An amalgamation of mining tunnels, natural caverns, bunkers, and drainage tunnels, the Odessa catacomb system is the largest in the world. It has been used by October Revolution conspirators, World War II-era partisans, smugglers, and urban explorers. We entered the labyrinth through the gates of a bunker prison designed to house political prisoners of war in the event of a nuclear emergency. We followed our guide through twisting paths, passing a variety of navigation inscriptions left by generations of explorers. In places, we walked through bunker sections complete with furniture; in other sections we crawled through narrow, dusty corridors. We ended the tour in an underground bar lit by candlelight where the bartender served catacomb-fermented homemade liquor out of dusty bottles.
Study Abroad in Kyiv, Ukraine: Favorite Photos
Published: October 19, 2020
After diving headfirst into study of Eurasian politics and history, R.A. Bloomfield decided they needed to study abroad there. They did the Policy and Conflict in Post-Soviet Space program in Kyiv, Ukraine. Here are some of their reflections and favorite memories from Ukraine.
Although exhausted from jetlag and my first day at a new school, I felt like wandering. I ended up on the main street, Khreshchatyk. The Independence Monument rose above the Maidan, almost disappearing into the mist. Seeing it hit me in the gut. I’d seen a documentary and news coverage of the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, but it took seeing the Independence Monument for me to fully connect that the revolution happened here with barricades around the monument. This is particularly poignant given that the Independence Monument celebrates Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. There’s something about being in a place where history happened, and seeing that it’s an ordinary place where people do their shopping and stop to eat lunch makes the revolution more real and human to me.
Our excursion to the World War II Museum Memorial Complex was held on a characteristically grey day. This memorial is situated within a brutalist cavern. The figures are in typical Soviet style – very austere, very buff. In the wan lighting, the sculptures loomed out of the darkness, tucked into nooks in the artificial cavern.
In comparison to the massive Motherland Monument and other larger-than life sculptures outside, Ukraine’s commemoration of the World War II dead inside the museum is understated and eloquent. The Hall of Remembrance focuses on the more human aspects of war. Shells and mess kits sit on one side of the table with drinking glasses on the other. On the ceiling, a line of napkins accompanies a line of burlap military gear. This is a memorial that acknowledges not only the experiences of soldiers, but the impact of war on the families left behind. I’ve seen various World War II memorials – often stately, cold monuments to the casualties of the war. This contemplative, thoughtful memorial really got to me. I really appreciated that Ukrainians chose to honor the full pain of sending soldiers to war.
Since the war began in the Donbas region, museums have become an ideological battleground. Russia denies involvement, portraying the conflict as a civil war. In order to create a counterveiling narrative, Ukraine has invested in creating a historiography that emphatically supports the unity and shared history of all Ukrainian regions. Everything is political, and the National Museum of the History of Ukraine propagates Ukraine’s telling of the 2014 revolution and the current war. This staircase wraps around bits of shrapnel from Donetsk and Luhansk (represented by the map). This art installation also serves as indisputable, tangible proof of Russia’s involvement in the war.
We visited the art exhibit Ukraine WOW with our speech partners. The exhibit is a love letter to Ukraine laced with political barbs. Superficially, the exhibits were striking Instagram bait, but a deeper glance into the content reveals a distinct narrative showcasing Ukraine as a united country with deep roots, attacking contrary Russian narratives. This particular exhibit was an electric, beating heart. Low hum heartbeats filled the room and bled into adjacent exhibits, an eerie undertone to the general hubbub of excited visitors.
Kyiv hosts a playful sculpture garden on a hill overlooking the city. The mosaic sculptures populating the park have benches and staircases, inviting people to interact with them and linger for a while. This Alice-in-Wonderland-themed playground is popular with kids. Normally, the park is crowded, but on this day, the freezing rain ensured we were alone in the park. I love art with a good sense of humor and art you can touch, so this place checked both boxes for me. My speech partner and I had a good time with the photoshoot.
I happened across this street art and very nearly cried. I can’t say what exactly about the juxtaposition of natural elements with the gas mask got to me, but I ached with the knowledge that Chernobyl affected and continues to affect people. That this street art was surrounded by patriotic murals. This context and the fact that the mural could exist even in 2020 – 34 years after the disaster – shows the impact of the nuclear disaster on the Ukrainian psyche.
I took an independent tour to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I’d read a lot about the disaster, and when I turned the corner and saw this building, I recognized it. Trying to place it, I realized I’d seen it in the book Midnight at Chernobyl in a picture taken when Pripyat was still a utopian Soviet city. And here it was. For a moment, I was adrift in time.
Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was a sort of pilgrimage for me. Apart from the raw curiosity of decaying cities devoid of people, I was there to feel the weight of the disaster and to inhabit the same spaces as the residents and liquidators. I am in awe of the scale of recovery that was necessarily, and feel a deep love and appreciation for the 600,000 liquidators. Some knew what they were getting into and went in anyway. Being in this place made me feel the magnitude of what happened and what it took to recover. We passed the Red Forest, where liquidators methodically buried every tree, and the reactor complex, where the roof was so irradiated that only humans could function where robots failed. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, but the Chernobyl nuclear disaster fills me with an acute sense of the failings, blindness, and fundamental goodness of humanity.
The woods have secrets here. The woods around Chernobyl hide a secret military base and the massive DUGA-1 missile detection system. The DUGA-1 radar system emanates radio waves, which are then picked up again by the dragonfly structures. The Chernobyl region was prepared for a nuclear attack – gas masks and shelters at the ready – but wholly equipped to handle a power plant accident. The deliberate weaponization of nuclear technology is the other side of the coin to power plant accidents.
I was lucky enough to be in Kyiv for Maslenitsa. A week-long analogue to Mardi Gras, Maslenitsa is a time for revelry, rich food, exuberant dancing, and music before some religious Ukrainians buckle down for the more somber Lent season. Kyiv held a week-long Maslenitsa festival with food vendors and musical performances. I dropped by during a kids’ competition. Dance troupes of young Ukrainians would tromp out onto the stage and dance or sing or lip-synch along to a variety of music ranging from Ukrainian folk music to American pop hits. The performances varied greatly in singing quality and technical execution, but no group was lacking in enthusiasm. I was also personally delighted to hear familiar American music sung by children with strong Ukrainian accents.
Our Kyiv-based program included a trip to Odessa. We wandered through the city on a sunny, almost-warm morning. With its bright buildings and lively atmosphere, Odessa felt, strangely enough, like my fictionalized impression of a carefree California seaside town. Among the many delights of Odessa were its population of stray cats, who are lovingly fed and cared for by tourists, residents, and shopkeepers. Originally introduced to control the rat population of the port city, the cats are now beloved symbols of the city, commemorated with statues. Unlike most stray cats, many of the Odessa cats will happily leap into strangers’ arms. After months of withdrawal from furry creatures, I was psyched to pet Odessa’s cats.
Our program also included a trip to Moldova. One stop on this trip was to the Autonomous Territory of Gagauzia (located in Moldova) and the National Gagauz History Museum. It was an eclectic museum of Gagauz traditional culture, art, struggle for independence, ecology, and regional natural history. Explanatory text, where it existed, was sometimes in Russian, sometimes in Gagauz, and sometimes in Romanian, attesting to the tangled history of Gagauzia’s relationship to foreign powers. It’s a quirky little museum, full of some gorgeous art, interesting historical artifacts, and some delightfully mystifying exhibits, including an unexplained tableau of business cards in many languages and a procession of styrofoam heads of early man, which our guide said was in the museum because the director saw a BBC documentary and decided his museum needed an exhibit on human evolution.
During our time in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, we visited its flagship museum, the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History. The museum itself was interesting and replete with rare fossils, but we found our guide the most fascinating part. In a throwaway comment, he referred to Moldova as part of the Soviet Union in the present tense. As we talked to him more, he opened up about his political views. Interestingly, in defending Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, he argumentatively brought up Texas’ bid for independence in the nineteenth century. With a slightly bitter tone in his voice, he shared with us what he loved about the Soviet Union and hated about Moldova and Ukraine.
Throughout our program, it seemed like we stumbled across fields of decaying Soviet military vehicles everywhere we went. In Moldova, we visited the Military Museum. It was a dark, somewhat claustrophobic place where the tour guide flicked on the light switch as we entered each new room. After wandering through the labyrinth of military exhibits (which included reconstructions of KGB interrogation rooms), we visited the field of military gear behind the museum. It was odd to see fighter jets situated within a residential neighborhood. Unlike museums in the U.S., clambering over everything is at minimum permitted and is sometimes actively encouraged. We climbed the old Soviet military vehicles and appreciated the quiet poetry of yet another field of Soviet military equipment decaying in the grey weather.