It was hot and sunny when we rolled into Kiev the next morning. As soon as I walked out of the station I liked the city. It was instantly reminiscent of Moscow but at the same time obviously less huge and intimidating. I walked out of the station on Komintern Street, found a hostel and then set out to explore.
In Lviv, there had been no supermarkets – at least, none that I’d managed to find. There were only small grocery stores where it was quite difficult to buy things because most of the produce was kept behind the counter, and I didn’t know many Ukrainian words for food beyond kleb for bread. But outside my hostel here was a huge and well-stocked supermarket, and that made me like Kiev even more. I bought an ice cold drink and walked up Shevchenka, a sloping boulevard lined with grand buildings. This led me to Kreshchatyk, the main street, and on to Maydan Nezalezhnosti. This square, the heart of Kiev, had been the focus less than two years previously of the Orange Revolution. Hundreds of thousands of people protested rigged election results, sweeping Viktor Yushchenko to power in place of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich. I sat in the square in the hot September sun and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere.
I walked haphazardly, with no particular destination in mind. A short walk up a hill led me to the pastel blue St. Michael’s Monastery, topped with golden domes. Near by, a large expanse of parkland offered good views over the Dnipro River, and I walked down through the park to the ‘lower town’ district of Podil. Here, after a bit of searching, I found the Chernobyl Museum. It was about 5.30pm and the museum was supposed to close at 6, but the staff clearly fancied knocking off a bit early and I was rushed through the rooms at a furious pace. There were few signs in English but it was still obvious what a catastrophe the incident had been. Poignant displays showed photos of people who had been killed in the explosion and the hurried effort to seal the reactor immediately afterwards, and there were photos of the now-deserted town of Pripyat.
Back outside in the sunshine, I walked up Kiev’s most famous street, Andriyivsky Uzviz, which winds past street markets and monasteries from Podil back up to the main town, from where I could see the broad Dnipro river flowing slowly by. In the days after the Chernobyl accident the river had carried radioactivity from the disaster area right into the heart of Kiev. Radioactivity by Kraftwerk happened to be playing on my mp3 player. In 1986, when I was seven years old, I remember hearing about the accident. Then, Ukraine was a distant place, a province of a country on the other side of a terrible barrier from where I was. Now, in the hot autumn sun, there seemed no possible connection between the Soviet Union of then and where I was walking around now.