Reflections on the Ukrainian spirit, then and now

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Fun, touristy items for sale at kiosks in Kyiv city center during happier times.
Fun, touristy items for sale at kiosks in Kyiv city center during happier times. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

Like everyone else in the world, I woke Feb. 24 to the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. The invasion, which seems to have the capital city of Kyiv firmly in its sights, was not unexpected but is at the same time shocking.

I was lucky enough to have visited Kyiv in 2010 -- back then, we still called it Kiev -- at a time when the city was beginning to make a splash on the international tourism scene.

We were there as guests of the newly opened, five-star Intercontinental Kyiv, located in city center across from St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery.

We had two guides during our visit, chic young women both named Olga, who were just old enough to remember life under Soviet rule. They loved sharing anecdotes about "those days," which they regarded as being so firmly in the past that they laughed about it.

One of the Olgas, clearly a fashionista judging by her trendy outfits, told us about getting her first passport and visiting Paris for the first time. She had always been told that there was no need to travel because the USSR already had the best of everything, but when she saw the City of Lights and understood the enormity of that falsehood, she cried.

The Olgas also took us to Spotykach on Volodymyrska Street, a former Soviet-themed eatery whose decor was full of communist memorabilia. It was our guides' reaction to that memorabilia that has stayed with me all these years.

The conversation went something like this:

"Oh, look, we had that clock," said one Olga.

"We did, too!"

"My grandmother had that painting."

"Mine, too."

"And the statue."

"Yes."

"I don't understand," I butted in. "You all shopped at the same store?"

The Olgas exchanged a glance. There was just one clock you could buy, they explained. Ditto the painting, the statue and most other household items.

Of course, this uniformity of available goods pales in comparison to the suffering the Ukrainian people endured under Soviet rule, but the pampered Westerner in me was shocked nonetheless. I remember thinking, "I couldn't live like that."

More importantly, the Olgas had no intention of living like that either, and they regarded the restaurant and all it represented as pure kitsch.

They felt the same way about the Motherland statue, which stands more than 300 feet high and dominates the city skyline. The fierce-looking, Soviet-era statue is part of a complex that also includes several smaller clusters of militaristic statues, tanks, airplanes and other weaponry -- arresting relics from the past that now take on a more ominous meaning.

My colleague and Travel Weekly contributor Nadine Godwin, who briefly visited Kyiv a few years after I did, shared her reminiscences with me, some of which centered around the airport -- which we both hated for its lack of escalators and grim-faced personnel.

"The personnel and setup in the airport reminded me of Soviet-style operations, [but] I did not have quite that same impression about people in the city," she said, sharing a photo of cute souvenirs that she saw for sale at kiosks around the city.

Of course, now we are praying for that very airport, which is now closed, and for the safety of the people of Ukraine, whose fate is unclear.

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