I had anticipated gray. Drab gray and maybe some varying hues like ash, charcoal and smoke. How was it that the sun was shining—brightly? Shouldn’t it be overcast and drizzly in a former republic of the Soviet Union?
While wandering through the streets of Kiev in 2006, I marveled at the range of colors: the Easter egg baby blue of the Wedgewood like St. Sophia’s Cathedral; the almost sapphire blue of the sky; the glittering gold of onion shaped spires on the stately Orthodox churches and the Outback orange of Tara Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
Even a little Soviet era car parked haphazardly outside Kiev’s Besarabsky Market sported an electric leprechaun Kelly green paint job.
For some reason the botanical bounty of Ukraine’s capital surprised me, too. The greenery of the many parks, the red flowers that bloomed and lined sidewalks as well as the multi-colored floral arrangements available at several stalls in Besarabsky’s created a stop-and-smell-the-roses vibe. The food I consumed even had electric color like the bright luscious red of the most delicious tomatoes I had ever eaten in my life.
I had anticipated much more asphalt, slate, cement and pavement. Really, walking around Kiev was more like sauntering along Main Street, Disneyland, when you half expected to be hunched over in a bleak and endless breadline out of a grainy newsreel.
After all, I grew up during the 1980s when the Cold War was experiencing a strong third wind. Although we weren’t “ducking and covering,” the US seemed to believe the USSR would annihilate us with the casual press of a button at any moment.
It was an era when watching the US hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics was not merely a victory to secure a gold medal, but it was a fight of good vs. evil.
And, of course, most of the bad guys in movies and books were Russians (just ask Sylvester Stallone.) It didn’t matter, either, if someone was Ukrainian, Georgian, Lithuanian, or Tajik — they were all Russian to us.
In fact, I had given a speech my senior year in high school about bad guy Russian stereotypes.
“Rocky IV” had just come out in theatres offering up the USSR’s mightiest mutilating machine, Ivan Drago, who fought Rocky for world dominance.
So, in 2006, 20 years after I had graduated from high school, I visited Kiev during my first foray into the former Soviet Union. Despite feeling enlightened about the “Russians,” I realized I wasn’t, at all, and had a lot to learn about this Slavic state, Ukraine, and its captivating capital.
It turns out the “bad guys”, military recruits in camouflage, yucked it up and laughed before beginning drills outside their Kiev training academy, which was close to the apartment where I stayed.
Storekeepers smiled and waited while I tried to say “спасибо” (thank you) in Ukrainian. Natalia, a tour guide and former teacher I met, laughed often and had a great sarcastic sense of humor—especially when it came to the government. Babushkas waved as they walked cows down a dirt road in the countryside.
Why did all this surprise me? I was open minded, right? I hadn’t realized, however, how the Soviet stereotypes had infiltrated my own expectations. Intellectually, I knew that, of course, Ukrainians had emotions and liked color, but apparently, I was still a bit surprised that the people were not all dour and unibrowed.
Reminders of the Soviet era still stood. Owned by family friends, the apartment unit where I stayed was part of a complex that had been built for veterans of the Russian Afghanistan War. It looked like a giant cider block had sprouted up in a semi vacant field of grass.
A random shredded chair was stationed in front by the entryway. The elevator rattled and clunked up its shaft, prompting you to hold your breath and hope for the best. Inside the spacious unit, the Baroque style furniture and paintings conveyed luxury, which I had never experienced while staying in a European hostel or cheap hotel.
Every morning, I sipped Nescafé and looked out the window at Kiev’s cityscape with the Dnieper River making a cameo in the background. Dominating the scene was the massive stainless steel Mother of the Motherland statue or “Baba,” short for Babushka, as Ukrainians call her.
Part of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Baba was built to commemorate the German Soviet War. Her arms extend upward with a sword in one hand and a shield with the Soviet Union’s coat of arms in the other. Giving me chills, she represents the survival, resilience and determination of Ukraine. And, man, have Ukrainians had to be resilient and determined throughout their history.
Certainly, that was the case during World War II when one sixth of Ukraine’s population perished according to NPR journalist Brigid McCarthy. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War is a reminder of this. Carved into massive blocks of stone, soldiers in action wield automatic rifles with the letters “CCCP” etched into a corner of the sculpture.
While the memorial showcases distinctive big and bold Soviet style architecture, the poignant emotions and feelings it evokes are universal. This display moved me as much as the simple, stark black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
Natalia showed me another sobering memorial, Mykhailivska Ploscha, a granite stone block with a cutout cross that displays within it an angel like mother with a cutout of a child in its celestial center. It is dedicated to the 10 million victims of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.
Then Natalia revealed that Ukrainians had been denied their own history. Often foreigners knew more about what actually was happening in the USSR than they did. Stalin had orchestrated the 1932 famine to punish Ukrainians who did not want to work on the collective farms and showed resistance to the Soviets.
I had heard this information in high school. Natalia, however, learned of the genocide from Ukrainians who had emigrated to Canada. She had always been told that the famine was simply a “force of nature.” When Natalia asked her mother if it was true that Stalin fabricated the famine, her mother told her never to speak of it. Shocked, I realized I probably knew about this atrocity before Natalia did.
Perhaps being kept for so long from their own heritage is why Ukrainians express themselves so fervently and devoutly now.
We drove past a Ukrainian Orthodox church and the lines to get in were massive. Thousands of people, many of them elderly and surely followers who, for many years, had had been prohibited to show their devotion, arrived to see an exhibit of Christian relics.
Just as religious expression had been suppressed, so had political expression. Walking on the grounds of Independence Square in Kiev, where just two years earlier Ukrainians had exercised their relatively newfound freedom to protest, you could still feel the energy.
During the months of the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005, Kievians spoke up passionately, but peacefully, protesting the corrupt and fraudulent presidential 2004 run-off election between candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych.
Votes had been fixed in favor of the administration’s darling Yanukovych. Because of the populist pressure and civil disobedience in the forms of sit-ins and demonstrations, the nation held a new election and Yushchenko was officially the winner. The average Ukrainian’s voice had been heard during a revolution named after a vibrant, expressive color.
People still gathered at Independence Square to hang out and perhaps openly discuss politics by the fountain or at the foot of the tall pillar with the Slavic goddess Berehynia, protector of Kiev, perched on top, looking out over her city.