Ukraine has been a proudly independent nation since 1991, but for decades before that it formed part of the Soviet Union. Many elements of that era – and of the Russian empire before it – remain in the heart of Kyiv, intertwined with remembrances of the city’s medieval glory. It’s a fascinating array of clues from the past, within strolling distance.
As I step out of Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk metro station, the Ukrainian capital’s tumultuous postwar history is laid out before me – in concrete and steel. The busiest, grandest boulevard of downtown Kyiv, Khreshchatyk street is lined by buildings of communist-era vintage. Some are highly decorated, others bear plain facades; but all are lofty, intimidating structures.
There are hints, however, of post-Soviet adjustments. Down the street I spot a large star surmounting an imposing apartment building. When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it must have been painted revolutionary red; now it’s a striking blue over yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag. And the metro station houses a branch of an American fast-food chain, sandwiched between Stalinist facades.
It’s outside this eatery I meet Anna, the guide who’ll be taking me on a walking tour of communist Kyiv. As I grew up in Australia during the Cold War years, I’m keen to learn what those times were like in the former USSR. Anna says I’ve come to the right place: after Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kyiv was the third most important Soviet city. That’s one reason nuclear power plants were situated in the region, with catastrophic results in 1986 at nearby Chornobyl (commemorated in Kyiv at the sombre but interesting Chornobyl Museum).
The modern-day appearance of Khreshchatyk, however, was a consequence of the arrival of the German military. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the retreating Red Army had time to booby-trap and detonate its grand 19th-century buildings. With the additional destruction caused by aerial bombing of industrial areas, Kyiv was a mess by the end of WWII. Its makeover after the conflict was extreme.
‘We lost the opportunity to live in a fun city, because the architecture was gone,’ says Anna. The authorities saw the devastation as an opportunity to create a new Soviet-style city, rather than to re-create its old look. To my eye, it doesn’t seem that bad: on one side of the metro station, for example, an apartment building contains a surprising amount of detail in its tiles and pillars. On the other side, a slightly later building has a flatter, plainer facade. Even Soviet architects went through decorative phases, it seems.
Strolling along Khreshchatyk, we also see recent additions. One is a striking bust of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, mounted on a zig-zag frame of girders. A 19th-century nationalist who wrote in the Ukrainian language, Shevchenko is often compared to Shakespeare. Anna prefers to liken him to Robbie Burns, as she feels his role in sustaining Ukrainian identity mirrors that of the Scottish poet in regard to the Scots.
We turn onto Khelmnitsky Street (formerly Lenin Street), which housed many bookshops in Soviet times, then descend into the Teatralna metro station – one of the great legacies of that era. Moscow is famous for its elaborately decorated underground railway stations, and Kyiv has its own version of this splendour. Past huge recessed barriers designed to be lowered in the event of a nuclear war, we admire a concourse decorated with detailed bas-reliefs. One has the word ‘peace’ in various languages including English, beneath doves flying across the wall. Further below, the brown marble pillars between platforms were constructed of the same stone used for Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.
The most lavish decor is yet to come, however, as we stroll through a passage connecting to Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate) station. The arches leading to its platforms are decorated with mosaics of kings and saints, underlining the connection between Ukraine’s modern history and that of the medieval state of Kyivan Rus. As we inspect the art, a sea of commuters flows around us, passing beneath chandeliers. Kyiv’s metro has some of the world’s deepest stations, serving over a million daily passengers.
Outside the station is the Zoloti Vorota itself: a massive brick gate, a replica of fortifications which stood here during the city’s glory days as a trading hub. ‘In the 12th century, Kyiv was bigger than London, Paris and Rome combined,’ says my guide. Its only rival was Constantinople (now Istanbul), from where Kyiv drew its architectural and spiritual inspiration.
But this tour is about the more recent past, so we pass by a statue of 11th-century Prince Yaroslav the Wise to pause in front of an imposing grey building. This was once the local headquarters of the feared KGB, also used by the Gestapo during the German occupation. This sinister place is surrounded by an eclectic mix of architecture, including a pretty yellow commercial building from the 19th century, and a grim apartment block of crumbling concrete from the 20th. ‘If you see an ugly building, it was definitely built during the Soviet times,’ says Anna. She goes on to describe her mother’s life in one of these apartments with their shared facilities. Incredibly, each family would own its own toilet seat for use with the communal facilities.
We also encounter sites of religious significance on our route: the beautiful St Sophia’s Cathedral which became a museum under the communists, and St Michael’s Monastery with its memorial to those who died in the horrific 1930s famine caused by Stalin’s agricultural policies. Next to the monastery is a vast, overbearing structure featuring enormous grey pillars. Now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was intended as the first building block of a vast modern square which never came to fruition.
A more welcoming plaza, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) is a long open space, with solid Soviet-era buildings at one end and the elegant 60m-high Independence Monument at the other. There are other Soviet-era relics worth seeing farther afield in the city, particularly the soaring Rodina Mat memorial and the adjacent Museum of the Great Patriotic War. However, bustling as it is with visitors and locals enjoying a sunny day, the Maidan seems the perfect place to end this initial walk through Kyiv’s complicated past.
Tim Richards was hosted on this tour by Interesting Kyiv (interesniy.kiev.ua). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.