IT’S the statues. Kiev looks like many a European city while the people in designer clothes, ever so slightly out of London style time, and the shops featuring labels such as Louis Vuitton or Nike could be anywhere. But the statues of heroic people straining their every sinew to serve the Motherland could only be from the former Soviet Union.
The greatest of them is outside the Great Patriotic War Museum, dedicated to the struggle of 1941-1945, the approach to which is dominated by two walls of figures many times life size. Emaciated women shelter their children, welders roll up their sleeves, farmers grasp their sickles and soldiers gaze heroically at their fate. It’s a cliché of Communism, a contrast to our more individual war memorials where a lone figure stands silent guard on his lost comrades.
Times change though. And nearby is a memorial to the war in Afghanistan that could have come straight from an American town. Three soldiers, lifesize, wearing crumpled fatigues and one a slouch hat, stand in a group, their loyalty obviously to each other rather than the faceless state. Comparisons with Vietnam work on many levels, from clothing to outcome.
One wonders if the comparisons don’t end there. Almost as if it’s shunned by the older generation, the warriors of the Afghanistan memorial stand, not outside the war museum, but nearer the World Heritage site of Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves), on the hills outside Kiev. These two major sights attract pilgrims en masse, with the memorial looking forlorn somewhere in the middle.
The monastery provides a slightly spooky candlelit tour of cellars holding mummified bodies of monks, while a guided visit around its picturesque buildings above ground will offer a primer in the Orthodox religion. The War Museum is popular with families, its outdoor display of artillery, tanks, helicopters and other militaria proving an adventure playground for kids, while the museum is a moving and surprisingly modern telling of a tragic tale.
During World War II, the city was occupied by the German army from September 1941 to November 1943. Before they retreated in the face of the Nazi advance, the Red Army planted 10,000 mines which were then remotely detonated, killing 1,000 Germans and this, coupled to a massive bombardment from both sides left only one building standing in the centre.
If you like Stalinist architecture, there’s some good news in that as the rebuilding in the 1950s left a time warp of impressive frontages on Khreschatyk, the main drag. It is the longest stretch of such buildings in Europe which means, I guess, the world. At one end is the impressive Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, TV-familiar from the mass demonstrations during the Orange Revolution demonstrations which brought Victor Yushchenko to power.
The whole area is closed to traffic on the weekend, when it becomes a very un-Soviet street party, with buskers, drunks, courting couples and tourists mixing with citizens just out for a stroll or a beer or a leisurely meal. I watched a hip hop crew popping some moves, as they no doubt now say in Ukraine; an oddly progressive yet surreally old-fashioned moment. Shopping is also on the agenda, but those of us visiting from UK or Ireland won’t be too tempted by anything other than the usual nesting dolls and post-Soviet tat: badges, uniforms and Lenin T-shirts. A street market specialising in garish Dynamo Kiev shirts and suchlike didn’t worry my credit card too much either.
Save your money for the upmarket nightclubs, some of which will make your eyes water. That’s not just because smoking is still allowed, (in fact, possibly encouraged, judging by the amount), or because of the unspoken competition to see which gorgeous blonde can fit in the tiniest outfit. I sampled a few (clubs, that is) but they all still seem to be suffering from a pre-Recession love of excess in both drink prices and décor. Yes, I’m talking about you, Decadance, even if I did pass your ‘face control’.
You’ll probably have more fun in a bar, of which there are many including the ubiquitous Irish ones. Kiev is also in that exciting phase where edgy clubs are opening up in odd places, and I spent several hours exploring dingy alleyways following tips on the latest hot spot. It’s a good way to meet locals (tip: the girls are much friendlier and readier to try out their English than the menfolk). Taxis are cheap, the amazing Moscow-style Metro even cheaper.
Speaking of which, if visiting mummified monks in candle-lit cellars hasn’t put you off going undergound, you may want to tick off a visit to Arsenalna, the world’s deepest station at 102metres. Unlike, London, all the stations are built to an heroic scale, proving Stalinism may have had its uses.
Koleso: Kiev has everything from pizza to Nobu but this place is fairly unique, being a floating Russian restaurant with live Gypsy music and dance. As much of a tourist trap as it sounds but good fun: have a Chicken Kiev, lots of vodka and sing along. Naberaznaya Kreschatik 14
Arena: A massive complex with food, drink and art gallery, as well as dance that’s a good place to start an evening before branching out to somewhere more interesting and better value for money.
Chernobyl: If you are in Kiev for more than a few days, you may want to visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. It takes a full day and the braver among you can ‘enjoy’ eating lunch amid the radioactive precautions. Take a pair of shoes you are prepared to throw away afterwards. Regent Holidays (see below) can tailormake trips for individuals or groups. If you haven’t the time, the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev gives you a moving overview, though it may put you off the trip to Chernoby itself.
Chernobyl Museum, 1, Khoryvyj Pereulok Street
Regent Holidays has three-night city breaks to Kiev and can also tailor make trips to Chernobyl for individuals or groups. www.regent-holidays.co.uk
Hyatt Regency: This international hotel is within strolling distance of all of Kiev’s main tourist attractions. www.kiev.regency.hyatt.com