir Putin’s portrait printed on toilet papers on a vendor’s cart.
If you harbour a fondness for toilet symbols and souvenirs, you will not find a bigger collection anywhere else in the world than the Toilet History Museum.
Saying goodbye to Kyiv, I took an early morning train from Pasazhyrskyi station to Lviv. The five-and-a-half-hour-long journey went smoothly, thanks to the comfort and punctuality of the train. A pretty and charming city, I found Lviv a lot more European in character than Kyiv. I stayed in a more-than-a-century-old apartment building very close to the central square. It had a large wooden portal opening on to a spacious lobby with wide stairs and high ceilings. Here was a typical residential building that acquired its warmth from sheltering generations of living humans, and its mystery from hiding their secrets within coats upon coats of paint on its walls. At its entrance, what I had mistaken for a fire hydrant, was in fact a Monument to Smile! If monuments can be erected to momentous events, why can’t they celebrate primary human expressions? Though the creepily smiling face of a fish with several human hands emerging from its body left me befuddled about its manner of celebrating ‘smile’.
Speaking of oddities, Lviv also happens to be the birthplace of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In a side street, stands the whimsical statue of the man, after whom the idea of receiving gratification through self-harm is named. Masoch stood there dressed in a coat that deserved close attention for the details it contained. The bronze statue shone in places from being rubbed by curious visitors. Some placed their arms on its shoulders, while the more intruding ones inserted their hands in the pockets of the statue’s trousers. The latter were in for a surprise for what their fingers felt inside the pocket.
One afternoon, after browsing through the famous flea market of Lviv, full of old Soviet emblems, badges and coins, I passed by a busy road shaded by thick trees. A startled baby bird sat in the middle of the road, as vehicles zoomed around it. It must have fallen from its nest as it didn’t seem to possess the strength to fly. In a matter of seconds, its new life would be crushed under the tyres of a car, I noted with sadness. With that thought, I walked further away from the city centre toward the suburbs, taking in the sound of rattling trams. I reached a cemetery, which was filled with the sound of children’s laughter. They must have come with their families visiting the nearby church.
Among the many coffeehouses of Lviv, I happened to stop at one that had fascinating illustrations on its wallpapers. One illustration showed a male barista winking at his female customer while pouring her coffee. Her pet dog sat on the adjacent stool, observing the scandalous scene with remarkable stoicism. What had prompted me to stop at that café, however, was the sound of music wafting out its windows. It captivated me and stopped me in my tracks. On paying attention, I caught the lyrics of The Day Before You Came. The soft voice spoke of the mundanity of every aspect of life right up to the day preceding a momentous event. Though the song referred to the event of falling in love, writing these lines now makes me wonder how the mundanity of everyday life can be suddenly uprooted by anything, just like it has been in Ukraine currently.
In Ukraine, I was introduced to Jawed*, an immigrant from Lahore, who was keen to tell his rather fascinating story, which I found rather fascinating. Having befriended a Ukrainian woman through a dating website, their long-distance relationship progressed to a point where they decided to spend the rest of their lives together without having ever met in person. She sent him an invitation letter. Jawed came all the way from Lahore to Kyiv, only to be sent back from the airport, because the immigration officials were not satisfied with the declared reason for his visit. Jawed proved that he wasn’t an easy quitter. Despite this setback, he made another attempt to travel to Ukraine to unite with his online love, which proved successful. They got married soon after his arrival and he has been living in his wife’s hometown since then. He was totally enamoured of Ukrainians, their way of life, their culture, and the way they had accepted him as a member of their family and community.
At the time of my visit three years ago, Ukraine had emerged from the mayhem of the war of 2014. To a casual visitor like me, visiting at a time when the current conflict was not in sight, it seemed like the country was poised on a path of stability. But then, what do casual visitors know of the anxieties lurking in the minds of locals who had recently witnessed the prospect of destruction of their towns and of getting uprooted from their homes? A prospect, as we found out, was only averted temporarily.
Having visited both Russia and Ukraine, I found an incredible number of similarities between the two peoples, their culture, language, religion, history, food, and art. Sadly, such similarities don’t always build bridges and promote affinities – a fact that South Asians can very well attest to. They can encourage one neighbour, stronger and bigger, to deny the separate identity and existence of the smaller one, as is happening in Ukraine currently.
Ukraine has suffered heavily over the last century because of a variety of disasters. In the famine of the 1930s, millions perished. In World War II, around 7 million lost their lives. More recently thousands died in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. War is upon Ukraine again and one can only wish that this time around, Rodina Mat, the Mother of the Nation, protects it from further misery.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
The reviewer is a chartered accountant by profession and an avid traveller and photographer by passion. He has travelled to 85 countries on his Pakistani passport. He shares picture stories from his travels on his instagram handle @ShueybGandapur