The Chornobyl Power Plant and the city of Pripyat were the final stops on our tour.
Where are we?
It was incredible to just be there. That’s the only way I can put into words the way it felt to stand at the place where everything happened. If you were just randomly driving near the plant–which is still in use today–you’d never know that the worst nuclear accident in history happened there.
Pripyat, once coined “The City of the Future” is frozen in time. Originally built to service the Chornobyl Power Plant, the city included almost 50,000 people–men, women, and children–before being evacuated following the explosion of reactor four. With over fifteen schools, an amusement park, pools, cinemas, hospitals, and parks, Pripyat was meant to be a shining example of Soviet life.
Only three kilometers (less than two miles) from the plant, Pripyat was forced to evacuate in just three hours, a day and a half after the explosion. Supposedly the clocks in Pripyat are frozen to 11:55, the moment electricity was cut off in the city and right before the announcement to evacuate was made.
Чорнобиль (Chornobyl Power Plant):
Originally covered by a sarcophagus (Ukrainian: Укриття and interestingly in Russian called Объект “Укрытие”, which means not sarcophagus, but rather, “covering”) made of concrete and steel that encased the exploded reactor, the structure was deemed beyond repair in 1996. Construction on the “Chernobyl New Safe Confinement” was started in 2010 and finished in 2019. Funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the new confinement cost a total of €2.15 billion (an interesting note is that the EBRD, an international financial institution, ceased providing funding to the Russian Federation after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014).
City of При’п’ять (Prypiat):
I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to travel here. My hope is that, rather than frame the explosion of reactor four as the past, we understand that the decisions that led up to the most disastrous nuclear accident in history, as well as the resolutions made in the aftermath of that event, are still impacting us today. The amount of radiation and contamination of Ukraine, Belarus, and numerous other places not only killed people, but are still ongoing issues for those living in these areas, now, in 2020. For me, this was not a simple understanding of a decision gone-badly, but a study into place, justice, and science wrapped into a human-made disaster.
Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
Currently: Reading: The Atlas of Unusual Borders (Zoran Nikolic)
Our day trip included visiting the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi. Zalissya is the first stop after the checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone while Kopachi is farther north; visitors can see the Chornobyl plant from Kopachi’s road near the Red Forest.
Where are we?
Both villages were two of 186 communities (including over 100,000 people) evacuated after the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. Kopachi, highly contaminated even to this day, remains abandoned, while other villages have seen a number of their former inhabitants return. These “self-settlers” chose to live within the Exclusion Zone, despite the health risks. One woman, Rozaliya Ivanivna, returned to Zalissya and became the village’s only inhabitant until she passed away a few years ago.
I highly recommend the 2016 documentary, The Babushkas of Chernobyl. The film shows why three women returned to their homes inside the Exclusion Zone and how they live in their villages post-disaster.
Many chose to return because these are their homes, where they grew up, and where their families are buried. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint.” says one of the self-settlers in the documentary, Babushkas of Chernobyl. The women in the film, and many of the 1,200 people who chose to return to their homes (illegally) inside of the Exclusion Zone, survived Holodomor, the Soviet-induced famine that killed seven million Ukrainians, not to mention WWII, and the invasion of the Nazis. For many, the connection to home is greater than their fears of radiation poisoning.
The first stop on our tour was the village of Zalissya. This path was previously a well-traveled road into the village.
Located in the Exclusion Zone, the village was abandoned in 1986 and nature has taken over the once-bustling community.
Unlike Kopachi, most of the buildings here remain above ground: homes, a grocery store, and the cultural center for the village are still standing.
The forest near the village is slowly taking over. We visited on a beautiful day and were able to see how much nature was thriving in this once inhabited place.
Zalissya is 30km (18 mil) from Chornobyl and was the first village to be completely abandoned after reactor four exploded.
At the time of the explosion, Zalissya was a thriving village with over 3,200 inhabitants. The villagers initially did not know what (or the impacts of) the events taking place at the plant.
Zalissya was also previously a collective farming village.
Most of the inhabitants evacuated from Zalissya were relocated to the Borodyanka (Бородянка) region, roughly an hour and a half south.
The supermarket for the village.
Many left their belongings behind and their possessions can be seen scattered throughout the village.
Oleksander Leonenko, evacuated from the village at age 22, said: “To tell the truth, we did not suspect we were leaving forever. The only thought we had was about coming back; maybe in three days or maybe in a week. But we would come back for sure.”
Zalissya’s once busy roads are now only walking paths.
One of the inhabitants, Rozaliya Ivanivna, came back to Zalissya after the explosion of reactor four. Known as one of the “self-settlers” that returned to the evacuated communities inside the Exclusion Zone, she lived alone in the village.
Living a self-sustaining life, Ivanivna became annoyed with tourists walking through the village. She has since passed away, but her belongings remain in Zalissya. Her garden also continues to grow.
I was super annoyed that tourists were touching things and even moving other people’s belongings! Now that Zalissya is considered a tourist site, people seem to forget that this was someone’s home and life before being forced to move.
Kopachi, located 4 km (about 2 1/2 miles) from Chornobyl, was evacuated on May 3rd, a week after the nuclear explosion. 1,114 people lived in the once-thriving village before they were forced to leave their homes.
Unlike other locations within the Exclusion Zone, most of the buildings in Kopachi were demolished and buried as an experiment to suppress the radiation. Today, only the village’s kindergarten and one additional brick building remain standing.
The burying of the building materials did not negate the contamination from Chornobyl; today the soil and water around Kopachi are contaminated by plutonium, caesium-137, and strontium-90, having seeped into the water table from the burying of these radioactive houses.
The village remains somewhat radioactive even today, exceeding normal numbers by 5x the approved amount.
The “Parents’ Corner” of the kindergarten.
Entrance into one of the two buildings left above ground in the village. Kopachi is also near the Red Forest, an area that received the highest dosage of radiation from the Chornobyl explosion, and was “cleaned” up in a similar way; most of the trees were knocked down, buried, and covered with sand.
For me, walking these villages was one of the most impactful aspects of the trip. So often the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed, or even just feels, like it was a long time ago. Seeing the homes of people forced to leave and the possessions they left behind is a reminder that this happened just thirty years ago.
Watching: The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
I highly recommend the day trip to Chornobyl from Kyiv if you are visiting the Ukrainian capital (one of my favorite travel destinations!). Planning a trip to a former Soviet nuclear site might seem overwhelming, but I’m here to help you by giving an overview of booking your trip, how to be your best-and-most-informed-tourist-self, along with other helpful tips to make the most of your trip.
There is also advice for those that may start, stop, or be in the middle of their menstrual cycle as they tour Chornobyl. Please use the struggles–the blood, sweat, and tears of those that have walked before you–to plan accordingly. And anyone reading this paragraph that just thought ugh or shuddered at the thought of periods, kindly getoveryourself, Over half the population has one.
MiddleWorldAdventures Guide to Planning a Trip to Chornobyl:
Tip #1: Be Your Best-Tourist-Self
One of the best tips I have is simply don’t be that guy. So-called Dark Destinations are increasingly becoming more popular, which is great, as long as visitors show the respect that these locations deserve. Intentionality and remembering the events that occurred at these sites is not only respectful, but gives you a better experience as a visitor.
Here are a couple of MWA rules on being a respectful tourist:
Don’t take sexy selfies at the front of a nuclear site. You just look like an asshole.
Don’t steal anything.
Don’t ignore the rules of the tour guides: when they say stay out of the buildings, keep out.
Be patient. You’re not the only person visiting, we get that some things are an inconvenience but speaking (loudly) about it does not solve the problem.
Part of being your best-tourist-self is also being your-most-well-informed self. There are a ton of great books on the explosion of reactor four (including Higginbotham’s extensively researched book published last year). But if reading isn’t your thing, the HBO miniseries is not only a fairly accurate (and beautifully shot) representation of the actual events in 1986, but was also endorsed by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work. A couple of really great sources on Chornobyl:
Alexievich, Svetlana. 1997. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Picador: New York.
Bogart, Anne and Holly Morris. 2016. The Babushkas of Chernobyl. Chicken and Egg Pictures.
HBO. 2019. The Chernobyl Podcast. HBO.
Higginbotham, Adam. 2019. Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Simon & Schuster: New York.
Since the site was opened for tourism in 2010, thousands of tourists signed up to see the power plant and surrounding villages each year. There are a couple of tour companies and multiple options for tours. We booked the one day tour from Kyiv, but there were two to even seven day options with the company we used.
You’ll need to decide what is important to you and how much time you’d like to spend in the area. Booking ahead is important and remember to have all of your travel documents in order prior to making the reservation.
For us, we had a limited time in Ukraine and it was important for us to see the plant, Prypiat, and a few of the abandoned villages. Luckily, our tour included a stop at the former Soviet Duga base, which was an awesome addition to our day and one I didn’t know was even an option to tour. Other options included an underground tour, visiting the control center of the plant, and staying overnight in city of Chornobyl.
I included a map here of the stops included on our tour:
Tip #3: What to Expect
Traveling to the site of a nuclear explosion is obviously not an every day adventure. I did a fair amount of research prior to leaving and was still surprised by a couple of unexpected aspects of the trip. A few friendly reminders::
A lack of cell phone service: I know this seems obvious, but many of the areas on the one day tour (and I’m assuming many sites on the longer tours as well) did not have cell phone service. I thought it added to the overall experience but just expect that you may not be able to play Pokemon Go in Prypiat.
It is a very bumpy two hour bus ride from Kyiv to the Exclusion Zone.
There is a lot of walking around. Not only wear closed-toed shoes, but also comfortable ones.
Bathrooms (or lack there-of): There are not a lot of bathroom options on this trip (see below) so make sure you are strategic with each stop.
Don’t touch anything. Seriously. The amount of radiation exposed to you on a one day trip is about the same as a flight, but as the tour guides say, limiting yourself to radiation is also your responsibility.
Window seat: Visitors can’t walk the Red Forest–it is too highly radioactive, even to this day–but you can see the forest from the bus on the way to Prypiat.
Potentially fall in love with your devishly-handsome-hot-dog-eating-in-a-full-suit bus driver. We LOVED Valeri. He had an amazing mustache and was just the coolest dude I’ve ever met.
Tip #4: Pack the Essentials
Overall, you’ll be spending about twelve hours either inside a bus or walking around deserted sites in the Exclusion Zone. Here are a couple of the essentials I’d recommend packing for a day trip:
Food: If you’re a person who starts to get grumpy when they are hungry or lacking caffeine, make sure to brown bag this day. There are a number of great grocery stores in Kyiv where you can stock up on sandwich supplies, water, and snacks. Be mindful to check for still or sparkling water (I’m looking at you, American friends) and also that mustard can be extremely horseradish-forward in Ukraine. You are only fed lunch on the one day tour with the option to buy small snacks at the checkpoint, so I’d recommend packing food with you.
Toilet Paper: Literally every single bathroom (either indoor or out) did not have toilet paper. The indoor toilets did not have seats. This is a use-the-restroom-at-your-own-risk situation so my recommendation is to BYOTP (see the last point for more information on the bathroom situation).
Hand Sanitizer: Read above. The soap situation was not any better.
Battery Pack: This is a long tour with a ton of beautiful photography opportunities. Or, if you’re like me, and running with an iPhone 6 with roughly a 45 minute battery life, bringing a battery pack is essential.
Sunscreen/bug spray: We visited in the spring and did not see too many insects, but sunscreen (at least for my pale skin) was needed. Pro-Tip: use a sunscreen without microplastics like the one carried here.
Clothing: It might be hot on the bus but cool outside. Bring a sweater or early 80s windbreaker, whatever is your jam for that day.
Medicine: The ride to the Exclusion Zone is bumpy. If you’re a person prone to motion sickness, I recommend bringing some kind of medicine to help with the bus ride.
Tip #5: Menstrual Cycle Survival Guide
I am here to help you survive your period inside a Soviet nuclear disaster zone. My best advice is to pack supplies regardless if the tour falls before, during, or right after your menstrual cycle. Basically, there are absolutely zero options so being prepared for the worst case scenario is ideal, and in my opinion, worth the effort. Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard way when my always-unpredictable cycle started almost a week early and the eve of our Chornobyl trip.
My advice is to pack your preferred supplies: tampons, pads, cup, etc. if there is any possibility that you may experience your period while on the tour. Tampons and pads can be purchased at pharmacies in Kyiv (NOT grocery stores). If you are sporting a cup, I’d also bring a backup form of product. BYO any cramp or headache medicine with you.
As noted earlier, toilet facilities are scarce on an all-day tour. After leaving Kyiv, you have a roughly two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint. There are facilities at the checkpoint, both portable toilets and access to indoor plumbing, but they are not (obviously) in tip-top shape. The portable toilets are made for taller individuals, so be prepared if you’re short like me as this space was difficult to hygienically navigate successfully. There was no toilet paper, soap, or hand sanitizer in either location. The indoor bathrooms did not have toilet seats.
If you booked the one day tour, the next actual bathroom isn’t until lunch at the nuclear facility. Here, the bathrooms are indoor, but again without toilet paper, seats, or sanitizer. I (along with my friends) ended up hoarding extra napkins out of sheer desperation to help with my situation. You’ll have a lot of walking after lunch, so this is your last bathroom facility until you return back to the Exclusion checkpoint.
Once at the checkpoint, the same access to the indoor and outdoor facilities will be available before traveling back to Kyiv.
Overall, my best advice is to have fun, be present in the moment, and pack extra toilet paper and sandwiches. Which I feel is solid advice for any situation you may find yourself in.
Currently: Reading: “Last Journey into Slavery” (National Geographic)
Two quick notes before I discuss dark tourism and AllTheThings Chornobyl:
Spelling: As noted in my Kyiv post, I am using the Ukrainian government’s preferred transliterations of names into English. While both Ukrainian and Russian use the Cyrillic alphabet, the pronunciation of words can be different between the two languages. The commonly used English spelling for the nuclear plant in Northern Ukraine–Чорнобиль–is “Chernobyl”, the Russian translation of the word, rather than the Ukrainian “Chornobyl”. This transliteration was continuously used following the end of the Soviet occupation of Ukraine and even after Ukrainian became the country’s official language in 1991, overthrowing the Soviet-imposed Russian. The same can be said for the town of Прип’ять, as most English speakers use the Russian transliteration “Pripyat” over the Ukrainian “Prypiat”. Here I am going to use the preferred Ukrainian transliterations of the words–Chornobyl and Prypiat–in my following posts as a way to decolonize language. I know this seems insignificant, but I do not want to use the language of the oppressors in these posts (even if it means unlearning literally twenty years of spelling). Changes such as these are small, take time and I’m obviously still learning and will make mistakes, but let’s put forth the effort to #decolonizelanguage. Any published works that use the Russian transliterations will remain unchanged in how I cite them here. History: I am not going to outline the entire history and impact of the explosion of reactor four. I discuss a number of great sources that can go into detail far better than I could in a following post.
I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine since I was a kid, learning a bit of Russian through documentaries and watching the Olympics on TV. When we had the opportunity to travel to Kyiv last spring, I was ecstatic to start planning the few days we had in Ukraine.
Of course the question that popped up was should we visit Chornobyl?
I first read about the nuclear disaster as a freshman in a class at Kent State. One project included presenting to the class as the fictional head of a tourism office for your assigned country, encouraging would-be travelers to visit. Assigned with Belarus, I began researching the country and learned how their population was significantly impacted by the Chornobyl disaster, where 70% of the Ukrainian nuclear meltdown landed, contaminating 23% of the surface area of Belarus. Hundreds of thousands of Belorussians died from Chornobyl-related deaths and the country is still struggling to recover from the disaster. Over a million people remain in the exclusion zone, food is still grown and consumed on contaminated land, and the government has yet to disclose any information on the impact of the disaster:
“Belarus’s official policy on Chornobyl is aimed at persuading ordinary people to think about it as little as possible, and getting international organisations to allocate as much funding as possible to cleanup operations. Minsk spends billions on ‘making life safe’ in the contaminated zone, though independent experts believe that it would be cheaper and safer to simply resettle people.
Over 26bn Belarusian roubles (about US$1.3m), 25.5bn (US$1.26m) from public funds, have been allocated to the clean-up between now and 2020 – a considerable sum for Belarus, whose total annual budget is about US$9bn…
The Belarusian government is, however, determined to limit its costs associated with Chornobyl, and each year reduces the area of the zones defined as contaminated or dangerous, using as justification the natural decay of isotopes such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90.”
Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here.
I was pissed off. In ClassicAshlyn fashion, rather than write a Why You Should Visit Belarus paper, I instead presented on governmental corruption, the impact of policies on the lives of citizens suffering from exposure to radiation, and the lack of medical treatment, safe housing, and employment.
I enrolled in more Political Science and History courses the following semester, declared my major in Poli Sci in 2009, focusing on Russian Studies and Geography. Nerdalert but I continued reading and researching the impacts of Chornobyl on the region.
Back to 2019: we decided to book the tour.
Dark Tourism, or visiting sites of historical tragedy, should include respect and intent by the traveler. Places like Hiroshima, Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Pompeii, Chornobyl, and Auschwitz carry a great deal of weight and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t go, but the approach should certainly have a greater level of respect for what took place there. One of the ways travelers can be respectful to the sites–and people impacted by events that occurred there–is to inform yourself and act respectfully to the surroundings. This means read a book (my plea for 2020) and not take selfies in front of buildings where people were killed (the new “I was here” desecration) or steal things from the site.
Unfortunately, many visitors choose to tour these sites and act like absolute assholes, showing blatant disrespect for what occurred there. Last year, the Auschwitz Memorial took to Twitter to ask visitors to be more respectful and not take selfies in front of the camp or on the train tracks (I was horrified to find initials etched into the barracks of Auschwitz when I toured the death camp in 2017). Following the release of HBO’s Chernobyl, the increase in visitors to Prypiat included a number of people disrespecting the tragedy that took place there. The writer-creator of the show, Craig Mazin, also posted to Twitter after “sexy selfies” of visitors started surfacing.
I wanted to be as respectful and responsible to both the people and the place. Yes, I did take pictures, but tried to keep in mind the magnitude of what occurred there.
We visited before the HBO miniseries Chernobyl aired and even then I was shocked at the commercialization of the tour. Having visited both Auschwitz and Chornobyl, the level of kitsch in Ukraine was jarring to me. Stands selling candy and Chornobyl-branded condoms–“they glow in the dark!”–at the checkpoint before entering the exclusion zone felt extremely disrespectful. While the number of deaths attributed to the disaster are debatable, the fact that people died there, people were forced to evacuate their homes, and continued health and environmental concerns loom over not just Ukraine, but the surrounding areas, seemed to be forgotten in exchange for touristy trinkets.
“Human curiosity is inevitable, and denying the existence of this vast, charged space that is a crucial part of Soviet and global history would be impossible and pointless. But Chernobyl has yet to find an appropriate tone for its tourism. Potential danger is almost commodified as a feature of the visit. We wore the suits and waved the Geiger counters not because we needed to, but because those who brought us there sensed that we wanted to feel close to danger.
Unlike some other sites of tragedy that, despite mass attendance, are places of solemnity and reflection, this is a messy and morally queasy experience. That scoop of kitsch radioactive ice-cream may stick in your craw and, for the moment at least, it probably should.”
Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here.
I thought about the impacts of the disaster on the people who lived here over twenty years ago and what it meant to buy radiation branded sexual protection on the same road where they were forced to leave everything behind.
I hope to be as respectful as possible in the following posts about our tour. I highly recommend visiting Chornobyl, but with well thought out intentions, not as a shithead tourist stealing toys from an abandoned kindergarten.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.
I’ve broken down my Chornobyl posts into the following topics/stops:
I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I loved our tour. It was truly such a unique and amazing opportunity to visit.
Chornobyl & Belarus: Hjelmgaard, Kim. 2016. “In Secretive Belarus, Chernobyl’s Impact is Breathtakingly Grim.” USA Today. Available here. Ivanova, Tatyana. 2016. “Belarus’s Chernobyl Taboo.” Open Democracy. Available here. Kenigsber, Jacov E., Viktar F. Minenko, and Elena E. Buglova. 1996. “Radiation Effects on the Population of Belarus after the Chernobyl Accident and the Prediction of Stochastic Effects.” World Health Statistics Quarterly 49:1. 58-61. Available here.
Dark Tourism: Gold, Hannah. 2019. “Please Stop Taking Selfies at Chernobyl, Requests Series Creator.” The Cut. Available here. Nolan, Megan. 2019. “Chernobyl Welcomes the Tourists–‘A Messy and Morally Queasy Experience.” The Guardian UK. Available here. Street, Francesca. 2019. “Chernobyl and the Dangerous Ground of ‘Dark Tourism’.” CNN Travel. Available here. Sunkara, Lavanya. 2019. “From Auschwitz to Chernobyl: Tips on Respectfully Visiting Dark Tourism Sites.” Forbes. Available here.
Currently: Listening: The United States of Anxiety (WNYC Studios)
THE 2019-in-review post you’ve been waiting to read is HERE.
Last year I had some of the best food of my life and couldn’t just limit this list to strictly brunch as I did in 2018. If we’re being honest, I couldn’t choose between a couple of my favorites, so I made an obnoxiously long list so I could include allthethings. Classic Spilis.
I’ll review my favorite coffee shops, brunch stops, the clutch snacks of 2019, favorite dinners, and best desserts. Because it’s me, I also included two lists of my favorite cuisines too: Indian restaurants and nachos. Because let’s be honest, is it REALLY an Ashlynbestoffoodlist without them?
Here we go!
Favorite Coffee Spots:
I’m an extremely boring coffee drinker (cowboy coffee–Americano, black). While I’m no-frills on my coffee, I love spending time in unique shops when traveling to a new place. Here are a couple of my favorite spots from 2019.
Best Brunch of 2019:
Somewhere Outside Chernobyl, Ukraine:
Bran Castle, Romania:
Favorite Indian Food Spots:
Indian is one of our favorite cuisines. I’m still trying to work on my skills at home, but there is nothing like authentic meals when we travel. Thankfully, I found a couple of great locations last year:
Suisun City, California:
Nachos are my all-time favorite food. While finding a decent order in Europe is tricky (so much disappointment) I managed to find a couple of awesome options this year.
2019 was a busy travel year for me! I was lucky enough to visit amazing new places and return to a couple of my favorite cities. As potentially my last full year abroad, I wanted to make the most of my time in Europe and I definitely accomplished that goal this year.
I tried to be as present in the moment as I could; mindfulness has always been a struggle for me–I’m always on to the next thing–but I am getting better at taking time to enjoy just being here.
In Classic Ashlyn style, I wanted my travel post to include all my favorites: new and old places, landscapes wandered, and the best libraries I visited in 2019. I also had AMAZING experiences including traveling in Warsaw during the 75th anniversary of the Uprising, petting reindeer above the Arctic Circle, and attending a World Cup match in Paris.
Here’s a (mostly photo) overview of AllTheThings2019: travel, libraries, sports, experiences, and of course, dogs.
Bran Castle, Romania:
Peleș Castle, Romania:
I’m so thankful for everything I had the opportunity to see and do last year.
Egészségedre to making 2020 all you hope it to be!
Currently: Listening Moon: The Original Soundtrack (Clint Mansell)
Last spring (I know, I know, I am soooo far behind on posts AND in what world is it already 2020?!) Chris and I had the opportunity to tag along with our friends, Heather and Chris, to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Always at the top of my Dream Travel Destinations List, I was so excited to help plan our short trip. We had roughly three days in the country, and including our trip to Chernobyl (post to come, I promise), this left about a day and half to wander the capital.
Get ready because this post is going to be looooooong and a little heavy on the political, historical, and yes, grammatical side (and wayyyy too many pictures). As a PoliSci nerd who studied Russian history, particularly the influence of the Soviets on Ukraine and the Baltic states, I can’t help but discuss many of the topics I’ve researched in the past that I finally was able to see the effects of in person (still can’t believe it).
To be honest, it has taken a long time to really reflect on our few days in Ukraine. The history, vibe, and culture of Kyiv is so difficult to put into words; it was definitely a lot to process and ingest considering my background (and as a person who leisurely reads books like Environmental Justice and Sustainability in the Former Soviet Union in her free time, my nerdiness knows no bounds).
We opted to stay in the historic neighborhood of Podil, a quick Uber ride into the center of the city. Kyiv also has an expansive metro (including the deepest station in the world at 10.5 meters below the ground #yikes) so you can easily move from different areas of the capital. When getting into our Uber at the airport, Heather and I quietly air-exclaimed-in-delight that our driver was listening to the Neverending Story soundtrack, clearly one of the highlights of the year.
Kyiv is extremely affordable (roughly 35 US cents for a train ticket or $2-6 per Uber ride) and the food is amazing; you can easily find a Ukrainian, Georgian, or Eastern European dinner for less than $10 USD. Happily for us, we were able to find #allthefood while we were there.
Unfortunately, it was a little rainy and chilly while we visited, but thankfully we were able to see as much as we could in the small amount of time we were in Ukraine. Mostly everyone we met were friendly and spoke English; while I remember some Russian–and the language is similar to Ukrainian–the most important words to learn are деруни (“deruny” meaning potato pancake) and варе́ники (“varenyky” = dumplings similar to pierogi). I’m only being half serious here, but for real, learn those terms because these dishes are on point in Kyiv.
Where are we?
Kyiv is the capital and most populous city of Ukraine. The legend goes that the city was founded by three brothers and leaders of the Polyanian tribe of the East Slavs: Kyi, Schek, and Khoryv. Each brother established his own area on a hill and this together became the formation of the city; a nearby stream was named for their sister, Lybed.
One of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe, Kyiv has a complicated history and plays a vital role in the region. Enjoying relative independence until becoming part of the Tsardom of Russia in 1667, the primarily Christian city fell increasingly under Russification in the 19th century; a greater number of ethnic Russians moved into Kyiv, resulting in a domination of Russian speakers in the city. Following a period of prosperity after the Russian Industrial Revolution, the city was the center of a number of conflicts including the German occupation in WWI, the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), and the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. The leadership and status of Kyiv changed sixteen times in two years (1918-1920).
Ukraine became one of of the founding republics of the Soviet Union and was under Soviet occupation from 1921-1991. While an increase in Ukrainian population and culture migrated back into Kyiv and the city became a scientific and industrial center for the region, a number of events devastated the country including the Great Famine of 1932-1933 and Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937-1938.
The Great Famine is known in Ukrainian as Holodomor (Голодомо́р в Украї́ні: “to kill by starvation”) and millions of people died during this time, most of whom were ethnic Ukrainians. Scholars believe the man-made famine was created by Joseph Stalin as a way to either shut down the Ukrainian independence movement or an intentional policy by the Soviets to eliminate the Ukrainians; many consider the unreasonable quotas implemented on Ukrainian farmers and peasants should be considered genocide. While an exact number is impossible to determine, it is estimated that between five and ten million people died during Holodomor. The Ukrainian government recognized the event as genocide in 2003 and was finalized by the Kyiv court of appeal in 2010.
Kyiv is also known for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster (1986) that took place 100 km from the city; northern winds moved radioactive debris north and the capital remained mostly safe from the accident.
Ukraine declared independence on August 24th, 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but issues with Russian influence remain. In 2013, protests against the Ukrainian government’s decision to decline signing an agreement with the European Union (instead furthering ties with Russia) took place in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Nicknamed Euromaidan, the movement resulted in more than 100 deaths and 2,500 people injured. These protests against corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power led to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and the removal of President Yanukovych from power.
And for a little political grammar nerdiness (skip ahead to the potato pancake pictures if this bores you):
Why am I using the “Kyiv” spelling instead of “Kiev”? The latter version–the translated Russian word for the city–has been the more commonly used spelling by the West. Kyiv is the transliteration of the name from Ukrainian and established by their government as the official spelling in 1995. As the country is no longer under Soviet occupation, many are opting to use the preferred spelling of the Ukrainians–as we should–rather than the Russian pronunciation.
“There’s no reason other than old colonialist inertia to continue using a Russian spelling for a Ukrainian city name,” Dr. Shevchuk said.
Zraick, Karen. 2019. “Wait, How do you Pronounce Kiev?” The New York Times. Available here.
Full disclosure: correctly spelling the capital city is a challenge for me. I studied in the United States and most of my academic work focused primarily on Russian influences on Ukraine, so of course I’ve always spelled the city as Kiev.
While we’re on the topic, let’s try to stop referring to Ukraine as “The Ukraine”. English speakers have historically added the “the” as a way to refer to the country as “the borderland” part of Russia, rather than its own entity. Incorrect both grammatically and politically–Russian and Ukrainian languages do not even include definite articles–if we want to correctly refer to the Eastern European country bordering Russia, Ukraine (solo) is the right pronunciation. Using “the” is disrespectful to Ukrainians as it is seen as a denial of independence. #decolonizelanguage
Kyiv is unlike any other city we’ve had the opportunity to visit. I absolutely recommend taking a trip to see the amazing buildings, unique landscapes, and experience the history (and let’s real, the cuisine) of the city.
Kontraktova Square (Контрактова площа):
Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Києво–Печерська лавра):
The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War(Музей історії України у Другій світовій війні):
The Motherland Monument (Батьківщина-Мати):
Taras Shevchenko University & Park(Київський національний університет імені Тараса Шевченка):
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral(Собор святого Володимира):
Independence Square(Майдан Незалежності):
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral(Собор святої Софії):
St. Andrew’s Church (Андріївська церква):
Golden Gate(Золоті ворота):
Restaurants & Pubs:
Podil East India Company:
Craft vs. PUB:
Coffee in the MISTO:
Holy Beans Coffee Company:
OMG Ice Cream & Coffee:
❤ На здоровье
You can also download a Google Map of all my favorite places here.
Reading: On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Naomi Klein) Watching: Watchmen (HBO) Listening: In the Dark Season 2 (APM Reports)