A woman selling dolls and homemade spirits. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The soul ofUkraine

January 04, 2017

The country is at war with neighboring Russia, but there's no evidence of that in the streets of Kiev -- no soldiers or obvious security presence. The main boulevard is closed off, but that's to make space for Father's Day activities. And despite a 65% devaluation of the hryvnia, Ukraine's currency, over the past few years, there are still some residents who shop at the Gucci and Ferragamo stores on Kheshchatyk Passage, the city's answer to Rodeo Drive.

In the evening, laborers and their bosses sit side by side in $7 seats at the city's acclaimed philharmonic orchestra or the opera, or perhaps at Olimpiyskiy Stadium, home to the national soccer club, where the most expensive ticket costs $16.

"Kiev may be the least-known European capital other than Tirana [Albania]," said Jean Baptiste Pigeon, the general manager of the city's InterContinental hotel. A Frenchman born in Mexico, he has worked in 11 countries, from Portugal to Japan, and said Ukraine can hold its own against any of them.

"It has everything," Pigeon continued. "Rich culture, architecture, interesting landscape, the sea, skiing, historic areas, gastronomy, good rooms, great service, safe streets."

But as 2017 dawns, its residents are also going through a period that is trying the soul of Ukraine. It's a complex soul that has become accustomed to trials, located culturally, spiritually, intellectually and literally between Russian and European capitals. Its current challenges began when, having deposed a pro-Russia president in its 2014 revolution, the Crimea region of Ukraine was annexed by its superpower next-door neighbor. Ukraine's army is currently battling to prevent a similar fate in its Donbass region, more than 400 miles east of Kiev.

The war is costly and has taken a toll on the economy. Tourism has taken a double hit: Russians used to make up its largest source market, and Westerners are wary of visiting a country that has been in the headlines due to conflict, no matter how far from the capital the conflict is occurring.

But, as is often the case when a country faces challenges, those who do visit find that its residents will readily engage in deep conversation with visitors.

Pigeon, who was present during the revolution, said his bonds with the Ukrainians immediately became stronger afterward. "We became a family in the seven days of the revolution," he said.


The gastronomic underground

All of the above is not to suggest that Kievans' focus on historical and current events means that the atmosphere is somber. Perhaps the best example of Ukrainian esprit de la resistance is found in the restaurant OB.

The name OB comes from the first letters of the Ukrainian words for "last barricade." There is no signage for the restaurant, which is located in a shopping complex beneath centrally located Independence Square, a site of political protests over the past 25 years. A prospective diner must first find the one elevator which has a button for OB, then, upon entering the restaurant lobby, give the password, a Ukrainian phrase meaning, "You fight, and you will win." (The transliteration: Boree'teesa ee-poboreteh.)

Once a diner gets this far, he or she faces a wall with 72 silver-colored hands attached to it (each represents one year when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union). The correct one must be pulled to get into the restaurant proper.

Once inside, the atmosphere is lively. On the walls of each room hang paraphernalia from a different Ukrainian revolution. The bar stocks only Ukrainian spirits and 22 varieties of local beer, including, we noticed, Obama Stout.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to insert a word or two about Ukrainian cuisine. In most city restaurants, one can find borscht (always served warm), varenyky (a dumpling similar to pierogi) and, yes, chicken Kiev.

Vodka is ubiquitous, and often flavored in ways that will be unfamiliar to Western palates. To my surprise, I developed a taste for horseradish vodka.

There are some unfamiliar traditional dishes I quite liked, such as chestnut soup with chopped, fried buckwheat kernels, and a mushroom-based dish called pine bolete.

The chefs at OB bring a nouvelle touch to traditional ingredients which, regardless of preparation, might give even Anthony Bourdain pause. On their menu, listed one after the other, were "brains with greens and hemp sauce," "bovine eggs with burnt butter and cranberries" and "internal parts of a goose."

(Prairie oysters and organ meat aside, the menu is quite varied, and even a picky American will find something that will please.)

OB presents one aspect of the Ukrainian soul: cheerful defiance.

But the Ukrainian ability to both embrace its history and interpret it with objectivity, rationality and even touches of ironic humor is sorely tested when presenting a site 60 miles north, one of its -- and the world's -- greatest catastrophes: Chernobyl. (View a slideshow here.)

Welcome to Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Tourists have been going to Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history, for 20 years. In 2015 alone, about 25,000 people visited the site. Before signing up for an eight-hour daytrip there, I gave a thorough read to the website of Chernobyl Tour, one of the operators offering guided excursions. The company acknowledges that it cannot guarantee that a visit to the area is completely risk-free, but made a credible case that unless one breaks the rules or is very, very unlucky, the typical exposure to radiation on the tours is well below danger levels.

The rules: No eating, except in the workers' canteen, where a prebooked lunch is served. Don't put a camera bag, purse or any item you're carrying on the ground or any other surface. Don't sit on the ground. Don't touch anything in any of the buildings that might be entered. Do not take anything with you as a souvenir. Walk only where your guide tells you to walk and do not stray from the group.

One can rent a Geiger counter from the tour operator for about $10 to check radiation levels along the way as well as check the accumulated exposure at the end of the tour. Visitors will get off the bus to be checked for possible contamination three times.

Participants must apply to go at least three days in advance and submit a copy of the personal-information page from their passports to obtain government approval. As our guide, Maxim Krygin, explained, "Every tourist is a possible terrorist."

Before we boarded the bus in Kiev, Krygin, a former mathematician at the country's National Academy of Science, turned on his Geiger counter and showed an ambient-radiation reading of 0.11 microsieverts.

Normal readings are in the 0.08-0.12 range, though they will be closer to the top of the range in cities because granite and other building material contributes minor levels of radiation.

Indeed, when we stopped at a convenience store 30 minutes outside the city, the reading had already gone down to 0.09.

The Ferris wheel in Pripyat on the grounds of an amusement park that was to open on May Day, 1986, four days after Reactor No. 4 exploded.
The Ferris wheel in Pripyat on the grounds of an amusement park that was to open on May Day, 1986, four days after Reactor No. 4 exploded. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

During our drive north, we were shown a BBC documentary on the Chernobyl disaster, and it was depressingly straightforward. My companion for the day was Gregg Truman, Ukrainian Airlines' general manager for North America, and his eyes widened as we watched. Just after the narrator described the deaths from radiation poisoning of Soviet soldiers who were trying to contain the reactor, Truman raised his hand and said, "Check, please."

"Welcome to [the] Chernobyl Exclusion Zone," Krygin said as we pulled up to the entry gate. We got off the bus and showed our passports. Though we were still in the countryside, the radiation level had crept back up to 0.11. "It will go up the closer we get to Reactor No. 4," Krygin said.

"I wonder if they have Uber out here," Truman said.

Visitors from 16 nations were on our bus, the majority from Germany and the U.K., but China, Brazil, the Netherlands, Japan, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe were also represented. Truman and I were the only Americans. "It's rare for Ukrainians to come," Krygin said.

I asked if Russians ever joined.

"Seldom," he said. "Russians aren't afraid of radiation, but perhaps are afraid of Ukrainians. They aren't very popular."

The Dutch put on disposable green coveralls more typically used by poultry farmers, and some of the Germans donned blue Tyvek coveralls.

The Chernobyl Tour website also promoted visits that included overnight stays in the exclusion zone. I asked Krygin how safe that could be. "There are people who work out here," he said. "We'll pass the buildings where they live, and we'll be eating lunch with some of them."

Habitable? 'Not in a million years'

Our first stop within the exclusion zone was Zalissya, an abandoned village. Reports that I had read about visiting the exclusion zone suggested it was like going back in time and that everything was left exactly as it was on April 26, 1986, when the reactor blew up.

But that wasn't exactly true. Vegetation and the elements had certainly taken their toll on Zalissya. In a former health center, the floorboards had rotted through in places. Certificates hung on walls, the paper yellowed and fragile-looking, and hospital beds -- one with stirrups attached -- rusted in the rooms.

A doll on the grounds of a former day care center near Chernobyl registers at twice the normal levels of ambient radiation, 30 years after the nuclear reactor accident.
A doll on the grounds of a former day care center near Chernobyl registers at twice the normal levels of ambient radiation, 30 years after the nuclear reactor accident. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The most emotionally moving moments occurred in playgrounds and a nursery school. The BBC documentary we had seen on the bus ride made it clear that the population had not been moved out of the area until after it had been exposed to very high doses of radiation. Thinking of that and seeing swings and slides with smiley faces, lockers with cheerful stickers or child-size beds was heartbreaking.

The soil had been scraped and removed from many of the areas where we walked, but as we approached the nursery school, Krygin warned, "Please be very careful here. Follow me exactly. Don't even take one step to the side." He showed us examples of "hot spots" in front of the school where an area as small as six inches in diameter could have radiation levels 280 times higher than the ambient reading.

Back in the bus, we rolled past a statue of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin beside the road. "Likely the only one still standing in Kiev region," said Krygin.

We stopped at a graveyard for robotic machines that had been brought in to remove highly radioactive fuel rods. The rods posed an extreme danger of igniting an explosion in an adjacent reactor which, it was feared, would erupt in an even more powerful explosion, one that would render Europe uninhabitable. However, the radiation from the rods was so powerful that it rendered the machines useless, and the rods had to be removed by soldiers, all of whom died shortly afterward. Thirty years later, the machines are still too contaminated to approach safely.

I asked Krygin how long it would be before the area could be settled again. "Almost every known radiation source is present," he replied. "Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so unless technology is developed to speed that up, it will never be habitable, not in a million years."

Nonetheless, he said, about 100 residents never left their homes within the exclusion zone. We later saw an older man walking toward a still-active 200-year-old Eastern Orthodox church.

The bus turned left down what was once a secret road so we could see an enormous military radar installation, a wall of interconnected towers that is half a mile wide and 500 feet tall. Its retro look of pods and geometric patterns was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Similar installations from its era have been disassembled and their materials reused, but this entire installation is considered too hot to be salvaged, and stands as an outsize monument to two events that loom large in Ukraine's history: the Cold War and the tragedy of Chernobyl.

On our way to see Reactor No. 4, the source of the accident, we stopped near a cooling pond, and Krygin told us to bring any extra food we might have to feed some fish. We walked out over the water on a bridge and saw a school of supersize catfish, some approaching five feet in length, near the surface. Thinking of "The Simpsons" and Blinky, the three-eyed fish that lived near Springfield's nuclear power plant, I asked whether their size had anything to do with mutations due to radioactive exposure. "No," Krygin said. "No one's fishing, everyone's feeding."

A sarcophagus, with a side of borscht

The reactor itself was much smaller than I had imagined, though what one sees today is the outside of a concrete sarcophagus that covers the remains of the reactor. When the covering was completed 30 years ago, it was thought it would last 30 years. A larger containment unit is being readied next to it, prepared to encase the one that's about to expire. The new sarcophagus is built to last 100 years.

We went to the nearby workers' canteen. Before being brought to the dining room, we had our first contamination test, standing in a machine with our feet and palms on sensors. We all passed, were instructed to wash our hands thoroughly and went up for a lunch of borscht, potato pancakes, coleslaw, pasta, mashed potatoes and beef, chicken or pork.

"Same as the workers get," Krygin said.

Afterward, we went to Pripyat, a city built to house plant workers and their families. At the time of the accident, it was 16 years old and had a population of around 50,000.

We visited a recreation center, school and an apartment building. From the roof of the apartments, one could clearly see just how close the reactor was to the city.

All the buildings had deteriorated significantly, and what had once been wide boulevards looked more like narrow side streets. The forest had encroached from both sides, and signage and lampposts that had once been on curbs now stood well into vegetation.

A schoolbook featuring images of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, on the floor of the town’s abandoned school.
A schoolbook featuring images of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, on the floor of the town’s abandoned school. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The long-abandoned school we toured would have made the perfect setting for a video of the Alice Cooper song, "School's Out." Forever. It was completely trashed. Books were strewn over all the floors. (Krygin said the bookcases had been salvaged, and the books just dumped out.) Instructional posters still on the walls heralded the glory of Lenin and other Soviet leaders. Children's art could be found tacked to bulletin boards or among the papers on the floor.

Back on the bus, Krygin told us to turn on our Geiger counters as we drove quickly through the highest levels of radiation we would be exposed to that day, in the "red forest." Extremely high levels of fallout had turned the trees in that patch of land red. Our Geiger counters rose quickly to the level of 7.0 microsieverts, then dropped just as quickly.

Our final stop was at a large stadium/amusement park complex. The stadium had begun to host games shortly before the accident, but the amusement park was scheduled to open on May Day 1986, just four days after the accident. A Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a spin ride still stand rusting, never used.

Our final checkpoint, at the border of the exclusion zone, was calibrated to be more sensitive to radiation than the others, Krygin said, and there have been visitors who registered as "contaminated" there. "If contaminated," he said, "it means you broke a rule."

We all passed the test. As we rode back to Kiev and checked our Geiger counters one last time, I saw that I had absorbed a cumulative total of 3.0 microsieverts -- about the same degree of exposure an airline passenger experiences after one hour of flight at 40,000 feet, according to Krygin.

An opulent exhibition of corruption

After the 2014 revolution, it was not a great surprise for Ukrainians to see evidence that their deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, was corrupt. That was a given. But when they discovered the depth and breadth of his corruption, it went beyond what even typically cynical Ukrainians suspected.

Their president had used citizens' money to build Mezhyhirya, a 500-acre playground for himself and his family, complete with a zoo, restaurants, a golf course, idyllic ponds stocked with black swans, a luxe guest house where he entertained Russian president Vladimir Putin, a museum of antique cars and extensive gardens -- among other touches.

He had a fitness center that included a bowling alley, a boxing ring, a tennis bubble and a spa with a salt room as well as a vertical tanning bed that monitored skin tone to achieve the perfect tan.

That was connected by underground tunnels to his mansion, which featured Lalique crystal chandeliers in the bathrooms, a private movie theater with massaging/vibrating leather armchairs, intricate parquet floors and, in the living area, one of 25 limited edition white Steinway grand pianos signed by John Lennon.

In stained glass in a private chapel, his face was featured as God Himself.

Yet his staff said he had become a prisoner of the house, trusting no one and fearing that the day would come that he would be ousted or assassinated.

Petro Oliynyk brought this vandalized painting of Yanukovych and Viktor Pshonka, former prosecutor general of Ukraine, from Pshonka’s residence.
Petro Oliynyk brought this vandalized painting of Yanukovych and Viktor Pshonka, former prosecutor general of Ukraine, from Pshonka’s residence. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

As it became clear in February 2014 that the revolution had succeeded and Yanukovych had fled to Russia, Ukrainians smashed down the gates of the compound and rushed to the mansion. But one man in the crowd made it to the doorway first and turned to face the rest. Petro Oliynyk, 34, a grocer from Lviv, stopped the crowd from entering, arguing that the contents belonged to the Ukrainian people and should not be vandalized or looted. He went inside, locked the doors and for two years never left, standing guard over the house, ultimately with a few trusted assistants.

The new government turned Mezhyhirya into a national park and has taken responsibility for maintaining the expansive grounds. The entrance fee is about $2, and there is an additional fee for guided tours via golf cart. Concessionaires also rent out bicycles and Segways for those who want to explore on their own.

But to see the inside of the mansion -- popularly called the Museum of Corruption -- one must make an appointment with the mercurial Oliynyk. Although he now leaves the house at night, he comes back to give tours, by appointment, if you're referred by a source he trusts. (View a slideshow here.)

He charges about $7 for the tour and, he said, uses the money for upkeep. (After almost three years, there does not appear to be even a speck of dust in the place.) In an interview after the tour, he said the government will not provide maintenance funds and has even turned off utilities in the mansion in an effort to get him out. (He figured out how to turn on the auxiliary power.)

He greets visitors wearing a flag of national resistance as a cape, and in our interview freely criticized the current government as being as corrupt as the previous one, the only difference being that the people's standard of living has eroded since the revolution.

Oliynyk said he will not leave until provisions have been made to turn the house into an official museum, with the proviso that absolutely nothing be removed. He fears that anything taken for government storage will somehow disappear before it makes it to a warehouse. Although Oliynyk is a walking encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, some of them seemingly outlandish, one suspects he is right to worry about the fate of the contents that might be removed.

The two main characters in the story of Mezhyhirya, Yanukovych and Oliynyk, reveal two more sides of the Ukrainian soul, one cynical and corrupt, one idealistic and patriotic, but both extraordinarily suspicious and justifiably paranoid.

Jump-starting tourism

Accompanying me to Mezhyhirya and on a tour of Kiev were Julia Kulik and Aleksandr Skrypka, the young couple who owns JC Travel, a receptive operator. I found them to be enterprising and enthusiastic, arranging my visits to both Chernobyl and Mezhyhirya and coaching me on the correct pronunciation of the password to gain entrance to OB. They scored great tickets to see the local soccer team, FC Dynamo, and ziplined with me across the Dnieper River in central Kiev.

They and one of their guides, Olga Karpenko, walked me through onion-domed churches and beautiful city parks and provided the narration for a fascinating architectural tour.

The couple's upbeat outlook and cheery professionalism seemed a reflection of the hopeful energy and new-dawn vibe of OB. Despite challenges the country is facing and the looming presence of Russia, these young entrepreneurs see a way to marshal the country's identity and considerable cultural assets and resources to boost both tourism and national self-esteem.

While in Kiev, I had dinner with Frank Ludwig, a German who serves as the senior inspector for tourism for Kiev, and he is working with the private sector in support of raising arrival numbers. Given the competing priorities for government resources in the country at the moment, he relies heavily on working with the private sector to formulate strategies to promote visitation. (View a slideshow here.)

The facade of the 7-year-old InterContinental Kiev evokes an earlier era.
The facade of the 7-year-old InterContinental Kiev evokes an earlier era. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

He is linked to what seems to be a burgeoning informal network of private-sector players who are cooperating in and coordinating tourism promotion. Ukraine Airline's Truman is a driving force in trying to increase traffic from the U.S.; he had met Kulik and Skrypka of JC Travel at the New York Times Travel Show last year (they're returning this year, as well), and together they connected me with the InterContinental's Pigeon and also Dejan Djordjevic, the managing director of hospitality business for Esta Holding, whose properties include Kiev's Opera Hotel. (My trip was fully hosted, thanks to Truman's efforts.)

My overnights at the InterContinental and Opera reflected properties with a full understanding of international luxury standards. The InterContinental was recognized within its parent company as being the European hotel of the year and having the best hotel service in Europe. For five years running, it has been rewarded as having the best breakfast in the hotel group within Europe.

When I first saw the property, I thought it was a very well-maintained grand hotel built in the first quarter of the 20th century. It turned out that it, like much of the architecture in Kiev, is of more recent vintage but designed to be consistent with the aesthetic of that earlier era. The InterContinental is just 7 years old, and occupies an enviable location, within easy walking distance of major tourist sites and Independence Square.

The Egyptian suite in Kiev’s Opera Hotel.
The Egyptian suite in Kiev’s Opera Hotel. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

The Opera Hotel does have an older pedigree, and is said to have once been the residence of composer Franz Liszt. It's on a quieter street near the Opera House. Djordjevic said they are positioning the hotel, which is a member of Leading Hotels of the World, as an intimate, boutique-style property with a focus on personalized service. 

"We're not trying to compete with the big boys, the InterContinental, Hyatt or Hilton," he said.

A feature of the property is seven suites decorated in the style of opera locales: France, Russia, Italy, the U.S., Japan, Egypt and Morocco.

My overall impression is that Ukraine is an undervalued, barely known destination that will appeal not only to the adventurous who like exploring off-the-beaten-path locales, but would also suit anyone with an appreciation for classical culture. Truman envisions tours focused on opera and classical music; both the philharmonic and opera have a wide and varied repertoire, each featuring several different shows in any given week.

With high service levels, one-of-a-kind-attractions, quality performing arts and outstanding value, Ukraine seems primed to appear on some "best-kept-secret" lists. It certainly made mine. Ukraine Airline flies daily to Kiev from New York JFK March through October, and five days a week in low season. (The U.S. is crucial to its strategic plan to serve as a low-cost, global-network carrier.)

And no small part of its attractiveness lies in its people, their souls forged in centuries-old traditions, yet continually redefined by current events.