Ukraine is truly a confabulation of its history. “Ukrayina,” as locals call it, means ‘“borderland,” and a borderland it is. The country borders the Russian Federation to the east; Belarus to the north; Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary to the west; Romania and Moldova to the southwest; and the Black Sea and Sea of Azov to the south.
It has ruled by Scandinavians, Mongols, Romanians, Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, Poles, and Russians, each of which left an indelible mark on the cultural consciousness, yet most of the country has maintained a thoroughly independent identity.
I arrived in Ukraine in 2006 to being served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, a 27-month commitment to live and work in a small community to implement development projects. I didn’t know what to expect upon my arrival – images of gray cement, fur hats, and vodka flooded my thoughts.
To be fair, you don’t spend 70 years under the Soviet Union without picking up those things, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, I found a country so rich in history and culture, so steeped in village traditions, and so thrust into the process of finding its national voice that I was completely hooked from the start.
While backpackers in Europe (or anywhere else for that matter) never mention Ukraine as a destination, I aim to convince you of the experiences awaiting you there.
Ukraine in 30 Seconds or Less
The country has one official language (though this may change), Ukrainian, but half of the residents consider Russian their first language. Almost everyone understands both, but depending on their political affiliations, some will pretend not to understand one or the other. Language is a contentious issue in the country, as Ukrainian-speakers generally live in the west and lean towards Europe politically, while Russian speakers generally live in the east and south, and feel more closely tied to Russia.
If you speak one or the other, this will serve you very well – if you don’t, never fear, as I’ve run into many a backpacker who seemed to get by just fine. In major cities like Kyiv and Lviv, you can find people who speak English.
Nearly all Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox, though there is a minority of Tatars, ethnic Turks, who practice Islam and live on the Crimean peninsula.
Summers are dry and pleasant and winters are bitterly cold. The country can be a welcome break in August from the harsh Mediterranean sun, so schedule accordingly.
Kyiv: the Birthplace of Slavic Culture
Ukraine’s capital Kyiv (often written as “Kiev” when translated from Russian) is surprisingly modern and European. If you’re even remotely interested in 20th-century history, you’ll be in a fantasy land of Soviet museums and monuments, Maidan Nezalezhnosty (Independence Square, site of the 2004 Orange Revolution), and Western European style urban remodeling.
Kievan Rus, the civilization that later split to form Moscow and Russia in the north and Ukraine in the south, was founded here in the 13th century.
The city’s metro system is expansive and efficient (albeit rife with pickpockets, seriously watch your stuff), and the parks are sprawling and beautifully landscaped.
There are several historic Eastern Orthodox cathedrals, including Saint Sophia’s, whose foundations were laid in 1011. In addition, the absolutely spectacular Kyiv-Caves Monastery, on the banks of the Dnipro river, features narrow catacombs with mummified Orthodox monks.
Getting to Kyiv is easy, either by train or by plane. The Polish discount airline WizzAir runs flight from London, Hamburg, and several other European cities.
There are plenty of hostels and reasonably-priced hotels in the city, and you can marvel at the Soviet architecture as you sip top-notch tap beer and eat traditional foods like deruny (potato pancakes) or borsch (delicious, hearty beet soup).
Lovely, Little-known Lviv
From Kyiv, you can either fly or train to Lviv on the Polish border, a smaller, more approachable city nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Lviv is considered the capital of Western Ukrainian nationalism, despite its history of changing hands between empires, and you’ll see regular rallies and cultural events happening in its cobblestone streets throughout the summer months.
Lviv is a unique blend of Slavic influence and Austro-Hungarian architecture. Rumor has it it was one of Hitler’s favorite cities, and when the Germans occupied Western Ukraine during WWII, Hitler had it spared, along with Prague. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Prague,” and though its buildings aren’t nearly as large or majestic, it has a certain secret charm that has all but been destroyed in Prague by the hordes of tourists.
Lviv is also a fantastic place to buy traditional arts and crafts, from wool blankets to Soviet military medallions and embroidery. The city’s opera house is gorgeous and hosts inexpensive performances. There are also several hostels in the streets around the opera house. One of particular note is the Cosmonaut, run by an Australian and decked out in Soviet-era memorabilia.
From Lviv you can hike in the untouched Carpathian mountains to the south, from whose peaks you can see five countries. Another great experience is visiting a bathhouse, tradition demands that you jump naked into a cold pool kept at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, then sit in a sauna kept at 200 degrees, then repeat.
Developing Soviet Sensitivity
This is a piece of personal advice I gleaned only through the extended period of time I spent in Ukraine: be careful about how you talk about the Soviet Union. Opinions vary rather widely among Ukrainians about Ukraine’s Soviet history, from wistful romanticism to open hatred.
As a Westerner, it’s typical to assume that the Soviet Union was nothing but horrible or to stereotype all people who lived under the Soviet Union as having similar characteristics and personalities, but this is a sensitive issue in the region.
Your best bet is to ask questions only when you feel it’s appropriate, and in general to be open-minded about the reactions you get. Eastern Europe did not cease to exist because the Cold War ended, and especially in Ukraine, Soviet history hasn’t died easily (and some would argue not at all). That having been said, marvel at the sights you would have been labeled a spy for viewing thirty years ago.
There’s Still More Eastern Europe to Love
If you do speak some Russian or Ukrainian, gallivanting throughout the rest of the country is super-easy, as public transportation is the norm and bus and train tickets are cheap. The Crimean peninsula has terrific beaches and a cheap ferry to Istanbul.
If not, Moscow and St. Petersburg are easy train rides, as are Krakow and Budapest, two unfathomably gorgeous cities. And best of all, you won’t get any of the coddling you get in Western Europe, nor the exorbitant prices, so you can extend your stay cheaply.
Be a Cultural Ambassador
The fact is, life has gone on in Eastern Europe since Europeans were dropping their Russian double major in droves, and the wounds of the legacy of the Cold War is still very much a reality.
Ukraine is struggling to make stronger ties with the West, and it has a lot to offer – the literacy rate is near 100% and many people hold college degrees (education was actually quite good under the Soviet Union). Play a generational role in healing East-West relations by telling everyone you know of your travels.
Finally, if you’re looking for an excuse to go, Ukraine is one of the host countries for the European Football Cup in 2012 and has made heroic efforts to build the resources necessary to host the event. I’ll see you there!