National Secrets

St. Michael's

Like the city she was busy making her life anew when I arrived.  She’d been there longer but it didn’t mean she knew it well.  She was a friend of a friend, Sveta, and the day I called her on the old phone set in the Soviet built apartment in Sviatoshyn it was the first time we’d ever spoken to each other.  If I’d seen her picture it was only briefly, but she knew I was coming.  Her voice was a little nervous, because of the English I suppose, and yet it seemed to have a little dance step to it, a welcoming pirouette in her tone as she suggested we could meet for the first time on Kyiv’s busy main boulevard, Khreschatyk. 

‘How will I recognise you?’ I asked, ‘What will you wear?  Maybe you could wear something special, like a red rose pinned to your chest?’  She suggested perhaps I could wear the rose but I said that unfortunately I didn’t have one.

‘Then you’ll wear a big smile,’ she said, ‘I’ll find you.’  It seemed a little precarious to be meeting on the basis of only a smile.  There was nothing about my appearance or locally bought clothes that would stand out in Ukraine.  And yet, even from the short phone call it felt as if we were like a pair of old socks, parted in the wash by the whims of circumstance but easily recognisable to the other as the match.  With my smile at the ready, I headed for the metro.

There is something about Kyiv that reminds me of Dhaka, although to look at there’s little of similarity between the two.  And I’m only telling it to you, since it involves national secrets and we shouldn’t be spreading such things around. 

Building design detail, Kyiv
The Dhaka part of the equation happened in fact before Dhaka, on a flight in from Bangkok years ago.  I was allocated a seat next to a Bangladeshi businessman and although for most of the distance we silently did our own thing there was a brief conversation by the time the plane was tilting downwards again.  He asked the reason for my journey and I said it was a holiday.  It’s the simplest way to explain the village.  Then he looked me over, as though he was deciding whether I was trustworthy, whether he could divulge his national secret.

‘Bangladesh is a poor country,’ he said in almost a whisper, ‘but I think you’ll find Bangladeshi people are really open-hearted.’  There was a short tense pause as he examined my face to see if what he’d said had properly registered and how I would take this information.  ‘I know,’ I was able to say, quietly, seriously, entirely sincerely, ‘I’ve been to Bangladesh before.’  I couldn’t help but give a half-smile at the understanding that had arisen between us, but I didn’t want to give the game away to the rest of the cabin so I kept it low-key.  My fellow passenger however was not so cautious.  His smile was broad and loud; it’d been entirely unexpected that I might already know.  There were few further words between us.  There didn’t need to be.

A similar thing happened in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, before I travelled to Kyiv.  This time the national secret was Ukrainian, and it came from Maria-of-the-school, my boss.  Always immaculately dressed, with perfectly styled blond hair, she was attractive, as were all the ladies at the school.  On the day she said what she did we were in her office at the language institute, talking of the month I’d spend in the capital.  ‘I think you will like Kyiv,’ she said and then, lowering her voice and with an eye to my reaction she continued, ‘Because for us Ukrainians, Kyiv is a sacred city.’  She waited.  I smiled and with it she had the confidence to continue.  ‘Maybe you’ll feel that,’ she said, ‘I always feel it when I’m there.  Kyiv is spiritual.  It’s not like other cities.’

A city of around two and half million people, Kyiv was founded at least 1400 years ago by four siblings, the three brothers Kyi, Scheck and Koryv and their sister Lybed.  The city’s name comes from the eldest of the brothers.  There’s a statue of the four of them in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square.  Legend says the city was prophesized by St. Andrew in the first century A.D.  One of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, Kyiv was the first capital of the Rus’, and gave rise so they say to three countries: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Well she was late, Sveta, which is more or less to be expected in Ukraine.  I stood beside the metro station entrance on Kreschatyk amongst the crowd of passers by, waiting in the crispness of the coming spring.  I was laughing to myself at the thought of adopting some cheesy grin and aiming it at various women coming and going.  It’s hard to sustain a grin over an extended period and besides, I might’ve gotten myself arrested for disturbing them.

Just when I was considering giving up, thinking how foolish it’d been to rely only on a smile when wearing a rose would’ve been a much more marked symbol, a young woman cautiously approached.  She had such life in her eyes, a freshness to her face.  She was beautiful.  ‘Excuse me, are you Andrew?’ she asked.  ‘How do you know?’ I said, astonished, ‘I wasn’t even smiling!  Should I smile now?’  It was altogether too late to smile.

With a meeting like that there were no polite formalities to be bothered with and as we walked down Kreshchatyk although the words of the questions belonged to strangers the talk was of old friends.  But Kyiv is a city that will open its soul to newcomers, revealing its shortcuts and artistry to any who take the time to admire it.  So I suppose the whole meeting was in that sense unsurprising.  It was of the city and nothing more.

There’s so much to celebrate about Kyiv.  It’s a city of statues and I loved their statues which depicted culture more than war: in place of generals and battles familiar to some cities were scenes from fairytales, the sibling founders and the female spirit Berehynia, protector of the City.  It’s a city of churches, in particular the divine blue St. Michael’s and the dreamy St. Andrew’s which sits atop Andriyivs’kyi uzviz, a narrow and unlikely zigzag of a road that falls into the fashionable Podil neighbourhood below, by the Dnipro River.  That road is an art market crowded with art lovers and painters of varying skill trying to make a living.  There’s the hills nearest the river, parkland, to wander through, amongst the chestnut trees that flower white in summer, the trees that are the symbol of the city; and the Dnipro River doesn’t only divide the city but the whole country, with citizens of the right bank traditionally speaking Ukrainian while the left bank was mostly home to Russian speakers. 

The Great Lavra Bell tower
In those days, 2002, left-bank Ukrainians in particular were eager to re-learn their national language as Russian was out of favour with some, not least for them to use at job interviews: it could be embarrassing turning up at an interview with the interviewer speaking Ukrainian, quite possibly struggling with it, and not be able to answer properly, or to get the grammar wrong.  Kyiv was still reinventing itself as a national capital, not least linguistically.

Khreschatyk, the main boulevard, is in itself an attraction, particularly on the weekends when it’s closed to traffic and becomes a fair of street stalls and entertainers finding place along its length in order to please the throngs of people out to relax.

And there are the remnants of Soviet times in the city, with previously patriotic statues of workers and partisans under a rainbow metallic arch; and further south the enormous silver woman holding a sword aloft to recall victory in the Second World War.  It’s true that all these elements, fable, churches, the layers of history and the art in the architecture of many centuries lend a mystical element to Kyiv; but nowhere is it truer than at Kyiv Perchesk Lavra, the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves.

Motherland monument seen from the walls of the Lavra
Founded in the eleventh century, the extensive monastery complex includes the Great Lavra Belltower, innumerable orthodox churches from grand to miniscule chapels, and the riddle of caves and underground passages.  With the light of candles we went down there, where the coffins of monks are hidden in grottos and along the narrow passageways, where Ukrainian women kneel in prayer in the smallest chapels of all, and where in a glass coffin the mummified hand, a sacred relic of Saint Ilya Muromets protrudes from under his shroud.

For many centuries pilgrims made their way to the Lavra of Kyiv, sometimes walking hundreds of kilometres to get there, and in communist times when religion was discouraged and the site was officially a museum they came still, examining the museum ‘exhibits’ and discretely offering a prayer there.  And in communist times the sword held aloft by the great metallic woman on the horizon was marginally taller than the Lavra Belltower, perhaps a symbol that communism was greater than religion; but post-independence her sword was shortened so that once again the tip of the belltower is nearer to the heavens.  And orthodox priests lead services of chants and incense; icons of saints again draw open crowds who bring with them their fears and regrets to leave with new hope and inspiration, such as religions can bring.

We saw all that, Sveta and I, not in the one day but over several; and it got to the point where Sveta was surprised at my ability to negotiate the city.  She said I was constantly revealing to her short-cuts along streets where she’d never walked before.  But the city liked me: that’s all it took to turn the guided into the guide.  On the first day however it was in a Spartan café in Podil that we ended up, introducing ourselves to each other’s lives and I recall she was asking about my mixed career of several strands.  ‘What is it you really wish to be?’ she said.  ‘I want to be a writer,’ I told her.  And so I did.

Kyiv.  Is it a sacred city?  Yes: but don’t tell anybody.

At the Lavra

Photos by Val Voronkova

Kyiv might be sacred, it's true, but there are other cities, such as the funky city, the mysterious city and the one with the snake and the frog.

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: National Secrets
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