A Hostel Affair – Kiev: Man On A Single Minded Mission (Travels In Eastern Europe #54)

During my stay in Kiev, I met the standard mix of odd personalities that frequent most hostels. There were a group of four young male Brits who were drinking their way across the cheaper cities of Eastern Europe. They had come from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, on to Kiev looking for another few days of dizzying drinking. The hostel’s front desk personnel were all young ladies, who rather than the lively types I had met in other Eastern European hostels, were somber, quiet and shy. They looked as though they had been plucked out of a funeral procession. Sometimes though, they could be surprisingly hospitable, such as the young woman who barely uttered so much as a word, but upon my departure presented me with a box of chocolates as a thank you gift for staying at the hostel.

One of these quiet front desk types did manage to engage with another patron. On several evenings, I overheard an American accent fumbling through Ukrainian words. The woman who was helping him along also staffed the front desk. He was trying hard, but his efforts were well short of fluency or comprehension. I figured his real goal was to cultivate romance. One evening I struck up a conversation with this language learner. My assumptions about his linguistic studiousness could not have been more incorrect.

In search of Ukraine - Cliffs along the Dnieper River

In search of Ukraine – Cliffs along the Dnieper River (Credit: Matvey Andreyev)

Walking Into One World & Away From Another One
The man trying his best to learn some Ukrainian was an American. He looked to be in his late 20’s, had dark hair and a curious look in his eyes. His disposition was more like that of an office professional, than the kind of person one usually meets in a hostel. Prior to landing in Kiev he had worked as a government contractor in Maryland, not far outside of Washington D.C. He had recently quit that job to travel for an indefinite period of time. When I told him that I had taken a Free Tour of Kiev, which was an excellent way to learn about the history and culture of Ukraine, he self-righteously waved the idea off. “I don’t do those tourist things. That is not what I am interested in.” I then proceeded to ask him what he was doing in Kiev. He replied that he was going to spend several months walking along a route that would hug the Dnieper River. I figured he must be taking some sort of footpath or long distance trail. My assumption was wrong again. He was just going to head south while walking as close to the river as possible. His goal was to see and experience the real Ukraine, whatever that meant.

I found his adventure admirable, but a bit perplexing. Was he not a little bit worried about walking on private property? The answer was a confident no, he could manage. Was he going to at least take a look around Kiev before he went about blazing his own trail? In a tone of condescension, he reiterated that Kiev was only a jumping off point for his travels. He had no interest in seeing the city. The idea of tourism was heretical to this young man. I found my limited interaction with the American version of a latter day Robinson Crusoe frustrating. He did not have a plan on when or where he would finish.
It was already mid-autumn, I imagined even the best outfitted, most physically fit person would have difficulties navigating the Ukrainian countryside in winter. I could tell there was no use in bringing up this point. He was on a single minded mission, to see the real Ukraine and nothing was going to dissuade him from this goal.

Days Of Imagination – Land Of Frustration
From time to time I find myself wondering what happened to this American adventurer. I have multiple images in my mind. In one, he is getting shouted at and threatened by suspicious property owners who mistaken him for a thief, while he naively fumbles through some very bad Ukrainian that only serves to implicate him further in their eyes. In another, he is reduced to walking along roadsides, dodging wild drivers and dangerous close calls. After days of frustration, he finds the nearest bus stop and travels to another hostel where he makes a more sensible plan.

In still another, he ignores the hardship and irritation with self-righteous stubbornness. Any villager who shows even the slightest kindness affirms his belief in the goodness of all Ukrainians. If only the world could share his experience. This confirms his belief in the justice of his cause, which amounts to wandering around country roads and fields in a blissful stupor that will somehow prove enlightening. What really happened? I will never know. It is likely that he had some neat experiences along with a few close calls. When the chill of late autumn set in, his thoughts turned to warmer climes and the Ukrainian adventure abruptly came to an end.

Eclectic Endeavors – Not To Nowhere
A neutral observer – of which I was not – would likely say that my cynicism was only matched by the would be adventurer’s naivety. The inquisitive skeptic taking on the stubborn optimist was just about all our interaction really amounted to. Perhaps I was jealous that I did not have the time and courage to undertake such an eclectic endeavor. The adventurer believed in something pure and illuminating, where all I could see was absurdity and foolishness. Both perspectives were likely valid and said as much about why we were traveling in the first place. This man was on a mission to find something. Perhaps a purity and grace that middle class life and a comfortable, if unchallenging job in the United States could never provide him.

I, on the other hand, always wanted to be somewhere, something or someone else. Kiev was just a passing phase, I wished to make the temporary permanent. Going from one place to the next, satisfying my restlessness through constant travel. In search of the next best place, which was much the same as the last place.  Both of our dreams were based on self-delusion. The adventurer in search of one true path, myself in search of too many paths. All of this led not to nowhere or to Kiev or to this hostel, but somewhere deep inside ourselves.

Anything But A Walk In The Park – From Daylight To Darkness: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53b)

Trying to find the actual site of Babi Yar was rather difficult though I was most definitely in Babi Yar Park. I had expected to find some directional signage or ominous clues to the ravine’s location, instead what I found were people strolling around a rather large public park filled with deciduous trees. Autumn had yet to take hold despite the season, thus the trees were still thick with leaves. I was surrounded by greenery. It was hard enough to believe that 33,771 people had been executed at Babi Yar in just two days less than four generations ago. It was even harder to believe that such a thing could have happened in such a tranquil place.  Of course, places can change radically over time and the area around Babi Yar Park was quite different from what it had been in 1941. On the edge of the park was a large television station for Kiev. This building had been effectively constructed in place of the Jewish cemetery which had predated the war.

Babi Yar Ravine

Babi Yar Ravine

Dangerous Intuition – An Unfathomable Depth
The few black and white photographs taken at Babi Yar during the time of the massacre looked foreboding. A bleak, black and white landscape of dirt and grime, a polar opposite of the present. While the nature that surrounded me was inviting. I spent many minutes walking down one paved pathway after another. There were many elderly pensioners out for a walk. The deeper I went into the forested parkland the less I heard the city traffic on nearby streets. I began to believe that I was either in the wrong place or a coverup had been carried out. Was nature hiding the area’s history? Using the under and overgrowth as a cover. Straight and narrow paths led in a multitude of directions, these only took me deeper into the woodland.

My attempts to locate the ravine finally sent me off trail. I made my way through woods until I saw a higher point ahead of me. Walking towards this small prominence I came out into an area where the earth began to rise on both sides. I suddenly found myself standing in a ravine. I was unsure whether this was Babi Yar or not. I did not see any memorials or monuments. Coincidentally, the ravine and surrounding woods looked like a place I used to play as a child. Could one of the worst massacres in human history really have occurred in this place, it looked so familiar, so non-descript, startlingly average. The ravine was no more than 50 meters wide at its greatest extent. As I headed up into it, the space between the earthen walls narrowed. About this time another man came walking around the edge. Neither of us acknowledged the other, but I wanted to ask him of this really was Babi Yar? And if so, how could he go for a nonchalant walk in this part of the park.

A Memorial - Babi Yar Park

A Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Deep Disturbance – On The Ground & In The Ground
It occurred to me that I was might be standing where thousands of bodies were once stacked. In a bit of fearful curiosity my eyes darted from one side to the other looking for traces of bones. I did not see any, though nearby tree roots protruding from the earth made for macabre imaginations. And still I had no idea if I was in the correct spot, though some strange intuition began to creep over me. Like the feeling one has when they are in danger or about to be confronted with some horribly unsettling truth. Making my way to where the ravine started I forced to scale the steep earthen walls. Once at the top I began to look for any signs on the ground that this was Babi Yar. Over in some brambles and weeds I found a double cross erected from metal posts. I had to be close. Then I caught sight of a monument where the woods gave way to a clearing. There were a couple of people standing there, in front a monument with large menorah. At this point I knew that the ravine I had just walked up through was Babi Yar.

The confirmation was deeply unsettling. I soon made my way back to the precipice of Babi Yar. Peering down into it I tried, but could not imagine the endless stream of humanity that died here. And when I say humanity, not only the murder victims, but German humanity as well. The Jews lost their lives, the murderers had lost any sense of moral conscience. For me, the latter explained the former, rendering an explanation for what was otherwise a scarcely explicable tragedy. The fact that this site was now a public park with only a handful of monuments I found deeply disturbing. Something this horrible deserved more than what was here. This was the American coming out in me. In the United States, Babi Yar would have been a National Historic Site, with signage to offer education and interpretation in an effort to explain what happened. There was nothing of the sort here. Just the ravine, surrounded by woods and silence.

The Menorah Memorial - Babi Yar Park

The Menorah Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Ordinary People, Ordinary Places – A Million Lives Later
The killings at Babi Yar did not stop with the 33,771 Jews murdered on September 29th & 30th. That was just the start. Over the next two and a half years, Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, more Jews, communists and nationalists were killed here. Estimates of those murdered in and around the ravine are upwards of 100,000. The Syrets concentration camp, located in the immediate area, only added to the horrific death toll. The sheer immensity of the crimes committed were difficult to fathom. I was left asking myself, “All of this and now what”? The peaceful woods, paved trails, muffled sounds of a city in the distance and people enjoying nature. I had no idea what to make of it all. Part of me felt physically sick, another part slowly came to the realization that Babi Yar was a microcosm of the Holocaust. A reflection of the death dealt to millions on ordinary days, in ordinary places, by ordinary people.

The Nightmare That Was Kiev – Cauldron Of Loss: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53a)

The main reason I had traveled all the way to Kiev was due to a chance meeting with an Australian at a hostel in Lviv. The Aussie told me of a fascinating daytrip he had recently taken from Kiev to Chernobyl. Tourists were now allowed into the exclusion zone where they could tour sites associated with one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. I quizzed him for a good half hour about the logistics involved. Before the conversation was over my mind was made up, I was going to Kiev. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, I soon learned that the earliest I could get a tour to Chernobyl was on a Tuesday. This gave me a couple of days to sight see in the city. Enough time to visit the scene of another 20th century tragedy, a ravine that arguably witnessed as much horror as any other specific spot during World War II. And a place that in many ways represents the nightmare upheaval that consumed so much of Kiev from 1917 – 1945.

Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park

An ordinary scene for a tragic place – Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park (Credit: YarikUkraine)

War On One City – Stalking The Streets
Kiev was not the place to be during the first half of the 20th century unless a person was looking to get killed. More death and destruction was inflicted upon the city than entire countries experienced within that same time span. The details are frightening in the extreme. Kiev changed hands no less than 19 times during the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War. The Red/White warfare led to deadly reprisals. The Bolsheviks won the war and right to rule as they pleased. By the early 1930’s, it was not only the Ukrainian countryside that suffered from widespread famine as starvation stalked the streets of Kiev due to forced collectivization. It was also during this time that Kiev suffered through the indignity of losing its capital status in the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet city of Kharkiv. Things took another turn for the worse even after Kiev won back that status in 1934. Stalin’s purges resulted in a lethal bloodletting of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and anyone who dared whimper a word of nationalist sentiment. Incredibly, the interwar period was only the beginning of much worse violence to come.

For Kiev, the Second World War was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The Red Army lost more soldiers in the Battle of Kiev than the United States lost in the entire war. The decisive German victory over the Soviet forces resulted in one of the worst defeats inflicted on any single army in world history. At the center of this cauldron of loss was Kiev. The city was subsequently mined by the retreating Soviet forces. Greeting the German occupation forces were upwards of 10,000 explosions, the product of Soviet sabotage efforts. This set the city on fire for nearly a week and left much of it a smoking, hollowed out ruin. In the aftermath of this devastation, an equally grim human toll was exacted first on Kiev’s Jews, then on the population at large. The casualties rose to unheard of levels. In 1939 Kiev’s population was 846,724, four years later that number had been reduced by almost 80%, to just 180,000. Many of those who lost their lives had done so in a ravine that became synonymous with mass murder, Babi Yar.

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Pinnacle Of Depravity – The Deepest Ravine
Babi Yar sounds more like the name of a Saturday morning cartoon character, than the site of a genocidal massacre. The etymological origins of Babi Yar are quite innocuous, referencing a woman by the name of “Baba” who sold the “yar” (ravine) to a Dominican Monastery. In a darkly ironic twist the site would later be home to Eastern Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries as well as a military camp. Those same purposes would coalesce in the darkness that unfolded in the final days of September 1941. On September 29th & 30th of 1941, 33,771 unsuspecting Jews were murdered at the ravine by Nazi death squads. What Auschwitz was to mass murder by gas chamber, Babi Yar was to mass murder by machine gun. The prevailing stereotypical image of the Holocaust continues to be the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is often overlooked that in the lands to the east of Poland – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot by Nazi police units and security services. The pinnacle of this depravity was carried out at Babi Yar.

On a bright and sunny Monday morning amidst the waning warmth of early autumn I went to visit Babi Yar. My route took me from the center of Kiev at Khreshchatyk on the metro to Teatralna where I then transferred to the Green Line. From there I traveled three stations down the line to Dorohozhychi. As I got further from the city center, the crowds dissipated. At Dorohozhychi – in the northwestern part of Kiev – I found myself one of only a few people exiting the metro. Making my way to the surface via a long escalator ride I expected to see signage pointing the way to Babi Yar. There was none that I could find. The situation had been very different for Jews on September 29, 1941. They had been given direction earlier in the week by an order posted by the German occupation authorities. This order would lead them to their deaths.

Crimes concealed - Pathway in Babi Yar Park

Crimes concealed – Pathway in Babi Yar Park

The March Of Death – From Incomprehensible To Unimaginable
The order stated that all Jews in Kiev were to gather at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. That street corner was just 2,000 feet from where I exited the Metro station. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky on a clear autumnal morning I found the idea that one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust had occurred nearby both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The tens of thousands of Jews that arrived here on that dark day not so long ago had loads of their belongings in tow. Most believed they were headed for resettlement. The Germans were surprised at the number of Jews who obeyed the order. The Jews of Kiev likely did so out of fear. The next to last sentence of the order was a virtual death sentence, stating, “Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.” Those who had obeyed the order would be ushered to Babi Yar by members of the Nazi police battalions. Never has a death march been so short.

Lost & Found – Kiev Metro: The Memory Of Moments (Travels In Eastern Europe #52)

One minute I was in a half-empty train car fighting off sleep, the next I was standing in the central railway station of Ukraine’s largest city. Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi station was a hive of energy, people were everywhere. It was Saturday afternoon and the whole world was in motion. The signboards showed trains heading in every direction. One in particular – the express from Kiev to Moscow – caught my eye. Russia suddenly felt very close, even though it was still hundreds of kilometers to the east. Then again, the genesis of Russia much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, began with Kievan Rus. Up until the mid-13th century – when the city was destroyed by Mongol hordes – Kiev was the nexus of the Eastern Slavic world. At Kiev I was entering another world, where Europe and Asia intermingled, politically and culturally it did not belong to one or the other, but something all its own. Geographically this could be considered the far east of eastern Europe. 

Into the Depths - Escalator to Kiev Metro

Into the Depths – Escalator to Kiev Metro (Credit: Jason Minshull)

A Current Of Fear – Plumbing The Depths
Upon arrival, my immediate mission was to find my way to the Kiev metro. From background reading I had learned that it was incredibly cheap. I also discovered that the metro was an engineering marvel, having the deepest station (Arsenalna) in the world. I weaved my way through the crowds, making my way to the metro entrance. Before entering I would first have to purchase a ticket. This should not have been a problem except for the fact that all my Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) was buried within a self-inflicted system to discourage pickpockets. It included two layers of pants atop a money belt. As waves of passengers headed to the escalators, I was stuck beside the ticket machine attempting to excavate my wallet without stripping.  At one point my hand was crammed down the front of my pants while I tried to somehow unzip the money belt. No one seemed to notice my embarrassing predicament except for the one person whose attention I most wanted to avoid. A young Ukrainian policeman was standing close to the entrance chatting with another man. He watched as I rummaged around in the front of my pants. I saw him staring at me, then noticed that he said something to the man beside him while nodding in my direction.

A current of fear ran through me. The policeman walked up to me and asked for my ID. This sent me into a furious second excavation attempt.  After more frantic rummaging, I finally managed to procure my passport. Handing it over, the officer leafed through the pages, until he found the one with my personal information. I watched as he studied it with intense suspicion. He did not say a word, then glanced up at me. Abruptly he said “Ok” and handed it back. I felt a wave of relief. For a moment, I had believed he would take me and my passport away in a bribery scam. When first confronted I had been sweating profusely from lugging a large suitcase around. A typically confused tourist overwhelmed by the speed and energy of a large city. Maybe I did not look worth the bother, or maybe I looked like I would not have much to offer or maybe he was just doing his job. Whatever the case, that interaction then made the following minutes of procuring a ticket seem rather easy. Soon I was on my way into the subterranean bowels of the Kiev Metro.

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev (Credit: AMY)

Squeezed On All Sides – Packing In The Passengers
The escalator ride to the underground took minutes rather than seconds. It was difficult to fathom the depths of Kiev’s metro system. Two things were immediately noticeable on this Saturday afternoon. The first involved the metro cars, which were packed with people. Passengers were literally standing within inches of one another. The heat in the car was nearly overwhelming, almost all of it emanating from the packed in passengers. I managed to somehow squeeze into this seething mass with a very large suitcase. In a matter of seconds, I was sweating profusely. I also noticed the eerie quiet that descended on the metro car. It was a strange feeling to be pressed so closely against fellow passengers, but for everyone to remain silent. The only other sound besides the train rolling along the tracks, was the breathing of passengers.

The Kiev Metro is by far the most utilized public transport in the city. Over a million passengers a day ride on three metro lines, this accounts for nearly half of all passengers using public transport in Kiev. And no wonder, even by Ukrainian standards a ticket is ultra-cheap. For a westerner such as myself, the cost of the ride – the equivalent of 20 cents – was negligible. The drawback to such cheap and efficient transport was the overflow passenger levels, especially along the most utilized routes. I was going three stops down the busy Red Line, starting from Vokzalna (which is accessed from the main Railway Station) to Universytet then Teatralna and finally Khreshchatyk. At each stop I hoped for a respite from the human induced humidity within the car, but more people boarded at each stop. By the final two stations I was literally squeezed on all sides.

The Memory of Moments - Kiev Metro Train

The Memory of Moments – Kiev Metro Train

An Elusive Quest – To Meet A Woman He Had Never Met Before
One of those pressed close to me was a middle aged man who said “excuse me” as we were pressed into one another. This led to a short conversation. He hailed from the Netherlands and was headed to the city of Odessa on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine to meet a woman he had never met before (this is rather typical of foreign men and Ukrainian women). He had a couple hours layover, thus he decided to take a look around Kiev, before the potential marriage meet up in Odessa. Something about it sounded romantic and rather ridiculous.  As he was telling me all this, the surrounding passengers did not say a word, eyeing us suspiciously for breaking the silence. We were both pouring sweat, swaying to and fro while the metro car jerked, skidded and glided its way to Khreshchatyk. Upon arrival, the Dutchman informed me that he was traveling on down the line. I exited and headed towards the surface.

To this day I still wonder what happened to him and that potential relationship. This is the magnificently evocative part of travel, to meet someone for less than five minutes and find yourself thinking about them recurrently for years to come. Travel becomes an elusive quest to retain the memory of people, places and events that were experienced intensely for a few minutes or moments. These have the potential to change everything or nothing, mostly it is the latter. The metro left me with a first and what would become a lasting impression of Kiev as a big, bold city. The policeman who checked my documents left me with a scare, the Dutchman left me with a recurring memory that gets dimmer as the years pass. The same could not be said of the Ukrainian capital. In the coming days Kiev would leave me with a memory that never goes away, even if I wish it would.

A Bathroom & A Borderland – Against The Unknown: Lviv to Kiev By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #51)

Sleep could not arrive soon enough for me on the train from Lviv to Kiev. It was not long before I fell into a fitful somnolence. After about an hour I woke up with my forehead covered in sweat. Once I realized that I was on a train somewhere in Ukraine there was only one thing to do, use the bathroom. I made my way past the other passengers in the semi-empty compartment. Everyone was fast asleep by this point in the trip. Long train rides have an air of romance about them, but that is before you visit the bathroom. The ultimate cure for the excitement and adventure of travel is a bathroom in an older Ukrainian railways train car. This one I found to be like so many others on Eastern European trains, with toilet paper the consistency of sandpaper, powdered soap (if you could call it that) that was dispensed from a turnstile type mechanism emitting dry flaky white stuff.

The worst was the toilet and not because it was dirty. Instead the toilet seat had small spiky gradations atop it, not unlike those found on a cheese grader. I found this rather perplexing, because only the most demented mind would inflict this on passengers. I stared at the dull silver surface of the toilet partly bemused, partly frightened. It occurred to me that someone only invented this painful looking toilet to deal with a real or perceived problem. I shuddered at the thought of what that problem might have been. The one good thing about this toilet was that whatever your business, it did not flow straight to the tracks. There is nothing quite so disconcerting as taking a leak while watching the ground speed past. I did my best to concentrate on using the bathroom and vacating it as quickly as possible. After this bathroom I was ready for almost anything.

Simply frightening - Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Simply frightening – Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Lost In Space – Unfounded Fears
As the train slowly made its way eastward into the vastness of the Ukrainian interior, I grew increasingly cognizant of the land’s size and scale. Woods, marshland and empty fields passed by, seeming to go on forever. Ukraine was huge by European standards, two of the largest nations in Eastern Europe, Poland and Romania would fit within it. The train was beginning to cross the vast east European Plain, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Imperceptibly the train crept from plateau onto the plain. The hilly terrain in and around Lviv soon became a distant memory, the land became flatter and more featureless. This was a pass-through landscape that kept me falling in and out of sleep. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up and wonder if I was dreaming in daylight. Where was I at? Ukraine yes, but where in Ukraine.

The train made a few scheduled stops, one at a larger town known as Korosten, which was a major railway junction. I could not see very much of the city from my window, but what I did see frightened me. Not because of any real danger, this was entirely imaginary and had nothing to do with crime. I was afraid, because I had no real idea of exactly where I was. I did not have a decent map or travel guidebook. I wondered what would happen to me if I got off at this station. At the time, no one in my family had any idea where I really was, for that matter neither did I. I could not speak more than a couple of Ukrainian words, found the Cyrillic alphabet an endless source of confusion and would have had trouble explaining myself to even the most patient person. I was lost without being totally lost. Of course, the best advice when you are lost is to stay put. I had no intention of doing anything else.

Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

Something fearful – Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

An Immense Borderland – Filling In The Emptiness
This was why I traveled, to test myself against the unknown. The fear I felt was paradoxically matched by a sense of nervous excitement. Every stop was another offer to step into the unknown. I did not take that chance, but I found the idea intriguing. Part of my fear was a product of ignorance. I hardly knew anything about north-central Ukraine except that it was a horrific place during the first half of the 20th century and a very tough place to live during the last half of it. Every time I looked out at a barren field I wondered how many peasants had succumbed to hunger during the forced collectivization of the early 1930’s. At the sight of marshland, I imagined invading armies sinking in the mud. When woodland came into view, it was a reminder that in these forests thousands of Jews had been machine gunned by Nazi death squads. This landscape gave the impression of anonymity, subtly disguising the succession of terrifying tragedies that lay just beneath the land. There was nothing in the geography of this netherworld to stop an invasion, ideological imposition or inquisition.

Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station

Arrival time – Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station (Credit: Prymasal)

Ukraine roughly translated means borderland. For me borders have always conjured up images of clear dividing lines and definitive crossing points. This borderland was indefinite and expandable for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. It was relatively easy to cross. The problem was its size, it seemed to go on forever. The sameness, the flatness, the vastness left me feeling defeated. There was too much distance to comprehend. I found its immensity daunting. It took quite a bit of effort to believe that Kiev, with some three million people was getting closer by the minute. There had to be people somewhere out in this empty landscape or so I hoped. I was nearing one of the great cities in both European and world history without much of an idea what to expect. Before I knew it the train was approaching Kiev. My sense of time had been warped by fatigue. One moment time was passing at a glacial pace, then suddenly all the slowness and sameness disintegrated as the train pulled into Kiev-Passazhyrskyi station. The had arrived right on time and I was not ready for Kiev.

Hell On Wheels – Lviv To Kiev By Train: Eastern Questions (Travels In Eastern Europe #50)

After a sleepless night listening to the excesses of drunken youth I felt a sense of relief to be departing from my hostel in Lviv. Despite the considerable effort it took for me to rouse the besotted front desk clerk from an alcohol induced slumber, I did manage to have him call a taxi which arrived right on time. The sun had yet to rise over the city, so an endless series of street lights guided the taxi’s way to the train station. My zombie like state was worsened by the glaring blur of fluorescence. With my head screaming I arrived at the station a little too early. My train to Kiev would now leave for another 45 minutes. I dragged myself into the waiting room, hoping to stay awake long enough to not miss my train. I was surprised to find the waiting room packed with people before dawn. The station had been just as crowded when I arrived late in the night three days earlier. The place had also been packed a day earlier when I purchased my ticket to Kiev.

The way to Kiev from Lviv

The way to Kiev from Lviv

Waiting Games – States Of Unreality
I began to wonder if the station acted as a permanent residence for a subset of Lvivians. It would have made a great short story. These people always on the verge of leaving, filled with hope and expectation of new beginnings. Unfortunately they could never find their way to the platform. They were stuck in an eternal waiting room. This idea was intriguing and depressing, sounding a bit too much like life. I picked my way through the would be passengers, stepping over their baggage and bundles. I spied a vacant seat beside a sleeping woman, curled in the fetal position, taking up two seats for herself. Not long after taking a seat I smelled a foul odor. In my sleepless sensory state I had trouble discerning whether it was body odor or coming from the station itself. I looked down at the woman lying on the seats beside me. From what I could make out of her shriveled figure, she looked to be a bit grungy. I began to wonder if she was a passenger or a vagrant.

About this time, a policeman who was making rounds through the waiting room walked up to her and proceeded to smack her half-heartedly with a baton. The jolted her, she looked up at him and tried to ignore this signal. He then stopped, looked at her again and gave her a harder smack. He then followed this with some harsh words. The woman, who happened to be ethnically Roma, raised herself up, scratched her head and after a couple of minutes left the seat. For all of Lviv’s architectural beauty, I could also see how it was part of a developing country. Poverty was in plain view and the police were brutish. In countries further west such as Hungary and Slovakia I had seen Roma begging in public transport stations, but the police tended to ignore them. In Ukraine, they offered an opportunity for a cop to exorcise his frustrations.

Running The Rails – A Soviet Scaffold
Bleary eyed, head throbbing, silently shaking, unable to think straight or for that matter at all, I boarded the train for Kiev Pas, the Ukrainian capital city’s main station. It would be a six-hour journey, but in my current state I would have been fine with a 12 hour journey. All I wanted to do was sleep and periodically wake up to have a look at the Ukrainian countryside. I had a second-class ticket, but from the looks of it everything was second class on this train. The seats were cheap leather with no arm rests, the passenger accommodations spartan with no hint of luxury or provisions made for comfort. I had little doubt that this train car came from the Soviet era. That was not all bad for Ukraine, since the Soviet Union at one time had been an empire that could afford to spend much more on infrastructure.

The nation of Ukraine had inherited a vast railway network. That was a good thing, since the country’s politicians and upper classes had spent the first two decades of independence stealing almost anything of value. Every time I saw anything rundown that was part of the public sphere I immediately thought to myself “the money to improve it must have been stolen.” Two years after my first visit to Ukraine, the people had enough of the systemic corruption and revolted. Speaking of revolts, as the train started moving down the track I began to second guess this trip to Kiev.

Despotism Before Democracy – A State Of Lawlessness & Disorder
Despite or perhaps because of my exhausted state, I was a nervous wreck, both worried and excited to be traveling eastward from Lviv. I was now moving further away from Europe culturally, economically and politically. Central and eastern Ukraine were heavily influenced by one big mother, in the form of Russia. Russia is neither completely European or Asian, it is a hybrid. Though Ukraine is officially the largest nation inside Europe, prior to the Maidan Revolution, it tilted more to the east than the west. This eastern orientation meant despotic rather than democratic government, oligarch dominated economies, the rule of lawlessness and disorder. I was unsure how any of this would affect me. The poor governance was too opaque for someone as unimportant as me to worry about, the oligarchs were people best avoided unless I took to valuing dishonesty and violence.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s lawlessness could not be ignored. In Lviv, which was reputedly much better run than the rest of Ukraine, I noticed on several occasions that the police looked menacing. They seemed to exist outside of public control, wandering about looking tough and edgy. One English speaking Lvivian I met told me they were terrified of the police, but that fear was matched by a corresponding hatred. I did my best to avoid any encounters with law enforcement. That was something I likely would not have to worry about on this train, but there were more personal concerns, such as the bathroom.

A Secret That’s Been Passed Around – The Discovery of Lviv: Mass Tourism (Travels In Eastern Europe #49)

When I think back on my first visit to Lviv, I find it almost impossible to consider that trip without also reflecting on the last time I visited the city, three more trips and four years later. During the interim, Lviv had hosted matches for the Euro 2012 Football Championships, been buffeted by the economic and political tumult of the Maidan Revolution, seen remarkable growth in its burgeoning Information Technology industry and become a major tourist destination. It was the latter change that would become most visible to me. The Lviv I visited in 2011 was still a rather sleepy place for foreign visitors. I remember thinking “everyone should see this place.”

When I would tell friends or family to visit Lviv, they would recoil in shock at the mere mention of Ukraine. They could hardly believe I had been brazen enough to visit that ill-fated land. I told them Lviv was different from stereotypical Ukraine, it had more cultural and historical connections with Mitteleuropa than Moscow. It was the furthest eastern extent of the Renaissance, the old Polish Kingdom and Austria-Hungary. It was a new and different Ukraine, one filled with hope and possibility, leaning towards the west. Of course, I said all this in the knowledge that my advocacy for Lviv was falling on deaf ears. The city could not escape Ukraine and its dangerous reputation or so I thought.

A sense of direction in Lviv

A sense of direction in Lviv (Credit: Buka – Власна робота/)

Charm Offensive – The Old Town Imagined Anew
In the fall of 2015 I found out the meaning of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I said everybody should see Lviv and it this wish had been granted. Lviv was packed with tourists on the weekend of my arrival in the latter part of October, not a time usually known for heavy visitation. At certain points in the Old Town I was standing elbow to elbow in crowds. I heard as much Polish as Ukrainian being spoken. The cafes and coffee houses had a refined, sleek veneer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks were pristine, some of the trams looked as though they had been transported from the space age and the smart, immaculately kept shops could just as easily have been in France or Germany rather than Ukraine. Lviv had been “discovered”. To find any hint that only twenty-five years before Lviv had been part of the Soviet Union, I would have had to flee the city center. Most tourist establishments used Latin as well as Cyrillic script in their signage now. Lviv’s Old Town looked so smart, tidy and trendy that I wondered if it had ever or never looked this way. Lviv was managing to charm the masses with a reinterpretation of itself.

The Lviv I first visited in 2011 had yet to realize its full tourist potential. Outside of the Old Town, signage in Latin script or written in English was scarce in the extreme. The amount of English spoken was even rarer. The Old Town at that time was evocative rather than electric. The range of accommodation on offer was limited, with few good hostels. Tourist information in English could be found, but only after searching. Except for the locals, I felt as though I had the city to myself back then. Mass tourism was a thing of the future. 2011 was a time when I could stroll the narrow streets, four years later I would jostle my way through them. I could hardly blame Lviv for this transformation, it was cultivating Old World charm in a bid to boost its economy. A reminder of this came blaringly loud at strange intervals, as a trumpet played a few notes that seemed to signify some sort of medieval sounding call. I had heard much the same thing in Krakow four years earlier, Lviv was becoming more like its bigger, more well-known Galician sister city.

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

Come Together – The Lure Of Lviv
In the interim, Lviv had inadvertently managed to gain from the instability in Kiev and unrest in the eastern part of Ukraine that started with Maiden. Through no fault of its own, Lviv was some 1,200 hundred kilometers away from the violence consuming parts of the Donbas region. This made Lviv one of the safest places to live, invest or visit in Ukraine. When the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) plummeted in the wake of Maidan, Lviv became one of the best values for domestic and foreign tourists. Domestic tourists could no longer afford to go abroad, so instead they traveled to the most European city in Ukraine which also happened to call itself the most Ukrainian. The weekend of my arrival there was a living history reenactment of the street fighting which occurred during the 1918 Battle of Lemberg (Lviv’s Austrian name) following World War I.

The reenactment took place in Rynok Square which was packed with Ukrainian and Polish tourists looking on. It was strange watching a battle reenactment in a country that was currently at war. It was stranger still that Ukrainians and Poles stood side by side watching. Once blood enemies, they were now united in their fear of a resurgent Russia or quite possibly they were just looking to be entertained while on holiday. Tourism and marketing had brought hundreds of people into Rynok Square that day. City leaders are hoping to lure tens of thousands more to follow in their footsteps.  As much as I selfishly would like Lviv to be the way I found it in 2011, there is little hope of that. The same year of my last visit – 2015 – the city hosted two million visitors for the first time ever. Such increases led to the creation of 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the last several years. With much faster rail links to Krakow and Kiev, the tourist numbers are only going to increase.

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

A Selfish Desire – Old World Beauty
My memory of that first visit to an uncrowded Lviv is still vivid, wandering around a spacious Rynok Square, the churches empty except for the locals and restaurants hoping for a few more patrons. That moment is now as much history as anything else in Lviv. I had been fortunate to visit the city before millions of tourists smoothed the cobbled streets with their foot traffic. Yet my perspective has become skewed by a selfish desire to want Lviv all to myself. If I am honest, I was just as much a part of the increase in tourist numbers as the masses I profess to loathe. By the time I arrived in Lviv, it had been transformed from a crumbling, neglected Ukrainian provincial city, to a vibrant Old World beauty. A city that millions would come to visit, just as I did. My “discovery” of Lviv was like learning a secret, only to later learn that it’s been passed around.

Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

A Light That We Are Still Able To See – Parkhomivka: Ukraine’s Greatest & Most Obscure Art Museum

Eastern Ukraine brings to mind many images and none of them seem to be good. The common perception is an area of flat, featureless land with smoldering industrial cities and gritty coal mines beset by post-Soviet decline. The largest city Kharkiv is known for its Soviet style of architecture whose main hallmark is gigantism. Add to this an on again, off again war that has fomented lawlessness across the Donbas region and it is little wonder that the area is avoided by most tourists visiting Ukraine. Thus it is quite surprising that one of Eastern Europe’s premier art museums is to be found in the region. And this museum is not located in Kharkiv or one of the other major cities, but in a village deep within the rural countryside. Works by some of the most famous names in 19th and 20th century art call the Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum home. The only question is which ones are original and which ones are not.

To find the museum in Parkhomivka is no easy task. There are two options, take public transport or rent a car. Either way, means navigating the rural roads of Ukraine, never a pleasant experience even in good conditions. A prospective visitor first heads west out of Kharkiv on the P46 highway, after a couple of hours the road takes a slightly bend in the middle of nowhere. This is the beginning of the T1702, notable for its numerous potholes and plethora of patches covering the roadway. For all the money spent on patching, an entirely new road could have likely been built at a much cheaper cost. The short, unhappy jaunt on the T1702 ends at Krasnoktusk with its trio of onion domed Orthodox churches and ubiquitous Soviet war memorial. There is a right turn onto an even more rural road which after fifteen bumpy kilometers leads to Parkhomivka.

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum (Credit: Андрей Руденко)

A Personality Of Passion – Afanisay Lunev’s World Of Art
In the midst of what would otherwise be just another nondescript Ukrainian village, stands Parkohomivka’s vaunted History & Arts Museum. It has to be one of the most unlikely places in the world to discover great art. The museum is housed in a former manor house covered in a coat of pink. While the building’s exterior retains a bit of its former splendor, no one would mistake it for the home of a world class art museum. The structure is a definite upgrade from the museum’s first home, the local village school where the collection was held until 1963. The village school was the beginning of not only the collection, but also the story of the man who was responsible for its procurement.

Following the end of World War II, Afanisay Lunev came to Parkhomivka to teach in the village. His passion for art and literature was boundless. This led him to start a modest museum inside the school showcasing books from his private collection. On weekends, Lunev went to flea markets in Kharkiv, where he discovered masterworks by Soviet artists at cut rate prices. From this humble start the collection began to expand dramatically. Lunev’s students also helped bring in prized pieces. Before long the village school had a sizable collection of art. After the museum moved to the manor house, Lunev’s collection began to incorporate works from world renowned artists. How did a teacher in a village backwater of Soviet Ukraine manage to acquire paintings created by such titans of art as Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso?

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Lunev’s method was quite simple. He built personal relationships with directors and curators at institutions such as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow. These museums were willing to donate surplus artworks that would have otherwise been resigned to a life in storage. The trust placed in Lunev was tremendous. His personality and passion were such that he could sway potential donors. The collection eventually reached some 6,000 pieces by the time of his death in 2004. This was an incredible achievement by any stretch of the imagination. The only question now is which works of art are authentic and which are reproductions. The provenance of many paintings is vague, unknown or open to question. Thus in the museum, rather than have the artist’s name next to a work, there is instead a question mark.  Despite this, it is generally agreed that most of the artwork is original.

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

The Journey Within – Art & Life Forever
An opportunity to view the collection brings visitors to the museum, an estimated 150,000 per year to a remote village with a population of only 3,900. Such is the magnetic allure of the work of Van Gogh and Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Renoir, Manet and Mayakovsky. Lesser known artists are displayed just as prominently, many of them Ukrainian, whose acts of timeless creation cover the walls. Famous names draw travelers to the museum, but a relative unknown can make just as great an impression. Nothing illustrates this better than the mesmerizing Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky. Born in Kiev, Kryzhitsky lived and worked for many years in Gachina near St. Petersburg in Russia, but would often return to central Ukraine to paint landscapes and scenes. In Winter Landscape, Kryzhitsky was quite literally able to capture a moment frozen in time.

The painting portrays one side of several homes in a turn of the 20th century Ukrainian village. The homes are largely covered in snow, but the areas that are not – wood fences and gates, yellow siding and windows – have been painted with such realistic representation that they seem taken from a photograph. Above the houses rises a truly startling yellow sky. In this sky Kryzhitsky managed to create a color that only nature and imagination can produce.  A timeless moment has arrived just after dawn, setting the entire world alight with a blinding vivacity. While on the far right of the painting, a small, solitary figure with their back to the viewer walks gingerly into the brightness of a Winter Landscape. This painting, like hundreds of others at the museum, is indicative of the passion that guided Afanisay Lunev in building his collection. Just as a specific painting caught Lunev’s eye, it can also capture a viewer’s imagination. And it is through the imagination that we see an expression of the world that is a reflection of ourselves. Great art takes us to a timeless place where we can live forever. And Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum is where that journey begins.

 

 

The End Of The Line – Chop, Ukraine: Keeping An Eye On The Border

Border towns and cities are strange places. They are part of, but uniquely different from their home country, members of one nation while being dramatically influenced by a neighboring one. For instance, the Hungarian city of Sopron bills itself as “the most loyal town in Hungary”, but its economic orientation is decidedly western, focused on Austria just a few kilometers away. Many of the citizens of Sopron work in Austria because the wages are much higher.  A range of services – especially dentists – in the city cater to Austrians. There is little doubt that much of Sopron’s prosperity comes from its close proximity to a wealthy neighboring nation.  On the other end of Hungary there is Zahony, the last stop on rail and roadways before entering Ukraine. Zahony is a down at the heel, gritty border town where smuggling is an economic activity of note. Zahony sits on the south bank of the Tisza River which acts as the Hungary-Ukraine border. Cross the Tisza and a whole different world is encountered, starting with the first and westernmost town in Ukraine.

The Eclectic Stalinist style Chop Railway Station

The Eclectic Stalinist style Chop Railway Station (Credit: Nillerdk)

What’s In A Name – Chop & Csap
The Ukrainian town of Chop would be an unmemorable place if not for its location on the border. There are many similar sized towns scattered across Ukraine which are totally anonymous to everyone except their inhabitants. Chop gets an outsized proportion of foreign visitors because it is a border crossing.  Not only does it have a crossing with Hungary, but there is another one with Slovakia. The border effect is magnified by the fact that both of these nations are members of the European Union, a club that the majority of western Ukrainians wish their own country could join. The foreigners who come to Chop do not see the town, as much as they pass by it. Their experience consists of either going to Chop’s train station or sitting inside an automobile or train car waiting to travel further east or west. I have been in Chop on four separate occasions, never leaving the comfort of a train car. Despite this experience or perhaps because of it I have spent a fair amount of time wondering what Chop is really like. The town’s name had a lot to with my fascination.

The name Chop is unforgettable. It evokes images of lumberjacks and butchers, not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when entering Ukraine.  Of course, Chop is an Anglicization of the town’s name, changed from its original, Hungarian form of Csap. Chop took its name from the Csaps, a family of nobles who founded the town in the late 13th century. Long before Chop was an outpost on the Ukraine-Hungary border, it was riven by many shifts in geo-political fault lines. The town has changed hands over one hundred times in its history. During the 20th century it was buffeted by the winds of political change. Chop was part of two empires (Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union) and one nation (Czechoslovakia) that no longer exist. The greatest influence on the town in the pre-Soviet era was Hungarian. A century ago the town was 99% ethnic Hungarian, that figure has dropped down to 39% today. Now as part of a struggling Ukrainian nation, Chop is at the mercy of Eastern European political tumult once again.

Soviet era mural above ticket windows inside Chop Railway Station

Soviet era mural above ticket windows inside Chop Railway Station (Credit: Dan Durning)

Vacant On The Inside – Socialist-Realism & Stalin In Chop
On the Budapest to Lviv train I got my first view of Chop. From my compartment window Chop’s railway station looked vacant on the inside.  Police and border guards were standing at attention outside it, looking as though they were waiting for something to happen. I always got the feeling that they were looking not so much to stop crime, as to take part in it. Many of the police were beefy, humorless types affecting a faux toughness. It dawned on me that if these are the people guarding the gateway to Ukraine than the country definitely has something to worry about. The interior of the railway station was most notable for a couple of large Soviet mural painting hanging above the ticket windows. These display the usual socialist-realism artwork of soldiers striding confidently into battle with weapons at hand, workers operating machinery with excessive pride and people marching vigorously toward a blissful future.  In other words, the mural portrays the sunny side of communism, exactly the opposite of what people in places such as Chop and greater Ukraine experienced in their day to day existence.

I only saw the backside of Chop’s railway station which faced the platforms. Later while doing research I got my first look at the entrance. I was surprised to find a neoclassical, columned entrance. The style of the station is classified as Stalinist-Eclectic, its façade giving a veneer of style and grace to an otherwise cavernous, concrete structure. Joseph Stalin had more to do with Chop than just the railway station’s architectural style. He actually stayed there on his return from the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II. He supposedly remarked during his stay that he liked the town. What that says about his aesthetic sensibility is anyone’s guess? From what little I have seen of Chop there is scarcely anything memorable about it other than a very large railroad yard with men preparing train cars to travel along the narrower gauge railway line in Ukraine. Because the wait takes many hours I have spent a considerable amount of time staring listlessly out the window wishing I could leave the train for a stroll around town. Unfortunately that is not allowed when taking an international through train.  Thus I have always had to make do with a fleeting glance from the window when the train started back up heading further east into Ukraine.

End of the line - a platform at the Chop railway station

End of the line – a platform at the Chop railway station (Credit: Maksym Kozlenko)

The Birdseye View Of A Borderland
The most memorable feature of Chop for me was on the outskirts of town. It was another part of the communist legacy. A wooden guard tower stands close to the tracks. It must have been used as a lookout for border guards during the Cold War. From the top of it the guards had a bird’s eye view of anyone trying to escape from the Soviet Union. Today it stands empty, an austere monument to a time when Chop was the end of the line.