Ukraine’s capital is arguably the most European, cosmopolitan city in the country, and its tree-lined avenues and boulevards make Kiev one of the most picturesque places in the world.
The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, occupies a vast expanse of land, over 800 sq. km along the banks of the river Dnipro, and may well claim to rank among Europe’s ten most beautiful cities. The moderately continental climate with a mild winter and warm summer adds to the city’s attractions for the visitor. If you happen to be here when the chestnut trees spring to blossom in May, it truly is a memorable experience.
Kiev is located on the Dnipro mid-water plains. The right-bank city lies where the Polissia lowlands border on the Kievan plateau, shaped by meandering rivers, gorges and ravines. With the passage of time the elements carved the terrain into seven discernable hills.
Legend has it that three brothers Kyy, Schek, and Khoriv and their sister Lybid (‘Swan’) settled in the area in the late 5th c. The younger brothers set up their homes on high hills that were later named after them, Schekouytsia and Khoreva. The eldest brother, who gave his name to the settlement, established himself on Mt SlaroKievska, which dominated the locality. The sister’s name was immortalized in the small river that bears her name. The four siblings were also commemorated in the stone monument dedicated to the city’s 1500th anniversary (1982).
The oldest written record of Kiev in the Hypatian Chronicles dates back to 862, when the city was governed by Ascold and Dir; however, the princes had been slain by Prince Oleh of Novgorod, whose troops captured the city. 20 years later, Oleh absorbed the land into his kingdom and it is during his reign (882—912) that a principality known as the Kievan Rus began.
The Principality owed much for its rise to the cunning diplomacy and ruthless rule of Oleh’s descendants, Ihor (r. 912— 945), Olha (r. 945—957) and Sviatoslav (r. 957—972).
The feudal dynasty of Kiev sealed a number of beneficial treaties with the Byzantine Empire and went on to conquer vast territories in Central Europe. A special place should be reserved for Princess Olha, who after the violent death of her husband, Prince Ihor, led Kievan Rus single-handedly. Canonized as a Saint by the Orthodox Church, Princess Olha was immortalized in a granite monument (1911) replicated in marble in 1996.
Prince VolodymyrSviatoslauych’s eventful and dramatic rule (980—1015) represented the heyday of Kievan Rus. The most crucial event of this period was the adoption, in 988, of Orthodox Christianity as the Kievan Rus state religion. The conversion to Christianity of Kievan Rus was glorified by Prince Volodymyr’s column, the first statue ever built in the city in 1853. The monument still stands on the steep slopes of Mt StaroKiev.
The longest uninterrupted build-up that the city witnessed in Middle Ages coincided with the principality of Yaroslav Mudry (the Wise), (r. 1019—54), who extended the city boundaries farther than ever before. It was during his reign that the so-called ‘pearls’ of Medieval Ukrainian Architecture and the Orthodox Church’s Sacred Places, St. Sophia Cathedral and Kyiu-Pechery Lavra were built. Both now enjoy the status of being UNESCO world heritage sites.
St. Sophia Cathedral, head metropolitan temple of Kievan Rus, was built between 1017 and 1037. The interior of the cathedral still boasts preserved ancient mosaics, which include the famous ‘Oranta’ (the Virgin Orans) and other unique frescoes. The Cathedral is believed to have retained its original look for 5 centuries, until the 16th c., when it was temporarily occupied by the Uniats. Later, in the 1640s, the Kievan Metropolitan (head of church) Petro Mohyla set up a cloister on the cathedral’s lands. Between 1685 and 1707 the Cathedral was renovated in the Ukrainian Baroque style, and later more buildings were added to it, including the Metropolitan Residence, the Refectory Church, the Consistory and the 76-m four-tier belfry (1748), probably the most recognizable edifice in the Old City. More about St. Sophia Cathedral…
As renowned is another Orthodox holy site, Ky’w-Pechery-Lavra, whose beginnings date back to 1051. Conveniently located near the Prince’s Summer Residence on the Dnipro, the Lavra played a role as a bulwark and vehicle of Christianity in 11 c. Kievan Rus. Famous for its caves and holy relics, the Lavra is still the most revered holy place for Orthodox believers and a must for all history-minded tourists. The former cloister was granted the status of ‘Lavra’ (head monasteiy) in the 12th c., and by 18th c. it had become the largest religious site in Malo-rossiya. Out of dozens of original monastery edifices, the only surviving are: The Trinity Gate Church (1180) and the Church of the Saviour at Berestov (1125), which stands beyond the Lavra walls.
A tragic destiny befell the Lavra’s main temple, the Assumption Cathedral (1078), which first underwent considerable reconstruction in 1720 and was reduced to ashes in 1941 during World War II. After Ukrainian independence it was rebuilt in 1990 to the design of 1720. Nowadays there is only a fragment of the former wall cordoned off to remind the visitor of what it looked like after WW II.
The only remaining peace of Yaroslav’s fortifications is Zo/o/y Vorota (the Golden Gate) (1037) which is believed to have served as the main gateway into the city. The Gate gave access to the upper town and was linked to the earth ramparts that stretched along the city walls as the first line of defense. It was through the Golden Gate that the triumphant troops of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky entered Kiev after defeating the Poles in 1648 and the Kievans welcomed the Russian embassy of the then tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich after the 1654 Unification Treaty of Pereyaslav. Up to Kiev’s 1500th anniversary in 1982, the remains of the Golden Gate were enclosed inside a 30-m-tall replica of the original gate crowned with the Annunciation Church.
Upon Yaroslav’s death, his descendants entered into a feud over the principality lasting over a century, which finally culminated in the city to be ruined in 1240 by a Mongol-Tartar raid led by Batu Khan, the event that ushered in a long decline in Kiev’s history.
The 17th and 18th c.c. were marked as a relatively slow period in the city’s development. This, however, did not prevent the appearance of what are now regarded as architectural masterpieces. Among them is the Vydubytsky Monastery, founded by Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavych in the lllth c. The site owes its present-day look to magnificent St. George’s Cathedral, as well as the Saviour of Transfiguration Church and the Refectory (1701), to which a Bell Tower was added later (1733). The construction of St. Andrew’s Church on the site formerly occupied by the Andriy Sentinel Tower was initiated by the Russian Empress Elisabeth I in 1753. For her residence in Kiev she commissioned the inconspicuous yet elegant Mariyin-skyy Palace (1755), still in use by the leadership of the independent Ukraine. At that time the city was divided in 4 randomly-built parts, namely: Pechersk, High Town, Podil and Ploska Sloboda.
After 1812, however, when a ravaging fire gutted the densely-built Podil, the reconstruction that commenced was carried out in compliance with a rigid grid street scheme. The role of Podil as a trade and crafts heart of the city was retained and new amenities were added, including the arcaded Kontraktovyy House, 1817, and Hostynnyy Dvir (1828).
The newly-opened Kiev University (1834), today’s Shevchenko University, was constructed in the classical style (1842). The unusual colours of the country’s key educational institution, i.e. red walls and black bases and capitols of the building’s columns, correspond to the stripes of the St. Volodymyr Order whose name the University originally bore.
By WW I, Kiev had already crossed the line of half-million permanent residents, while the administrative centre began to transfer to Khreshchatyk, where the City Hall was built in 1876.
The rapid construction of that time also included rich families’ mansions that mushroomed up all over the city. An example was the Kiev residence of the major sugar manufacturer and art patron Tereschenko, built in 1884, which now houses the Museum of Russian Art and the whimsical Horo-detsky ‘House of Chimeras’, featuring motifs of the animal kingdom, now the presidential Reception Hall.
The late 19th century also gave rise to an extensive cultural build-up with such architectural accomplishments as St. Volodymyr Cathedral, 1882, and the 1909 St. Mykola Chapel Church, which give the city its exquisitively noble look.
Among the many public amenities that appeared at that time were the impressive 1901 National Opera House, and the Bessarabsky Market, which despite its old age still delights the eye with stalls of fresh fruit. Among the monuments erected at that time is the Bohdan Khmelnytsky statue of 1888, which is one of the city’s most recognizable symbols.
In order to clear a site for government premises in a prime location on Old Kiev Hill in the mid-1930s, the then city authorities pulled down the historic Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhyy (Gold-dome) Monastery, built in the ll th century by Prince Sviatopolk Iziaslavovych. Luckily, the sky-blue Mykhaylivskyy Zolotoverkhyy Monastery, with its traditional Ukrainian adornments, was reconstructed in 2000.
In WW II Kiev was subjected to a long Nazi occupation and suffered unimaginable losses. Nearly 200,000 citizens were shot dead by the Nazis in the Baby Yar ravine; 100,000 more were sent to Germany as slave labour and countless soldiers and citizens laid down their lives in the defence and liberation of the Ukrainian capital. The tragic events of WW II are reflected in a number of reminders, of which the 62-m Defence of the Motherland monument, built in 1981 and located at the Great Patriotic War History Museum, is most revered.
It took decades to rebuild the city, which lay in ruins. The modern looks of Khreshchatyk, the city’s main street, which was almost flattened during the war, can now be regarded as a tribute to the joined effort of the post-war architects and construction workers. Today’s Kiev ranks among the most beautiful and memorable of Europe’s capitals and can rightly boast of numerous historical and cultural sights.
Besides centuries of noble history, numerous architectural monuments and the best universities in Ukraine, it also has a great selection of restaurant and nightlife venues. Whatever your culinary preference, you will find it in Kiev. Unforgettably beautiful in late spring, Kiev is charming in any season of the year.