with photogaphs by Hakan Ludwigsson, first published
in the Swissair Gazette
Friday 22nd January
I am not a travel writer. I am a writer who's going
somewhere. With a photographer - a Swede, called Håkan Ludwigsson.
I meet him in the lobby of our Zurich hotel and say it's a really
odd exercise to go somewhere just to write about the experience
of going there. He nods. Getting into the taxi I notice he has 13
tons of aluminium boxes.
About two hours flying takes us to Kiev. This is going to be allright
- Håkan makes me laugh. The aim of his professional training,
he says, is to allow him to take pictures like an amateur. My travel
reading is Roughing It by Mark Twain. Ominous choice.
Looking out the window the first impression is
of mud - square brown fields - a frozen turquoise pond - houses
clustering to face onto roads. The motorway lies straight and black
across the landscape.
We get processed through customs. Everything is
done by hand. Papers are stamped - with pressure and a wiggle before
the rubber stamp is lifted. The official's pinstripe suit is two
sizes too small. He blows on pages to separate them. We are in Eastern
We are met by Sasha, our organizer, Galina - to
be our interpreter - and a trumpet player called Valieri - a big
man about six five with a fur hat on top of that.
Outside we realize there is no way five adults,
my luggage and Håkan's 13 tons are going to fit into one car.
Nevertheless the trumpet player begins to pack the boot. The humans
get in the car and the rest of the luggage is built around them.
Incredibly we all make it. The motorway is so straight you could
use it to teach perspective. As we drive, from beneath a holdall,
Galina narrates a brief history of Kiev. Håkan decides he
wants a photograph. From somewhere he produces a camera and aims
it into the back seat.
It's a journey of about forty minutes.I ask why
the bottoms of the trees are white. Galina tells me they paint fruit
trees to fool insects into thinking trees are walls so they will
not bother to eat them. Logical insects here.I see what I think
are starlings flying above us. Millions of them. Galina says they
are crows. I see crows' nests in the trees.
We check into our hotel. The rooms are clean -
not colour coordinated but comfortable.The telephone is lime green
- the colour kid's sweets used to be. The en-suite bathroom has
oatmeal toilet paper with no perforations.
Galina says 'We are a very simple people but we
will open our hearts and lives and show you everything.'
9.30 We walk down to Kreshchatik Street
to have a look around.In an underground pass five or six youths
have a band - sax, guitars, trumpet, bass guitar. About 200 people
have gathered - about 50 of them are dancing.
We eat in The Kreshchatik. We have - wait
for it - Chicken Kiev. In another room echoingly distant there is
a band and dancing. Near us is a long table with a party of young
people who stand up every so often to propose toasts. We are invited
to join them. Many of them speak good English. This is the fourth
anniversary of the founding of their company which sells paintings
to businesses and banks.
SATURDAY 23rd January
9am.Sacha's introduces his wife Nadja,
an architect. We set off on foot towards Kiev-Pechersk Lavra - the
Cave Monastery. To be more mobile Håkan reduces his equipment
to three tons. He is assisted in carrying this by Galina's 18 yr
old son Deema.
On the way Håkan sees a children's playground
he likes. Much amusement in the Ukrainian camp. Is this what they
came to photograph ? There is a cathedral round the corner with
golden domes. I notice again the dark clots in the trees. They are
NOT crows nests but mistletoe.
We decide to take a tram. I ask for a translation
of a written sign above the window. Galina says 'You must hold the
pole or else you will fall on the floor.' For some reason I find
this very funny.
The first view of Lavra is wonderful - the golden
and green domes soaring above the monastery wall.
We meet Archbishop Anthony. He talks animatedly
about how the monks survived the last 70 years. The Authorities
thought they had closed the place forever in 1961. They were waiting
for the old people to die and, with them, religion - because there
was no religious education in the schools. 'But, in spite of all,
the church is alive and the candle still burns here. Now there are
more than 200 seminarians.' Archbishop Anthony introduces us to
Father Achilla who is the abbot of the cave monastery.
Father Achilla gives us permission to photograph
in the caves at Lavra. He himself leads us round the catacombs where
the saints of this Church lie buried. Their mummified bodies are
covered in richly woven materials sealed in glass topped coffins.
In one or two cases a mummified hand is left exposed for veneration
by the people. Achilla holds a lit taper between his middle fingers
- his hand cupped in a delicate gesture to catch any wax.
Afterwards we pass the impressive metallic rainbow
built in 1982 to commemorate and symbolise the everlasting friendship
and union between Russia and the Ukraine. Ah well.....
9.00pm We walk in the dark and get our first
look at St Andrew's Cathedral - a gem of the Russian Baroque. It
is floodlit and seems to float on top of the hill.
SUNDAY 24th January
9am We go to the Refectory Church at Lavra.
Lines of people, summoned by bells, hurry through the light blowing
snow. A boy carries a loaf of bread for the monks.
Inside on a table are apples and white eggs,loaves - one with a
burning taper stuck in it - and pickles, all home made things. One
of the novices hopes for honey. The church is circular and the people
stand or promenade. The music of the bells is repeated in the choir
- six men's voices and six womens'. They hold chords for what seems
The congregation is not just old women, there are people here of
all ages. A priest with a bass voice the equal of Ezio Pinza sings
a text rising in quarter tones that make the hairs on my neck rise
with each grace note.
There are no microphones or loudspeakers here. The priest preaches
and the people press forward to hear. There are no floodlights either
but the light from the windows picks out the blue smoke of incense
and the gold haloes, grapes and stars on the darkly painted walls.
An afflicted girl listens to the choir with rapt attention, her
eyes wide and smiling.
Håkan and I go up the bell tower to hear
the bell ringing at the end of the service. It has only come back
these last four years. Two novices take turns to play the great
drone bell which sets the beat and the treble bells which play the
melody. The large bell has a sustain which lasts for what seems
like minutes. It is bitterly cold up here. But the whole tower reverberates.
Tintinnabulation. You feel it in the soles of your feet, you hear
it in your chest - it rings in the bones of your head. I nod my
head to try to keep the rhythm. I walk about to try to keep warm
in a kind of blundering dance. There is excitement and joy here
and it is infectious.
12.00 am I talk briefly with Ivan Fedorovich
Dratch, writer and politician. An intense man with a dark voice,
looking out from behind thick spectacles. 'This last four years
I've been so busy I can only write poems on my knee at dull meetings.
My notebooks are crying out for me like abandoned children. Politics
is like a swamp - it absorbs you, sucks you in.'
2.00 We tram and trolley bus to see St Andrew's
Cathedral in daylight. It looks just as good. It begins to snow.
We walk down to the Andreijewski Spusk quarter. Artists and students
have their works for sale along the steep and cobbled street. There
are galleries selling paintings and sculpture. We stop at the Cafe
Hata for lunch.
To the indoor market in the Podol district. It
is a huge building with the largest unsupported roof I have ever
seen. We go to the first floor balcony and look out over the hall
where the people of Kiev are selling produce. Vegetables, meat,
chickens, curd cheese, yoghurt. There is a great noise of chatter.
On the balcony they are selling clothes, shoes, fur hats from stalls.
Private individuals stand with one or two items for sale - a hat,
a pair of shoes.
We go down to take a closer look. The vegetables
and fruit are of very poor quality but in January in the footprint
of Chernoble maybe that's what you'd expect. Everyone engages in
sampling. Point to the ham you fancy and you'll get a small sliver
of it, cut off with a knife. You'll get to taste the cheese, the
yoghurt, the grated cabbage in vinegar. Håkan photographs
a lovely woman with apple red cheeks selling red apples. She has
a great piece of mediaeval headgear - like a character from Chaucer
on her way to Canterbury.
7.00pm To the Opera House to see BAYADURKA
(1877) a ballet with music by Léon Minkus - an Austrian who
settled in Russia. The building itself is magnificent, built 1906,
and recently restored. The ballet is 19th C exotic. Near-naked-except-for-sequins
girls run onto the stage. Galina says, without a trace of irony,
'These are nuns.' Later she changes her translation to priestesses.
The exotic is only the ordinary set somewhere else.
MONDAY 25th January
9.00am We hire a taxi for the day and drive to the Monument
to Victory in the Second World War - a huge triumphalist female
with raised sword and shield. It's odd how men create wars and then
use women to personify aspects of them. There is a military museum
here and black statuary which depicts the Soviet peoples' victory
in World War Two. Someone expresses the view that if the money spent
building this gigantic series of monuments had been used for housing
it would have been better spent.
We have lunch in a converted ammunition store.
It dates from the seventeen fifties, is barrel shaped and has no
windows. Wonderful chandeliers and shadows. Good coffee and cutlets
and hard boiled eggs followed by cakes.
A more human monument is the one commemorating
the foundation of Kiev overlooking the river Dnieper. Three figures
on a Viking shaped boat, brothers of legend Kiy, Shchek and Khoriv.
Flocks of crows caw and swirl out over the river as if the air around
them has been stirred. It begins to rain and blot the words I write
so I take shelter.
Galina and I sit in the car waiting for Håkan
to get the best picture. The windows mist over. The radio plays
B.B. King singing the blues. In the gathering darkness Galina tells
me some of the difficulties of living in the Ukraine at this time.
'Two years ago I had a very good salary. I could take a taxi, I
could buy things in the shops. But now I have a better salary and
it buys very little.' A kilo of butter two years ago cost the equivalent
of 3.40 now it is 800. Prices are 50 times, 100 times more now.
'The deprivation must not last too long,' she says. ' The government
must love their country AND have good economists.'
'But how do you cope ?' I ask.
'I have my inner life.'
10.00 am Babi Yar where 200,000 citizens
of Kiev along with war prisoners were shot by invading Nazis and
thrown into a ravine.It happened in September of 1941. There are
some candle stubs and fresh flowers left at the monument. The memorial
park has a symbolic ravine a little distance from the real one.
Galina points out that when creating the symbolic ravine they did
not want to disturb the remains of those who were to be commemorated.
Out of three pay phones I try on the street all are working. Since
coins went out and coupons came in local calls are free. It stops
the phones being vandalised for cash.
A boy sits playing a video game in the lobby of
the Officers Club. He zaps anything that moves between the lines.
Håkan begins photographing and the boy flees. We find out
he is skipping school and fears any evidence on film.
First intimations of upset tummy - Håkan
gives me a tablet. He's a seasoned traveller and has a tiny bag
full of life saving devices, including a dropper for sterilizing
a glass of water anywhere in the world. With great politeness he
says to the hosts. 'It is not that your water is bad but that our
stomachs are not used to it.'
We go to see the amazing house of Gorodetsky, an
architect from the turn of the century who was interested in hunting.
Wreathed around the top of the house are dolphins, rhinos, elephants,
stags and four linked utterly smug toads. Fantastic, eccentric -
a wino's nightmare - D.T's on the roof.
Opposite it the Building for the Administration
of the President is shod in black marble. On closer inspection it
contains flakes of translucent mica, blue mother of pearl- iridescent
like butterfly wings in black stone. You must move your head to
see the full effect. A building of semi precious stone. You could
make a billion brooches out of it.
It is freezing cold - 0°C but there is a wind
which makes it feel much lower. Håkan produces a hood for
me and a pair of fingerless gloves. The man has everything - he
is SO prepared. I think if you asked him for a metal tent peg, purple
shoelaces, or a small grandfather clock he could produce it. He
has a watch which tells the time in Tokyo on a Tuesday at twenty
fathoms. He also has a calculator which tells him exactly where
and when the sun will rise and set anywhere in the world. He can
point at that place, not with his finger, but with a pin.
4.00pm We visit the Museum of Ukrainian
Fine Arts. It is warm and there is a rewarding selection of pictures
from icons to works of the recent past. Why are Museum attendants
in Kiev all women ? Why do cloakrooms not charge anything ?
5.30pm Håkan photographs the neon
green M of the Metro and we go down into the Golden Gate Station.
Any journey costs 5 coupons, less than half a cent. It takes almost
3 minutes to descend. The communists destroyed some of the cathedrals
above ground but built them down here. The platform is vaulted like
a church and covered with Byzantine style mosaics, marble floors,
candelabras. Amazing place.
9.30am Breakfast.I ask the waiter if the
tea is hot. I like it scalding. He invites me to feel the kettle
with my hand proving that it is not hot enough.
Today we visit St. Sophia's Cathedral founded in 1037 by Prince
Yaroslav - it has frescoes depicting his family. For centuries the
walls were whitewashed and the treasures beneath were only discovered
The church is dominated by the colossal representation
in mosaic of the Virgin praying with upraised hands. Beneath, is
Christ dispensing the Eucharist. Because he dispenses both bread
and wine, flesh and blood, Christ appears twice. In the main cupola
is Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of All. Beneath the four evangelists
are four holes - the mouths of ceramic jugs built into the wall
to enhance the church's acoustic. The dark metal floor dates from
the 19thC and contains both the star of David and Muslim crescents.
Was this an early attempt at ecumenism ? Nobody seems to know.
I ask Galina why people in shops do not smile and
she gives two reasons. They get their salary no matter how much
or how little they sell. And times are hard. Having given her answer
4.30pm Sasha and Nadja host party. This
is the hospitality we were warned about. The whole meal of four
or five courses takes about three and a half hours. We are introduced
to Nadja's mother and daughter, Irene - a student from Moscow with
perfect English. Poets/singers/ actors, Anatoli Leymesh, and his
wife,Irena Karpinos play twelve string guitar and sing passionate
and funny songs. Also invited is Volodymir Alexashin who runs an
English language newspaper NEWS FROM UKRAINE. Many toasts, much
vodka, little memory.
Leaving the party on the second floor it is pitch
dark. The stair lighting has failed. I slide my feet out tentatively
and begin to edge down. Not Håkan. Even for this situation
he is prepared. He produces a miner's helmet type device, switches
on the light on his forehead and marches down the stairs. If I ever
go to hell I want Håkan to be with me.
Håkan photographs his breakfast before he
eats it. I suppose it's better than photographing it AFTER
he's eaten it.
Back to Lavra again to take pictures of the monks.
Father Achilla has given us his blessing to go anywhere in the monastery
- he is joyous, enthusiastic and open. His auburn beard almost stands
out straight with energy. He says the purpose of their lives is
to save souls and be closer to God. To achieve this the monks lead
a life of celibacy and poverty. The churches are opening again and
have wide roads leading to them.
Håkan wants the portraits to have a very
plain background. Fr.Achilla takes us to a huge room in the middle
of renovation. The floor is covered in dust and plaster and wooden
trestles. Six monks stand waiting to be photographed - lovely men
- clowning a little about who will be first. They give off a kind
of gentleness. Suddenly they burst into song. The singing is not
solemn. They smile - it is like a round, sung for fun but beautifully
done. The acoustic of this empty room fits around the music perfectly.
Someone hits a wrong note and they laugh and stop. When the photography
is finished they sing a hymn of Thanks that the work was well done
and is now over. They walk away, the hems of their black soutanes
grey with the dust of this place, singing until gradually the air
returns to silence.
To the Kiev Opera House again, this time to see
a national traditional opera/play 'Cossacks Across the Danube'.
Tonight the lead singer is Ukraine's most famous, Anatoly Soloviyanenko.
This is a big night. But in Act 2 when a trumpet plays solo for
four seconds I smile. Valieri - the big man. I know him.
Olga Antonenko is an artist, a member of the Union
of Young Painters. Her flat is filled from floor to ceiling with
her work - paintings, drawings, tapestries, batiks - and, unusually,
exotic dresses with painted fabrics.
She gives us tea and thin bread, dried to biscuit
in the oven, to dip in home made strawberry jam. All conversation
ceases as we crunch our way through a plate of this.
We arrive at the airport early to get some pictures.
I shake hands with Håkan and swear we'll do this again sometime,
somewhere (he is staying a few more days). If necessary I'll even
help carry his aluminium boxes. I take my leave of Sasha and Galina
and Valieri. There is an air of sadness, of people who have met
and quickly formed relationships but have little chance of meeting
again. Galina has been my voice and ears for a week. It is hard
to break away. She says,'There are no words.'
In the air above the Ukraine without warning I
fill up with tears because there ARE no words for this country
and its people of courage. All things manifested in Galina with
her large eyes and small vocabulary. The thing that made me cry
most as a child was when things were not fair.
As if to emphasise the fact the smiling stewardess
hands out the menu.
I sip my drink and remember Kiev for its
people - its mistletoe and music. Its crows, its plainsong, its
incomparable bell ringing.