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|Volume 11 |Issue 23| June 08, 2012 ||
Like the city, she was busy making her life anew when I arrived. She was a friend of a friend, Sveta, and when I called her on the phone set in the Soviet built apartment in Sviatoshyn it was the first time we'd ever spoken. But she knew I was coming. Her voice was a little nervous because of the English, and yet seemed to have a dance step to it, a welcoming pirouette. She suggested we meet on Kyiv's busy main boulevard, Khreschatyk.
“How will I recognise you?” I asked, “Maybe you could wear something special, like a red rose pinned to your chest?” She suggested I could wear the rose but I said I didn't have one.
“Then you'll wear a big smile,” she said, “I'll find you.” It seemed a little precarious to be meeting on the basis of a smile. There was nothing about my appearance or locally bought clothes that would stand out and yet, with my smile at the ready, I headed for the metro.
There is something about Kyiv that reminds one of Dhaka, although to look at, there's little of similarity between them. And I'm only telling this to you, since it involves national secrets.
The Dhaka part of the equation happened indeed before Dhaka, on a flight from Bangkok years ago. I was allocated a seat next to a Bangladeshi businessman and there was a brief conversation at the time the plane was tilting downwards. He asked the reason for my journey and I said it was a holiday. It's the simplest way to explain the village. He looked me over, deciding whether I was trustworthy, whether he could divulge his national secret.
“Bangladesh is a poor country,” he said in almost a whisper, “but I think you'll find people are really open-hearted.” There was a short tense pause as he examined my face to see how I took this information. “I know,” I was able to say, quietly, seriously, “I've been to Bangladesh before.” I couldn't help but give a half-smile at the understanding but I didn't want to give the game away to the rest of the cabin so I kept it low-key. My fellow passenger was not so cautious. His smile was broad and loud; it had been unexpected that I might already know. There were few further words. There didn't need to be.
A similar thing happened in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, before I travelled to Kyiv. This time the national secret was Ukrainian and it came from Maria-of-the-school, my boss. We were in her office at the language institute talking of the month I'd spend in the capital. “I think you will like Kyiv,” she said and then, lowering her voice she continued, “because for Ukrainians, Kyiv is a sacred city.” She waited. I smiled and with it she gained confidence. “Maybe you'll feel that,” she continued, “I always feel it when I'm there. Kyiv is spiritual. It's not like other cities.”
Home to around two and a half million people, Kyiv was founded at least 1400 years ago by four siblings, the three brothers Kyi, Scheck and Koryv and their sister Lybed. The city's name comes from the eldest brother and there's a statue of the four of them in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square. Legend says too that the city was prophesised by St Andrew in the first century AD. One of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, Kyiv was the capital of the Rus' and gave rise to three countries: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Well, she was late, Sveta. I stood beside the metro station entrance, waiting in the crispness of the coming spring. I was laughing to myself at the thought of adopting some cheesy grin and aiming it at various women. It's hard to sustain a grin over an extended period. Just when I was considering quitting, thinking how foolish it had been to rely only on a smile when wearing a rose would've been better, a young woman approached. She had such life in her eyes. She was beautiful. “Excuse me, are you Andrew?” she asked. “How do you know?” I said, astonished, “I wasn't even smiling! Should I smile now?” It was altogether too late to smile.
With a meeting like that there were no polite formalities to be bothered about and as we walked down Kreshchatyk, although the words of the questions belonged to strangers, the talk was of old friends. Kyiv will open its soul to newcomers, revealing its shortcuts and artistry to any who takes the time to admire it. So the whole meeting was in that sense unsurprising.
Kyiv is a city of statues that depict culture more than war: in place of generals and battles familiar to some cities were scenes from fairytales, the sibling founders and the female spirit Berehynia, protector of the City. It's a city of churches, including the divine blue St Michael's and the dreamy St Andrew's which sits atop Andriyivs'kyi uzviz, a narrow and unlikely zigzag road that falls into the fashionable Podil neighbourhood on the Dnipro riverbank. That road is an art market. There are the hills of parkland above the river to wander through, amongst the chestnut trees that flower white in summer and are the city's symbol; and the Dnipro River doesn't divide only the city but the country, with citizens of its right bank speaking Ukrainian while the left bank is mostly home to Russian speakers.
In 2002 left-bank Ukrainians were eagerly re-learning their national language as Russian was out of favour, not least for use at job interviews: it could be embarrassing with an interviewer speaking Ukrainian, quite possibly struggling with it, to be unable to answer or to get the grammar wrong. Kyiv was reinventing itself as national capital, not least linguistically.
Khreschatyk, the main boulevard, is itself an attraction, particularly on the weekends when it is closed to traffic and becomes a fair of street stalls and entertainers. And there are the remnants of Soviet times, with previously patriotic statues of partisans under a metallic rainbow arch; and further south the enormous Motherland statue, a silver woman holding a sword aloft, which recalls victory in the Second World War. These elements: fable, churches, the layers of history and the art in the architecture of many centuries lend a mystical element to Kyiv; but not more so than the Kyiv Perchesk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves.
Founded in the eleventh century, the complex includes the Great Lavra Belltower, innumerable orthodox churches from grand to miniscule chapels, and the riddle of subterranean passages. Holding candles we went down, where the coffins of monks are hidden in grottos and along the narrow passageways Ukrainian women kneel in prayer in the smallest chapels of all. There's the relic of Saint Ilya Muromets, a glass coffin with his mummified hand protruding from under his shroud.
For centuries pilgrims came to the Lavra, sometimes walking hundreds of kilometres, and in communist times when religion was discouraged and the site was a museum they came still, examining the museum 'exhibits' and discretely offering a prayer. In communist times the sword held aloft by the metallic woman on the horizon was marginally taller than the Lavra Belltower; post-independence her sword was shortened. Orthodox priests lead services of chants and incense; icons draw open crowds who bring fears and regrets and leave with hope.
We saw all that, not in one day but over several; and Sveta was surprised how I could negotiate the city. She said I was constantly revealing short-cuts along streets she'd never walked before. But the city liked me: that's all it took to turn the guided into the guide.
Kyiv. Is it a sacred city? Yes: but don't tell anybody.
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