The Soviet Union

Summer is ideal for digging, and as the hot sun bakes the Ukrainian plains, ripening the promising wheat harvest and bringing sunbathers to the banks of the Dnieper River, teams of diligent young archeological students and their professors are fanning out from here to probe ancient burial sites and piece together from the artifacts they find the rich history of this classic invasion route between East and West.

For centuries before Christ, traders and tribes from the Black Sea, from farther south in the Greek isles, and from Asia filtered back and forth across the Ukraine, hunting, plundering, subjugating, and, in turn, being overrun. Blood has washed the fertile soil from deep into prehistory here, and the hundred or so archeologists and students are recapturing this past.

They bring their discoveries back to Kiev, a fitting place for an archeological institute with its proud history as "mother of cities." Modern Ukrainians proudly point out that Kiev was founded in the Sixth Century and for hundreds of years was the most powerful city-state between London and Peking.

The Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences is under the direction of Ivan A. Artemenko, who runs his programs from a large, sparsely furnished office in the old Vybuditsky Monastery, itself an architectural artifact with buildings that date from the early Middle Ages, Restoration work is being done on several of the scattered buildings, and the recently regilded domes of one church dazzld the eyes as the sun falls on new gold.

In his office, Artemenko shows a visitor a corroded broadsword with a bronze handle that he says is thought to date from the Eight Century. It looks as though it has come from some Ukrainian version of Camelot.

"These artifacts have survived till today and they speak to us," Artemenko says. "We are connected to what came before. You might say we're living on the shoulders of our ancestors."

Under a new law described by the director, builders in certain historic zones in the city must pay handsomely to have a specialist from the institute examine prospective building sites for artifacts before construction begins.

"We know by now where almost every promising site is," Artemenko said.

Nevertheless, the earth sometimes contains surprises even for the knowledgeable. Not long ago, subway workers punching a new line north along the Dnieper to serve the city's rapidly growing new outer residential districts dug into a major find - a collection of nearly perfectly preserved wooden homes dating from about the 11th century. Subway work shut down for several months while the archeologists carefully explored the site and eventually removed the buildings.

The caution about what is under ground has paid off over the years. Since the 19th century, when digging first became a popular branch of scientific endeavor here, several ancient Greek vases containing gold coins have been removed. The coins and gold jewelry found with them tell a tale of ceaseless movement of peoples and armies across the rolling land.

Access to the collection at a building in the ancient Monastery of the Caves, the Peshcherskaya Lavar, is by special arrangement. When I arrived, the guides were happy to show me around - but a custodian of the exhibit, one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of enforcers of petty rules and public rectitude in the Soviet Union, barred the way.

"Unheard of to have a single-person tour," she demonstrated. I was saved by the unexpected arrival of a group of French tourists. With my scattered French and only slightly more advanced Russian, I was able to penetrate at least some of the mysteries. In truth, it is enough simply to gaze upon the perfectly stamped visage of Alexander the Great or Caesar Augustus to know that one is in the presence of clues to a rich history.

JUST FOUR months ago, Kiev was coming to the end of a long winter in which meat was scarse, the supply still depleted because of the disastrous grain harvest of 1975. Travelers could eat meat only five days a week and had to settle for fish the other two. Now, with the summer reaching its peak, the central market in the busy downtown area offers beef, pork, lamb and veal, and shoppers ogle the fruits and vegetables piled high everywhere.

Staring back from behind the white porcelain and glass tables of the market are leathery-skinned peasant men and women ready to cajole, shame or bluster to get a sale. The market is redolent with the mingled smells of peaches and blueberries, raspberries, plums, and freshly picked garden vegetables.

Outside, on the main shopping boulevard called Khreshchatik (destroyed during World War II but now restored), people walk along by the thousands under the chestnut trees, savoring the summer warmth. Apartment balconies are filled with greenery and bright flowers - "gardens in the air," said one proud resident - and people are relaxed and friendly. It has been a good summer, and while there are many dark and unpleasant things to speak of and to ponder, the season is beguiling.