The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyiv at the dawn of independence from Moscow: ‘We’re still trying to figure out who we are’

Ukrainians demonstrate in front of the Communist Party's central committee headquarters, Aug. 25, 1991, in Kiev, after the Soviet republic declared its independence. (ANATOLY SAPRONENKO/AFP via Getty Images)

This story was originally published on Sept. 20, 1992, a year after Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union. At the time, The Post used the spelling “Kiev” for the Ukrainian capital.

Sage travelers say that one glance of a city can capture its soul, but I never believed it until I visited Kiev. My glance came unexpectedly, as I arrived by overnight train from Moscow.

Sipping my morning tea, riding past birch forests that go on for longer than "Anna Karenina," I wiped away sleep and saw it: four golden onion-shaped domes, floating like oversize balloons suspended in a cloudless sky. Then, a bit farther along, came a gigantic figure of a woman carved of stainless steel, towering 250 feet high, a sword in one hand, shield in the other.

The domes, I later learned, topped churches in the Caves Monastery, a complex so ancient that Ukrainian priests were wandering about there for five centuries before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic. And the statue was a monument to the Motherland, erected about a decade ago by Kremlin communists as a show of who was really in charge of the region. Since the fall of Soviet communism last year, locals use it to point out just what kind of legacy the Soviets left.

Together the structures tell the story of Kiev, where old-fashioned Slavic tradition meets fallen Soviet kitsch, baroque buildings adorn a vista of parking lots, and a resident hangs a 17th-century portrait of the Mother and Christ Child alongside an album cover from "Like a Virgin" -- as if a request had gone out for a picture of Madonna, but the decorator did not know which Madonna he had in mind.

When the communist regime in Moscow lost its grip over the Soviet Union last summer, Ukraine -- the second-largest Soviet republic (after Russia) in population -- seized the opportunity to stake out its independence. With 52 million inhabitants (and a land surface 2 1/2 times that of England), Ukraine was suddenly Europe's fifth-largest country in population (after Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom and France). Overnight, Kiev (population 2.5 million) became Europe's newest capital, and a must-see for students of the New World Order.

From the ornate architecture to the elaborate, full-bodied coiffures favored by local women, there is a lot that is quaintly old-fashioned about Kiev. The city is a stronghold of bygone European customs. It is still de rigueur for dinner guests to bring along fresh flowers for their hosts, for instance, and many restaurants require that reservations be made in person. New bridegrooms must give money to beggars who approach them, and a date is still a very formal occasion, involving dancing, dinner in a hotel restaurant and the inevitable sweet Russian champagne.

More than in other capitals that have broken free of the former Soviet Union, however, a Soviet sensation still lingers in Kiev. It's hard to say exactly why. But the preponderance of defunct Soviet monuments, from the obligatory oversize statue of Lenin commemorating the October Revolution to a cannon used by soldiers against the White Army in 1918, probably has a lot to do with it.

Putin leaves a door to diplomacy open, as European, U.S. leaders race to defuse Ukraine crisis

My own recent visit was like a tour of a schizophrenic, open-air museum, with millennium-old Ukrainian mosaics along one wall and Very Large But Otherwise Unidentifiable Objects From Some Once-Important Soviet Factory That No Longer Has a Function along another.

One Friday morning I wandered through the outdoor bazaar held regularly at the central football stadium, where vendors hawk everything from 19th-century Ukrainian artifacts to bottles of tomato ketchup. Later I stopped to admire St. Vladimir's, a 19th-century church covered with stunning icons of the period, then had a lunch of greasy borscht at the Dnipro, a popular Soviet-built hotel bearing an uncanny resemblance to a motel I know near Newark, N.J.

From Andriyevski Slope, a cobblestone walkway painstakingly restored in the spirit of Old Kiev, I visited the anachronistic Monument to the Reunification of Ukraine with Russia, which resembles a downscale version of the Gateway Arch to St. Louis.

During a stroll down Kreshchatik Street, Kiev's version of the Champs Elysees, I dropped into the Old Kiev Cafe, a traditional turn-of-the-century place serving up local pastries and Turkish coffee. Around the corner is a Swiss-run cafe offering cappuccino and tiny pizzas that has become the hip place for Europeanized locals to hang out. I stopped there one night with my friend Slava, a local artist. "We're still trying to figure out who we are," he told me. "What do you expect from a country that has just broken free of centuries of Russian domination and seven decades of Soviet rule?"

Kiev is nonetheless a very Slavic place, and locals have a lot in common with neighboring Russians, including high cheekbones, a fondness for vodka and an indefatigable passion for poetry (in particular the works of 19th-century Ukrainian writer and folk hero Taras Shevchenko). They're equally passionate about soccer, the countryside and hearty food. (During one taxi ride, my driver and his wife spent 30 minutes arguing over why last year's potato crop was tastier than this year's.) In spite of the new emphasis on speaking the Ukrainian language, Russian is still commonly heard in the streets.

Born-again patriots all, Ukrainians balk at the comparison with Russians, however, and like to point out the differences. For one thing, while modern-day Russians tend toward atheism or orthodox Christianity in their religious beliefs, Ukrainians are just as likely to be Catholics, with a sprinkling of Jews, Baptists (yes) and non-believers.

More than Russians -- who probably rightly view their country as an entity separate from the rest of Europe -- Ukrainians are fond of associating themselves with Central or even Western Europe. "But the biggest difference between us and Russians," offered a burly Ukrainian grandmother who shared my train cabin from Moscow, "is that we don't mind doing a good day's work."

Like Riga to the north, Baku to the south and a dozen major cities of the former Soviet Union in between, Kiev is a place that bustles with the exhilaration of its new-found independence.

You feel this spirit in conversations about Ukraine's new leaders, who are a curious combination of old-line communists and youthful poets -- and a constant subject of dinner-table conversation. And the spirit of new-found sovereignty is manifested here in other ways too: in the construction of buildings and shops that is gradually changing the face of Kiev's inner city, in the small but bustling expatriate community of Americans and Western Europeans and in the endless discussions among locals about what democracy means and how it can be applied to the New Ukraine.

We’re on high nuclear alert. Here’s a history of near-deadly false alarms.

The scene that captured this mood for me best was the outdoor money bazaar in front of ZUM (Kiev's answer to Sears), in the center of the city. There, locals have created a makeshift currency-exchange office, where visitors congregate to change any currency, from Swedish crowns to Polish zlotys or Russian rubles. Dozens of Kiyani, from grandmothers to teenagers, hang out 18 hours a day offering the new Ukrainian currency, the coupon, which resembles Monopoly money. The exchange rate fluctuates, depending on the quantity exchanged, the time of day (evening rates are better) and the negotiating skill of the exchanger and the exchangee, among other factors.

The sense of excitement also is evident in the rock-bottom prices: $4 for a set of hand-embroidered linen sheets, $20 for a dinner for three including caviar and several bottles of Russian champagne, $15 for a hand-woven Ukrainian carpet, $5 for a bracelet of amber (a local specialty) and $6 for a handmade ceramic tea set.

The irony about this spirit of Kiev as a new capital, of course, is that the city is more than 1,500 years old. Authorities have gone to great lengths to preserve remnants of its history. At the Ukrainian Museum of Architecture and Life on the edge of the city, examples of homes dating to the 1200s are on exhibit. At St. Sophia's Cathedral, the blue and gilded centerpiece of the city that has gone through several renovations over the centuries, ceramic tiles from the original 11th-century structure are on view. The Museum of Ukrainian History also examines the life of the city dating back to the Middle Ages, and even includes ancient archaeological finds.

If the mood of new Kiev is evident in its dealings with money, the spirit of the old emerges fully in its churches. From the five sweeping cupolas at St. Andrew's Church to the quiet mosaics of St. Sophia's, it has one of the widest ranges of cathedrals in Europe.

A traveler could build a whole visit around the churches alone. My favorite is the Caves Monastery, whose splendid domes greeted me as I arrived in the city. The original monastery dates to 1051, but additional buildings were added over time. As a result, an excursion through the monastery gives a good sense of how architecture in the region developed over the centuries. There is a single stone church first built in 1073, elaborate murals painted in the 1700s, a four-tiered bell tower constructed in 1744, the Refectory Church dating to the late 1800s and a labyrinthian array of underground caves.

Anxious to get a feel for the history of Kiev, I set out on foot one morning for a daylong excursion, starting at St. Sophia's. With its dramatic baroque exterior and frescoes dating back 900 years, St. Sophia's Cathedral is the architectural centerpiece of Kiev, having been expanded and adapted over the years. Today, a range of styles is represented, including baroque domes, mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine court life.

From St. Sophia's, it's just a few hundred yards to Andriyevski Slope, the steep cobblestone street in the well-preserved old section of the city. A heavily touristed area, this is probably the place Westerners are most likely to be approached by locals wanting to change money or sell or swap souvenirs. Among the attractions I strolled past were street vendors selling art, shops specializing in local ceramics and handmade crafts, and a museum devoted to Mikhail Bulgakov, the early-20th-century Russian novelist who lived here for a few years.

At the bottom of the street and across a park is Gostiny Dvor, a pleasant restaurant serving the full range of local specialties, including borscht and pork chops. I made it just in time for lunch.

The remnants of the Soviet era throughout the city offset the historic charm of the churches. Just as I was beginning to think of Kiev as the undiscovered diamond of the Slavic world, I would stumble across the odd hammer and sickle still splashed across the top of an office building, or the statue of Lenin left standing like a lost child in a back-street park. The outer edge of the city is composed almost entirely of new housing, much of it already beginning to look old.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the lingering Sovietism is the difficulty it poses for Americans who want to mingle with the natives. Although Ukrainians tend to be hearty and warm, making initial contact is not always easy. Even with my fluent Russian, a slight knowledge of Ukrainian and a few local contacts, I found it hard to meet Kiyani.

Several Americans I know who have taken up residence in Kiev face the same problem. One reason is that throughout most of the Soviet period, close contact between foreigners and locals was taboo. Today, there is a lingering uneasiness and reticence about striking up conversation.

You can always forget about things Soviet by losing yourself in the vast sweeps of green space that adorn the city. Wherever you are in Kiev, you are never far from a park. Most are immaculate, making them ideal places for walking, jogging, enjoying a picnic lunch or simply taking a break from the urban sprawl. Another favorite gathering place is the Dnieper River, which runs through Kiev; on summer afternoons, the beaches along its shore are always full.

Of course, you have to be practical when traveling through the former Soviet Union, and Kiev is no exception. Beyond the usual packs of Marlboros and newsmagazines that come in handy for gifts or barter, the travel paraphernalia I found most useful were an umbrella, a calculator, a copy of "The Norton Anthology of Poetry" and a vase.

Locals recommend the umbrella as a precaution against the aftereffects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion. About 80 miles from the site of the accident, Kiev was subject to slighter higher levels of radiation for a short period. Although most specialists say the dangers are minimal to nonexistent, some Kiyani still take measures to protect themselves, such as avoiding eating fruits or vegetables that grow underground, and drinking bottled water. And whenever it rains, they break out the umbrellas.

The calculator is useful for keeping track of how much things cost -- from souvenirs to meals and money. For one thing, the rate of inflation inches up daily; while prices are still cheap, an amber necklace might cost 1,000 Ukrainian coupons one day, 1,100 the next. Moreover, the exchange rate of the coupon is fluctuating wildly. During my visit in July it was about 180 to the dollar; now it's more than 300.

As for the anthology and the vase, they'll come in handy as you get to know the people of Kiev. Great lovers of poetry, they recite verses at length, from Shakespeare to Goethe and Pushkin to their very own Shevchenko. The Norton anthology will help you respond in kind.

And if the poetry pans out, you can always try flowers. Roses are in great abundance throughout the city, at corner kiosks, subway stations, stores and marketplaces. At $1 a dozen, they are also probably cheaper there than anywhere else on earth. Arranged in a nice vase, they make a perfect gift. This is worth remembering -- because Kiev strikes me as a perfect city for falling in love.