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.

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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).

Kiev: Day 1 – tour

My arrival in Kiev was greeted with torrential rain, claps of thunder, and lightning so bright the pictures look as though they were taken in broad daylight.

lightning in Kiev on Make A GifSo I was rather surprised to have come back from my first day of sightseeing with dry clothes and sunburn.

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Statue of Yaroslave the Wise, 10th century Grand Prince of Kiev, holding the cathedral of St Sophia

My guided tour began with the city’s ‘Golden Gate’, a reconstruction of the main entrance to the old city, under which a bit of 10th century wall is still preserved. The eighteenth-century zeal to recoat and paint ancient monuments also struck the city’s oldest church, St Sophia. Originally built by Yaroslav in the 11th century, its bright white, green and gold facade is hard to connect to the originally round-domed church within (as seen in the model held by Yaroslav in this statue) and its old frescoes and mosaics.

Outside St Sophia, and in several other parts of the city, clusters of candles commemorate those killed during the tragic events earlier this year.

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the bell tower and entrance of St Sophia

IMG_1575The tour was sprinkled liberally with stops at statues – to make a wish on the lucky ear of the cat, the lucky ring and shoe of the lover, the lucky hand print on Yaroslav.. This, and my guide Hannah’s enthusiastic report on the importance of the number 13 and black cats, made me wonder if she, Kiev, or both, were just a little superstitious. However, my skepticism didn’t stop me wishing on the ear of the cat for peace in Donetsk.IMG_1560IMG_1598IMG_1592

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A recently-painted mural on Andreevsky Descent

On Andreevsky Descent, we wandered past stalls selling antiques, embroidered Ukrainian shirts and tablecloths, and pottery bowls and ornaments, to number 13 – home to the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pose for a picture with the bronze Bulgakov next to the museum, holding my (borrowed) half-finished copy of The Master and Margarita. The stranger who took my picture recommended reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand* next.

IMG_1911We then went on to Vichnoi Slavy Park, a popular spot next to the Dnipro river for couples to have their wedding photos taken, and tie a ribbon to the ‘love tree’. IMG_1624When the tour finished, I asked the guide to drop me off at the Ivan Gonchar museum and National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art, which really need a piece of their own to properly do them justice.

*20/05/2014 My dad has warned me that Atlas Shrugged is “the most extreme neo-lib novel imaginable”, and it’s been described by critics as an “homage to greed”, and “shot through with hatred”. Perhaps I’ll try Gogol’s The Overcoat instead.