Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chernobyl and Western Ukraine

'Midst concrete ruins rumored roam
Great beasts that call Chernobyl home.
Nature cares naught what lord presides;
Man's works may fade, but life abides.

From Lviv, a city rich in the arts and atmosphere, to Kamyanets-Podilsky and its fortress that has stood witness to 600 years of changing allegiances and tumultuous history, to the majestic rolling hills of the Carpathian Mountains, Western Ukraine is a land steeped in beauty and entwined with the legacies of half a dozen European empires and kingdoms. Today, this part of Ukraine has a distinctive character that distinguishes it from the other parts of the country, which trace their history back to the Russian Empire. Here Ukrainian is the dominant language, instead of Russian, which is widely used in the eastern and southern regions of the country, and political allegiances tend to lie more with the European countries to the west than with Russia to the east. For most people who come here, this area is a detour on the way to something grander, but those who hold it as their destination are truly privileged. These stretches of countryside that straddle the Carpathian Mountains contain the true soul of the Ukrainian people and offer the observant visitor melodious landscapes, magnificent architecture, untouched castle ruins, the embrace of warm hospitality and a wealth of culture and tradition.

The first time I visited Lviv, I was traveling with a friend from New York. Being from a large American city myself, I shared with her certain preconceptions regarding gang activity and gun violence. Accordingly, when we walked down an alleyway coming off one of the main streets and came face-to-face with a stern-looking, machine gun-toting thug of a man standing guard in front of a wooden door, we quickly decided to retrace our steps and find another place to be. Only on my second visit would I discover that this is actually the entrance to an underground theme restaurant called Kryivka. The restaurant is a replica of a UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) bunker which was used by the nationalist resistance force to fight against both Soviet and German invaders during World War II. When you approach the entrance at the end of the alleyway, a slit in the solid door is slid back and a shadowy figure presses you for the password. “Slava Ukrayini,” which translates to “glory to Ukraine,” will gain you admittance and the response “heroyem slava” (“glory to the heroes”). Anything uttered in Russian at the door may very well gain you grudging admittance as well or perhaps a kick in the backside given the current tensions between Ukraine and her larger neighbor to the east. Guests are then offered a complimentary shot of local honeyed vodka and waved down a flight of stairs to the restaurant proper. The waiters and the décor maintain the theme of the restaurant, and the dishes are even served in army trays. Lviv is awash in unusual tourist attractions and is a hotspot for theme restaurants, such as the Masoch Café, where the waitresses whip you, and The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, a mason-themed experience that necessitates obtaining a discount card which offers a 90% reduction on the menu prices.

In the city of Kamyanets-Podilsky, the jewel of Western Ukraine, visitors are greeted with a singular vista – the formidable Kamyanets-Podilsky fortress poised atop a narrow ridge gazes across the Smotrych River canyon to the blue steeples of St. George's Church where it crowns a swell of structures simmering up from the riverbed. The hill is a popular site for hot air balloons to glide over in the annual ballooning competition that takes place here in May. I had the opportunity to go up in one such balloon, though was immediately disappointed when the wind took us up over the comparatively lackluster Soviet half of the city. Naturally, I was thrilled for the excitement afforded the lucky tourists on board when our balloon summarily dropped out of the sky and crashed into a field. Our pilot shouted the only English curse word he knew as our primary burner failed and we started to descend earthward. The advantage of riding a giant inflated balloon was that the impact wasn’t hard enough to do anything more than jostle us, and we had also had a secondary burner to help control our descent besides. The disadvantage was that we weren’t able to immediately deflate upon crashing, and so we bounced for a kilometer or so across several fields, each rebound leaving a square imprint in the crops we'd flattened and casting us lower into the air than the one prior, until we’d finally lost enough momentum to extract ourselves from the balloon and bring it all the way down. The farmer whose field we’d settled in and his bulls all looked on with a mix of irritation and amusement as we folded up the balloon and packed it away in a trailer that was driven out to meet us.

Of the other cities in the west of Ukraine, Uzhgorod is perhaps the one that offers the most carefree atmosphere and welcoming embrace. Situated on the far side of the Carpathian Mountains, this lushly green and sleepy city is ideal for springtime strolls. The well-preserved rotunda church and castle both date back to the early history of the city as a part of the Kyivan Rus in the 11th century. Over the next millennium, Uzhgorod began to develop and expand under Hungarian, and later Austrian, rule. The city didn't fall under Ukrainian control until it was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR in the middle of the 20th century, and it remained a part of the country when independence was achieved in 1991.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which lies near to the capital city in the center of the country, stands in stark contrast to the enchanting lands further to the west. Still contaminated by the nuclear disaster that took place in 1986 and officially deemed uninhabitable for another 20,000 years, this is an area abandoned by time’s relentless forward advance. The city that once housed the workers who’d maintained the now-ruined nuclear reactor and their families, Pripyat resembles a corpse drawn up about the gaping wound that drove the life from it. The concrete husks of buildings that remain recall the dream of life, but the soul that possessed them has long since fled. And so nature, ever refusing to be denied for too long, is reaffirming its age-old claim to the land. The army of invading vines, weeds and trees is slowly consuming the blighted remains with the goal of ultimately erasing any memory of humanity. In a reflection of the numerous empires that have so briefly asserted their authority over this country and its inhabitants across the centuries, Chernobyl reminds us of the ephemeral nature of mankind’s claim on the planet. Visiting this forbidding place with a friend who'd been born in the same year as the catastrophe and had suffered health problems as a consequence of the radioactive dust hurled out over the USSR and Europe made the unmistakable human impact of the tragedy that much more poignant.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful pictures and commentary of the Ukraine. I loved the descriptions of the "theme restaurants".