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Tale of Three Cities

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    The Tupolev touched down in Kiev at 14.50 after a 1 hr. 20 min. flight from Moscow. It took twice as long again for those of us who had stayed in the Cosmos to reach our hotel after the coach had done the rounds depositing the plane load of passengers at their various accommodations. There was time only to quickly unpack, refresh and gather in the dining room for dinner before we were due for an evening walk to Revolution Square (later renamed Independence Square). During our stay we all had our meals at the set time as in Moscow, but I don'’t remember anyone missing out at feeding time -– we had been thoroughly drilled (indoctrinated?) so it had become the norm for us.
    The first thing that struck me during our walk was the appearance of the shop windows! I had expected the same as had been evident in Moscow, blank, colourless, giving little clue as to what was to be had inside. But these were lively, the clothes shops had smart garments well displayed, other shops dressed their windows with their attractive wares, it all looked quite prosperous. In my naivety this was something that I found difficult to understand. Agreed, we were in the Ukraine, but it was all part of the USSR and I had assumed that a similar standard of living would be evident at least in the western parts of the Soviet Republics.
    Of the hotel décor I recall the dining room quite well. There presumably existed a much larger, general one because ours was very small and probably just for groups or private parties. Some very attractive tiling decorated the walls, beautifully modelled little plaques that were somewhat out of the ordinary. I wondered whether there were any shops around that might sell something similar for DIY enthusiasts. So when we were out and about several people kept an eye open for tiles for Ivy! But to no avail, unfortunately. Maybe people in the city didn’t DIT?
    Regrettably I was not drawn to Kiev as I had been to Moscow or soon would be to Leningrad. And with only three days in which to explore and a few interesting optional excursions available I decided not to lose out by going off on my own. It was a pleasant enough city in a way, with wide streets, grand squares and several parks. It was also a city of monuments. There were monuments at every corner along the boulevards, or so it seemed, monuments on each piece of slightly higher ground in the parks, or if they ran out of high ground then they built pyramids and massively tall plinths. The displays related to what must surely have been every battle fought in Kiev during WW2, as well as older ones extolling the achievements of the heroic people of Soviet Kiev after the October Revolution. The messages were hammered home from every direction. Some of the monuments, particularly those commemorating battles, were certainly impressive with the multiple figures beautifully sculpted, exuding the strength and determination of the fighters as well as the agony of the wounded.
    During that first evening'’s walk, guided by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable young man, we had paused in one of the parks to look at a particular statue. I think the image was somehow representative of Soviet youth, but can I picture in my mind the details of the statue? No! I have a booklet about Kiev, at least about its numerous monuments, and though I have scrutinised all the photos not one of them jogs my memory -– no eureka feeling. Maybe the statue had too recently been erected to be found in the booklet so, being important, received particular attention from the guide.
    I can see us all standing there gazing up at the figure which was situated atop a flight of wide steps. There we all were, listening to the young man standing to my right half way up the steps as he explained the symbolism. The American I mentioned earlier tried to get a serious conversation going with him on life under the Communist system. The questions asked were all sparked off by what seemed a genuine wish to try and understand.
    But the discussion got nowhere, needless to say, for the young chap had a well memorised answer for everything. The American gave up.
    For the following day that very short list I still have shows that a full programme had been arranged. The morning excursion was a city tour, which would have given me a much better feel for Kiev than I could have achieved wandering the streets in the limited time available. Then in the afternoon we were to go on a river trip and in the evening to dancing at the theatre. I just have no recollection of either, but must have gone to both. I would never pass up on a trip on the water and, assuming that the evening was of national dancing complete with costumes, then that is right up my street.

    Do you know, back somewhere in the early sixties (I can date it closely because my parents moved up to Bungay in 1964 and my father died two years later), my parents and I went to the Theatre Royal in Norwich where the Red Army Choir were appearing. The theatre was jam-packed and seething with excitement because they had such an excellent reputation for their deep, full-throated, powerful voices. And did they sing! Amongst their vocals they must surely have had “Kalinka” for no collection of Russian folk-songs can be complete without it. Also no audience at a live performance can help but join in with the chorus. Who can resist it? Finally, of course they did some superb Cossack dances. Who can resist that, either? The thunder of the applause nearly had the chandeliers down and the encores lasted almost as long as the original concert.
    So yes, I must have gone with the others to that display of dancing at the theatre in Kiev.

    But back to the present, or at least to 1984.
    The following afternoon was earmarked for an excursion to a site that I can picture clearly and that I will never forget. It sears the soul as yet another reminder of what man can do to man. The venue was Babi Yar. I have no wish to detail what it was about for it is well documented online. But if anyone not familiar with it wishes to do a search, make sure you find a straightforward account of the complete story, because many give only what happened at the beginning.
    The site was a deep ravine -– once it was much deeper -– and there at the top on a built-up mound to one side was a memorial to what had happened in the area during WW2. One of our group, wishing to go closer to examine the sculpture, tried to reach it by moving along the top edge of the ravine but was immediately shouted at by someone right over on the opposite side. Not understanding, he hesitated, and was hastily warned by our guide that it was sacred ground. There was silence all round as the guide gave us the facts which I am avoiding here, and the coach back to the hotel afterwards was also pretty quiet.
    Our final day in Kiev was for a morning trip to the Lavra, a complex of above-ground churches and monasteries and underground catacombs housing the mummified remains of monks who had lived there centuries ago, while in the afternoon there would be a visit to the cathedral of St. Sophia. I have faint memories of the interesting catacombs, which resembled a confusing underground maze, but I can recall nothing of the many churches at the site -– because of the lack of time I doubt whether we visited them, anyway. Similarly a search of my memory for images of the afternoon trip to St. Sophia cathedral has drawn a blank. Seeing yet another church could have put a damper on my enthusiasm and memory decided to lose the pics.
    However, our last dinner in Kiev –- ah! What an evening! We had settled happily at our two tables in the little dining room and, sheer coincidence, next to the one I was at sat a wedding party. They had arrived before us, but were still at the speeches stage so we contented ourselves with admiring the bride and her attendants and sizing up the groom. The formal - well, meant to be formal - part over they settled down to chit-chat, jokes, laughter and anticipation of a great evening feasting. Food arriving, they quickly began to tuck in. Then began the toasts. We noticed that after each one all the guests started shouting a single word over and over again until the couple stood up to kiss. Someone timed the duration of each kiss. Yes, each kiss, for this was going to continue throughout the evening. Great shouts went up after each performance and, as we learnt later, its duration was announced. We all began laughing and clapping with the wedding party, learnt the word they were chanting and did our bit to add to the din, while our grins and waves were returned with great bonhomie.
    But we wanted to know what it was that they were all calling out. And what was the custom about? The waitress explained that the word meant “kiss” in English and the couple had to hold the kiss for as long as they could, something to do with how long their love would last. But I have forgotten the word, except that I’m sure it began with the English “v” sound. Searching the web I soon found the wedding custom but could only discover that the word to be shouted out was Gorko and meant “bitter”, implying that the vodka was too bitter and the couple must kiss for as long as possible to take out the bitterness.
    Two somewhat different explanations! However, the American ordered a couple of bottles of something special to be sent over to the party and we all redoubled our efforts for the final toasts. So much laughter and cheers as we became part of the merriment made our final few hours in Kiev very, very memorable.

    And so, tomorrow – ah! Leningrad.
    (to be continued)

    "To thine own self be true.......
    Thou canst not then be false to any man."


    • Ralf__
      Ralf__ commented
      Editing a comment
      Wonderful continuation. This was again a story which was producing pictures in my mind without having been there before. I searched a little bit for the statue, but this is quite difficult, especially because a lot of the monuments were erected during these days in the eighties. I looked also out for the description of Babi Yar and was very impressed about the shocking history of this place. I admit that i pay meanwhile less attention to WW2 things having a certain overflow. If you want you can follow in Germany 24/7 to TV channels "working up" these years. It is a large part in history education in school and many families, so also mine, can share personal memories of family members during the war years (either lost, having been in prison for years or expelled from their homes). So maybe it is no surprise, that Babi Yar was new to me and made me speechless.

    • yvneac
      yvneac commented
      Editing a comment
      Still flabbergasted (scotché, in French) at your story Ivy. After the sadness ofBabi Yar , the wedding party is a ray of sunlight.

    • janihudi
      janihudi commented
      Editing a comment
      remarkble how you can recall so many things after all those years.
      beeing there in the time of the iron curtain it must have been a strainge feeling.
      impressive but strainge.
      never heard of Babbi Yar, but i have seen those movies about what was happend in the war, so i think that it was at Babbi Yar.