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Saturday, 31 March 2012

I took a nap in the afternoon, then didn’t walk particularly far before settling down to sleep under a bench at a covered picnic place, hoping to be up quite early in order to catch a bus back to the capital. On the 25th of April, feast of St Mark the Evangelist, i gratefully picked up my visa at the Kazakh embassy in Kiev, then eventually found a hostel with a spare bed – or rather the German manager of a top-floor place espied me from his balcony, recognised the stuff of which customers are made, and called out to me. His English being excellent i gave him the low-down on my pilgrimage, at which i was invited to his birthday party that evening. After doing some laundry and getting a wash i found myself sharing a taxi with a native Kiev-dweller and an Israeli, on our way to a  bar with a none too tasteful hospital theme; padded walls and staff in doctors’ and nurses’ uniforms. Hmmm. Anyway the birthday boy was picking up the tab for some nice buffet-type food, while the guests tried to keep track of the number of vodka-filled test tubes they’d ordered. Among them was an Englishman from near Diss, Norfolk, which i’d walked through in January. I drank more than was really sensible and i wasn’t alone – there was a pretty raucous atmosphere towards the end, but at least i knew this was unlikely to become a habit.      

   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
   The Famine Memorial is very near to what is the supreme endowment of Ukraine’s historico-cultural patrimony – the Kievska Pecherska Lavra (Kievan Cave Monastery). I was disturbed to find that the entrance fee, though not very much, was more than i had on me, but a little further on there was an alternative entrance, by which people were coming and going without charge. Soon i was strolling among the beautiful green and white painted Churches whose golden cupolas could be seen gleaming across the Dnieper on Good Friday. I saw wonderful examples of the frescoes for which Kiev and its school is
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.


"What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."**


*George Orwell, Animal Farm
**Memento mori from the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome.

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