Kiev is the capital and largest city of Ukraine (pop. 3 million) and is situated on the Dnieper River, where the Vikings settled and established it in the mid-9th century. Under the Vikings (also called Varangians) Kiev became the capital of the Kievan-Rus, a confederation of Slavic tribes that over time became the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. Kiev is what most eastern Slavs today think of as their place of origin.
Kiev, unlike the smaller Ukrainian towns I visited, feels distinctly European in its monumental architecture and its openness to foreigners. I had some interesting conversations with folks I met in Lviv and Kiev and they clearly tended to regard eastern Ukrainians (the ones more in sync with Russia than their own government) as a completely different people. This helps to explain why, in a sense, many western Ukrainians would probably be delighted to see the Donetsk region break away and join Russia. And when Vladimir Putin announced he was seizing Crimea because that’s what the people wanted, he was probably speaking the truth. Crimeans and eastern Ukrainians have always regarded themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian.
At any rate, I loved Kiev and wound up staying there for almost a month. There was so much to see, so many great museums, so much history and such delightful people that I could have spent two months there and still not seen everything.
As the center of several Slavic Orthodox religions, Kiev has an extraordinary number of magnificent cathedrals and monasteries, most of which are still in use today. The level of religious devotion in Kiev, and throughout Ukraine for that matter, really surprised me. It’s as if the 75 years of official atheism under the Soviets only intensified the people’s attachment to their ancient icons and mysteries.
Here are a few photos from around Kiev. It’s truly a remarkable and gorgeous city:
KIEV AROUND TOWN
The stealing of a country’s resources by the head of that same country is a fairly recent development. And by recent I mean just since the end of World War II. Prior to that, countries and empires usually went to war with other countries just for the looting opportunities. THAT kind of looting goes back to the Sumerians and the Akkadians. The Byzantines and even the medieval English, French and German aristocracies forged their entire identities on prowess in saddling up in spring-time, reducing to rubble any communities they could find that had moveable property, loading up their loot and bringing it home with them. Then when the next spring-time came around, it was back in the saddle again. These military escapades were usually justified by some flimsy religious reasons but such is the dreary course of much of human history.
Then between the end of World War II and about 1965, dozens of former British, French, Portuguese, Belgian and Spanish colonies gained their independence. This gave birth to an entire generation of homegrown tin-pot tyrants in Africa and southeast Asia whose specialty became taking the billions of foreign aid being given by the U.S. and other western nations (to keep them from going communist) and spiriting most of it quietly to Swiss bank accounts and foreign real estate. The name of the game was, in a perverse way, discretion.
What Viktor Yanukovych did, though, has broken new ground. While most autocrats loot their countries quietly and diplomatically, taking care not to rub their citizens’ noses in their miscreantism, Yanukovych built the most in-your-face estate and contiguous pleasure-grounds (totaling nearly 400 acres on the Dnieper River) that make Saddam Hussein’s excesses seem like a warm-up. It’s no wonder the people of Ukraine ran his sorry butt into the arms of Vladimir Putin and confiscated this very public drain on the public treasury.
When I heard that Yanukovych’s Mezhigoriye was now open to the public, I had to get up there (15 miles north of Kiev) and see for myself. As you’re looking at these pictures, keep in mind that EVERYTHING you see in the photos is part of Yanukovych’s former estate, except for the Dnieper River. During the time he built his stately pleasure-dome (2007-2012), Yanukovych’s salary as President of the Ukraine was reported to be $24,000 per year.
YANUKOVYCH ESTATE PHOTOS
Lviv is a well-preserved 13th-century town that was the capital of ancient Galicia. Like Kiev, it is a modern city with a European flavor to it. The central plazas of the Old Town are wonderful places to just stroll and enjoy the fine weather. Here are a few pics:
LVIV AROUND TOWN