Ukraine presented a unique picture relative to other countries we have visited in terms of its political, economic and cultural situation. Kiev is a metropolitan city with a surprising amount of new development. It is the birthplace of the Slavic peoples from which Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are derived. The annexation of Crimea and the invasion of a portion of eastern Ukraine by Russia created a cultural divide separating families and causing a divisive political atmosphere among people of very similar backgrounds. It has resulted in economic stagnation in Ukraine caused by drastic reduction of much needed foreign investment due to the political uncertainty.
The Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches are no longer as closely aligned as over past history.
Our cruise ship was Ukrainian owned and the shipboard staff were all Ukrainian including the captain. This provided us with an additional exposure to Ukrainian people while cruising as well as on shore. The Dnieper River in Kiev is relatively narrow divided by attractive islands. As we sailed south it broadened at some points where it was several miles wide. It is a beautiful river with grassy banks and wide expanses of uninhabited forests and fields. There was essentially no river traffic unlike the Rhine and Danube Rivers.
Cruising south on the Dnieper from Kiev we docked at Kremenchug; an industrial city manufacturing trucks, where we visited a local family at a nearby village. Our next docking was at Dnipro. Until 1990 it was a sealed city closed off to outsiders with a Soviet center for nuclear, defense and space research. One side of the exterior of the museum we visited displayed ancient local stone figures from several years BC. The other side exhibited photos and military equipment from the recent
Russian conflict in eastern Ukraine. The first and the last!
The city of Zaporozhye is first defined by a massive hydroelectric dam, 2 1/2 times longer than the Hoover Dam, which was originally built by Stalin in the late 1920’s with US technical assistance. Its most interesting feature is a large forested island in the Dnieper which is where the Cossacks set up their all male republic in the 1500’s. The endlessly long city main street is no longer named after Lenin and the statue of Stalin has been removed. Out guide assisted us in finding the city’s best coffee shop which did not disappoint. Cruising south we entered the deepest canal lock in Europe which exceeds 100 feet.
As we cruised south closer to the Black Sea we encountered large numbers of fishermen in their small boats close to the shore. Our last Dnieper docking was Kherson on the delta, a ship building port for the navies from Czarist times to the USSR. The city was founded in 1778 by Grigori Potemkin, a minister and not so secret lover of Catherine the Great, who is buried there. He is best remembered for creating facades of fake villages along the Dnieper to impress the queen with the development of Russia under his leadership.
Cruising overnight across the northern tip of the Black Sea we docked at Odessa. The city, starting as an ancient Greek colony, has had a diverse history as a place of pirates, smugglers, WWII partisan fighters and international gang trafficking . A mostly Russian speaking city, local pro-Russian forces attempted a take-over during the 2014 Orange Revolution, which did not succeed.
Unfortunately corruption continues to be widespread hurting Ukrainian political and economic life. We had an opportunity to experience this first hand. It is common practice on river cruises to have a tip box put out at the end of a voyage for passengers to contribute funds distributed equally among the ship’s staff and crew. A Viking official mentioned to a passenger that the Ukrainian ship owner does not distribute the tip box proceeds but uses it to pay the crew’s meager wages. We singled out those who served us well and placed an envelope individually in their hands.
Friday September 14
Our visit to Ukraine and cruise on the Dnieper River to the Black Sea began on September 14, 2018 after an overnight flight on Lufthansa from Miami to Kiev via Frankfurt. This ancient Slavic settlement occupied by the Vikings in the late 800’s thrived as a Dnieper River trading center known as Kyivan Rus and cradle of what grew to be the Russian empire. The Dnieper stretches for about 525 miles from Kiev to Odessa where it joins the Black Sea. This was our first Viking cruise. There were 170 persons on board from 6 countries. The ship was a 40 year old craft that had been refurbished by the Ukrainian owner and all staff were required to be Ukrainian. Kiev is comprised of approximately 3 million official residents and an unofficial population of 4-5 million. Although many persons we talked to said this was not a typical Viking ship we found the accommodations quite comfortable. After arriving at 3 pm from the airport we got settled into our very pleasant cabin with a balcony and joined a group to walk around the Podil, riverside mercantile area. This is an attractive district with pedestrian streets and a lovely fountain in the nearby square.
Our ship is docked conveniently near a plaza and pleasant walking area. Along our walk we passed a tent area demonstrating against a proposed industrial area and a booth offering day trips to Chernobyl.
Saturday September 15
Today continued our visit to Kiev. We first rode to the Lavar Monastery which is really a collection of Christian churches built on a high hill.
According to legend the apostle Andrew climbed the hill and planted a cross claiming that a great city would be built on this spot. The area includes many caves dug into the soft limestone. The first cave was dug by St. Andrew where he stayed until he was joined by many other monks. He then dug another cave for a more peaceful and isolated existence. We toured one of these caves where in the cubicles we viewed glass cases holding skeletons of monks. In 1754 an Italian architect built a splendid gold and blue baroque church in the Ukrainian tradition of the five domed cross shaped design. This architect, Bartolomeo Rasrelli, also designed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.
We then drove through an area of embassies and public buildings until we arrived at the religious complex of St Sophia. The Cathedral of St. Sophia is spectacular with frescoes and 177 mosaics dating back to 1017-1031.
The cathedral is named after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and was constructed to celebrate the victory of Prince Yaroslav protecting the city from tribal raiders. The central large cupola represents God while the 12 smaller cupolas represent the 12 apostles. The first floor of the cathedral was for the common folk of Kiev while the royal family entered into the upper floors. The bones of Prince Yaroslav which had been stored in a sarcophagus here were taken to a Ukrainian church in NYC by monks during WWII to protect the body. Walking back to the ship we passed St. Michel’s Monastery, the first church to have gold domes.
In the afternoon we took a shuttle bus back into the city to visit Maydan Square, also called Independence Square. This is the site where Ukrainians historically celebrate and protest all important events in Kiev. It is here that pro independence protests occurred in the 1990’s and during the Orange Revolution in 2004. The most important events took place during 2013-14 when the square was turned into an urban guerrilla camp besieged by government forces which ultimately led to Ukraine independence. There is a permanent memorial set up for those killed during the rioting. The square and the adjoining main street on this Saturday evening were filled with families and couples strolling down the pedestrian area where there was a fireman’s muster as well as a large stage set up for performers some dressed in traditional costume. We stopped at a coffee shop before continuing to observe the local population enjoying their free weekend time. Interesting murals are painted on the walls of some of the buildings.
Today we drove out of the city to the Pirogovo Folk Architecture Museum where we enjoyed walking by and visiting over 200 wooden structures of the 18th century relocated and rehabilitated from all over Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine homes tended to be constructed of plaster while Western Ukraine homes were wooden with thatched roofs. We also saw many windmills. A treat was to observe creation of the traditional Ukrainian decorated eggs. This is a long and tedious process involving many steps to complete the many colored, fragile eggs.
In the afternoon we had a lecture on the history of Ukraine. The Golden Age of Kiev was a time period when the Kyivan Rus achieved peak culture development, economic growth, military power and wealth, during the reigns of Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Kyivan Rus became the strongest state in Europe laying the foundation for the national identity of Ukrainians and Russians. At the peak its territory stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Back Sea. In the 13th century the Mongols invaded Europe and the cities of Kiev, Moscow and many more were destroyed. The end of Kyivan Rus began and the East Slavic people were separated into three nations: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Leaving Kiev our ship passed a bridge lit in many colors during the evening.
Today we docked in Kremenchug, an industrial city of 250,00 residents. In the city is a memorial to WWII victims. About 50% of the population is believed to either been killed or captured and died in concentration camps. In the 1600’s Kremenchug emerged to become an important stop on the trade route between Moscow and the Black Sea.
While driving from the ship we passed an oil refinery where 9,000 persons are employed. There is also a truck factory called Krass as well as gas refining in the area. In the morning we had a delightful home visit in a rural town. Here we met the grandmother, her daughter-inlaw and her grandchildren home from school for lunch.
A large table was set up outside where we were served a collection of pastries and a homemade vodka made from sugar, yeast and water- quite delicious. The children had just returned from school and were very curious about these visitors. This rural area was populated with humble homes some without electricity , running water or indoor plumbing. Our hostess told us that they were in the process of constructing an indoor toilet. We entered the home and viewed the living area . The granddaughter’s bedroom included a princess bed with many dolls and princess decorations. Certainly the most attractive of the rooms which were simple and clean. A small stove and table was in the kitchen/dining area. In the yard were fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Chickens roamed the grassy area.
Today we docked at Dnipro settled by Russian Prince Potemkin by order of Catherine the Great in 1776. It is the fourth largest city in Ukraine today with a population of 1 million. Our tour today was a visit to the Historical Museum that traces the history of Ukraine beginning with statues dating from 2 BC displayed in the grassy area by the entrance. We also observed precious stone Kipchak idols from the 5th century BC as well as Cossack artifacts and tapestriesprogressing to objects from the Crimean War to contemporary weapons and military equipment from the annexation of Crimea. Our museum guide was very emotional speaking of the annexation and the effects on families separated from each other.
During WWII Dnipro was called the “secret city” since work on military research and defense took place. Workers were not allowed to leave the city nor could visitors come in. Today it has a small aerospace industry.
In the afternoon we visited a unique town; Petrykivka. This town is the center of floral art painting from walls and interiors of homes to cookware and clothing. As early as the 17th century it was known for its folk art. So unique is the style that it has been recognized by UNESCO and included on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Much of the art depicts the white blossoms and the bright red berries of the Viburnum bush. The story is told of two lovers who died during the conflict at the end of the 19th century. They were buried together and a bush was planted on the grave. The next year the bush exhibited beautiful white blossoms and red berries. We observed many artists and were interested in the unusual tools used to create their designs. A stick sharp on one end and blunt on the other, fingers and thumbs and a brush with cat hair from the cat’s chin were all used. The wood they used on which to paint were local trees, especially walnut and linden wood. This was a most interesting visit.
Today we docked at Zaporozhye. This city spans both sides of the river and its name translates to “beyond the rapids” which refers to the rough water in this area prior to the construction of a dam on the Dnieper. This is the ancestral home of the Cossacks. We visited Khortitsa Island, the now environmentally protected island where they maintained their policital headquarters for over 100 years. Only men were allowed into this settlement where we observed the council house, church, home and weapon storage. On this protected island the Cossacks fought off the Turks. We visited the museum where we observed artifacts uncovered in the area from the Stone Age, the Scythian period and on up to the 20th century. In the afternoon we watched a horse show presenting by Cossack horseman.
Today ‘s docking was at Kherson at the mouth of the Black Sea. Kherson is an important sea port of 300,000 people. We observed many fishermen as we neared our dock.The major economy is ship building of tankers and ice breakers. Prince Potemkin built the city under the order of Catherine the Great in 1778. Potemkin is buried here in St. Catherine’s Cathedral whose dome is modeled after Potemkin’s own palace in St. Petersburg . Potemkin also requested a statue of himself be built in a nearby park. After walking through this park, our guide directed our attention to a rather nondescript building. He told us how in this facility female combat pilots were trained and became the famous “night witches” who successfully carried out many Russian night air sorties during WWII.
During an onboard cooking demonstration of Ukrainian food our Ukrainian female staff wore traditional Ukrainian clothing.
Today we entered the Black Sea and docked at Odessa, our final destination. From our balcony we observed numerous jelly fish attracted to the ship’s vibrations.This morning we took a walking and riding tour of this beautiful city founded in 1795. Potemkin ordered a statue be built of him in the city. We admired the baroque buildings and a preserved passageway in the baroque style. The facade of the Italian-Baroque Opera House was spectacular .
In the afternoon we toured Odesssa’s Catacombs. The tunnels were built 200 years ago when builders of the city quarried limestone to construct homes. During WWII these 1200 miles of subterranean tunnels were used by resistance fighters hiding from fascists and launching surprise attacks. Over the years these areas have also been used by smugglers and in latter years by gangs involved in sex trafficking. Some enterprising business people are aging cheese and growing mushrooms in this enormous dark and damp environment.
This final day of our trip we drove two hours west to the Akkerman Fortress on the Dniester River, an imposing structure overlooking the Black Sea. In the 13th century this fortress was used by Stephen I to protect the city from the invading Turkish Army. In 1484 the Turks finally prevailed taking over the city and giving it its present name.
In the afternoon we took the shuttle bus back into Odessa to wander about the city and visit the LVIV Coffee Roasters for a superb cup of coffee and delicious chocolate cake. We also bought some LVIV chocolate and used our final opportunity to purchase some souvenirs.
Today we joined the locals for an afternoon stroll of downtown Odessa before packing for our return to the US after another fascinating river cruise with many delightful passengers.