A Song for Europe in the wake of revolution
The golden domes of the Pecherska Lavra in Kyiv
Andrei Kurkov gives insider's guide to host capital
from The Observer, Sunday May 15, 2005:
The shop windows of Kiev are being cleaned, the boats that take tourists up and down the river have been given new coats of paint and even the golden domes of the churches seem to be shining brighter than they ever did in the time of former President Leonid Kuchma. The Eurovision song contest is finally coming to Ukraine.
Invigorated by the experience of the Orange Revolution, when half a million people occupied Kiev's main square in November to protest at rigged election results, the people of Kiev are now expecting something revolutionary from the Eurovision. Even intelligent people with good taste in music have taken to pronouncing Eurovision in respectful tones, but it is really the 'Euro' bit of the word that they revere.
Even before the events of November, most Ukrainians considered themselves European, but it took a revolution to attract Europe's attention to this country.
During the Orange Revolution, protesters set up a 'tent village' on the city's busiest street, Khreschatyk, and a similar method of protest has been taken up by those opposing Viktor Yushchenko's new government. They have pitched their tents opposite the cabinet of ministers' building, though the tents are usually empty. Another tent protest continues outside the mayor's office. This one is organised by revolutionaries unhappy with the mayor.
More recently, a new tent-city has sprung up on Trukhanov Island in the river Dnepr, but this one is to cater for the anticipated influx of Eurovision visitors, offering budget accommodation for Euro 10 a day and a programme of entertainment.
When chatting to an American friend of mine and his 16-year-old son recently in Paris, the son asked his father: 'So when did they discover Europe?' The father laughed and looked to me to provide a response. After a moment's hesitation I said: 'Western Europe was discovered a long time ago, even before America, but Eastern Europe is still being discovered and very slowly at that.'
Kiev has 1,500 years of history and is the 'birthplace' of Christianity in Europe. The Dnepr, which skirts the hilly centre of town, was once part of the trading route between Scandinavia and Greece. I have the impression that the descendants of those traders can now be found doing their business in the Argentinean restaurant in Podol. Podol is the 'lower town'. It was once the Jewish quarter and it has remained almost unscathed by 'Soviet architecture'. There are plenty of cosy and modestly priced cafes, restaurants and bars, and churches of a dozen different denominations, synagogues and the Chernobyl Museum peacefully co-exist.
The Upper Town, which lies between the Pechersk Lavra ( Pechersk Monastery) and the 11th-century St Sophia Cathedral, has always been the more aristocratic part of town. Most government offices are located here, including the grey Stalinist building that was used by the Gestapo during the war and then repossessed by the KGB. That building now houses the Ukrainian version of the KGB, the Ukrainian Security Service. Judging by interviews given by a number of top generals, this organisation played a significant role in the 'orange victory'.
The best known - and the steepest - street in Kiev joins the lower town and upper town and is called Andreivski Uzviz (Andrei's descent). Once formed by a river, this cut in the hills now provides for the ambling movement of tourists and off-work Kievites between the two parts of the city. People tend to walk down this street slowly. There are over a dozen art galleries, a similar number of restaurants and several museums.
The most famous museum, the Bulgakov, is at number 13. It was this house and, indeed this street, that Mikhail Bulgakov describes in his novel The White Guard.
After independence in 1991, the first to arrive on the street were the souvenir traders, followed quickly by the protection racketeers, who also saw profit in the souvenir business. The racketeers are long gone, or are now manning the bigger souvenir stalls where the matrioshki (Russian wooden nesting dolls) reflect every shade of today's political reality - Putin, Bush, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein - and it is amusing to guess who is inside whom. But if you want a more authentic, Ukrainian souvenir, go for the pysanki painted eggs or embroidered shirts and blouses.
Kiev is beautiful in May. This is the time when the chestnut trees and lilac are in bloom in the city's many parks and squares. In one of them, just opposite the 'Red' building of Kiev state university, you will find the outdoor chess club. Every day, for the last 50 years, chess enthusiasts have come here to play for money and for sport.
Then there's the Hydropark on an island in the Dnepr. This is a place for sport and drinking. In winter the island is frequented by 'walruses' (folk who enjoy plunging into the ice-cold river water). In summer the smell of shashlik kebabs and the huge numbers of visitors makes it the favourite haunt of Kiev's tramps and homeless children.
The pagan love of all things underground has influenced the development of the city. An underground labyrinth of hermit dwellings and burial places built by Christian monks from the 13th to 17th centuries, stretches for miles in the hills above the Dnepr. A part of this underground is owned by the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (monastery) and it still houses the remains of sainted monks. These 'caves' can be accessed via the monastery. All you need to do is buy a candle.
The walk through the dark passages from one coffin to the next is a dubious pleasure. I got lost down there as a boy and wandered about for three hours trying to find an exit. No horror movie I have seen since comes close to having the same effect.
Ukraine's black soil is so fertile that the occupying Nazis tried to export it in bulk to Germany. Food supply should never have been a problem for this country. None the less, Stalin succeeded in inducing two terrible famines, in 1933 and in 1947, which claimed the lives of some three million people. (here the author is understating the facts -- the 1933 famine alone killed at least 7 million -- several million more may have perished in 1947)
Food is an important part of Ukrainian culture. Home cooking is most respected and there is no tradition of restaurant going among ordinary people. Among the new business elite, however, there's a tendency to stay in restaurants day and night.
First stop for most visitors arriving in Kiev for Eurovision will be the Maidan (Independence Square); the venue for the most peaceful revolution ever. The revolutionary graffiti on the wall of the main post office has been covered with Perspex to save it for posterity. Nearby, 'orange' souvenirs can be purchased - cups and plates with pictures of President Yushchenko and the new Prime Minister, Yulia Timoshenko, and compact discs with the hits of the revolution, one of which, in a more peaceful version, will represent Ukraine in this year's Eurovision.
Andrei Kurkov's novels include the best-selling "Death and the Penguin" and its sequel, "Penguin Lost." "A Matter of Death and Life" was recently published in English for the first time.
Interior of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv