He’s back!

Lenin

Lenin

When we first arrived last summer, we came across a curious sight. Just around the corner from our apartment stood a large statue swathed in layers of green gauze. We soon learned that underneath all those bandages was none other than Vladimir Illych Lenin. He was recovering from an injury. Last June, some Ukrainian nationalists had smashed the Bolshevik leader’s face and arm with a hammer. (They want to get rid of statues and symbols that glorify Ukraine’s communist past).

We never actually saw anyone repairing the statue, although some ardent Communist Party members erected a tent next to the statue and kept a round the clock vigil. (Usually they were just milling around, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes).

lenin2So we were surprised when a few weeks ago, the gauze came off and Lenin was all better! There was a little celebration, with speeches, a band, and people laying flowers at his feet. The festivities were only marred by some malcontents who hurled red paint at the Bolshevik leader. They were quickly arrested, and the red paint scrubbed off.

A group of true believers now keeps a 24 hour watch over their man. With his chin thrust forward, Lenin strides resolutely into the bright socialist future.

Semi-wild dogs

IMG_2794 copyEver since we got here, we’ve intended to write something about the wild dogs who live on our street (and most other streets and parks of this city.) For outsiders like us, they are a startling and fascinating phenomenon: Dogs that live right in the middle of a city, side by side with humans, but which clearly are not pets. We learned very quickly to leave them alone. Soon after we arrived here, we were walking down our street and Nora saw a couple of them lying sleepily on the sidewalk. She instinctively moved toward the animals — they seemed so lovable! — and in an instant they were on their feet, barking and looking like they were ready to rip out our throats. We felt lucky to get away.

IMG_2797 copyI’m finally posting this because last week, the Financial Times published a really interesting story about the wild dogs who live in Moscow. It sounds very similar to Kyiv, although I haven’t seen any dogs riding on the Metro here.

IMG_2790 copyThe FT story doesn’t dwell on the darker side of this canine community. The dogs, especially those that live in parks, can terrorize runners and bicyclists, and menace children at playgrounds. We’ve heard that there’s increasing interest in doing something to get ride of those dogs — but no action so far.

Communicating

We speak very little Russian. When we go to restaurants it is hard to read the menu, on the street we can not read the signs, at the store we can not understand the food labels, but mostly we can not talk to Ukrainians very easily. There is a huge language barrier for us, and the Ukrainians. And when we can break through it, it is thrilling. I went with my mom (and a translator) to Kyiv’s main square and interviewed people there about what they thought about the candidates for president. It was a great language break through. I love coming along to those types of interviews. You get to hear what the normal people that you see on the street everyday in Kyiv think. It is really interesting and fun.

Pavlov&NoraIt is sometimes fun to try to use my Russian to communicate with people who do not speak English. I bet I sound silly but as long as I am understood, it is fine. My once a week violin lessons for instance. My violin teacher knows just as much English as I know Russian, so it is pretty even. He loves to learn new words in English and I like to learn new Russian words. I’m always learning. He pronounces many things wrong, but I can still understand, and I bet I do that too.

Once our family was in a restaurant and we were looking at things on the menu and trying to figure out what they meant, (we forgot the dictionary) when a couple came over and tried to help us. We could not understand what they meant when they said “Chicken head.” Finally we figured out they meant eggs. That sort of thing comes up a lot and it is amusing. We like living here because it is so interesting. Even though it is frustrating trying to communicate when you do not know the language, it can also be very entertaining.

The statue of St. Vladimir

vlad2A few months ago, I fell under the spell of Mikhail Bulgakov’s book White Guard. The book is set in Kiev and describes events that Bulgakov witnessed during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Bulgakov was a native of Kiev, and his descriptions of “the City” are wonderfully evocative. A central image in the book, to which he returns again and again, is a statue of St. Vladimir that stands on a hill overlooking the river. When I read the book, I wasn’t sure exactly where this statue was, or if it still existed. So I was delighted to stumble onto it during a walk the other day.

Here, along with a few pictures, are two passages from White Guard.

vlad1In winter, as in no other city in the world, a calm fell over the streets and lanes and the upper City, over the hills and the lower City, sprawled out at a bend in the frozen Dnieper, and all the mechanical noise retreated into the stone buildings, which softened and muffled its growl. ….

The City played, overflowed with light, lit up, and danced, flickering all through the night until morning, when it died out and wrapped itself in smoke and haze.

But the electric white cross in the hands of the gigantic St. Vladimir on St. Vladimir’s Hill shimmered best of all ….. In the winter the cross shone in the thick black heavens and reigned coldly and calmly over the dark sloping distances of the Moscow shore, where two huge bridges crossed.

The books ends with this passage:
Vlad4The last night blossomed. In its second half its heavy blue, God’s curtain, which enrobes the world, was blanketed with stars. In the infinite height beyond this blue curtain, at the holy gates, they seemed to be serving vespers. Lights were lit at the alter, and they appeared on the curtain as crosses, in clusters and squares. Above the Dnieper, Vladimir’s midnight cross rose from the sinful, bloodied, snowy earth to the black and gloomy heights. From a distance its crossbar seemed to disappear and merge with its vertical, transforming the cross into a sharp, menacing sword.

But this isn’t frightening. All this will pass. The sufferings, agonies, blood, hunger, and wholesale death. The sword will go away, but these stars will remain when even the shadows of our bodies and our affairs are gone from this earth. There is not a man who does not know this. So why are we reluctant to turn our gaze to them? Why?

Tevye lives

tevjeIf you look for them, this country is full of ghosts — masses of people who once lived here, but were driven away or killed in war, political oppression, pogroms, or genocide. One unanswered question in today’s Ukraine is how these vanished communities will be remembered. Are the Jewish shtetls, for instance, part of Ukraine’s national story? Or some separate history?

Brigid did a radio story for The World last week about one of these vanished people, the brilliant author Sholem Aleichem, and the community that he described in his stories about Tevye’s daughters. Those stories, of course, became the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” You can listen to the story by clicking on this link.

We only realized a few weeks ago that there’s a Ukrainian stage adaptation of “Tevye’s Daughters” playing here in Kyiv, Sholem Aleichem’s home town. Grigori Gorin, a Russian author and playwright, created it several decades ago, and it’s been playing here regularly for the past twenty years. Ukraine’s most famous living actor, Bogdan Stupka, plays the lead role. We went to see it, and even though we couldn’t understand the dialogue, it was an amazing experience. There’s no singing in this version, but a lot more laughing along with the crying. It seemed closer to the spirit of the original stories. But it was also a moving and slightly disturbing experience to experience these stories in the place where they were written, where the life they describe was so horribly snuffed out.

Vote for me. I’m really, really big.

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Maybe you hadn’t heard, but there’s a presidential campaign underway in Ukraine. This fellow, Sergiy Tigipko, has the biggest billboard we’ve seen.

Winter

coats

It’s one (1) degree (fahrenheit) in Kiev right now, which is just about cold enough for me, thank you very much. But I have to say, there’s a certain charming quality about this place that emerges when it’s cold.

skating

hatIt’s partly the classy winter clothes that suddenly emerge from storage. They make me feel like I stepped into Doctor Zhivago or something.

But also, you have to admire the simple fortitude with which people go about their business, despite a wind that feels like knife blades.

I think people may actually get more cheerful when it turns cold, as though they relish their common challenge. The other day I encountered a street musician in a long, echoing pedestrian underpass. His bare fingers were playing some beautiful guitar music, despite the freezing temperatures. I gave him ten hryvni.

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We’re from Washington, DC, though. We cover ourselves with blankets.
Or we cower in a warm corner of the kitchen, in between the oven (where bread is baking) and the radiator.

Machine translation

Our landlord Oleg speaks very little English. He prefers to speak Russian, but also speaks Ukrainian. We speak very little of either language. This can be awkward. At first, we relied on tolerant Russian-speaking friends to relay messages back and forth by phone. But then it occurred to me that Oleg might have an e-mail account, and we might be able to use the automated capabilities of Google Translate.

And it works! More or less. When Oleg needed me to read the electric meter the other day, I got this message:
Hello, Deniel’.
You will report, please, testimonies of electric meter for payment of electric power.
With kind regards.
Stepanenko Oleg.

A few weeks ago, we used such an exchange of e-mails to arrange some electrical repair work in the apartment. After I sent Oleg a message that the light had been successfully repaired, I received this charming response:

Hello, respected Daniel’.
Thank you for reports. I understood text without problems. I suppose that our mailbox and translators is a good alternative to linguistics.
I congratulate you and Your nice women with Thanksgiving Day .
Wishing you in successes in work, large health and happiness.
Good-bye.
Oleg Stepanenko and all my family.
Happy holiday

Thank you, Oleg! And thank you Google!

Night train

IMG_2650If you want to travel to almost any other city in Ukraine, whether it’s Odessa, Lviv, or Donetsk, you get there on an overnight train. So it’s nothing special, I suppose, for Ukrainians. But when we took night trains recently from Kyiv to Lviv, and then from Kamyanets-Podilsky back to Kyiv, everything about it seemed like an adventure: Finding our train car in the dark and cold of the station; settling into our compartment; pulling out the white sheets and laying them over the narrow beds. Then the long ride through the night, the rhythmic clicking and banging of rail joints underneath us. Most of us weren’t very successful when it came to actually sleeping, so we were pretty tired when we got to our destination. But it was still fun!

Here’s a gallery of pictures from our second train trip. Clicking on them brings up a big version.

Even the mannequins are worried about swine flu!

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