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Mummies and War Heroes

KYIV   It was a relaxing day.  I walked across the city centre to another UNESCO World Heritage site in Kyiv, Lavra - the Cave Monasteries in the southern end of the centre, passing various monuments and public buildings.  The Lavra is a spectacular treasure house of not only Eastern Orthodox art but of Black Sea nomadic culture as well.  To many Ukrainian or Russian Orthodox believers, this is their Rome, the place where Eastern Orthodoxy took root in lands of the Eastern Slavs - Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.  I love the icons and frescoes here – so elaborate and yet primeval in some ways.  Again, the theme of the conversion of the Rus beholds.  The spirituality of the place was overwhelming – the incense, monks with their dark hoods and robes, the ancient Slavonic liturgical music.

I like the Historical Treasures Museum, also within the Lavra, where I was mesmerized by the golden Scythian jewelry and artifacts – mostly excavated from the ancient burial mounds of the plains.  Also fascinating are the frescoes at the entrance of the Nearer Caves – depicting the journey of the dead – from the deathbed to either heaven or hell, accompanied by black agents of death, as well as saintly-white angels with their wings.  Macabre and amazing at the same time.
 Lavra Frescoes: Saints, Saints & More Saints
Lavra Frescoes: Death, Death & Death
Lavra Frescoes: Do you want to burn in Hell ?
Lavra Frescoes: Saints & Angels
The Beautiful Lavra Complex
Lavra Frescoes: Death Again
Lavra: More Golden Domes
A Bald in the Lavra
At the Lavra Complex

Like the devoted pilgrims, I bought a candle and carried it along (lighted of course) the 200 meters walk through the famous cave passageways of the Nearer and Further Caves of the Lavra.  In these narrow passages, well preserved bodies of monks and saints were displayed in their glass coffins - the bodies were dressed in rich colourful bishop's costumes while faces were covered.  In each of the coffin, a darkened, mummified hand is exposed.  It was touching watching the pilgrims kissing these coffins, in particular, the area of the glass just above the exposed hand.  Some raised their little children above the holy relics as if to introduce their loved ones to the ancients, and to seek their blessings.
 Moument & Museum of the Great Patriotic War: Mother Ukarine, Tanks & More
Stamp: 50th Anniversary of Victory over Fascism
Sculptures at the Memorial
Stamp: 50th Anniversary of Victory over Fascism
Sculptures at the Memorial
Stamp: 50th Anniversary of Victory over Fascism
The central dome of the Museum: Soviet symbols & insignias
Stamp: 50th Anniversary of the Liberation of Kyiv
Memorial to the dead in the Afghan War

After icons and mummified saints, I visited the other end of the religious spectrum - Museum and Memorial of the Great Patriotic War - the almost godless mega-monument built by the Soviet Government to commemorate the WWII.  This is a gigantic temple to the legendary individual sacrifice that communism loudly proclaimed.  Amazing exhibits and design.  Military music played out through loudspeakers in the entire park.  A pity I didn't understand Russian or Ukrainian.  The Afghan War Museum was next to it - the Vietnam of USSR - it's sad looking at pictures of those young faces – all with their lives ended between 1979 and 1989.  It’s sad but glorious to die as a victor, but sad and always forgotten to die in a lost war.

I returned to the city central, to Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s thoroughfare.  It’s Sunday and this beautiful, wide avenue becomes a pedestrian street.  Many teenagers were roller-skating on the boulevard, and a band was playing in the Independence Square at the eastern end of the street.  The square itself was crowded with families and young people, enjoying themselves.
 Fishing on the Dnipro
At the Monument to the Founders of Kyiv: Isn't that a Viking ship ?

The flashy new shops and neon lights of Khreshchatyk were most deceiving, for the country is now in a state of deep depression since the Russian financial crisis.  Archaic laws, rampant corruption and unfavourable investment climate have further discouraged investors and forced existing ones to pull out.  The Ukrainian taxman is more interested in collecting tax penalties than the promotion of economic activity through non-punitive tax policies.  Naturally, as they receive 30% of any tax penalties collected and these enable them to support pay rises, build fanciful offices and put on new uniforms.  The Ukrainian entrepreneur faces enormous difficulty in doing business, as the army of taxmen is constantly holding surprise checks on their records, to ensure full compliance of tax regulations – near impossibility given the anti-business legislative environment and a large number of mutually contradictory regulations.  In any case, it is the small and medium enterprises that suffer, while major offenders bribe their way to maintain peace and order within their own fiefdoms.  Corruption is certain the order of the day.  During my visit, the news reported about Clinton’s purchase of a house in NYC which cost one or two million dollars, payable by loan. Many Ukrainians compared this to a former prime minister, Lazarenko, now wanted for corruption in Ukraine and Switzerland.  He had bought a house that’s worth seven million dollars, fully paid by cash.  Authorities are now searching for more than US$500 million missing during his misrule.
 Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) at the end of Khreshchatyk Avenue
Statue of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Kyiv

The enormous challenge of building a market economy is but one challenge facing newly independent Ukraine.  The Ukrainian state, after centuries of Russification, is only struggling to establish its national identity.  The Ukrainian language, once so alien to ordinary Kyivians, has become the language of choice.  Government policy is a process of gradual Ukrainianisation.  Russian language TV channels have been shut down, and all commercial and legal documents must be in the Ukrainian language.  Drastic moves ?  Russian nationalists hate it but many Ukrainians see them as efforts to build a national identity after years of deliberate neglect and discrimination.  In any case, given the centuries of Russification, everybody’s finding the transformation process somewhat tough.  I was told that even government ministers struggle with Ukrainian.  Ministers are occasionally seen on TV asking their aides in Russian the appropriate Ukrainian word to use.  Perhaps, like their counterparts in Ireland and elsewhere where the national tongue was nearly wiped out after years of colonial rule, the younger generation of Ukraine will find it easier to adopt the national language than anyone else.
 Arms of the Ukrainian SSR on the Parliament
Flag of the Ukrainian SSR

An interesting trend, however, is emerging.  The Ukrainian language is gradually being purged of its Russian elements.  Instead, words peculiar to the more nationalistic western Ukraine are being introduced.  Supporters claim that these are the “real Ukrainian” words devoid of Russian influence.  Critics maintain that these are in reality Polish and Hungarian words, and one shouldn’t deny the historic characteristics Ukrainian language and culture share with other Eastern Slavic cultures like the Russian and Belarusian.

13-14 SEPTEMBER: KYIV: More Icons and Cobbled Streets