Founded as a trading post back in the 5th century in the Ostrogoth region on the far eastern border of the Roman Empire, Kiev later grew to become the capital of the first ‘Rus’ in early medieval times. The ‘Rus’ embraced a vast territory between todays Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Western Russia. Centuries later, after a war lost against the Mongols and having changed hands more than once, it finally became part of the Czarist Empire.
In Soviet times, Kiev was the capital of the second largest Socialist Republic of the Union, i.e. the Ukraine. This large and fertile land, not subject to the exceptionally harsh winters typical to the majority of Russian territories, features a long coast with several port towns on the Black Sea, and since the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, it accounted for a good share of the population and workforce of the USSR.
Despite being kept in great consideration by the Soviet central government for its economic and military value, the Ukraine was among the fiercest opponents of the Bolshevik revolution back in the years of Lenin and the Russian Civil War. Some top-ranking Soviet leaders actually came from this Country, but that it remained separated from Russia even in Soviet times was not just by chance.
As a matter of fact, after the collapse of the USSR, the Ukraine immediately left for independence, entering a very difficult transitional phase, which is basically still lasting today. The general weakness of all recent presidential administrations, the claims of ownership over the former national industries and natural resources by private owners, and substantial border controversies with Russia, have produced living conditions for the population which are much lower than for other ex-USSR countries like Russia, the Baltics or Belarus.
All these pieces of national history are reflected in Kiev, a very large city where you hear echoes from all the eras of its complicated past. This chapter presents a quick account of the highlights of Kiev’s heritage from older and newer times, providing also an impression of how this town is evolving today. Photographs were taken in spring 2018, and portray a bit of everything, from spectacular Orthodox temples to gigantic Soviet statues, cannons from WWII, the Chernobyl Museum, panorama views of the city and more!
The map below shows the location of everything described or portrayed in this post.
Pictures were taken mostly in central Kiev, itself a pretty extensive area, served by public transport, but more quickly and efficiently explored by taxi. As of today (2019), the cost of life for a visiting westerner is incredibly low, so even taking a taxi for every shift is not inconceivable.
Of course, there are some parts of the central district which are interesting to explore by walk, and if you are a well-trained type you might simply spend your day walking from a destination to the other – getting a more complete view of the city center, and avoiding traffic jams which constantly plague the city.
I really enjoy driving, but in Kiev I would not suggest moving around with a car on your own, cause traffic is really a nightmare, traffic flows are fuzzy and chaotic, so you may be easily wasting your time, letting aside the chance of accidents and damage to your car.
The central districts appear reasonably safe, so you may relax and move around by foot, taking all the pictures.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
If you want to start you exploration with a true masterpiece, then head directly to the very central Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. This glorious church and monastery founded around the year 1000 AD was renewed and modified over the centuries, but the main features of the central church have remained basically unaltered since its origin.
Access to the monastery grounds are via the tall bell tower. You can also climb upstairs, very much advised to enjoy a very good view of Kiev’s central districts, including the nearby church of Saint Michael.
Looking farther, you can appreciate the size of the outskirts of the city, which is really extensive. The typical Soviet/post-Soviet amenity of the most peripheral districts is readily apparent. There is also a plant looking like an oil power plant, with giant red and white chimneys, right in town.
The majestic river Dnepr can be barely seen from here, looking east.
From the outside the church in the monastery – resembling the plan of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Constantinople – is a masterpiece, but the mosaics inside are really unmissable.
Unfortunately, taking pictures inside is strictly forbidden (many guards around).
Saint Andrew’s Church & Ministry of Foreign Affairs
A quick detour to the east from the alley connecting Saint Sophia’s to Saint Michael’s Cathedral, Saint Andrew’s Cathedral is a nice example of Czarist Rococo style. Unfortunately the church was undergoing renovation inside at the time of my visit.
On the way from Saint Andrew’s Cathedral to Saint Michael’s Cathedral you can find a Soviet monolith, today the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The building, with a line of prominent columns aligned ahead of the façade, was built over a terrain formerly part of Saint Michael’s Monastery.
Saint Michael’s Cathedral
This beautiful church, with distinctive golden domes, was reconstructed in its baroque form in the late 1990s, after it had been completely demolished in the 1930s, among the darkest hours of Stalin’s communist dictatorship. The ancient mosaics which adorned the original church, dating back to the Byzantine period, were transferred to major museums of the USSR before demolition took place.
The accurate reconstruction work has produced a beautiful ensemble, with a church in the middle, a tower over the main gate, and several smaller buildings. The contrast between the blue façade walls and the golden roof produces a very nice chromatic effect.
Friendship of Nations Monument
Descending towards the river from Saint Michael’s Cathedral, you soon reach an artery of the city called Kreshchatyy, and a typical soviet building – the Ukrainian House, today a congress center. This artery leads to the central Independence Square.
Next to the Ukrainian House you can find the head of short promenade leading to a balcony with a gorgeous view of the Dnepr. Going there, you pass under an arch, framing some sculptures including a – strangely – moderate soviet memorial, the Friendship of Nations Monument.
The size of the Dnepr is impressive. The balcony is a vantage point for a panorama view of the northern and eastern districts of Kiev.
Taking to the south from the Friendship of Nations Monument you get access to an extensive city park. Immersed in this park are the residence of the President of the Ukraine – Marijnsky Palace. This is a fancy blue and cream palace, with a nice Italian-style garden ahead of it. It is still working, so it is usually off-limits for tourists. A great panorama to the east can be seen from besides the palace.
Next to the presidential residence you can find the small Parliament Building.
On the border of the park you can find the International Hotel Kiev, part of the soviet heritage. The park is pointed with many soviet statues and memorials, as well. To southern end of the park you meet the area of the old arsenal. The metro stop there resembles some of the stations in Moscow.
Further south you come to what is probably one of the most popular area among tourists, you meet more soviet buildings, including old soviet hotels.
Monument to the Unknown Soldier
The southern end of the governmental district is marked by the nice area on top of a cliff rapidly descending to the river. Here you will find the sober Monument to the Unknown Soldier. The focus of the monument is an obelisk with an eternal flame nearby. Access to the obelisk is via an alley with commemorative slabs along the sides.
The obelisk is constantly guarded by the military. The area is quiet and nice to stay. The panorama to the east is again really gorgeous.
Immediately south of the obelisk, it is possible to see a monument to the victims of the Holodomor Genocide. This was a famine intentionally caused by Stalin in the year 1933, in support of the industrial development plans. By conveying all the food to the cities with industrial plants, and simultaneously prohibiting any movement to Soviet citizens among districts within the Union, Stalin and the Soviet Government set the stage for one of the worst famines in European history, causing millions of victims among farmers and the rural population. The rural population of the Ukraine was among the most hit by this move.
Pecerska Lavra Monastery
This is probably the best known monument in Kiev. This immense monastic complex is basically a citadel, with several churches scattered over a large area descending towards the river. Besides the churches, it is possible to find several buildings with refectories, dorms and more, plus an incredible museum with some incredible treasures from ancient times.
The churches date from different epochs, and some have been altered over the years. The most prominent, nearby the entrance, is in baroque style, with a tall tower ahead of it.
The size of the monastery is really striking, and it is very lively, with religious services and related activities often taking place.
The archaeological museum with its golden treasure is surprisingly rich and valuable.
A less usual feature of the monastery is an Orthodox church dating from the late Czarist age, late 19th-early 20th century. It reflects the typical innovative style of the time, without departing from the classical subjects of the Orthodox iconography.
One of the most famous features of the Lavra is the catacomb with the mommies of the monks. This is really impressive, cause the tunnels are very narrow and dark, and you go there with a small candle. Taking pictures is strictly forbidden, and technically very difficult, due to the low light of the place.
Looking south from the beautiful area of the Pecerska Lavra Monastery, you can spot the most prominent Soviet monument in Kiev – the Motherland Monument.
The Local Conflicts Museum
Accessing the area dominated by the immense statue to the Motherland from north, you find some damaged military vehicles. These are Russian vehicles requisitioned by the Ukrainian military in the course of the recent tensions which led to the annexation of the Crimea – a former Ukrainian territory – by Russia. The vehicles on display are Russian-made and Russian-operated relics, found on Ukrainian soils.
As the explanatory panels tell you, they are a proof of unauthorized military actions carried out by Russian troops on the territory of the Ukraine. As of today, the Ukraine and Russia are not openly fighting, but they are not friends.
The Local Conflicts Museum is actually a wonderful collection of military vehicles, tanks, cannons, missiles, a few aircraft and even a submarine and an armored train. They are all from the Soviet weapons arsenal, and despite the name of the museum, there is even a ballistic missile among them.
The collection is split in two parts. One is on display over an apron which can be freely accessed. In this part you can see a few classic Soviet tank designs, rocket launchers and an attack helicopter Mil Mi-24.
The second part is located nearby, but it is somewhat more secluded, and can be accessed only with a small fee. Here you meet first a few aircraft, including a Lisunov Li-2, a license-built Soviet copy of the Douglas C-47.
There are a few attack aircraft from various ages (you can find many more in the beautiful air museum in Kiev, see here, a must-see for every aviation enthusiast), but what will probably capture your attention is a mighty SS-4 Sandal missile. This strategic missile type, also known as R-12 in the Soviet inventory, was the key element of the Cuban crisis. Before that, its deployment was planned in the last years of the Eisenhower administration also in the German Democratic Republic (see here). This was a major asset for the USSR in the years of the Kennedy administration, and was deployed in large numbers within the borders of the Soviet Union – preferably next to the borders, due its relatively limited range (see here).
Nearby the missile, you can find its launch gantry, which was anchored to the ground through a metal crown. This is what you find in todays Germany, the scant traces of the planned deployment of this system out of the USSR (see here). Another exemplar of this iconic missile with its gantry tower can be found in an excellent museum close to Minsk, Belarus (see here).
An impressive array of cannons with different calibers, a small submarine and an armored railway car with turrets – a similar one can be found in the Parola Tank Museum in Finland (official website here).
Also on display is a tactical nuclear missile with its movable canister truck.
This iconic statue is actually one of the youngest WWII monumental memorials of the USSR. Despite being planned soon after the end of the Great Patriotic War in the early Cold War period, it was not until the early 1980s that this metal colossus was built and inaugurated, at the presence of the then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The statue stands on a very nice natural stage, on top of a cliff dominating a wide panorama with river Dnepr in the middle.
The area around the monument forms a WWII memorial. There is provision for a big eternal flame, which despite the name is not constantly operating due to the massive gas flow needed for feeding it. Scattered around are some interesting groups of sculptures celebrating the efforts and the final victory of the USSR in WWII.
The foundations of the Motherland Statue host a nice crypt with the names of thousands of soldiers and civilians fallen in the battles over the Ukrainian territory during the Great Patriotic War (which is WWII for the USSR).
Besides the slabs with the names carved in them, there is very nice and sober mosaic decoration on the ceiling.
You can get access to the crypt visiting the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War
Similar to other museums dedicated to the Soviet actions in WWII you can find in Moscow and Minsk, this collection is a true must-see for anybody with an interest in the topic. The museum right under the Motherland Statue, with access from the front of the monument (official website here). In the case of the museum in Kiev, the totally Soviet construction adds to the value, with red stone and bronze lamps and ceiling decoration adding to the atmosphere.
Before you get access to the original collection, you can see in the hall of the museum, and in a few small rooms nearby the entrance, material from the recent Russian-Ukrainian confrontation.
The original collection is on two floors. There are uniforms, flags, many weapons, military gear, personal diaries, maps, passports and military papers. What is especially striking is the abundance of German material from the time, with tons of swastikas, Nazi insignia, original uniforms and more.
There is a small collection of rare Nazi daggers. Other interesting items include an Italian-issued certificate of merit, given to a Soviet soldier fighting in the Italian resistance movement.
There are clearly also many Soviet artifacts from the time, including original newspapers, books autographed by Stalin, and more. There is also the wreck of a downed Soviet aircraft.