I toured the Western Ukraine for almost two weeks, travelling from the capital city, Kiev, to Chernihiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Poltava, and Lviv.
What immediately struck me were the beautiful roses in the huge green spaces that define the Western Ukraine’s cities and towns and the abundance of roses sold on the sides of the streets and at markets. I think they match the great beauty of the Western Ukraine. Surprisingly, I also noticed that sushi dominated almost every menu and that there was a plethora of hookah bars in all cities. In essence, what first caught my attention was how both pretty and de rigeur the Ukraine is. I also felt incredibly safe in both Kiev and the other places I visited, much more so than I do in large Canadian cities such as Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
This is not to say that history—both old and recent–did not dominate one’s attention. Tour guides and many people I met talked about the Lenin statues which had been destroyed throughout much of the Ukraine since 2014 in an effort to de-communize the country. Old Soviet passports and “memorabilia” were sold at markets. Saint Sophia’s cathedral (whose foundations were laid in the eleventh century) stands large and powerful in Kiev.
As well, more recent history cannot be ignored. The current exhibition at the WWII Museum in Kiev, which takes up the entire first floor, is dedicated to those who have recently lost their lives in wars which have ensued since 2014 and which are still ongoing. This is a very memorable and troubling portrait of recent war, especially the collection of photographs and letters of soldiers who lost their lives. In different areas of Western Ukraine, there are also makeshift memorials, or temporary outside museums, dedicated to contemporary reality, such as an ambulance from the recent wars on display by the side of a street.
I also took a tour to Mezhygirya and saw the private residence of Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Such opulence! It would have taken ten hours or so to walk the spacious grounds and to see them completely. His house, what is now a museum, is decorated in gold, precious wood, and massive chandeliers. There were dozens of cars in his private collection, all collectors’ items. The sheer wealth could have fed a country for years. I was amazed to recall that his overthrow through revolution was such recent history.
There was also a large poster suspended from a high building that read “Free Sushchenko.” Since 2016, journalist Roman Sushchenko has been jailed in Russia for carrying out plots against the Kremlin.
The problematic history between the Ukraine and Russia is not always underscored, however. There are a number of statues of Gogol in the Poltava region of the Ukraine, where he was born and raised as a child, in what was then part of the Russian empire and what is now the present-day Ukraine. Though Gogol spent a significant amount of his life in St. Petersburg and is regarded by many as one of Russia’s greatest writers, those in the Ukraine are proud of him and his roots, too, and it seems there’s no conflict with the fact that he was a great. Many pay homage, too, to Pushkin, and statues of him can also be found in the Ukraine. I doubt if there is any danger that their statues and memories will be removed along with those of Lenin’s.
If I end here talking about food, it’s because the food in the Ukraine basically sums up myimpressions about the West part of this country. One morning I went for breakfast in Kiev and chanced upon a restaurant that specialized in the breakfasts of different countries. I had a Scandinavian breakfast made up of raw salmon and mashed potatoes with spinach. In Lviv, I had an interesting appetizer before dinner which was cold beet tortellini stuffed with salmon and cream cheese. In Poltova, I went to a traditional restaurant and had galushki, a large dumpling stuffed with meat and accompanied by tonnes of sour cream. I had sushi on a number of occasions, once from a sushi chain that can be found throughout the Western Ukraine. I found a great spot to relax called the Chillout Café where the food was fabulous (braised tuna-topped salad) and where the bright colours and unique décor went hand-in-hand with hookahs which also defined the place.
I feel my experience with food matches somewhat my experience with the Western Ukraine in general. While reminders of politics and history are everywhere, so, too, is the reminder that the Ukraine is a happening, hip place, full of life and diversity.