It was 1987, and Mikhail Gorbachev was making changes in the Soviet Union. We were on our way from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again) to Kiev just three years after our first trip to the U.S.S.R. This time, we received news of the day from the outside world. In 1984, there was no outside world. This time, our guide in Leningrad readily admitted drinking to excess was a serious problem in her country. In 1984, despite the late-night sight of drunks reeling along the street, we were told vodka was not a problem.
It was cold. Lake ice, they told us, as we asked why the waters were choked with tip-tilted frozen chunks. We learned that the city’s "own" ice had melted, but new ice had made its way down from outside lakes. The tulips stood three inches above ground, people on the streets were bundled up, heads down under skies as gray as the Parisian-style buildings. Despite its incredible treasures, this seemed a gloomy city.
As we approached Kiev, our bus stopped for no apparent reason and we saw uniformed people circling the vehicle. It’s a search for radiation, our guide told us, a regular routine en route to Kiev. It was less than a year since the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, and we were only about two hours driving time from that disaster site. Some people in Pittsfield thought we were crazy to get that close, but we had decided to go anyway.
The crew on the highway cleared our bus, and we rolled into Kiev, where the sun was warm, the people in short sleeves, the streets busy with pedestrians, and thousands of red tulips blooming. It was like going from the cold shoulder to a warm, all-encompassing hug -- and it was like that for our stay.
Our room in a very old hotel was a suite that included a dining room. We looked down on a circular park planted with the red tulips and very blue grape hyacinths, creating the illusion of a purple garden. We were looking forward to touring the city, dining on its classic chicken Kiev and seeing the renowned catacombs with the glassed-in tombs of mummified monks. We did it all and came home with hand-painted boxes, a three-part nesting doll and painted wood beads. For several years, one of our granddaughters always asked for "the wooden people," three nesting dolls in black and red with traditional Ukrainian flat black hats -- quite different from the feminine Russian matryoshkas.
Provided once again with a local guide, we brought up Chernobyl. We knew families were stacked in the U.S.S. R. for lack of enough housing -- newly-weds living with not only parents but grandparents. So we understood the enormity of Kiev making room for the refugees from Chernobyl. Our guide said Ukrainians gave up their places on housing waiting lists, turning over apartments to these people.
They lost everything, she said: homes, furniture, cars, clothing out of fear of radiation. They came to Kiev with nothing. Her eyes were suddenly watery as she added huskily, "They could not even bring their photos, their family photos." Thus, she noted, Ukrainians felt giving up a place in line for housing was the least they could do.
Hardly the guide addicted to typical patter, our new friend became emotional again at the memorial to Babi Yar, the place where the Nazis slaughtered thousands of Jews and others in Kiev. Some historians believe that if the world had reacted strongly to what the Nazis did in Ukraine, the Holocaust might not have happened.
This is a country that preserved its 11th century St. Sofia Cathedral during anti-religious times, suffered a long German occupation and took in its needy Chernobyl neighbors. Every day, walking past that small wooden doll with two more dolls inside, I hope Ukraine will survive this newest test of its people’s spirit.
Ruth Bass is author of two historical novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.