Long before the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, when Moscow was still a small settlement emerging from the marshlands, Kyiv was the capital of the Rus—a Slavic people from which all Russians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians trace their ancestry. Over the course of a millennium, this city by the banks of the Dnieper River flourished, floundered, and rebuilt itself on more than one occasion. Today, it is Ukraine’s economic center and a podium from where its citizens demonstrate time and again their resilience, determination, and strength in the long struggle for freedom and justice.
The City of Golden Domes
The drive into Kyiv offers a peek into Ukraine’s more recent history under the Soviet Union. Rows of rusting communal concrete apartments nicknamed Khruschyovka (after Nikita Kruschchev) line the streets, evoking mingled feelings of efficiency and frugality. But peer between them and you might happen upon a glint of gold, the smooth curvature of a cathedral dome, and the doorway to a world beyond expectations.
During the Middle Ages, Kyiv was a primary religious center for Orthodox Christians, and pilgrims from far and wide came to pray at its sacred sites. Situated in the middle of the old city is the Saint Sophia Cathedral, which remains to this day a prominent and popular landmark. Christened after the Hagia Sophia, the cathedral was constructed during the 11th century in the Byzantine style under the guidance of Constantinople’s best architects. It was vandalized during an invasion by the Mongolian Tatars in 1240, and was restored and given a new Baroque façade in the 17th century.
Further away, on the hillside of Mount Berestov, is the Pechersk Lavra, a monastery as captivating below the ground as it is above. Beneath crushingly beautiful clusters of golden turrets and fern-green cupolas stretches a web of subterranean caves.
Founded by a monk named Anthony in 1051, the hermitage expanded when he was joined by additional disciples. In their austere cells, completely hidden away from daylight and the rest of society, the brotherhood lived, studied, and prayed in solitude. When they died, their bodies were naturally preserved as a result of the caves’ dry and cool atmosphere. And because of the Orthodox belief that an incorrupt body signified an utmost virtuous life, the monks of the cave monastery were collectively canonized, and their relics line the cells of the lavra for those wishing to pay reverence.
March in Kyiv is a melange of wind, sleet, and overcast skies. The trees are bare and the buildings still damp; feelings of heaviness and solemnity hang thick in the air. However, the onset of Orthodox Easter is a harbinger that promises a welcoming rebirth: warmth, light, and color are just around the corner. If you look closely, you can already see the first signs of spring. On the streets, vendors sell bouquets of budding tulips. And in the shops, baskets of vibrant Easter eggs brighten the shelves with their intricate cosmomorphic motifs. These pysanky are made by drawing directly onto eggshells using dye-resistant wax. But the swirling symbols and zigzagging lines of the pysanky are neither exclusive to Easter nor to eggs: they are fixtures of Ukraine’s folk tradition, and their roots reach back to the days before Christianity, when people believed that the order of the universe was governed by a pantheon of deities. These pre-Christian patterns also feature richly in the vyshyvanka, an embroidered tunic in Ukrainian national costume.
In ancient times, embroidery was not only a medium for artistic expression—it was a means to ward off evil spirits and offer protection to the wearer. Within the designs are geometric shapes representing powerful messages: the circle of the sun, a square field for the earth, the vines of the tree of life, and waves to mimic time’s passage. When interwoven, these symbols can change or alter the course of an individual’s life. Each shirt bore a different fortune through its unique needlework. Ukrainians today wear vyshyvanky with pride; one could even say that its threads are literal fibers of Ukrainian identity.
The Breadbasket of Europe
Seemingly infinite expanses of arable fields have earned Ukraine the moniker of Europe’s breadbasket, and the country’s agricultural significance is recognized even in its flag: a spotless, azure sky above bountiful golden plains of wheat, rye, and barley. It should be no surprise, then, that such a copious land would also be blessed with a long and flavorful culinary heritage.
Unpretentious and sumptuously rich are words which come to mind when describing the Ukrainian kitchen. Staple grains and vegetables such as beets, cabbage, and potatoes form the basis of many a dish—the most famous of them almost certainly being the burgundy-colored borscht. Enjoyed across Eastern Europe in very many different variations, this piquant soup traditionally comprises sautéed beetroots, dill, bone broth, and up to twenty ingredients depending on the season and the preference of the cook. For a truly delectable meal, add in a large dollop of heavy sour cream and some slices of silky salo—salted pork fatback.
“The crucial ingredient of a perfect borscht is a large, hungry family, surviving together.” —Aleksandar Hemon
Varenyky are another beloved classic of Ukrainian cuisine. These hearty, crescent-shaped dumplings are first stuffed with filling and then boiled to soft perfection. Many restaurants serve a wide selection of savory and sweet varenyky, with popular choices being mashed potatoes, meat and mushrooms, and cherries. To drink, a tall glass of uzvar is sure to quench any thirst. Made by boiling dried apples, pears, and prunes in water, this refreshing brew is then sweetened with honey and served chilled.
Kyiv in particular is well known for a few specialties of the fried variety. Chicken Kyiv—breaded chicken breast rolled around a hot, liquid, buttery center—is experiencing a recent revival in eateries around the city. But this namesake dish is overshadowed by the wildly successful perepichka, a sausage enveloped in aromatic, deep-fried dough and a street-food sensation. For the real deal, there is only one place to go: next to the Teatralna metro station, an outrageously long line leading up to what ostensibly appears to be a cinema cashier window indicates the starting point of a not-so-long wait. And the reward is well worth it: the hole-in-the-wall establishment of Kyivska Perepichka with its singular offering has withstood the test of time, having slowly cemented its status in Kyivan hearts over the past thirty years.
There’s no doubt that in the last decades, Ukraine has been dealt a hand of hardships. Years of political turmoil and the fallout following one of human history’s worst disasters have all been egregious setbacks, and the country is regarded by many to be the boglands of Europe—dejected, gray, and forlorn. But lift up its sooty veil and your gaze will be caught by a place imbued with character and wonder. To discover Ukraine’s history and wealth of cultural heirlooms, there is no better place to begin than in its ancient, free-thinking, and progressive capital: Kyiv.