Sitting on the grass, drinking kvaas

I’m back from Kyiv* now, with a happy and exciting visit still fresh in my mind. This is partly thanks to the beautiful music I’m listening to now, discovered on my third day.

Wandering past the Golden Gate – the historic gateway to the old city of Kyiv – I came across a group of singers and musicians playing what I now know to be traditional Ukrainian instruments. I stopped to listen for a moment, then a few, then leant against a tree to enjoy the sweet voices and trill of the lute-like kobza, which to my ears sounded like something from a past era. As it turns out, many of the instruments, tunes and lyrics used by these musicians have changed little over centuries, with the knowledge being passed on both by word-of-mouth and in written form.

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As the evening unfolded, I found myself sitting on the grass, drinking kvaas (a weak beer made from fermented rye bread) in a circle of new friends, humming along to songs I didn’t understand, but, by the end of the evening, had started to learn.

kievjuly13Having made the acquaintance of Taras, Valeriy and their friends, I went to two more of their concerts over the course of the week, one at the Ivan Gonchar museum, the other at the book museum in Pechersk Lavra, the large twelfth century monastery complex on the edge of the Dnipro river. Both concerts were organised to raise money for the Ukrainian troops, something that many Kievans I met feel very strongly about, believing there to be a real danger of Putin’s soldiers invading Eastern Ukraine. Personally, I think that the addition of more troops can only lead to more division and violence, in a volatile situation which has already led to over 1,500 deaths. I hope peaceful means can be found to prevent the gyre from widening further.

During the Soviet era, when Ukraine was part of the USSR, the Ukrainian language was supressed, as was any expression of traditional folk culture which suggested a greater loyalty to something other than the Soviet state. Indeed, Ukrainian musicians frequently came under attack, with kobzars and bandurists being specifically persecuted, and even being executed under Stalin in the 1930s. Despite this, the musical tradition has survived, and perhaps because of it, is passionately celebrated and defended by a a number of talented musicians. Banduras and kobzars are still produced under a Guild system in Kyiv.

kievjuly11kievjuly10In my last post, I included a clip of a performance of ‘De Libertate’ – ‘Of Liberty’, a song I’ve been enjoying without understanding it’s meaning or origins. I’m including it here again with the lyrics. Thanks to Dmytro for this translation.

Of Liberty – an 18th century poem by Hryhorii (Gregory) Skovoroda

Що є свобода? Добро в ній якеє? What is freedom? What good does it have?
Кажуть, неначе воно золотеє? Some say it is like gold.
Ні ж бо, не злотне: зрівнявши все злото, No, I say. All the gold of this world
Проти свободи воно лиш болото. Compared to the freedom is only dirt.
О, якби в дурні мені не пошитись, Oh, I’d never want to become a fool
Щоб без свободи не міг я лишитись. Left without freedom.
Слава навіки буде з тобою, Let the glory ever be with you,
Вольності отче, Богдане-герою! The father of freedom, Bohdan** the hero!

 

*I’ve changed my spelling from Kiev to Kyiv, since the latter better reflects the Ukrainian pronunciation.

** Hryhorii Skovoroda mentions Bohdan as a positive historical figure, but this connotation is not as widespread now.

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Return to Kiev

For the past few days I’ve been working in Kiev. As instability and violence continues to grow in Donetsk, my employers and many of my friends have relocated – hence my change of location too. The circumstances are permeated with so much sadness and worry for those families fleeing and broken up by the violence in the East, and Ukrainians across the country anxiously forseeing an invasion by the Russian army.

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St Sophia belltower

The reasons for being in Kiev are far from ideal; however, it’s been wonderful to have an excuse to visit this beautiful city so soon again. I’ve visited a few new places, discovered some incredible Ukrainian folk music and seen ballet and opera for the first time (and done some teaching too!).

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Street art. Chicken Kiev..?

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A protest outside the German embassy

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The son of Yaroslav, a struggling artist who sells his work on Andrii’vsky Descent, shows off his dad’s paintings

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A gala concert performance of opera and ballet at the National Theatre

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An exhibit in Ivan Gonchar museum, woven from corn. I am keen but yet to find out its name!

kievjuly09A chance encounter at the Golden Gate led to a pretty magical evening sitting on the grass, drinking kvaas and listening to singing and kobza-playing by Taras Kompanichenko and fellow folk musicians. More to follow on their music! In the meantime, here’s one of their songs – ‘De Libertate’ (On Liberty). Thanks to John Doe for the comment and additional info.

Kiev: St Sophia Cathedral

Built in the eleventh century, St Sophia cathedral is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Kiev – hence its rightful place on the World Heritage site list. The ancient building isn’t immediately obvious, having been cloaked in a cheerfully garish white, green, and gold Baroque facade in the eighteenth century. Inside, however, many of the original mosaics and frescoes survive, whilst floor tiles, graffiti and the ingenious structure of the building continue to be uncovered by conservators and archaeologists.

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The external walls of the cathedral, where areas of 18th century paint have been stripped back to reveal the original 11th century pinkish stone and brick structure

Draconian ladies in hooded green ponchos checked my ticket in every room, kept a watchful eye and prevented me from taking any but the sneakiest of photos, so most of these images are from other (linked) websites and the guide book I bought on the way out.

The cathedral’s history is intertwined with that of the Grand Princes of Kiev, Varangian Vikings who established their powerbase in Kiev in the ninth century. It’s now thought that Volodymyr I founded the building in 1011, then it was completed by his son, Yaroslav.

Volodymyr had converted himself and Kievan Rus to Christianity after pulling off an unlikely marriage to Byzantine princess “born in the purple” Anna. As sister to the powerful Emperor Basil II, the match to a pagan ‘barbarian’ who already had a number of wives seemed a doubtful one, but, nevertheless, the marriage went ahead. Through this diplomatic wedding contract, Volodymyr gained a tie to the powerful Byzantine imperial family, whilst Basil II gained military support against rival Bulgaria and a long term Christian ally.

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St Mark the Evangelist, writing

Anna herself is unlikely to have had much say in the matter, but she had a very important impact on her new home, judging by St Sophia and its art. The cathedral is named after Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The choice of and subject matter of the mosaic decoration shows this Byzantine influence, and may have been undertaken by artists sent from Constantinople.

Anna is depicted at least twice in the cathedral’s decoration: with her family in a procession portrait in the central apse, and in a fresco celebrating her entrance into Kiev.

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The high number of female saints depicted and choice of iconography may also signify Anna’s importance to the cathedral. The fresco below shows Mary receiving the precious purple and cochineal materials needed for her to make a veil for the temple of Jerusalem. This unusual choice of subject matter seems to identify Princess Anna with Mary, through the symbolic and status-bound colour purple. Anna’s title Porphyrogenitus – “born in the purple”, signifies her status as a member of the Imperial Byzantine family, born in the purple clad chamber of the Imperial palace.

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Mary Receiving the Purple and Cochineal. 11th-century fresco, Joachim and Anna’s Chapel

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Unknown saint

In the towers and upper gallery, reserved for the Prince and his family, there are many secular frescoes. Imagery includes the Hippodrome, dancers, musicians, acrobats, fighters, creatures and strange beasts. Some of the decorations, like the medallion below featuring a griffin, are reminiscent of the rich silk textiles woven in the Byzantine empire.

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fresco in the north tower, griffin

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fresco in the north tower, pair fighting

More details about the mosaics can be found here: http://sofiyskiy-sobor.polnaya.info/en/mosaics_st_sophia_cathedral.shtml and the frescoes here: http://sofiyskiy-sobor.polnaya.info/en/frescos_st_sophia_cathedral.shtml

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As I left the cathedral building, a white-haired man playing a multi-stringed instrument began singing. Here’s the resulting video I made of Stepan and his bandura (a Ukrainian folk instrument similar to the lute).