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A Stroll Along Shevchenko Boulevard
Oleksa PANIV takes the readers on a walk along one of the central streets of Kyiv, Shevchenko Boulevard, with its intimations of the noble past, STILL VISIBLE VESTIGEs of the soviet ERA, oases of summer greenery, and the busy present-day.
Boulevard is defined as a wide city street, usually tree-lined and landscaped. There are several streets in Kyiv which fall under this definition. As a matter of fact, a great many streets in Kyiv are lined with trees along the curbs but they are not referred to as “boulevards.”
The boulevard that fully earns such an appellation is located right in the very heart of the city — it is Taras Shevchenko Boulevard.
First, some bits of history
The earliest known documented mention of the boulevard dates to 1834, but then it was called Bulvarne shosse, that is, Boulevard Highway.
Then, Kyiv was a provincial town of the Russian Empire, with not too many features that would make one feel its Ukrainian background — but Kyiv was growing fast, in every sense of the word: in size, sophistication and culture.
In 1869, the street was named after Dmytro Bibikov, Kyiv Province Governor General and the name held until 1919 when, two years after the revolution of 1917, which brought Ukraine a couple of years of independence, it was renamed Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, to honor Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet and cultural figure of the nineteenth century.
The Bolsheviks, who returned to Ukraine into the fold of the Russian Empire, which acquired a new name too, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union), did not bother to change the name, appropriating Shevchenko’s fame to their propaganda purposes, turning the poet into a sort of revolutionary. They even went ahead and built a monument to Shevchenko, making him look very somber and pensive. The monument stands in the park across the street from the “Red Building” of the University (the red color has nothing to do with the “red” Bolsheviks — it was painted red in the 1830s when it was built). The park, along which runs Shevchenko Boulevard, often becomes a scene of all sorts of pro-government and anti-government rallies and manifestations on dates which are connected with Shevchenko’s life or history of Ukraine (in the soviet times, KGB made sure no one would be milling around in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts or carrying Ukrainian national colors of yellow and blue — Ukrain
ian “nationalism” was ruthlessly stamped out by the soviets).
During WWII, the Nazis did not bother with knocking down the monument to Shevchenko but changed the name of the street.
There have been but a few architectural or major visual changes since the post-war reconstruction, with the exception of a several soviet-style apartments, a couple of hotels and a very recent ugly high-rise, all of which deface the long stretches of the street.
The street was provided with an alley of trees that ran along its length in the center of it in the late 1830s. The original horse chestnuts were replaced by poplars in the 1840s, and poplars have remained ever since.
Unfortunately, the ever-intensifying air-pollution, mostly provided by the ever growing number of cars, does not do much good to the trees whose leaves wither and turn dirty brown in color by the end of summer, long before the advent of the cold. The city authorities do not seem to be doing anything about it — the air-pollution, that is, or the cars which have already invaded the sidewalks.
Shevchenko Boulevard presents the greatest concentration in town of all sorts of schools, hotels, restaurants, parks and other features which make it a street truly unique in Kyiv.
The first known building that was erected in the street now sits at Number 25. As time went on, the street acquired mansions and brick houses of lesser visual attractions, but still fitting the general architectural appearance of the street.
The rather pompous Cathedral of St Volodymyr in the pseudo-Byzantine-Old-Russian style, the Botanical Garden, a couple of stately buildings that housed schools (one of these buildings now belongs to Shevchenko University — it is known as Yellow Building and is in fact, yellow) made the street an architectural landmark.
In close vicinity to the Boulevard, in the streets that cross it, there stand the central building of Shevchenko University (the “Red Building”), university libraries, The House of Teachers (the seat of the Ukrainian government in the early years of independence after the revolution of 1917) and a number of other buildings worthy of some architectural attention.
At present, the boulevard also boasts the central building of the Medical University, three hotels, one of them five star, Drahomanov University, a big hospital, several restaurants, two of them of Japanese cuisine, to name but more important sites.
But most, if not all, of what is of any architectural or visual merit had been built before the Bolsheviks came to power. The Bolsheviks and their direct descendants seemed to be bending over backwards to turn beauty into ugliness in everything they touched.
Their additions to the boulevard in the shape of apartments are ugly or at best nondescript. But the two most disgraceful additions are the two monuments which continue to be standing, Ukrainian independence notwithstanding, on the boulevard named after arguably the most revered cultural figure of Ukraine, promoter of freedom and independence.
One of the disgraces is a monument to Lenin which stands at the beginning of the boulevard, at the crossroads with the central street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk, facing the central food market. It was erected in 1946 and the inscription on it says that without a concerted and joint effort of the Russian and Ukrainian proletarians no free Ukraine is possible. How about that in the capital of a country that was suppressed in every possible way for centuries by its huge imperialist geographical neighbor, Russia?
The monument is to the person who played the pivotal role in the soviet enslaving of Ukraine. Lenin’s polices resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people during the civil war, and later of millions of people under Lenin’s heir, Stalin.
The monument seems to mock the very idea of Ukraine’s independence and openly proclaims it in the inscription — and yet no government or president since Ukraine’s independence more than twenty years ago has dared to remove the mocking monument, offensive to anything and everything Ukrainian. A couple of years ago someone tried to deface the face of the statue with a hammer — the offender was caught and punished; the communists had the face restored and placed the armed guard at the monument to protect it from “nationalistic vandalism”.
Every time, passing by the monument and seeing the guards lounging on the benches at its foot, I can’t help asking myself — is the Soviet Union really dead? As long as that monument stands in the street named after Shevchenko in the center of the capital of an “independent” Ukraine, the soviet spirit lives on and no true independence is possible.
To add insult to injury, the soviets erected another monument at the other end of the street — the monument to Mykola Shchors, a Red Army general whose contribution to the defeat of the forces of the independent Ukraine in 1919 was probably the greatest. Is it some sort of perverse Ukrainian masochism that keeps this and other such monuments intact all across Ukraine, years after the bloodiest and most tyrannical regime had collapsed?
Parks and relaxation
But in spite of such eyesores, it is still a pleasure to take a stroll up and down the boulevard. If you begin your walk from Khreshchatyck, close your eyes passing the monster in granite, then, once you are past it, continue your amble along the alley that runs in the center of the street. On the right and left will be two old hotels, overhauled and restored to meet the present-day requirements, one of the hotels not without some chic.
As you move up, on the right you’ll see the Museum of Shevchenko (if you have time, pay a visit), and right opposite it, there stands one of the buildings of the Medical University. If you take a left turn and walk a few yards, you’ll spot a Museum or Russian Art, and still further down the same street, there is another Museum, of Western and Oriental Art.
The next stop can be Shevchenko Park, the one with the monument to Shevchenko in it. Walk through the park, sit on a bench, watch the kids playing on the playground, students discussing their boyfriends and girlfriends and other important matters, some students reading, eat an ice-cream, relax, look at the pensive poet in bronze.
Having rested, move on. On the right side of the boulevard, you’ll be greeted by the bright color of the “Yellow Building” of Shevchenko University, the seat of philological learning.
Progressing further, also on the right side, you can’t miss the monumental Cathedral of St Volodymyr, the nineteenth-century architectural landmark with frescoes decorating its interior that some find attractive.
On the same side of the street you’ll pass by the building of another university, but slow down and cross to the left side. Enter the Botanical Garden (named after Academician Fomin); it is often referred to as The Old Botanical Garden — the “new” one is located in a different part of town.
It is not very big but offers an oasis of relative quiet in the hustle and bustle of the center of a big town. Its many bowers lure the weary and those who want to have some moments of serene contemplation, or those who think they are in love.
If resting on one of the benches in the Garden has restored your desire to proceed walking, stroll, now literally down the street. If you walk on the left side, at the first crossing to the left you’ll spot in the distance the building of the central railroad terminal (on the other side of the boulevard, there stands the central railroad ticket office).
As you walk down, a couple of curious-looking buildings of the nineteenth-early twentieth century are observable on the right side of the boulevard.
A couple of hundred yards to the bottom of the street will take you past another hotel, and a couple of Japanese restaurants (ignore the ugly buildings on the other side). If you feel famished or if you care for Japanese food, try any of these eateries — the food seems to be of genuinely Japanese cuisine.
The streets empties into a big square, with a sort of an obelisk in the center (commemorating the victory in World War II) and a circus building on one side, and a big department store (which now calls itself “mall”) and a nondescript hotel on the other side.
The walk is over.
Shevchenko Boulevard provides, I think, a good glimpse of how really beautiful the city of Kyiv could be if…
Boulevard Shevchenko in the early 20th century, with the central building of St Volodymyr University (now Shevchenko University) in the background.
The monument to Count Alexey Bobrinsky, a famous industrialist and a patron of art. Early 1900s.
The central building of Shevchenko University (often referred to as The Red Building).
The building that now houses the Institute of Philology of Shevchenko University (formerly – a hymnaziya school).
The interior of the Cathedral of St Volodymyr.
The facade of the Cathedral of St Volodymyr that faces the Boulevard.
Central entrance to the Botanical Garden as seen from the garden.
Magnolias in bloom in the Fomin Botanical Garden.
The Boulevard in the early 20th century.
A monument to Shchors who executed Lenin’s orders and was instrumental in establishing the tyrannical soviet power in Ukraine, at the end of boulevard. Photo of the 1950s.
A monument to Lenin, who was responsible for the Red Army invasion of the independent Ukraine, at the beginning of the Boulevard. Photo of the 1950s.