Ukraine sits atop the Black Sea, a ragged-edged landmass cut in half by the Dnieper River running north to south; the Carpathian Mountains of the northwest slowly ceding elevation to the Great Steppe of the east. It shares half of its border with Russia, the other half split amongst six other nations, and though Ukraine is in Europe, it is also something akin to Oklahoma: bordered by Russia to the east and Europe to its west, it shares Oklahoma’s cultural and geographical androgyny of being something (Midwestern or Southern? Great Plains?), both, or nothing at all. Ukraine (European or Russian?), despite occupying roughly the same longitudinal space as Turkey, has the additional slight of being deprived Turkey’s celebrated transcontinentalism as the cultural and historical bridge between Europe and Asia; even in the midst of political upheaval and an oppressive government, Ukraine received more U.S. airtime debating whether Ukraine properly has a “The” in front of its name (it doesn’t).
Before the dissolution of the United Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991, Ukraine was more likely known to contemporary Americans as “the breadbasket of Europe,” an otherwise anonymous nation in the Soviet empire, along with Moldova and Belarus and Uzbekistan, popular only with anti-communists and geography nerds. The anonymity has only been slightly alleviated by Ukraine’s recent interactions with Russia. Like every other country between the Bay of Bengal and the Irish Sea, Ukraine has a history of conflict, and its own past shows that it has been populated and ruled at various times by seemingly every letter of the alphabet (Austro-Hungarians, Bulgars, Cossacks, Goths, Huns, Khazars…), but conflict persists even today. In March of 2014, Russian forces first occupied and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula in the south of Ukraine; shortly thereafter they supported pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region in the east. After nearly three years and thousands of casualties, a sort of status-quo has emerged, with Russian-backed separatists controlling two Oblasts (essentially states) on the east side of a borderline, and Ukrainian forces the west.
Russia’s occupation of Ukraine may have originated as a response to “Euromaidan,” a November 2013 student movement in Kiev’s Independence Square that sparked a revolution, since memorialized in the 2015 documentary Winter on Fire. Equally celebrated for its raw footage as it is maligned for the conspicuous absence of inconvenient details, there is a scene in Winter on Fire that demands our attention, a display of courage and grit and inspiration that Americans typically pretend is reserved for the fabric of our own national history and ours alone: a crowd of tens of thousands, listening to yet another opportunistic politician – this one Vitaly Kiltschko, a 6’ 7” two hundred fifty pound former world heavyweight boxing champion – attempting to hijack their movement with false promises and pleas of compromise, upstaged by a young rebel, a mid-twenties man who snatches both stage and microphone from Klitschko and, spewing frustration and spit and determination, says, essentially, enough. My brother died here on these streets yesterday, and if something doesn’t change, I am prepared to die here tomorrow. It is an emotional moment in an emotional film, and whether it depicts sentiment, truth, or truth as we want to see it – a condition we are coming to know in our own country – is irrelevant. It worked: the sitting president fled the country for Russia, the students of Maidan become national heroes, the riot police disbanded, memorials were erected. Life goes on.
Things change, of course – they always do – but a presidential exit and a new government is not always the remedy we think it will be. Ukraine remains a nation in some turmoil, but that is in the east. Today, Kiev’s Independence Square is empty of protestors, and my only struggle is in refusing the surprisingly persistent advances of a man dressed in a bear costume asking would you like to take a phony picture. His Ukrainian accent makes “funny” sound like “phony,” and he has plenty of competition in Kiev, where potential abounds for pictures funny, phony, or otherwise: a woman with a hat matching the feathered heads of her pigeons, Roberto and Julian; a man with his own karaoke machine singing 70’s and 80’s American standards, panhandling for money not to allow you the opportunity to humiliate yourself on the crowded sidewalks of Khreschatyk Street, but for him to continue; brilliant, lonely violinists in the Kiev underground, including one in full camouflage; an interpreter uttering the incongruent yet ambitious sentence I will never stop listening to the Cocteau Twins. In my hotel lobby I see and overhear two Americans discuss, without apparent irony, the thankful end the new American administration will bring to illegal immigration, all while awaiting an introduction to their potential new Ukrainian bride (username “weeege” gave the same hotel a poor rating on Trip Advisor for allowing the girls at the “strip bar” upstairs to surreptitiously entice him with overpriced cocktails; the hotel – a stickler for detail – accurately pointed out that the business was neither a nightclub nor a strip bar, but rather a “cabaret”).
The love connections occurring in my hotel lobby aside, the best draw in Kiev are the orthodox churches, and none are more remarkable than Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. The tombs of this cave monastery sit under snow-covered hills on the west bank of the Dnieper River, just south of the Ukrainian Genocide Memorial and further south of the Undying Glory Memorial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an eighty-five foot obelisk that today overlooks an idyllic, post-communist, Grant Woodsian scene of sleds and snowboards. A blue sky backdrops a single smokestack, dominant alongside rows of residential apartment buildings designed in an architectural style best described as “ugly.”
To be unknown is surely the safest path to undying glory, and time helps. The caves under Pechersk Lavra hold the preserved, mummified remains of more than one hundred monks, or “incorruptible relics”, men who spent the brunt of their lives underground in seclusion and are thusly relegated to it in the afterlife. I hope they enjoy(ed) satire, because for those who sought salvation through solitude, they are now objects of relentless adulation. The active monastery is the most visited site in Kiev, and neither snow nor sub-freezing temperatures deter tourist or penitent. There are twelve churches, some golden-domed, some ornate, and three underground; all trace their ancestry to Antoniy, an ascetic monk who, upon returning as a missionary to his native Kiev after living in a mountaintop cave in Greece, found his new digs to be a bit too elaborate. Antoniy moved into a four-by-four yard cave originally dug and occupied by Hilarion, another devout anti-socialist, and I cannot but picture a crusty old wild-eyed Antoniy as hermit crab, his unkempt beard indistinguishable from soiled robe, giant rose-colored claws protruding from gaping sleeves, patiently hiding amongst the trees until Hilarion, grown fat from years of eating defenseless grub worms and inattentive squirrels who happened by, vacates his earthly shell and scurries off for more comfortable surroundings to accommodate his growing backside.
Somehow this lifestyle below ground was attractive. Despite (or, perhaps, precisely because of) the cave, a diet of rye bread every other day, and only water to drink, Antoniy drew a crowd. Locals assuredly came first to stare, but then they came for blessings and advice, and his fame soon spread. Then the acolytes arrived. First Nikon, then Theodosius of Kiev (just one?), and in 1051, a church was built and the Monastery was born (the curmudgeonly Antoniy spent little time above ground: he quickly dug himself another hole, farther from the church).
The caves today have stuccoed walls, tunnels large enough for one to walk and two, just, to pass, but there is still no electricity. Instead, light is provided by weak flames from gaunt candles, some sconced on the walls, others held nakedly in the hands of the living. As directed by a picture pasted to the wall before we enter the cave, I hold mine with my palm up and the candle between my middle and ring finger as I follow my guide, who smells slightly of horse blankets and speaks to me in heavily accented English, down into the caves. She is informative and speaks without break, but when she answers my first question by simply pretending I didn’t ask it, I suspect she has memorized the entire pitch in English. Her devotion is not limited to delivering a quality, if not rote, tour: after ritually kissing the first three of what she says are one hundred twenty coffins, she tells me that I can make a prayer. I waste it praying that she doesn’t kiss every coffin.
The relics are incorruptible, the guide tells me, because the ambient condition in the caves is scientifically proven to be adverse to mummification, yet here they are, one hundred twenty men and boys, perfectly preserved, if one could only see them beneath their silkened, gold-threaded, ostentatious hats, headscarves, and robes, resplendent in purple and teal and aqua, a veritable-but-dead Prince Army. My grandmother would have called them “snazzy,” which, though ostensibly a merger of “snappy” and “jazzy” (and implying that not only did something exist so glorious that neither snappy nor jazzy sufficiently described it, but also that the word’s inventor was prescient enough to not suggest “jappy”), I am more concerned by the contrast of these luxurious fabrics with the sartorial choices of their ultimate icon. Jesus, I think, would not be impressed.
Several of the coffins contain two monks, and my guide says that they are brothers. Not brothers “from zuh same mudder and fadder” but “spiritual bruzzas,” which sounds to me like something else entirely, and suddenly the caves reek of illicit love.
This would not be unheard of. Though homosexuality in the middle ages was strongly discouraged (and it remains taboo in Ukraine today), that a monk might find love in the tonsured arms of another is hardly news. Ukraine has its own historical drama, in fact, in the 13th-century love affair of Evagrius and Tit (I am not making that up), a deacon and a priest who were joined in a same-sex union, had a falling out, an attempted reconciliation, and then a tragic death. At their wedding, the officiating priest said that God had “willed to bind” them as brothers by both nature and spirit, and that God should “bless your Servants united also that, not bound by nature, they be joined with bonds of love.” In short, if Evagrius and Tit couldn’t consecrate their marriage with a baby, let it be consecrated with love.
Were the “spiritual brothers” of Pechersk Lavra shown the same decency and tenderness as that shown to Evagrius and Tit? Or were they relegated to knowing glances, passing fingertip brushes in dark hallways, stolen kisses in underground caves? Immaterial. They are now bonded for eternity and share the twin bed of a glass-topped coffin, the lips of a million worshippers pressed upon their caskets amid the muted glow of tallow candles.