I Traveled to Ukraine in Happier Times

Author’s Note: I am deeply saddened by the Russian takeover of Ukraine. In 2004, I was privileged to take a fascinating river cruise in Ukraine that included stops in Odessa, Sevastopol, Yalta, Kyiv and a couple of small villages. The time was far more optimistic for the country, which declared its independence from the USSR a decade earlier. My story about that trip as follows (and pre-digital photos) was never published, but it did place in a Writer’s Digest competition. It seems appropriate now to post it here. For reasons of caution, I used fictitious names for anyone I mention. I hope they–and everyone we met along our journey–stay safe during the current violence and uncertainty. At the time, the currency conversion was one hryvnia to about 20 American cents. A recent conversion was one hryvnia to less than 4 American cents. The year after this trip, I bought my first digital camera.

Pam on river cruise in Ukraine
On our ship on the Dnipro River, Ukraine

Here’s the first thing Ukrainians want you to know: They’re not in Russia anymore. 

Ukraine has its own currency and language, and a history much richer than a few decades of Soviet occupation. A new era has dawned, and a welcome mat beckons along with the sky-blue and wheat-yellow national flag.

For 12 mid-summer days in 2004, we cruised the Dnipro River (Dnieper, in Russian), which bisects the country. It’s Europe’s third-longest after the Volga and Danube. We started in Odessa, sailed across the Black Sea to Yalta, then traveled north to the capital city of Kyiv. The distance was about 1,300 miles, roughly the length of the Mississippi River.

“Most tourists who come to Ukraine take the river cruise,” said Alina, one of our guides.

It’s easy to see why: Travel within this formerly closed republic is a fairly new enterprise, especially international travel. A handful of operators have packaged water-based itineraries with stops at urban and rural ports of call. You see a lot while English-speaking guides navigate that confounding Cyrillic alphabet.

Odessa Steps
Potemkin Stairs in Odessa

The MS Marshal Koshevoi

Our four-deck ship, the MS Marshal Koshevoi, was of 1980s vintage and housed about 200 passengers and 100 crew, including five house musicians. Our cabin was small but comfortable, and a good-sized window held claustrophobia at bay. On-board electricity was imperfect, although my hair dryer worked fine with a converter. My husband’s shaver did not. Worry-mongers at home told us to take toilet paper and bath towels. It’s a good thing we did, not for their intended purposes, but to help cushion the hand-painted eggs and matryoshka dolls we toted home. Or in my case, the painting I bought from a riverbank artist. 

Also on board was cruise manager Andrei, who seemed to be everywhere: At airports, he met up with arriving and departing tour groups to make sure they quickly passed through the various inspections and authorities. He rustled up buses and guides, and he made appearances at every meal and every attraction. One day we saw him at a village market buying a freshly butchered chicken for a passenger who requested no pork for dinner. 

Andrei has been running Dnipro cruises since the first two in 1993, two years after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, 1991.

“We give you our best,” he said. “It might not be what you are used to, but it is our best. Every year we get a little better.”

Ukraine urban buildings
We saw many apartment buildings like this one in urban areas.

Starting Point: Odessa

Odessa is a city of dual personalities: A harbor district complete with a widow’s walk that hops with enterprise, and a city center that exudes European flair and culture. Connecting them are the Potemkin Stairs, all 192 of them. I counted.

Atop the staircase is Primorsky Boulevard, which is lined with plane trees reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The promenade winds past palaces turned into museums; the Opera House where prima ballerina Anna Pavlova performed; and a plethora of outdoor cafes, market stalls, galleries, street musicians and costumed ponies.

harbor in Yalta
The harbor in Yalta, with mountains in the distance.

Yalta and the Crimean Peninsula

Across the Black Sea, Yalta is a resort town that anchors the mountainous Crimean Peninsula. A McDonald’s restaurant and carnival ride backdrop the harbor where luxury yachts and battered fishing boats are moored.

In one direction is a pebbly beach and an elegant promenade flanked by ornate street lamps and blooming flower beds, upscale shops and fragrant eateries. In the other is a catacomb of outdoor markets where newly minted capitalists hawk fresh produce and everything else–electronics, rhinestone-studded jeans, kittens and beer by the cup. Elderly women invest in a package or two of cigarettes, and they offer them for sale one by one.

Just outside of town is the stately Livadia, or White Palace, now a museum. It was the home of the last Russian emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, and later the site of the Yalta Conference where U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin divided the spoils of WWII. Stalin got the biggest share. 

fishing in yalta
Fishing along the harbor in Yalta.

Sevastopol

Long a significant naval port, Sevastopol has variously been fought over by Russians, French, Brits, Turks and other forces seeking control of the Black Sea. But these are peaceful times. As our ship pulled up to the docks, we were greeted by a military band in full regalia playing Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5.”

Monuments to fallen soldiers and sailors are ubiquitous throughout the city and lushly landscaped parks. Most notable is the Defense of Sevastopol Museum. The rotunda houses a two-story panoramic painting, “Defense of Sevastopol: 1854-55,” depicting one day in the disastrous Crimean War, which Russia lost. Look carefully, and you’ll find writer and political activist Leo Tolstoy and nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale.

An hour’s drive inland is Bakhchisarai, former headquarters of the Crimean khanates (Ghengis Khan is a relative) from the early days of Ottoman rule. Construction of the Palace in the Garden, which included mosques, fountains, gardens and facilities for a sizable harem, began in the early 16th Century. It continued for more than 300 years until being partially demolished in the late 1700s by invading Russians. Today the surrounding village is home to a small but active Islamic community.

Sevastopol, Ukraine
In Sevastopol, Ukraine

Northward On the Dnipro River

After navigating through a series of locks, we transferred in Kherson to smaller vessels that took us to a delta community. We disembarked and walked down a dirt path bordered with dense wildflowers to the backyard of a private home, where we lunched amid a flock of free-range chickens. The meal was a delicious repast of dried fish, meatballs, pierogies, blintzes, veggies, pastries and a mighty fine homemade spirit they called moonshine.

By the time we were ready to head back to our boats, the neighbors had formed a gantlet of handcrafted needlework, art, furs and woodwork. I paid $40 for an oil painting of a peasant woman feeding chickens in front of a thatched-roof cottage. (See the photo at the end of this post.) Even small children got into the act. One member of our group accepted a cattail from a toddler in exchange for a package of gum.

Most Ukrainians were happy to take American dollars, but only crisp bills. “We don’t have a federal depository bank where we can exchange them,” Alina said. “They get used a lot.”

fur hat artist in Ukraine
Artisans show their fur hats and other crafts in hopes that tourists will buy.

Our next stop was Zaporozhye, home to the Cossacks, those legendary warriors who defended their land against enemy invaders. Today’s Cossacks are in show business. Think Medieval Times, the kitschy chain of American dinner-theaters, as a comparison. Cossack performances showcase horsemanship, ethnic dance and a few pranks, with cracking whips and flashing swords for swashbuckling effect.

It was at the Cossack performance we observed the only other Americans during our trip: A group of young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They were very friendly.

On a somber note, we toured what passes for a hospital in Kremenchuk. Medical care is free, but patients must supply their own bedding. Pharmaceuticals are rare, and aromatherapy is often the only treatment available. The hospital staff was quite proud to own a 30-year-old ambulance. They had no gasoline, but they had an ambulance.

In Kanev, we climbed 342 granite stairs and laid flowers at the grave of poet and painter, Taras Shevchenko, who dreamed of a free, democratic Ukraine back in the 1880s. Then the ship’s crew grilled shish-ka-bob for our lunch under a parade of trees. As we dined, a large group of kerchief-clad women serenaded us with song in hopes that we would buy their flowers, which we did.

Kanev, Ukraine
Street musician in Kanev, Ukraine, with the Dnipro River in the background.

Last Stop: Kyiv

We knew we were approaching Kyiv when we spotted the towering Statue of Motherland, reminiscent of our Statue of Liberty, emerging above the treetops. Unlike Lady Liberty, who offers refuge and hope, the Ukrainian icon, with sword and shield in hand, proclaims independence from all oppressors. She anchors the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War.

Kyiv’s city center sits high above the harbor in the Podol neighborhood. Get there via a vigorous uphill climb, subway or funicular (it wasn’t running). Independence Square, or Maidan Square, is prime real estate for people-watching and protest-raising. Beneath a glass geodesic dome is an underground shopping mall.

Independence Square Ukraine
Independence Square, or Maiden Square, is a popular gathering spot in Kyiv.

Two majestic churches sporting multiple gold cupolas, St. Sophia’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Monastery, stand at opposite ends of Volodymyrska Street. St. Sophia’s, with its landmark blue bell tower, is the oldest existing church in the city. Built in 1037, it is a museum undergoing massive restoration of its historic frescoes and sagging infrastructure. St. Michael’s dates to the 12th Century. It was blown up during Stalin’s reign and only rebuilt in 1998.

Also notable is the Monastery of Caves, a vast living religious community marked by domed churches and museums. The earliest was founded in 1051. Beneath the compound is a warren of tombs of mummified monks, who spent their days in prayer and isolation. You can go through it, but it’s narrow and stuffy and creepy.

At many churches and statues, we saw brides and  grooms–she in snowy-white Western bridal attire and he usually in military uniform–dashing about with their entourages. It is customary for newly marrieds to make the circuit of such sites to lay flowers and pose for photographs.

St Sophia Cathedral
Bell tower at St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.

Onboard the Ship

The staff and crew entertained us with ethnic musical performances, a tour of the captain’s bridge, a blini-and-caviar party and a pierogi tasting. We had plenty of cruising time to chat with guides Alina and Maria about the world in general and Ukraine in specific. The transition from communism to a democratic state, economically and emotionally, is thrilling for younger residents and difficult for older ones, they told us. 

“It’s been very tragic for people who couldn’t find a place for themselves in the new world,” Alina said. “My grandfather was a communist man who cried the day Stalin died. Many older people can’t relate to a younger generation who say, ‘You were told lies.’”

“I’ve learned Russian and Ukrainian history from tourists” such as Stalin’s forced famine in the 1930s, Maria said. “I’m ashamed of what I told tourists.” Today she is free to speak her mind, she added.

Dnipro River Cruise preformers
Ukrainian folk dancers entertain us on our cruise of the Dnipro River, Ukraine

The new economy is radically uneven. The national currency is the hryvnia, which for our purposes of easy math was equal to 20 cents and easy pronunciation something like “grivna.” Tour guides can make in a day what doctors and teachers earn in a month. Pensions and privileges were cut drastically from Soviet times. Begging is a relatively new phenomenon, particularly among older women, who lost fathers, husbands, brothers and uncles to war.

Single-family homes are rare, but that is slowly changing. Many citizens still live in circa 1960s khrushchyovka, which are dreary, cramped apartment buildings. They take their name from the late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, whose vision of public housing spawned them, and the word for “slum.” Some residents crudely enclosed their balconies to create an extra “room.”

Toward Americans, Urkainians are generally genial and open-hearted, Alina said.

“They don’t support the reasons the U.S. went into war” in the Middle East, she said, “but Ukrainians are a very hospitable people. They like inviting tourists to their homes and showing their lives.”

Ukrainians also are acutely aware of how precious their hard-won freedom is. The most telling moment was on the morning of July 4, when we entered the ship’s dining room for breakfast. As usual, the staff and crew lined up to receive us. This time they presented the Americans with white balloons on which “Happy 4th of July” was hand-written with a blue felt-tip pen.

“Congratulations!” they cheered loudly with huge smiles.

I’d never thought of the occasion as a congratulatory event, but the gesture awakened me to my enviable fortune as an American. Later that night, in lieu of fireworks, we gathered on the deck and popped our balloons, one by one, as Alina and Maria watched.

Painting from Ukraine
A painting I bought from a riverbank artist in Ukraine. I had it framed at home.

This article originally appeared in All The Write Places.


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Pamela is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a Baby Boomer who travels with style. A few of her favorite experiences have been swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, fishing for piranha in the Amazon River, and viewing the annual sandhill crane migration in Nebraska. Plus, eating dark chocolate.