Rodina Mat. Ukrainian for Mother of the Motherland, held a 12 ton sword and shield aloft. 62 metres tall she towered over the trees from the top of the high ground that continued from the west bank of Kiev down much of the Dnieper River, gazing out over that and the suburbs to the flat horizons of what was Russia. Since she consisted of titanium it was as though the sky of grey cloud above and mist across the Dnieper had solidified to create this martial robed giantess; a deity on permanent vigil commanding forces too vast to defeat. She stood on a truncated cone and circular layered dias of another 40 metres. There was a war museum there. I’d set out to find it with Jocelyn for that was the first part my original plan for exploring Kiev: get to the museum then work our way up the length of the heights overlooking the Dnieper before going back into Kiev city.
It wasn’t easy to find the entrance. Ascending a breathless winding path up a wooded slope we seemed to arrive at the rear of the dias structure where there was a closed service entrance and vehicle park. Circumnavigating the whole thing led us towards what sounded like the patriotic music of heroes on a never ending loop. The view on the other side was of a big open space of square patterned concrete. The heroic music came from the left where monolithic sculptures flanked a huge bunker like entrance with another big circular structure towards the river, saucer like to hold a symbolic flame. Further up the ridge over the river were the gold spheres and spires of a monastic or cathedral complex. In front of us, before the slopes down to the Dnieper and suburbs gloomy with mist, were 2 postwar tanks with their barrels crossed.
These tanks though had no camouflage pattern but floral designs, one blue, one yellow. On Google they’re referred to as ‘peace tanks’ and ‘hippy tanks’ on the internet. How groovy. It was likely to be some sort of gesture of independence by the newly formed Ukraine. Not just children were climbing over them but boyfriends and husbands too; so getting into the heroic spirit of the unavoidable music I clambered up there too.
There was none of that frivolity in the war museum, the entrance and foyer of which formed the base of the platform we’d been standing on when we’d got around the base of the giant statue. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War; its windowless spaces and subdued lighting seemed to hold something of the weight of history. A reality with the colossal statue above. Grandiose? Gloomy? Overdone? If any of that’s true it’s hardly surprising. Particularly in view of what happened in the Kiev region and in what was the Soviet Union at that time.
The D Day Normandy landings were the biggest amphibious operation in history and more people were killed when Dresden was bombed than at Hiroshima. Otherwise though the Great Patriotic War or German invasion of Russia in World War 2 seemed to dwarf what happened elsewhere.
America lost about 405,000 troops in WWII; Russia lost over 10 million. The German armed forces suffered 80% of its military deaths on the Eastern Front but initially the Germans won huge encirclement battles such as killing and taking prisoner ½ a million Russians around Kiev. Kiev was also where the biggest massacre of Jews took place in the Babi Yar ravine before the concentration camps continued the genocide on an industrial scale. The siege of Leningrad lasted for 872 days – over 2 years – during which 1 ½ million soldiers and civilians died. That’s apart from those who died from starvation during evacuation. The German attempt to seize Moscow and the Russian counter-offensive there took place on a front of a similar length to England. Then there is the turning point of the war at Stalingrad. After that the Germans couldn’t win. But the biggest tank battle in history – another record – at Kursk condemned the German Army to certain defeat in a gigantic delaying action, ending at Berlin. The first stage of that was the belated German attempt to hold the Red Army along the natural defensive ramparts of the Dnieper and Kiev; impossible without the armoured reserves squandered at Kursk.
One armchair general I encountered on Skype when I was in Texas was sure the Americans and British should have attacked and beaten Soviet forces in 1945. They would have been lucky not to get far, rather than being rolled back. Although the Russians had had enormous losses they still had – apart from entire divisions of artillery – enormous numbers of tanks. Many were upgunned versions of the T34; the best tank in the world in 1941 that the famous German Tiger and Panther tanks were designed to counter. Dealing with the Tiger tank had been bad enough for the Americans and British but if they had continued the war they would have been up against greater numbers of Stalin tanks in 1945: 1,300 heavy tanks bigger and better than the T34. Just over 1,300 Tiger tanks were produced during the entire war. The western allies had no tanks as powerful as the Stalin tanks in 1945.
The museum began with a 76mm artillery piece placed centrally in the large foyer. A weapon that could double as an anti tank gun. Then one was well directed around the various chambers on ‘the road of the war:’ The defence of Sevastopol, occupation regime, partisan movement in Ukraine, Stalingrad and Kursk battles, forcing the Dnieper with it’s heroic wall length painting. Even concentration camps were represented with – among other things – a machine for crushing body parts. Symbolic somehow of the brutal crushing nature of the war in this part of the world. The culmination was a Memory chamber with 27 meter funeral table where personal belongings, embroidered towels and notices of those killed in battle were displayed, emphasizing the Ukrainian contribution to the victory over Nazism. 16 museum chambers held over 15,000 museum objects on anything war related:— papers, personal belongings, weapons, photos, banners, awards, letters, diaries, military hardware such as machine guns and small arms.
Nor was that all to the museum. The monolithic sculptures near the wide bunker- like entrance were actually a single block of Soviet soldiers brandishing sub-machine guns, one hurling a grenade, all supported by a stubby field gun, racks of rockets and the heroic music of course.
Within the bunker entrance the covered way was populated by more sculpted comrades along the walls. A group including rifles and bayonets were perpetually charging towards the entrance with granite resolve. Further along were more gaunt figures bearing weapons, or bearing industrial and agricultural implements like weapons. Those who weren’t seemed in a mood of religious gloom.
Then even beyond that was a vehicle park with a difference. Well weapons park really. Everything from planes and missile carriers to amphibious vehicles and World War 2 – Great Patriotic War – tanks. Including the Stalin tanks. Plus a sampling of the artillery used in those artillery divisons.
Beyond the war was peace. Kiev Pechersk Lavra reared its golden domes and spires beyond a battery of artillery. What I didn’t realise then was that ‘pechersk’ means ‘cave.’ The monastery name really meant Kiev Monastery of the Caves.
It was founded in 1051 and became a centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; the second largest Christian church in the world. It also became an UNESCO World Heritage Site and later one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ukraine’ in 2007.
The monastery complex was on the slopes above the Dnieper River. We descended a steep lane on the outside of the fortified wall, then after some enquiries another cobbled way led further down to the caves, outside the monastery itself.
Another name for this phenomenon would be ‘catacombs:’ an unexpected bonus for me since I’ve wanted to sample some. 79 surviving burials were here. It wasn’t the dusty dark labyrinth with shelves of mummified corpses I was expecting though. A door in a wall led to a place where we could pick up little candles which we declined, assuming they were for purposes of worship. A descent into the caves revealed their practical purpose: they were the only light source.
Luckily there were enough people with us so – as long as we were near some of the many who were there – we could see that the narrow winding arched passages were not only whitewashed but impeccably maintained: apart from one spot where I fell behind Jocelyn and anyone with a candle and had to venture downwards into a black hole without a clue of what was inches from me.
“Bloody Hell!” Not the sort of oath to utter in such a place and my idiot abroad impressions earned a “Sshh!” from Jocelyn. Quite right too.
The narrow passages were like the catacombs I’d imagined in that they were a labyrinth, in which we finally realised we’d gone around in a circle. Mostly narrow and claustrophobic they occasionally broadened or gave access to small roomlike areas or monks cells. There were no dusty bones and cadavers of my imagination there or along the way though, but beautifully maintained embroidered and jewelled caskets, coffins, all sorts of religious icons and items. A veritable Aladdin’s maze – if not cave – of treasures.
It affected one young man in front who was such a devotee that he was flamboyantly weaving his hands and even body around making the sign of the cross all the time, without making much progress, holding us up and children behind us, who probably preferred exploring caves to religious fervour! Luckily for them he forgot himself enough to bang his head on the ceiling and progress became normal. Maybe God was trying to tell him something.
After emerging from this hole in the wall with a difference we descended into another hole later: the Metro. Actually it was supposed to be the deepest station in the world and I can believe it. There are geographical reasons. The combination of the entrance being on top of that escarpment by the river and the line going under that led to a long way down to the trains. There was the longest escalator I’d seen; dropping until the lines of it were approaching vanishing point with people looking like ants down there. At last we reached the bottom; but it wasn’t for around a corner was the same thing again! This second escalator to the centre of the Earth was what convinced me.
It was rush hour down there and after we got on the trains became packed. Maybe I should have removed my small backpack though it would have been difficult on the train. An old man got on and the only place he could hold on to was on the wrong side of me. It took him awhile while grimacing to make it; where he met another old but well built Ukrainian. Then it was clear they were making the odd desultory disparaging comment about me in Ukrainian. When the well built one got off he told me – inches from my face because of the crush – that he wasn’t happy about my backpack in Ukrainian, not realising I couldn’t understand the lingo. I said nothing; feeling they had something of a case though the circumstances were unfortunate. Best let the aggrieved let off steam. No hard feelings.
There was a respite from this well on the way to the hotel. We were breaking the journey to find the European SF convention which – being Thursday afternoon – should just be really getting underway. After which the trains would be less crowded.
It wasn’t an auspicious beginning. We emerged into a confusion of hovel shops come kiosks selling anything and the only other thing we could see was a flyover. It looked like Europe had suffered a holocaust since we went underground. When we succeeded in getting out of that we were on a long straight road through what looked like a Kiev version of Harlem.
The convention was being held at an exhibition centre. The area somehow looked like the site of a supermarket that had gone bust. The doors with the Eurocon sign were ahead though which was just as well for I could do with a loo. “We’ve made it!” I exclaimed cheerfully – or words to that effect – to a young official when we got there. No we hadn’t, he told us just as cheerfully: the convention had closed for the night! Not at all normal for a convention of that size I thought. Also what lay beyond looked less like a convention and more like the previous exhibitors not removing their exhibits.
Quite a disappointment but I assured Jocelyn that I could hold on as far as the hotel; we retraced our steps through downmarket Kiev without incident and the next train was less crowded.
Back at the hotel I had more luck: a chance meeting at the lift with Bridget: SF fan and friend to both of us. She’d specialised in European SF cons and was the ideal contact who started filling us in on the situation. The convention closed each evening and would do so at midday on Sunday, so at least there wouldn’t be a problem with leaving something interesting to catch the plane. The convention was actually in 2 places: tomorrow it would be at Kiev Polytechnic which was really the University, near the Zoo. After that it would be at the exhibition centre and the convention only had some of it.
Bridget confirmed my educated guesses. Yes, loess was the reason Kiev seemed dustier than the norm, there were a lot of glacial deposits of it too. Yes those random balls of plant matter in the trees I’d seen were mistletoe. It used to be like that across Europe including Britain and the fact it still existed here indicated a less disturbed balance of nature. Nice to feel I had that feel for the natural world.
She also revealed that the noise Jocelyn heard of something heavy being lugged around above our rooms was none other than Bridget positioning a table to support some heavy duty computer she owned. I’d heard it too but noises at night seemed to affect Jocelyn more; who’d complained about dogs howling to the extent that I wondered if she thought they were packs of wolves coming to get us if we dare step outside? Lucky there wasn’t a scraping on the outside wall. (Dracula!) We all have our weaknesses I guess.
The only time it got bad enough to make me look outside the window was when a huge party of orientals turned up on a night flight. That’s what it seemed because they all had cases with little wheels and all of them rolling made a real roar.
Later we found another friend – our British contact for this convention and well known at European conventions – had found nothing available when he arrived at his hotel after dark. I believe he ended up at ours. He told us that same hotel was turning fans away when there was still room.
The best part of this convention was at the University. A pleasant walk through a park led us to a grand old building not far from the Metro that fronted the campus.
Beyond was a concrete building not too dissimilar to ones found on London’s South Bank – the Hayward Gallery and so on – but more of a solid block. Within was a central well surrounded by galleries and sculpted circular staircases. Nice surreal touches were added by a fair number of plants and whole walls of painted portraits of former students, including an astronaut!
A drawback seemed to be the structure of the building holding a residue of the cold that had built up through winter but otherwise there was room to mix and hold functions and programme events. Plenty of rooms in fact although the convention itself was only on one level. More plants lived in some of these rooms, research rooms, labs cum libraries. That’s the impression I’m left with: a interesting and informal place for great and creative minds to;- well maybe not exactly party but meet, mingle and exchange ideas. I feel a place like a University is a good place to hold this kind of thing and certainly there were some good programme sessions.
What a pity we couldn’t have stayed there.
For the exhibition hall was an exhibition of the way the commercial world can work. By that I mean a process whereby you listen and accommodate yourself to their point of view because they couldn’t give a toss about yours. It came to light that the convention organisers only got part of the exhibition centre by agreeing to a deal with sponsors that brought about the following situation:-
The exhibits I felt shouldn’t be there yesterday still were, and would remain. Although some were actually artworks that could have fitted in with an SF convention the show going on at what was supposed to be the centre of the convention area was definitely not science fiction but ethnic. Hordes of people who had nothing to do with the convention wandered through that area anyway. The convention was small for a European one and what I’ve just described not only displayed this weakness that I preferred to forget but effectively overran the convention. It had no space of its own apart from rooms that looked like classrooms on an upper level.
I suppose the organisers were responsible but I’m loathe to blame them wholly. Apart from SF con organisers being volunteers and this being their first attempt at a Eurocon I’ve come to the conclusion that those representing commercial interests and especially market forces often need a Stalinist approach if one is to strike a reasonable bargain. Any attempt to be reasonable in fact is often exploited as a sign of weakness.
I freely admit that my attitude may make me an unrealistic bigoted bastard and may have led to me being no longer ‘in business’ really. I’m unrepentant and I’m working on it. Due to some happy accidents I’m largely free of the commercial world. That’s a load off my mind and I’m not sorry about any time I stood up to them.
At least there was an ice cream vendor with those varied ices where I like tossing a coin to decide which one I’ll have. Here though I unwittingly struck a blow for the convention against a member of the commercial world who was least deserving of it; for I couldn’t explain what I was doing and unfortunately kept dropping the coin. The poor man decided I was a lunatic and abandoned his post stalking off to the gents to take refuge there.
The best part of this part of the convention for me was a charming lady from Poltava who interpreted for a British SF author and who needed to be reassured about doing well.
There was a party that evening at the hotel that had mucked up our contact’s booking. Continue out of town from the flyover junction where the ring road our hotel’s on meets the west road out of Kiev. For the same distance one would to our hotel. Then it’s just off in the pine woods to the left.
The party was fun with plenty of strong stuff to drink although it was in a room small for this size of party. There was a large foyer to cool off in though if one needed it. I chatted with the SF author there who said the convention was an “experience.”
“Oh. Glad you had fun then.”
“I didn’t say it was a good experience. I said it was an experience.”
Jocelyn and I weren’t going to bother with the exhibition centre tomorrow morning but get up late and take it easy. The sort of thing one does on Sunday. Plenty of time to get to the airport in the late afternoon.
We still had to get back to our hotel from the party though and it’s no fun when you’re drunk – enough to feel like crashing in the lobby and just want to get to bed – to be told there’s a problem with transport.
The taxi drivers had discovered a problem with us being outside the city limits. Nobody could be more dogmatic than taxi drivers I felt and in the state I was in I had zero tolerance for this bullshit, especially as I was still capable of making it there on foot.
It was also extremely irritating to watch Bridget negotiate with coach drivers only to witness them majestically sweeping away into the night deserting her.
I broached my plan to the girls. Jocelyn might have been up for it but Bridget had health problems. Also somebody – I think it was Dave the Irish SF fan – said we might get mugged. I explained that the way I felt I’d just tell them to F*** off!
It was the drink talking of course and I started swearing, mostly referring to taxi drivers, repeatedly and consistently, even to friends just by way of explanation. I needed the stamina for the situation continued; with Bridget negotiating with taxi drivers only to get the same treatment the coach drivers had given her. I’m most likely innacurate but it seemed it was only my swearing in the lobby spurring others into action with persistent negotiations outside that eventually broke the deadlock. I think Bridget and Dave were inspired in this way but my memory isn’t clear on that. The times in my life I’ve had to break the rules of polite society and rely on anger to get things done.
This went on long enough for me to think I could have got through enemy lines on foot and returned with the cavalry by now. Then one taxi driver finally condescended to take us back. He drove straight up the centre of the multilane highway as though he’d set the controls for the heart of Kiev, only swinging off into the right access road at the last moment. That’s the way it seemed to me but maybe – what with all I’d had – I was just drunk and incapable of trusting any taxi driver.
I couldn’t believe I’d actually come close to risking my job for an event that turned out like this.
The last day we recovered and chilled out. The early afternoon lift to the airport, flight and journey home was so uneventful I’ve nothing to report as far as I can remember. So ended the first of 3 trips I made to Europe in 2013.
© D Angus 10 13