The next day, Tuesday 26th of April, was the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, marked by an Easter prayer service in the Church of St Elijah within sight of the stricken power station, conducted by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Metroplitan Vladimir of Kiev, and attended by the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Dmitri Medvedev and Victor Yanukovich. It was given added piquancy by the Fukushima tragedy of the previous month, the only other nuclear accident in history to be assessed as a Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale – though the total volume of radiation released from Chernobyl is thought to have been around ten times higher. Such ceremonies provide an opportunity not least to pay tribute to the heroism and self-sacrifice of the ‘liquidators’, who exposed themselves to hazardous radiation levels while engaged in the fire-fighting and clean-up operations following the disaster. Many of these have in fact survived to this day, among them the artist who put me up in Lityatin, but still require careful and regular monitoring of their health.
My mission that day was to take in as many of Kiev’s must-sees as possible. At the painstaking reconstruction of the city’s Golden Gate however, i realised that i’d left my wallet in the hostel, so i’d have to budget carefully with the few reserve notes i kept about my person to give to robbers. What i did have, wishing to lessen my load by putting it in the post for later retrieval, was my sleeping bag, adorned with possibly the oldest still-in-active-use Velcro anywhere in Europe, if not the world. Next on my itinerary was St Sophia’s Cathedral, a very graceful 11th century building from the outside, but the world renowned frescoes of the interior, in my case, would have to wait until a future visit to Kiev, God-willing, as i didn’t have enough cash to pay the entrance fee. Then i meandered down the cultured Andriivskyi Uzviz, past the charming gold, green, pale blue and white Church of St Andrew, built on the spot where, according to legend, the first-called Apostle himself planted a cross at the dawn of the Christian era. At the foot of that hill one is quite near the riverbank, from where i took the funicular railway to the Monastery of the Archangel Michael, praying in turn before Icons of St George and St Nicholas. Then i went to Independence Square, famously the scene of mass ‘Orange’ demonstrations after 2004’s shady elections. At the main Post Office i made arrangements for the despatch of my sleeping bag to the eastern city of Kharkiv.
|The Famine Memorial, Kiev/Kyiv|
I then took the metro to ‘Arsenalna’, and stopped at the poignant Memorial to victims of the devastating famine presided over by Joseph Stalin in 1932-3. Winston Churchill reported a conversation with the moustachioed Georgian, in which he said that the process of collectivisation was actually more personally ‘stressful’ to him than World War II(!). Modern-day controversy however centres on the question of whether the famine was motivated by a specific desire to exterminate the peasantry of Ukraine (estimates range from 2.4 to 7.5 million deaths), or was it more a consequence of a cold-blooded drive to modernise agriculture, aggravated by the soviet impulse to wage class war? It seems clear that Ukraine was more cruelly afflicted than other soviet republics, but Russians, Belarussians and Kazakhs also suffered appallingly. Contemporary records further indicate that in fact it was the ‘Kulak’ class of small landowner against whom the authorities intended to commit industrial scale mass murder - though the poorest peasants were hit as hard, or harder than anyone else. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”*
|Kievska Pecherska Lavra|
famous, and outstanding masterpieces of iconography. Then i descended by a winding stairway into the ‘caves’ themselves – extraordinary subterranean catacombs, hallowed by the venerable tranquillity of generations of monks. They repose under embroidered shrouds in glass-topped sarcophagi, each perched on a ledge hewn from the walls of a tightly confined tunnel, along which one depends for illumination on the glow from a little candle and those of the other, hushed visitors.
*George Orwell, Animal Farm
**Memento mori from the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome.