Lectureship: Notes from Kyiv
8 Gorkogo vul., apt. 10, Kyiv, Ukraine
I am sitting at the bay window of our third-floor apartment looking out on a glorious city traffic jam. People are dashing around, darting between cars and each other. The sky has turned grey for only the second time in more than six weeks, drizzle seems to be hanging in the air, and the temperature has turned ominously chilly. We all wore our winter jackets this morning as we left for our different schools, a sure sign that the long, dry, clear Indian summer of our first six weeks in Kyiv has come to an end.
The first startling thing about Kyiv, apart from the fact that every sign is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is that from the kitchen window of our first (temporary) apartment we could see a statue of Lenin. Almost every Ukrainian city once had a statue of Lenin, and many of them have now been torn down or replaced with statues of a Ukrainian poet, painter, and nationalist named Taras Shevchenko, for whom the country's most prestigious university is named. The large one-bedroom apartment that serves as our home now and for the next 9 months had large portraits of Lenin and Stalin stashed in the closet. Neither figure is much loved here anymore, but the legacy of communism is complicated, because many people, especially the elderly, were left desperately poor by the Soviet Union's collapse, and although they weren't especially comfortable under the Soviet regime, they weren't as destitute as they are now. We recently watched protesters, most of them gray-haired, parade past our balcony with flags and banners announcing their desire for a return to communism. This generation, called "pensioners," has completely fallen through the cracks of the new economic system, still highly disorganized, because the jobs they performed for the Soviets, and the pensions promised them in their old age, no longer exist, and they are past being able to learn or perform new jobs. The many feeble "babushkas" on the street, selling for pennies fruit, cigarettes, plastic bags, and anything else they can find, are a heart-breaking reminder of the complex economic problems that have yet to be sorted out.
Kyiv is city where people seem to be outside socializing with one another at every opportunity. We live near Taras Shevchenko Park, a beautifully manicured park with paths through tall trees and lush, thick flowers. At one corner of the park there is an area with tables and chairs set up for people to sit together, play chess, and socialize. On most days, all the chairs are taken, people are standing around the tables, and the benches that line the paths are all full. Some are students from Taras Shevchenko University across the street from the park, but many are older, dapper-looking men who come each day to visit with each other. The city also closes the entire length of Kreschatyk Street, the main street that runs through Independence Square, each weekend, as well as a few other main thoroughfares throughout the city to allow people to stroll through the streets, drinking a beer, eating a sausiska, and laughing with one another.
Trip to Lviv for conference, October 6-10
Last weekend, we traveled to Lviv, which is a very beautiful city, but also very different from Kyiv. The center of the city looks western European, while Kyiv is more Russian in its architecture. As I understand it, Lviv suffered very little damage during World War II. Kyiv, by contrast, suffered significant damage, and some of the most impressive structures near Independence Square were built after that part of the city was destroyed by the Germans when they first occupied the city. (The impressive buildings, by the way, were built by German POWs in the years after the Russians recaptured Kyiv). In the center of Lviv, there are almost no traces of Soviet architecture (if you can call it that), and there is a stronger, clearer sense in Lviv than in Kyiv that you are in Ukraine, not in the former Soviet Union. Lviv has the feel of a city that emerged in pre-modern times, before the advent of city planning: the buildings are close to the street, the streets are very narrow, they wind and twist, and they are not laid out in anything like a grid pattern. The boys went to the center of the city each day (our hotel was about a 15 minute drive from the center) with Carol and two students from Lviv National University who had been hired to work as translators for the conference I attended and to take people on tours. They had a great time; Benjamin especially enjoyed an amusement park rollercoaster, which Elijah called the "fast train--zoom."
I went to the city center on Saturday morning with two students, and saw a gorgeous Orthodox Church. Bible scenes and Polish conquests were depicted in paintings on the ceiling and along some of the walls, and the altar was decorated with beautiful gold pieces. I also toured the "Italian Courtyard" and Royal Halls, which was the home of one of the Polish Kings who had lived in Lviv during his reign. The whole thing looks like it belongs in Milan, not Ukraine. While I was in the Royal Halls, one of the museum officials came over to where I was standing, lifted the lid of a very old box, revealing what looked like a metal record on a record player, and cranked it up. Sure enough, out came music—this primitive record player was made in the middle 18th century, according to my translator. Who knew? Lviv is a smaller, tighter, and in some ways more striking city than Kyiv. It suffers, however, from many more basic problems than Kyiv, such as water—one cannot count on having water, for example, at any particular time during the day.
The boys loved the train rides to and from Lviv. The trip from here to Lviv was 15 hours on a bring-your-own-food,-drinking-water,-and-toilet-paper train. We boarded at 3:45 pm, played cards, read Matt the First out loud, and ate snacks and chocolate. When the sun went down, we unrolled our little mattresses, made up our beds with the linens we rented for the equivalent of $1.20 per person, and turned off the lights at 8:30 pm (we also managed to spill a cup of hot tea on Carol and Elijah's clothing, but both are fine). The boys slept very well, and Carol slept some; I slept almost none at all. On the trip home to Kyiv, we were all pretty exhausted. The train arrived in Kyiv at 2:30am, so we had to wake the boys out of very sound sleep to get off the train and then drive through deserted Kyiv streets in a taxi. The roundtrip price, by the way, for all of us to go in a coupé (a private compartment with 4 bunks) was $58. We did, however, have to pay extra for the tea we spilled on Carol and Elijah.
The boys have adjusted very well to Ukraine. They are both intrepid and basically willing to try anything, and they respond positively to 95% of it. Toby started attending a Ukrainian public school last Thursday, and Benjamin begins this Monday. They both want, it seems, to like Kyiv and Ukraine in general, and as a result, they are liking things that I thought they would not (the long train ride, for instance).
Toby, Benjamin, and I have tickets for tonight's soccer game between the Ukrainian national team and Japan at the main stadium in Kyiv (Wednesday, October 12). Carol bought Toby a Ukraine jersey with the number and name of his favorite player, Andrei Shevchenko, on the back. Toby was thrilled and can't wait to wear it to the game. He and Benjamin have a pad and several pens ready to get "Sheva's" autograph. A couple of weeks ago, Carol took the three boys to the ballet "Cinderella" performed at a state-sponsored children's theatre, which has different productions every day of the week. With a full orchestra, lavish costumes and scenery, and very fine dancers, the cost per ticket was $1.60!
We'll send more "Notes from Kyiv" soon!