By Val Karren
“Don’t throw the bread!”
On most days I would support the argument that throwing bread is a bad thing. It could get dropped, land in the mud, and be wasted. On this day though, I wasn’t the one throwing the bread…I was the one catching it.
It had been three days since the last delivery of bread in the neighborhood. My colleague dove into the scrum when the doors of the bread truck opened in front of the empty supermarket. He being a head taller than most of the men wrangling for food, he started tossing loaves of bread to me over their heads. I caught the batonchiks like a wide receiver running a post route on the sidelines while dodging those running from the bus stop to see what they could still get to take home to the kids.
Kyiv at that time was reeling economically and socially from the breakdown and breakup of the Soviet Union. Domestic production came to a standstill. International aid packages were pouring into the country from the USA, Canada, and Germany, but their contents were being resold at the bazaars or in the kiosks that sprang up around metro stations and major bus stops. Price controls were scrapped and the prices skyrocketed leaving too many without enough to eat.
Just because we had hard currency didn’t mean we could buy whatever we wanted as foreigners. Little worth having could be found on those mostly empty shelves. In the winter of 1993 oil, flour, sugar, and milk all were rationed and available only to those with Ukrainian passports. We had to buy our staples on the black market. When there was bread, we had to fight for it. We watched a cashier at the (not so) supermarket cut a pensioner’s loaf of bread in half at the checkout, “due to weekly inflation.” We did what we could to help the old people with the excess cash we had, left over from having nothing to buy. Onions, spaghetti and Pepsi Cola were the only regular items on the shelves. I always kept a (frozen) Snickers bar in my backpack just in case there wasn’t anything for dinner. Food lines stretched around the block.
What was once a dreary and worn out city in 1993 has become a jewel of Europe again in 2018! Gone are the days of the iconic Soviet food lines and rationing of the 1980s. Wilted produce and rancid meats have been replaced with fresh and flavorful vegetables and sausages produced locally. While Ukraine still has significant challenges ahead of it, hope for the future seeps out of the gaps between the cobblestones in the Kyiv of today.
Twenty-five years after my first stay in the city, I returned, curious about what I would find. I was invited for a family dinner with old friends in the outlying districts of Kyiv, where I had lived as a young man. Wanting to contribute to the meal, I asked what I could bring? “American champagne!” was demanded. As I couldn’t imagine where I would be able buy cold Coca-Cola in the old neighborhood, I carried six liters of it with me from downtown. Three nicely chilled bottles of Coke cooled my ankles as I stood, gripping the overhead rails on the stuffy, overpacked commuter bus to edge of the city. Recognizing the apartment block, I moved to the exit and stepped off the bus and right onto the driveway of a beautifully appointed supermarket with a well paved, terraced parking lot like any I am used to seeing in Germany or England. The adverts in the window read, “SALE, buy two bottles of Coke, third one FREE!” The only thing about Kyiv that had stood still in twenty-five years were my memories of it.
The city has been reborn and is working methodically to restore itself to what it was before the selective destruction of its most beautiful monuments by Soviet overlords. Inspiring churches and monasteries, erased from the map in the 1930’s stand again majestically, crowned with gold on Kyiv’s hills.
The ancient has been uncovered and restored. The poets are once again being read and honored. Ukrainian is spoken openly on the street and in shops.
Public spaces have turned colorful again and are filled with vibrant street life. Old buildings, with their intricate facades have been restored to their original beauty that lift the spirits and make Kyiv an attractive and beautiful city to visit. The deep leafy parks that line the river bluff provide refuge from the noise and heat of the busy city; here one can slow down, stroll, and enjoy vistas of the nature that flows through the middle of the city.
Kyiv, with its culture in rebirth, is a town that lifts the spirit and gives renewed hope in the cause of personal freedom and national liberty, no matter how long it may take.
In 2014, with Kyiv leading the way, Ukraine revolted against a president who sent his police force to beat students in the city center who publicly protested his policy decisions. A string of new laws restricting personal freedoms were enacted to quell protests. But people were angry about the attack on unarmed students, and the protests only went from big to bigger. One million people took to the streets to voice their disapproval. Kyiv was awake! For the next four months, through a snowy winter, the public vigil on the Maidan (Independence Square), was held, showing scorn for the abuses and corruption that the president flaunted. Kyiv would not forget those who had died, nor go home to house and hearth until the President had fled the country.
I had the opportunity to speak with a young man who had, himself, fought on the barricades against the President’s police force, The Berkut, on the Maidan in 2014. When I challenged him on the point whether the events of 2014 were truly a revolution, he defended his position, explaining that it marked a complete turnaround in the mentality of Ukranians. He said his friends had been tortured, but because of their solidarity with other Ukrainians, none of them felt afraid any longer about standing up to police. It was an honor to shake his hand when we parted; he had proven himself a braver man than myself. I do not know yet if I would be able to take to the barricades in freezing rain, snow and frigid temperatures if that time came. Regardless of my perspective, I have to respect the man, and the generation ready to risk it all to live free.
In Ukraine there is an authenticity of people and culture that is rare to find in modern Europe, or the wider world. Men and women alike wear elements of the national costume as a fashion or political statement in the face of SuperDry and Zara shops opening in the old city center. While McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza are thriving in Kyiv, so are Ukraine’s own traditional kitchens, offering dark black breads, deep red borscht and dumplings filled with meats, potatoes, mushrooms and cabbage. They are even brewing a local cola, that isn’t half bad.
Take some time to go out on a limb. Take a chance in a town that is ready to enchant you. You will find the people welcoming, friendly and helpful even if they don’t speak your language. Now, go on, Get Lost! in Kyiv. You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.
What do you know about Kyiv, Ukraine? You may have heard of ‘Chicken Kiev,’ or seen something on the news about the recent revolution and Ukraine’s war with Russia. But there’s so much more to see and experience there, as we discovered during our recent trip for book research. What an amazing place! Take a look: