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Khreshchatyk: Con Amore!
Andriy Hlazovy, a historian and journalist, who is also an enthusiast of Kyiv’s history and culture, tells a story of the main street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk, and does it Con Amore, With Love.
It’s a commonplace to say that every city with a long history has its own “character”, particularly if we are talking about a capital. Commonplace or not, it happens to be very true when applied to Kyiv. Such cities, like people, live through periods of time when things are going fine, and periods when things are not fine at all. There are times of misfortunes and times of flourishing. Some people may abandon such a city, as one ditches one’s lover, but later many come back, penitent. Such cities may suffer and may be jealous, they grow old and are rejuvenated — they change their appearance, but they retain their basic character.
Khreshchatyk has been regarded for quite a long time now as a sort of “the heart” of Kyiv, the city which is at least fifteen hundred years old. But Khreshchatyk is a relatively young place in Kyiv, particularly if compared to such sections of town as Podil or even Pechersk.
Yes, Khreshchatyk is a “young” street in comparison to the city’s age. In the medieval times, when Kyiv was the capital of a very large state (large but with rather loosely defined borders), known as Kyivan Rus, the valley between the Kyiv hills along which runs Khreshchatyk of today, was overgrown with trees and bushes, with all sorts of beasts prowling around. It took but a short walk from the walls of the then Kyiv to get to this valley. There was so much game that hunters used nets to catch “small fry” rather than arrows or spears. A small river was flowing through the valley, which some sources say, was called Khreshchatyk. In fact, there are several explanations as to the meaning of the word “Khreshchatyk” but there is no consensus among historians as to the origin of the name.
In 1240 a massive tragedy of lingering and very painful consequences struck — the hordes of Batu Khan (1203–1255), Mongol ruler, grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded Kyivan Rus which had already split into a number of virtually independent principalities, and stormed Kyiv, bringing death and destruction. Kyiv was like a tired warrior who no longer had the will to fight back. It took Kyiv centuries to heal its wounds and come back to life. The valley remained uninhabited and wild, but gradually, at the places which were cleared of trees, there sprang log cabins and wooden houses. At the end of the 18th century, a first stone building was erected in what would become a street. That building housed a sort of a stage for stagecoaches and a post office. That first building proved to be the beginning of a street to be called Khreshchatyk. By the end of the nineteenth century it was definitely the central street of Kyiv.
A walk begins
It is hardly imaginable that anyone who comes to Kyiv for more than changing trains at the railroad terminal, would fail to take at least a short walk in Khreshchatyk.
Today, Khreshchatyk runs from Yevropeyska (European) Square through Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence) Square to Bessarabska Square. The street acquired its present name in 1869, but the soviets changed it to Vorovskoho in 1923 only to give the street back its original name in 1937. Today it is a rather wide street — 130 meters (426 feet) wide, but a short one — only 1,200 meters, or 3937 feet long.
I suggest we begin our stroll from European Square.
The name of the square has nothing to do with Ukraine’s desire — that so far has been thwarted — to become a member of the European Union. The old name of this square was given to it by a hotel, Evropeysky, which was built there in the mid-nineteenth century. The square changed names quite often — Teatralna (Theater’s), Kinna (Equestrian), Tsarska (Czar’s), Tretyeho Internatsionalu (of the 3rd International — what a name for a square!), Stalina (Stalin’s) and Leninskoho Komsomolu (of Lenin’s Youth Organization). After Ukraine’s independence, the square was given back its decent name.
There are three buildings that actually form the square — a hotel, a culture center and a philharmonic society. The massive building of the Ukrayinsky Dim Culture Center was built as a museum of Lenin (the founder of the Soviet state who, incidentally never visited either Kyiv or Ukraine). After the ignominious collapse of communism, it was converted into a culture center and today it is the venue of all sorts of conferences, exhibitions and presentations which are held there, many of the events being of a political nature and rather pompous. The much older building which used to belong to the merchants of Kyiv and which now houses the National Philharmonic Society, has seen and heard performances of a great many musicians, composers and singers, among them Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, and Shalyapin (incidentally, the Roman Pope John-Paul II, during his visit to Ukraine and to Kyiv, paid a visit to the Philharmonic Society as well).
Right behind the building of the Philharmonic Society begins a park that descends in terraces down the slopes towards the Dnipro River. It is an old park. Symphony and brass orchestras used to play at an open-air stage; there was an open-air dancing ground, and little cafes sold ice-cream and soft drinks (today, the trade is done from booths and stalls). One of the more recent features of the park is a new, fairy-tale style puppet theater which replaced an old movie house. In the soviet times, the puppet theater gave its performances in what used to be a synagogue. In 1997, the synagogue was given back to the Jewish religious community and the puppet theater company was homeless for several years but luckily now it has a wonderful building designed for puppet performances and for children to enjoy both the performances and the place itself.
From Europe to Independence
It is only a short walk from Yevropeyska to Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square.
But first, a bit of a history. It was somewhere close to this square that one of the gates to ancient Kyiv, Lyadsky vorota, through which the troops of Batu Khan broke into Kyiv, was once located. The square also changed several names in its not too long a history, and after Ukraine’s independence it acquired the name of Nezalezhnist. It was in 2004 that Independence Square became the venue of a major political event which became known as “Orange Revolution” when conscientious citizens staged their several-week protest against the rigging of the presidential elections (alas, the results of the Orange Revolution proved to be much different from what was expected of it). Today, Maydan Nezalezhnosti on various occasions becomes the scene of rock shows and various festivals.
The square beats any other square in Kyiv as to the number of monuments per square foot. In the soviet times, there was only one monument — a granite idol of Lenin with a soldier, a sailor and someone else for company. The monument was removed to be replaced by fountains, a column that symbolizes Independence (the column is topped by a female figure that has a guilder-rose branch in its hands; popularly, the figure is often referred to as “That gal with a broom”), monuments to the mythological founders of Kyiv, a monument to Kozak Mamay (a classical figure of the Ukrainian Cossack folklore), a monument to Archangel Michael (I and many Kyivans seem to fail to understand why the figure of the archangel is black). This crowd of monuments evokes mixed feelings, but Maydan remains to be the very center of Kyiv where parades and other sorts of rallies and staged events are held.
The New Year night attracts to Maydan thousands of merrymakers who fortify themselves with drinks, do a lot of dancing and watch fireworks.
During weekends, most of Khreshchatyk is closed for traffic and Kyivans take leisurely strolls and listen to street musicians and to professional performers as well.
There are a lot of stalls at which you can buy all sorts of souvenirs (many of which I find to be in bad taste), refreshments, matryoshkas (wooden dolls, which open to reveal smaller dolls nested inside one another) with painted faces on them, some of which represent not only Ukrainian but Russian and even American or other politicians, soviet flags, soviet army uniforms and caps from civil-war times (not genuine, of course), and a lot of other trinkets. Most of that stuff is meant for undiscerning tourists who do not mind to waste a bit of money on worthless things.
One of the buildings that stands above Khreshchatyk on one of the hills is another culture center. The building, designed in the Russian neo-classicist style of the nineteenth century, was used in its history for very different proposes indeed — it started out as an educational institution for “girls from noble families”; in the soviet times it was a department of the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB, with underground prison cells which doubled as torture chambers, but gradually it became a culture center where all sorts of performances were held and films shown.
From the 19th to 20th
At the end of the nineteenth-in the early twentieth centuries, most of the buildings in Khreshchatyk, which had by then acquired an air of respectability, were three or four stories high, with the ground floors occupied by all sorts of offices, banks, expensive stores and restaurants. But only a handful of buildings from those times survive. In 1941, when the Nazi Germans took the city in their sweeping advance into the soviet territory, the retreating soviets put mines into most of the buildings in Khreshchatyk and once the Germans captured the city and began to settle down — luckily not for long — the mines were set off by the members of the soviet underground resistance groups. The fires caused by the explosions turned into a conflagration which destroyed most of Khreshchatyk. What was left was destroyed two years later by the retreating Germans who torched many buildings in Khreshchatyk and elsewhere with flame throwers.
In the postwar years, in a massive reconstruction effort, the ruins were removed, new buildings in a pompous soviet style were built, and some of the old ones, which had not been damaged beyond repair, were reconstructed. This new soviet architectural style, encouraged by Stalin, had an overabundance of decorative elements, too many columns, too many balustrades and stylized figures. This much too showy decorativeness inspired the local wits to call the buildings in this style “Stalin cakes” or “dreams of an insane confectioner.”
Today, when Khreshchatyk has once again became a neighborhood of expensive stores, restaurants and offices, the visual coexistence of new capitalism and old sovietism looks rather piquant.
Shortest but beautiful
Being the shortest main street in Europe, Khreshchatyk has several features that redeem its shortness. One of them is a line of trees, most of them horse chestnuts, that stretch along it for about half of its length. The trees are supplemented with benches which rarely stand unoccupied. These benches are very popular both with the young and the elderly. Those who look retired exchange gossip or just dreamily rest; those who look like tourists rest their feet from too much walking. Incidentally, the geography of where these tourists come from is very wide — some are from as far off as Chicago or Tokyo, others from not so distant places. There are young and not so young women with baby carriages (the neighborhood being a rich and expensive one, there are more babysitters and nannies than “native” mothers). Even homeless bums look decently clad in Khreshchatyk — nobless oblige, as they say. And there are many girls to be seen who, you may think, are fashion or photo models languidly walking along the street or perching on the benches with contemptuous expressions on their faces. But don’t be misled — only very few of them actually are. Kyiv is known for the stunning beauty of young girls and women who live here. Probably, it’s the magic of the city that breeds them.
And don’t be too surprised or annoyed to encounter bevies of Gypsies who may accost you with challenging offers to tell your fortune.
Among the conspicuous features that you are likely to spot on the left side of Khreshchatyk — left, if you walk from Yevropeyska towards Bessarabska Square, is a tall arch that signals the beginning of a short street that connects Khreshchatyk with a street that runs parallel to it. This Passazh — Passage, as it is called, is of a rather venerable age. In fact, it’s a sort of a street with two rows of apartment houses without spaces between them whose ground floors were occupied by stores and cafes — and still are. Neither the destructions of the wars nor the soviets’ reconstruction fever have done the Passazh too much harm. The part that faces Khreshchatyk looked too “bourgeois” to the soviets and they modified it to suit their proletarian tastes better. Among the modifications were the monumental cement figures that guard the entrance at the arch. Being the very center of town, the Passazh offers both entertainment and chic goods — but for a price.
If you stroll through doing some window or actual shopping, you will easily spot a figure sitting at the far end of the short Passazh street. It is a monument to Wladislaw Leszek Desideri Horodecki (Horodetsky), a scion of a noble Polish family and a flamboyant architect of great talent. His architectural designs and creations of the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century held the Kyivans of those times spellbound. They admired his inventive approach to architecture. Horodecki loved traveling, hunting, creative writing, mystifying people, and being the center of attention of high society. There are many legends about him — with most of the legends arising from facts. He was said to be driving around in his convertible with the roof down, wearing a long scarf that streamed behind him, and with a pet monkey perched on his shoulder.
In Kyiv, Horodecki designed such buildings as the Art Museum, the legendary House with Chimeras (his own home), the central synagogue, St Michael’s, a Neo-Gothic church — plus a lot more. The Bolshevik revolution made him redundant in Kyiv and he traveled to Iran where he designed the railroad terminal in Teheran and a palace for the shah. In Passazh, the bronze Horodecki, a mustached, elegantly dressed dandy, sits, at the table with a pipe and with a cup of coffee and a book in front of him. The title of the bronze books says: “V. Horodecki. In The Jungles of Africa.”
At the other end of Khreshchatyk you come to another square, Bessarabska. At the end of the nineteenth century there used to be a market place where now the square is, with wine, fruit and tobacco from Bessarabia (today’s Moldavia and part of the southern Ukraine) being the main items of the brisk trade. In 1910–1912, the open-air market was replaced by a huge building which was designed as an indoor market. The architectural style of the building is a rather frivolous one, an imposing but nice mixture of features of Modern (local variant of Art Nouveau) and of the nascent constructivism. The Bessarabka Market Place offers arguably the biggest choice of vegetables (mostly from the farms in Kyiv’s vicinity), fruit, meat, cheese, fish, caviar and other goodies in town — but at the prices which are the highest in Kyiv.
The neighborhood that stretches along the streets Baseyna that begins at the Market and Shota Rustavely a little further away, used to be a quarter populated by the Jews of Kyiv. The Choral (main) Synagogue and the monument to the Yiddish author Shalom Aleikhem (Rabinovitz; 1859– 1916) who used to live in that neighborhood, and a memorial plaque on the wall of one of the buildings where Golda Meir, one-time prime minister of Israel used to live, are features worthy of note in that part of town, adjacent to Khreshchatyk...
But wait a minute — it was Khreshchatyk that we wanted to take a stroll in, not its neighborhood! Sorry, I do get carried away. See you some time soon.
Maydan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, through which
Young people seek respite from heat in the square’s fountains
One of the monuments in Maydan.
Maydan Nezalezhnosti is one of those places in central Kyiv
Khreshchatyk burning in the fall of 1941, shortly after the citywas captured by the invading German troops.
Khreshchatyk in the early twentieth century (a postcard).
Khreshchatyk in the 1930s.
The same stretch of Khreshchatyk today.
Besarabska Square at night. The central street of Kyiv ends in this square;