Once upon a time, a traveler might see Kiev as a city of certainties. Now she sees questions. The name of the oldest church means “Holy Wisdom.” Saint Sophia was founded in 1037 when Kiev was grand and sure of itself. Paris was then a backwater, at best. King Yaroslav’s daughter Anne wept at her marriage to Henry I of France. It banished her to an illiterate husband in a place where people ate with their fingers. Anne was leaving wisdom and certainty.
Nine centuries after Saint Sophia was founded, architect Vladislav Gorodezhkii’s Art Nouveau cement fantasia, The House with Chimeras, demanded modern ironies. Today’s question is why do police pull our driver aside en route to Bankova Street and The House with Chimeras? We are all silent as the papers are passed, examined, reexamined, passed back. It’s not necessarily illegal to be in a minivan a block from the president’s residence, but it’s not necessarily ok either.
Tension between old certainties and contemporary chimeras is what the traveler notes.
In front of Saint Sophia is a statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky striding his horse, pointing his mace toward Russia. To Ukrainians, he is the Ur-nationalist. To Jews, the Ur-Cossack pogram instigator. Ruth Ellen Gruber reports that the original monument is supposed to have shown him trampling a Jesuit Priest, A Polish Nobleman, and a Jew.
The Friendship of Nations Monument–two glorious men under a huge titanium arch–is understood by all as a cynical item within a cynical name (though exactly how varies according to the observer). “And now, Abraham,” our guide asks my father, “which figure is Ukraine and which is Russia?” She is clever, and quickly figures that he likes facts and exams. My father guesses right, though the imagery is confusing.
Much more straightforward is Rodyna Mat (The Nation’s Mother). Andrew Evans in the Bradt guide warns in a sort of aporia not to compare her to The Statute of Liberty. Rodyna Mat looms over Kiev from within The Great Patriotric War Museum, a vast, empty outdoor complex filled with predictable soviet realist bas reliefs. Her shield, emblazoned with a hammer and sickle, leaves little room for nuance.
Each of our three different tour guides makes a point of talking about the changes in what can be talked about. In other words, each has a different take on her training in the soviet (or soviet-style) guide system. Each has a different take on a past culture of silence and a current possibility of openness. Each has a different explanation for the distance between the public language (Ukrainian) and private language (Russian, in most cases).
Natalie, the old hand, freely talks about the soviet educational system she experienced in the fifties and sixties. She is proud of her then-unusual Ukrainian language education through high school. She talks with real emotion about learning the truth of how the city was bombed. We were told the Nazis did this to our city. We now know it’s a fact that the bombs were there when the Germans arrived. Natalie applies a good dose of cynicism to most sentences. She is eager to note that the Saint Sophia complex was preserved by a perverse soviet system that deconsecrated it and designated it a “cultural monument.” And that more recently the complex was restored by Polish and Japanese businesses because the Ukrainian oligarchs wouldn’t. She gestures to the head of Mitsubishi and his family who are touring Saint Sophia just behind us.
Natalie is a teacher. The kind of teacher who loved school as a child and still loves it. That’s us too. Our group of four is relaxed and happy to stand at the Kiev city model. It looks like every retro model I ever saw on a school trip. I love it as Natalie points to elevations and primitive buildings on the edge of the Dnieper while explaining the development and then retrenchment of Kiev after the Tartar-Mongol invasion.
Our specialist in Jewish Ukraine, Alexandra, does not stop delivering facts, even as the parked bus becomes hotter and hotter, the facts less and less connected to what our large group cares about. We are two dozen Jews from around the world determined to acknowledge what happened to our families during the war. Alexandra is comfortable with the standard script, and is much less self-reflective, less full of resentments than Natalie. But even Alexandra opines, on questioning, that poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was not speaking truth to power, but from power. His poem “Babi Yar,” about the September 1941 massacre of Kievan Jews, was officially sanctioned and thus a public relations broadcast on behalf of a government about to erect the monument to itself. It needed someone to say “No monument stands over Babi Yar./A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone” (Benjamin Okopnik, trans). Alexandra tells me to read Anatoly Kuznetsov’s censored Babi Yar: A Document In The Form Of A Novel instead.
Tatiana is mostly interested in the religious situation of the moment. In her early twenties, pretty, modest, sober thinking, she works to create a good impression of her country. After she tells us that the Pechersk Lavra monks and their wives have established various cottage industries within the grounds, I ask if I can buy Lavra honey. She takes me to their gift shop, but along the way warns that they will be gruff. They need to make commerce with the tourist but they don’t like to. The small room is packed with pilgrims. Sitting in front of icons, rosaries, all sorts of envelopes and jars, a woman looks up from her prayer book just long enough to say “nee.” No honey. Tatiana doesn’t ask again. On our way out she tells me this is their way. Indeed, much of the city is this way.
These differences among our guides represent more telling contradictions than those between the 350 Euro per night hotel room and the 2 cent beeswax candle at the Caves Monastery. Than the matter of what to speak (and by speak I mean the rudimentary “dyakuyu” or “spaciba” thank-you). Than the staggering high heels on the feet of what Barbara calls Hootchie-mamas, and the elegant scarves covering their heads in church.
I can’t figure why only some tourist places have their employees speak English. The chain “Coffee House” has an outlet across from our Radisson hotel. There, the counter girls, say “nee” and hand us a Ukrainian menu. A few blocks away, at the “Coffee House” near the Opera, the waiter is eager to speak English. He’s studying journalism at university, as well as English, Ukrainian, and Russian, his first language. And he’s got a menu in English.
It is easy to imagine that those who don’t speak English are merely refusing, as one refused to serve in the soviet system. A few days later I am sure the Kiev language problem is a form of soviet-service-refusal: As soon as we arrive in Berdychiv, a shtetl town less than 100 miles from Kiev, a mother and son rush up to our bus with table and goods perched on bicycles. In minutes they are set up to sell us matryoshka dolls and trinkets labeled “made-in-China.” They nimbly switch the language of negotiations whenever the buyer hesitates, in case she doesn’t understand “dva,” or “two,” or “shtayeem,” or “deux.”
It’s easy to imagine reasons for the competing certainties of Babi Yar where multiple monuments mark the history of murder there. The Menorah Memorial at the one remaining fragment of the ancient ravine. The hideous Children’s Memorial within the park of beer gardens and playgrounds. The Soviet monument, muscular but more symbolic than most of its ilk. The simple cross remembering the Ukrainian nationalists. The other simple cross to the Orthodox priests.
Babi Yar is not unique. Throughout the city, the confusion between kitsch and art seems a matter of false moral equivalencies, and not an expression of the tensions between high and low art. Kitsch is everywhere present and everywhere confounding. Think about the city’s many awful—and popular–monuments to actors, and to the characters actors played on stage and in film. Think about the Mercedes town-cars with large plastic conjoined rings & teddy bears on top, shuttling newlyweds to their various photo ops. About Kseniya Simonova’s tear jerking “Sand Animation” on Ukraine’s Got Talent.
There is no more perfect place for Damien Hirst’s retrospective Requiem than Kiev. No better place to contemplate the relation between art and commerce and popularity. No better place to see a twenty foot photo of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and their collector/friend Ukrainian Jew Viktor Pinchuk. The PinchukArtCentre building is beautiful. Its SkyArtCafé is a comfortable and comfortably ironic Austin-Powers-shag-pad kind of retreat. The hip young couples strolling the four floors of the crowded museum are fun to watch. And seeing the more than 100 works there, from A Thousand Years, (1990. steel, glass, flies, maggots, MDF, Insect-O-Cutor, cow’s head, sugar, water) to Away from the Flock (1994. Glass, steel, lamb and formaldehyde solution) to Floating Skull (2006. oil on canvas) to Nothingness (2008. glass, steel, MDF, aluminium and drug packaging) is the best context for questions of authenticity, mechanical reproduction, culture. A kitsch-free zone, this is one place in Kiev that makes sense.