Kiev, Capital of the Slavs
- By Irina Titova
- Jun. 09 2011 00:00
The city of Kiev, founded more than 1,500 years ago and the heart of ancient Kievan Rus, is rich with dazzling churches, fascinating folklore and enticing parks and gardens.
The most useful piece of advice for those visiting Kiev for the first time is: "Avoid wearing new shoes."
The reason is very simple: Kiev, a spectacularly beautiful and enchanting city, is situated on a series of impressive hills, so getting to know the Ukrainian capital requires a great deal of walking.
A second piece of advice is to plan a visit for May, the summer or early fall. May and June are particularly rewarding times to visit Kiev, when the chestnut, cherry and apricot trees are in full bloom, along with delectably fragrant lilac bushes and magnolias.
Kiev, a city that is more than 1,500 years old, is unsurprisingly home to a vast number of historical sights, and deciding what to visit can be difficult. There are, however, some iconic sites that top the list of the average traveler.
Holiest of Holies
One of Kiev's most celebrated treasures is the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves), a unique monastery complex consisting of a system of underground passages and a number of stunning golden-domed churches. The caves are divided into two parts: The Far and Near Caves.
The caves originally housed the monks, but were later used as a burial site for the founders of the monastery. Most notably, they are home to the remains of Nestor the Chronicler, believed to be the author of the Primary Chronicle, and of the Kievan Rus epic hero Ilya Muromets, as well as the preserved relics of saints.
Hermit monks lived in the underground cells, devoting their lives to prayer. Some of the cave walls bear small holes through which the hermits were brought food and water.
There are many legends about the scope of the monastery's caves. Some say that the underground passages stretch under Kiev's main river, the Dnieper, connecting the lavra with other monastery cave sites in Kiev and even in the city of Chernigov, 130 kilometers away.
The monastery is as popular a destination for pilgrims today as it was centuries ago. Travelers come from all over the world to pray to local icons and to collect water from the lavra's holy spring.
Another must-see is Kiev's St. Sofia Cathedral. Founded by Yaroslav Mudry (Yaroslav the Wise), Grand Prince of Kiev, in 1037 on the spot where he was victorious over the heathen Pecheneg tribes, St. Sofia became the main church of Kievan Rus. The cathedral was used for coronation ceremonies and for grand princes to receive foreign ambassadors. Later the cathedral became the final resting place for rulers of Kiev.
In the 1930s, the Soviet authorities called for the cathedral's destruction, in keeping with the regime's atheist policy. Fortunately, due to the efforts of historians — and possibly some intervention on the part of the French — the cathedral was saved. One version is that it was pointed out that Henry I of France had married Anne of Kiev, the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, and that to avoid risking a scandal, the Soviet authorities decided to spare the cathedral and instead converted the complex into an museum of history and architecture.
The St. Sofia Cathedral is celebrated for its rich mosaics and frescos. The cathedral's holiest object for more than a hundred years has been its icon of the Blessed Virgin, known as the "inviolable wall." A centuries-old legend states that Kiev will be kept safe as long as the "inviolable wall" is protected.
Icons of Independence
At the center of Sofiyskaya Square is a famed monument to Bohdan Khmelnytsky, one of Ukraine's most famous leaders, who led the fight for freedom from Polish oppression. The monument depicts Bohdan pointing north — the direction of Moscow.
Saint Vladimir, who Christianized Kievan Rus, is also paid tribute to in a monument. His magnificent statue is mounted on an iron pedestal sculpted in the shape of a chapel, overlooking the Dnieper.
A monument to the legendary founders of Kiev — the brothers Kyi, Schek, Khoriv and their sister Lybid — depicts the siblings in a large boat on the Dnieper.
Before the disintegration of the ramparts in the 13th century, Kiev was surrounded by high walls and deep ditches. With a wide arch, battle post and dazzling white chapel in the center, the Golden Gate served as the main point of access through the defensive fortifications. The construction intimidated enemies by its sheer impregnability. The Golden Gate was also used as a place to greet foreign ambassadors and eminent guests, and to see off warriors heading into battle, as well as receive triumphant warriors.
In good weather, the Pechersk botanical gardens, which cover more than 130 hectares, are one of the most popular destinations for both residents of and visitors to the capital. The collections of magnolias and lilacs have become a symbol not only of the garden, but of Kiev itself.
The park is divided into zones containing vegetation and landscapes typical of the geographic zone represented: The Ukrainian Carpathians, the plain forests, the Ukrainian steppe, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Middle Asia, Altai and Western Siberia and the Far East. The garden is also home to a unique collection of tropical and subtropical plants, including a large array of orchids, contained in greenhouses covering an area of more than 5,000 square meters.
Some of the best known areas of Kiev include its main square Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and the central avenue of Kreshchatyk, as well as Podol, one of the city's oldest districts, and one of Kiev's most attractive streets, Andriyivskyy Descent.
In ancient times, Andriyivskyy Descent was the street that connected Old Kiev (the Upper City) with Podol (the Lower City).
Andriyivskyy Descent is known as Kiev's Montmartre, due to the multitude of picture galleries along the street and the throngs of painters, musicians and artists who come here every day. The street is a good place to buy Ukrainian souvenirs such as embroidered clothes and painted plates and dishes.
Remembering the War
Kiev has a wealth of museums that are worth visiting, but some of the finest collections are displayed in the museum devoted to World War II. The exposition focuses on subject areas including the Sevastopol defense, the Nazi occupation and concentration camps, the Ukrainian partisan movement and the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. One of the most moving sections is the Memory Chamber, which features a 27-meter-long funeral table covered with personal belongings, embroidered towels and "killed in battle" notices.
For children — and male visitors — the main attraction may be the outdoor part of the museum, which boasts a rich collection of both old and more recent military vehicles such as tanks, planes and helicopters. Visitors can sit behind the controls of fighter planes and climb on top of tanks.
The centerpiece of the outdoor area of the museum is the Motherland sculpture — a huge 62-meter statue of a female figure holding a sword in one hand, and a shield bearing the coat of arms of the Soviet Union in the other.