Ukrainian History; Soviet Power

Our day centered upon Ukrainian history and culture beginning with a lecture by our host, Tetyiana at the International Research and Exchange Offices (IREX) in Kiev. Soviet influences are seen everywhere from the austere architecture, communal apartment spaces and military monuments to the resurgence of Christianity after the Ukrainians declared their independence in 1991. Under the Soviet regime, religion went underground with Christians meeting in caves to celebrate in secret. Many churches were destroyed and any practice of religion openly was subject to punishment. After the revolution, churches were reopened or renovated and much of their beauty restored. During our tour of Kiev we saw many of the famous Ukrainian cathedrals with their gold-domed roofs shaped like pears. (We were told that the Russian Orthodox Cathedrals have onion-shaped domes by comparison).IMG_0058 IMG_0127 IMG_0056 IMG_0063


We spent a couple of hours touring military sites including the Motherland statue with her sword and shield signifying the power of Ukraine and Russia. Underneath the statue is the complex of the Great Patriotic War Museum of WWII, and surrounding it all were tanks, planes, and military weapons. I don’t know if I had ever been so close to a military machine before and it did leave me feeling a bit uneasy. Remembering growing up with a fear of the Soviet Union was fresh on my mind once again.


On a lighter note, there was a girl dressed in Ukrainian folk dress having her picture taken by her father for a school project. IMG_0059

School Visit: Kyiv Mohyla Gimnasium

IMG_2962 IMG_2931 IMG_2922 IMG_2940 IMG_2958April 9, 2013

We spent the morning visiting Kyiv Mohyla Gimnasium,  part of Capital Public School in Kiev call It is affiliated with the Kyiv National University and has been established since the 1600’s. Here is an interesting interview with the president and his hopes for the future.


The school system in Ukraine is state-run with an Education Ministry who controls curriculum, books, technology, and standards at all levels of instruction.  The Ministry is appointed by the president and is rigid and unchanging. According to teachers with whom we spoke, memos and paperwork bog down the system and there is very little professional development or innovation to keep up with the 21st century. The joke is that if you wait 10 days everything will change with another memo or directive coming from the Ministry.

Teachers are paid very low wages (an average of $250 a month) and most supplement their income with additional jobs or tutoring students in English.  All teachers pay for their own paper and supplies and even though parents make donations to the schools, many times corruption in the system results in the money being spent by those with power for their own homes and vacations. It is difficult to understand how this can be so, yet the corruption is so widespread that no one seems to have the power to speak up and change the way it works. My understanding is that when the Ukrainians gained their independence in 1991, the majority of the government-owned businesses of the Soviet system were divided among the families of those newly in power. If you were lucky enough to be connected to someone with government status, you suddenly became very wealthy. A web of corruption and “pay backs” ensued and continues to this day. Many Ukrainians are quickly losing faith in the system as they feel trapped in a society where moving up in social status requires strong connections versus the mindset that through hard work and determination you can be successful. Ukrainians seem to understand this and accept it as their way of life, yet some have spoken of a desire to return to the old Soviet system where at least there was a predictable stability.


Children start school at age five and continue in the same school through high school.  There are few programs for special needs children although boarding schools do exist for children without parents.


IMG_0043 IMG_0045 IMG_0048 IMG_0051Despite the run-down setting at Kyiv Mohyla Gimnasium, the school was full of life and learning with artwork lining the walls and corridors. We walked through a maze of hallways before finally coming to their very small, crowded classroom. The walls were bare except for a map of the world, one computer sat on the desk in the front and 4 rows of possibly 50 books/novels lined the back walls. The 15 students had prepared presentations of the history of art using power-points and spoke articulately with impeccable English. Their teacher kept interrupting them as they spoke reminding them to slow down as they enthusiastically shared their investigations into the world of art. They were proud of their research and English speaking skills and glowed with pride as their teacher praised their efforts.

Many of them had won national awards in other areas such as athletics and music. All of the students spoke at least three languages: Russian, Ukrainian, English and possibly German, French or Spanish as well. In America, they would have a ticket to a top university. When we talked individually with the students afterward, however, we realized the difficulty they face in achieving their dreams. Some of them spoke to us about their desire to study in America or Europe but lack the financial means to do so. Many were eager to connect with our students via the internet with the hope of opening their world of opportunity. I got the feeling that both teachers and students are unsure of how to break out of the system that is in place.

Mass at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Sunday, April 14, 2013

It ‘s hard to believe that we have been in Ukraine for only one week. It seems much longer as I write, thinking about all the people we’ve met and places we’ve been in so short of a time.IMG_0235_2 IMG_0206

This morning we went to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral for the Sunday mass. It was nearly 2 hours long and we stood in one spot and listened to the parishioners chant for the entire time. At one point my foot was starting to fall asleep, but I dared not to move for fear of disturbing anyone. All the women covered their heads with scarves or hats and the room was filled with a sacred silence even while echoing with chants from the rafters.

The choir was high up in the loft and their voices floated through the church responding to the priest as he chanted prayers and read from the holy books. It was a solemn time with the church packed with worshippers-all standing-and making the sign of the cross over and over almost continuously for the entire time. I am guessing that I made the sign of the cross at least one hundred times during the mass. The congregation participated in chanting responses to the priest only twice and with the same Russian responses each time. I wished that I understood was being said and for what the congregation was praying.

Quite a bit of the ritual was performed in the inner sanctum of the church behind ornate doors that were opened and a curtain that was lifted for one part of the mass. There were three altar boys who carried candles and another priest who helped with all of the incense burning and blessing on the participants. The priests were dressed in ornate gowns of gold tapestry and wore the traditional headpieces and necklaces of the Russian Orthodox Church.

When the chanting part of the service concluded, the doors and curtain were once again closed. Then people quietly hurried to line up in front of different holy relics around the perimeter of the church. They lit candles and prayed for people whose names they had written down on pieces of paper. Katryana collected Susan and my papers and paid a fee for us in order that our prayers be added.

Russian-Ukrainian women sat stoically in long black robes at tables selling many different religious relics including holy cards and long, thin tapers in bundles. There were also loaves of bread and tea.

Katyrana told us that Christianity is making a resurgence in Ukraine and that although she was raised an atheist, she is now beginning to take her five-year old daughter to church. Looking around at the crowded cathedral during mass, with all of the bowed heads and reverent chanting and praying, I could feel a collective sense of hope among those present. Although the majority of participants were older Ukrainian woman, there were men participating, as well as some younger boys and girls and even a few brand new babies with their rosy cheeks, all bundled up from the rain outside. This morning I wondered if I had seen a glimpse of the everyday Ukrainian people with their family and faith in the forefront. I also wondered if Russians and Ukrainians worship together despite their political differences. IMG_0207

Welcome to Ukraine


Sunday, April 7, 2013     Vitayemo! Welcome to Ukraine.

I had the pleasant surprise of meeting my first Ukrainian friend at SFO the morning of our departure. Tatiana and I sat next to each other on the long flight to Frankfurt and her warmth and hospitality emerged the minute she realized that I was traveling to Kiev where she has lived for her entire life. Tatiana was presenting at a conference in SFO this past week, and is the Head of the Department of Advanced High-Pressured Technologies at the Institute for Superhard Materials in Kiev. She is also a member of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine.  Her work takes her all over the world and she explained to me how Ukraine is struggling to industrialize and bring manufacturing enterprises to the country since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s birth from one of the soviet republics to a sovereign nation in 1992. There are many corrupt businesses and politicking in the country right now and trust seems to be waning. She did say, however, that the Ukrainians are a resilient people who will continue to struggle to make the ideals of democracy a reality.

Besides politics we talked of families, schools and restaurants. She has one son who is 21 years old, and she pulled out her computer to show me countless pictures of him.  Many families have only one or two children in Kiev due to the high expense of raising them. She showed me photos of him playing the piano, kicking a soccer ball and making a sandwich in their kitchen apartment.  She also shared stories about growing up under Soviet rule and how everyone was afraid to talk against the government with its risk of imprisonment and how both of her grandparents worked on collective farms.

Our conversation turned to Ukrainian cuisine and Tatiana told me what foods to try while visiting including borshch (beetroot soup with sour cream), holubtsi, (rolled cabbage with meat and rice) and varenyky z vyshnyamy (a dessert of raviolis stuffed with cherries). I want to check out the markets and shops to see which other interesting local foods are popular including everything pickled.

Tatiana explained to me that the Ukrainian way of life is a mix of Soviet customs and legacies, of age-old traditions, and of a search for a new European identity. I will watch for evidence of all three during the next few weeks of my visit IMG_2865

Food and Cuisine

Last night we walked to the park a couple of blocks from our hotel where we had a Ukrainian dinner complete with meat platters full of sausages and cheeses, periogi stuffed with potato and pork, and varenyky (ravioli stuffed with meat). The courses continued to come for over an hour, and just when I thought that I had had enough another platter was set down upon the table. The Ukrainians love to feed their guests.

I must admit that I am surprised to find that dessert is not always served. Mostly it is a light cheese or rolled crepe with a filling of some sort but I have yet to have had chocolate to finish a meal.

IMG_2871 IMG_2869 IMG_2870 IMG_2973While we were eating there was a commotion in the park as groups of fans marched through on their way to the football game. They were blowing horns and shouting as they marched to the stadium. Soccer is the number one sport here and the stadium is only a couple of blocks from our hotel. The two main Ukrainian teams are the Dnipro and the Dynamo and fans are very divided and opinionated about their allegiances. (Reminds me of the A’s and Giants fans in the Bay Area).

The stadium had been newly renovated two years ago when Ukraine hosted the 2012 European Games.


Another interesting feature in the park is the well. The water here is polluted from contaminates being dumped into the river so many people get their water each day from the well in the park. We were told that the hotel water is fine to drink, but that we had to be cautious in other places around Kiev – especially in the rural townships. IMG_2872IMG_2974

Dinner: Restaurant O’Panas, 10 Tereshchenkivska

O’Panas was a lively restaurant full of Ukrainian culture and food. The place was decorated with art stencils and murals drawn on the plaster walls with wooden beams and staircases throughout. Servers dressed in traditional Ukrainian costumes brought food on large trays beginning with courses of meat, bread and cheeses, followed by varenetky stuffed with cheese or cabbage, dumplings of all kinds, more bread and fish, pancakes stuffed with various fillings and fruit juice.  Ukrainian traditional music was played in the background giving a festive air to dinner. I people-watched for a bit, wondering which folks were natives, who were on “first-dates” and who had been married forever. Watching the mannerisms and interactions of the people surrounding me I couldn’t help but smile at the similarities of people.