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Saturday, August 27, 2016

8/20: Kyiv: Chornobyl Museum & Russian Churches

We had had a good but also very intense stay in Vilnius, Lithuania but it was time to head on to the next stop on our journey, Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. (I will be using the Ukrainian spelling of the city, KYIV, from now on and not the Russian spelling, Kiev, all of us in the US are used to.) Ukraine has certainly been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late but we were still looking forward to going there for a few days. We had only allotted enough time to visit the capital and take a day tour to nearby Chornobyl - the sight of the world's greatest nuclear disaster. (BTW - that's not a spelling error but how the Ukrainians spell the name of the city closest to the disaaster but that story is for the next post.)
The public bus going to the airport stopped directly across the street from the hostel which couldn't have been more convenient and cheaper. We were flying with Ukraine International and that small airline set the gold standard as far as we were concerned when we landed in Kyiv just an hour later, went through customs in under ten minutes and discovered our bags were waiting for us and not the other way around! Now, when was the last time an airline had YOUR bags ready for you when you went to pick them up!
Azerbaijan Airlines, whose plane had landed just before ours in Kyiv, was a new one to us. We had met an American family while touring Turkey a couple of years ago who were living in Baku, its capital. I said to Steven perhaps we should visit the city on some future trip but it is SO far away from everywhere else. I doubt we'll be able to add that place to our list of countries!
We had planned to stay in a hostel in Kiev but somehow they had lost our reservation from six months ago a few days previously which caused some major headaches. found us an apartment to stay in instead which was no doubt bigger but it wasn't in such a convenient location. That was why we had arranged to have a driver from the apartment pick us up at the airport because it would have been so much harder trying to find the apartment as there is far less English spoken in Kiev and the alphabet is Cyrillic. Steven has still retained his knowledge of some (most?) Cyrillic letters from our visiting Russia three years ago but still it's a tough adjustment.

After dumping our bags and then having to walk with the receptionist to another apartment complex that had a credit card machine to pay our lodging bill, we were finally on our way to find and visit the Chornobyl Museum before going to the actual place the following day.

I actually timed the TWO escalator rides down into the bowels of the earth to get to the metro itself and they took a full 4.5 minutes! I couldn't help but think of the amount of time residents of Kyiv must spend every year not on the metro, but just getting down to the metro!
The station nearest our apartment just happened to be the most beautiful according to the guidebooks. We were lucky we didn't have to go out of our way to go see it!

Thanks to Steven's excellent metro navigating skills and using his map apps on his ipad, we finally reached the National Chornobyl Museum about 3:30 after landing at the airport three hours earlier.
The museum opened on the sixth anniversary with only 200 items but now the collection has over 7,000. Luckily, they have all been cleaned and decontaminated. The site of the museum is a former fire station whose firemen played a critical role in the unfolding disaster.

As we entered the museum, we saw signs going up the stairs of the 76 settlements that had to be abandoned due to the radioactive contamination from the disaster that took place just 60 miles away from Kiev 30 years ago this past April 26th. Later, another 92 Ukrainian villages had also had to be abandoned.
The office clock is stopped at 1:23 am, the exact time of the explosion and the moment the long cleanup began.
In the year following the tragedy, 350,000 Soviet citizens were involved in the massive cleanup but that number jumped to 600,000 in just the next five years. A new term was coined for the men initially involved at Ground Zero: liquidators. It was staggering but not unsurprising to learn that, in the last 25 years, over 45% of the Ukranian liquidators have died and a further 50% are disabled as a result from working at Ground Zero. We saw so many photos of liquidators; so many had the radioactive stickers on the photos indicating they had died. It is one thing to know about the facts and figures but quite another seeing faces attributed to the facts.
At the time of the explosion on April 26th,1986, the Soviet Union had 5 power plants with 16 nuclear reactors operating in Ukraine. Below is a scale model of Reactor 4, i.e. the one that exploded which was located near the city of Pripyat which was about 25kms or 15 miles from the much larger city of Chornobyl. Before it was built, the scientific leaders had persuaded the political leaders it and the other nuclear plants were so safe, they could be installed in Red Square in Moscow itself! The leaders were assured that the reactors were absolutely reliable, powerful, quick to build and, above all, easy to maintain.
The audio guide I listened to said the investigative committee, comprised of Soviet political leaders and scientists, established within 12 hours of the disaster, produced a report that contained a staggering 59 volumes that came up with 13 different reasons for what happened. The ultimate fault, according to the Soviets, lay with operators who caused the catastrophe. The international community charged with deteriming the cause, however, laid the blame on unsafe contruction standards. In the end, over 5,500 men and women were found guilty and sentenced to prison by the Soviets.

After the explosion, the first priority was to evacuate the town of Pripyat located about 2 miles away from the nuclear power plant. The town was established in 1970 to house the plant's workers and their families. The average age of the residents was only 26. An annoucement was made that, due to an accident, citizens must temporarily evacuate and therefore should take their documents, food for three days and any belongings they wanted. All pets had to be left behind. They had just one hour to do this. At no point were the residents informed that they were in imminent danger or how to protect themselves. In a matter of just three hours, the town of Pripyat, with a population of 55,000, 17,000 of whom were children, was evacuated with the 'assistance' of 2,250 police officers who just happened to be wearing gas masks. Of course, the three day evacuation became permanent and what remains of Pripyat is a ghost town today.
Not until August 29th,1986, a full three days later, did the West receive news of the disaster for the first time when Swedish nuclear power plant workers themselves showed radiation levels 20 times higher than normal. It still took precious time to determine that the cause of the high levels emanated from Ukraine. Millions of people had needlessly received mammoth levels of radioactivity because the Soviets never alerted the world of the disaster, let alone the magnitude of it. They even encouraged the annual May Day celebrations to take place in the heart of Kyiv in which millions of Ukrainians participated rather than telling everyone to stay inside brick buildings.

This all contributed to the epidemic outbreak in thyroid cancer with an 80 fold increase. It was very scary to learn that the Soviet authorities raised the internationally recognized and accepted standards of radioactive poisoning so that fewer of their citizens would therefore be eligible for medical care.
Many in the world community helped to provide medical treatment and activities especially for children as they were the most affected by the magnitude of the disaster. Lots of organizations were founded to assist the victims of Chornobyl. Japan and Ukraine formed an especially tight bond as they had both suffered nuclear disasters.
The letter below is from Hillary Clinton in her role as First Lady thanking the chief of one children's relief organization.
This figurative painting, called Uprooted, is done in poetry art, a style created by Launa, an American artist, after visiting some of the areas in Ulraine affected by the explosion. Only after examining the piece of art closely is it apparent that every inch of the canvas is filled with words of poetry.

As soon as we entered another room in the Museum, the first thing we saw was the iconstatis gate that had been in the Pripyat Orthodox church. How jarring to see that symbolic gate between heaven and earth juxtaposed by the figure wearing the hazmat suit.
The chessboard patterned floor, according to the audio guide, represented the game of life.
In the center of the room on an elevated platform with tiles showing samples of radioactive plates, was a boat meant to symbolize Noah’s Ark. If you look closely in the boat, you'll notice children's toys.

On the ceiling, there was a map of the world.
The audio guide raised the question whether the children born of liquidators should also be considered as victims? Chromosomal studies conducted on them to compare them to their pre-explosion siblings unsurprisingly showed high rates of radioactivity. 

Photos of children whose fathers were liquidators:
The UN Action Plan on Chornobyl to 2016:
The visit to the Museum had certainly been an eye opening introduction to the all day tour we had planned for visiting Chornobyl, Pripyat and the reactor the next day. To learn of the Soviet response to the world's worst disaster, or perhaps more correctly, the lack of it, was absolutley beyond appalling.

We took the metro back to downtown and walked to Maidan or Independence Square. A number of hawkers came up to us wanting to sell us woven bracelets supporting hospital patients; one enterprising man had a pigeon – to do what, I don’t know, apart from trying to separate us from our money! It was sort of hard to miss Independence Monument! 

Below, the Monument to Kyiv Founders was also in the same part of the huge square. The scaffolding you see was because preparations were underway for Independence Day that was being celebrated in a few days. Too bad we would miss that by a day as I imagine the festivities would be spectacular.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, we could really feel like we were in a Soviet state as soon as we entered the country and that was especially evident as we walked around downtown. There were far fewer upscale cars compared to Riga and Vilnius; the way people dressed was not as fashionable as in those cities; the stores were not as lavish; we saw a lot of totally empty shelves in the half dozen or so small grocery stores we visited, etc. But, I digressed and am getting ahead of myself.

Our first destination on leaving Independence Square was St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery which is located on the recently built Mykhaylivska Square which is considered by many as the center of spiritual life in Ukraine. In 1937 Stalin ordered the church to be blown up in order to build a government center in the country's new capital. The monastery was reconstructed in the 1990s and the huge cathedral church was rebuilt in 2000 in its 19th century Ukrainian Baroque style. 
An Orthodox service was being held when we visited.

In the courtyard, honey was sold at a large number of booths.
This massive colonnaded building west of St. Michael's Monastery complex is luckily the only government building constructed on the site. Today, it houses the Ministry of ForeignAffairs.
We walked toward another church, St. Andrew’s, located about a 10 minute walk away. It is one of the most familiar landmarks in Kyiv with its turquoise facade and gold-trimmed green domes. It was built between 1747 and 1753 at the spot where, in 50 CE, St. Andrew the Apostle is said to have erected a cross and predicted a great city would be founded. Unfortunately, the church was undergoing renovations so we could see even little of its exterior. We could only imagine how beautiful it will look when all the renovations are completed and the scaffolding is removed.
Oh well, on the west side of the church is the city's most popular tourist street, the long, steep, winding, cobblestone (my favorite as you know by now!) Andriyivskyy Uzviz. Long a haunt of artists, the street was packed with vendors of Ukrainian and Russian paintings, handicrafts and souvenirs so all was not lost!

The back of St. Andrew's Church:
Jazz must have a big following in Kyiv as we saw and heard two groups of street musicians playing some of old jazz standards.
Onour way next to St. Sofia's Church, we discovered Old Kyiv Hill, the location of the earliest important structures of the city. In the ground are stone vestiges outlining the city's first great stone church, Desyatynna, or the Church of the Tithes. In the background is the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.

I couldn't resist taking one last shot of St. Andrew's spires before we headed toward St. Sofia's at last.
Amusing seeing the planters in the shape of Easter eggs in a variety of locations downtown. Perhaps you're aware of the intricate designs on Ukrainian Easter eggs?

We walked over to St. Sofia’s Church but we arrived too late and it was closed. Since it has been included on the UNESCO World Heriatge list since 1990, we knew we had to make time to come back before we left Kyiv.
A view of St. Michael’s across a long boulevard from St. Sofia’s as the sun was setting.
The entrance to our abode that found for us: Kyiv's Sunday Apart Hotel!
Luckily the interior was far nicer than the exterior, not that we would have cared all that much at the end of the day that had started so many hours earlier in Vilnius!


  1. Steven's use of map apps are courtesy of ME! How did they work? Great?

  2. Thank you for all your 1st hand info on Chornobyl. Such a sad and senseless incident.

    1. Sad and senseless describe the horror of what happened at Chernobyl perfectly.

  3. Glad to read that the interior of the hostel was nicer than the exterior!

    1. This looked like The Ritz compared to the entrance to the one in Moscow back in '13!

  4. I've often thought about the first responders to these horrible events. "Liquidators" as you discovered. Including the Fukushima workers. Brings a whole new meaning to "Going to work." You have to wonder is they knew what they were walking into. God bless them and their families.

  5. On a happier note your pictures are just beautiful!

  6. Cheryl: You hit the nail on the head perfectly when you wondered whether the workers knew what they were getting into when they responded to the disaster. The museum did indeed point out that the first workers knew well of the catastrophe and made conscious decisions to do what they could to prevent further damage. Whether that was the 'truth' or revisionist history, I don't know. In any case, though, they were indeed extraordinarily brave as they knew they were signing their own death warrants.


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