Ukraine, Moldova & Trans Dniester
“Welcome to Lada Land”
This journey was one of the more surreal adventures that I have undertaken in recent years. A visit to three countries that were in the former Soviet sphere of influence until a few decades ago, where the ghosts and relics of the Cold War are evident and abundant. Former Soviet nuclear missile sites, secret military bases, enigmatic statues of Lenin and the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant all await exploration. This odyssey proffered the opportunity to enter a time warped anachronistic world, to indulge in visitor experiences that just a short while ago would have been an absolute impossibility.
Local children entertain visitors with traditional folk songs
A Brief History - Ukraine
The earliest archaeological evidence indicates that by around 40,000 BC almost all of Ukraine was inhabited by hunter gatherers, subsequently from approximately 7,000 BC primitive agriculture, animal husbandry and structured settlements began to appear. Fast forward to the 7th century BC and the ancient Greeks are the dominant regional power, thereafter the Greek territories were annexed by the Romans who subsequently lost out to the Huns who rampaged across Europe in the late 4th century AD. Numerous invasions and occupations came and went down the centuries, devastation accompanied the Mongol invasion in 1237 which resulted in most Ukrainian towns being razed to the ground. The early 18th century saw the now powerful Russian Empire - ruled by the empress Catherine the Great - swallow up Ukraine and engage in the institutional Russification of the country.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 dramatically changed the demographics of the region, resulting in the brief emergence of the ephemeral independent Ukrainian Peoples Republic. There then followed the Ukrainian-Soviet War which ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which on 30th December 1922 became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union.
The Second World War saw Ukraine occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. The Soviet post war occupation of Eastern Europe saw a radical redrawing of Ukraine’s western borders.
The world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred on 26th April 1986, when during a safety test reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded sending a cloud of radioactive material across a vast area of northern Europe.
With the collapse and dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine once again became an independent state.
In November 2004 Ukraine’s opposition leader Viktor Yushchenco launched a mass protest campaign over rigged elections, the Orange Revolution - named after the orange clad protesters - resulted in a re-run election and the installation of a more western leaning government. In 2014 Russian forces annexed the Crimea and seized part of Ukraine close to the Russian border. Currently a bellicose state of high stakes tension exists between Ukraine and its truculent Russian neighbour.
A Brief History - Moldova
The history of Moldova in many respects mirrors that of its neighbour Ukraine, being continually sliced and wrested by one invading force or another, be they Romans, Mongols or Tsarist Russians counted amongst them.
An independent Moldavian principality, including much of the territory of modern day Moldova plus parts of Romania, emerged in the 14th century. By the 16th century most of the territory of modern day Moldova came within the orbit of the Ottoman Turks. At the end of the Russo-Turkish War of 1806-1812, the eastern part of the principality – roughly the territory of modern Moldova – was annexed by Tsarist Russia. Down the years the region endured extensive Russification, until following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Moldova allied itself with Romania. This alliance lasted until 1940 when the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union and renamed the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The following year Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Moldova, and with the war turning against Nazi Germany the Soviet army reoccupied the country in late 1944.
With the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 Moldova declared its full independence. As with many former Soviet republics, the transition into the arena of independence subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union has been a somewhat rocky road to say the least. Dubious election results and government corruption have dogged Moldova’s latter-day history. In more recent years Moldova has made tentative steps towards joining the European Union.
The magnificent baroque Armenian church
This journey through some of the former republics of the old Soviet Union commenced in Ukraine, the largest country wholly in Europe, with a population of 42 million. An extensive city tour of Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, revealed an abundance of churches, museums and other fascinating visitor experiences on offer, all easily accessible via inexpensive and convenient public transport. The centre of Kiev has architecture more in keeping stylistically with a middle European city, and is devoid of dull and drab Soviet style structures, the antithesis of what I might have expected. Many of the shops that dominate Western European shopping malls such as Mango, Nike and the ubiquitous fast food outlets have made big inroads here in Kiev. St Sophia’s Cathedral is Kiev’s oldest surviving church dating back to the 11th century, it’s Byzantine architecture and the original florid mosaics and frescoes make this a real jewel of its genre. The streets around the cathedral are the main tourist souvenir catchment area. Stalls here are replete with Russian dolls featuring the Beatles, Harry Potter and Donald Trump siting side by side with Russian fur hats, Soviet memorabilia and toilet roll with Vladimir Putin’s picture.
The Great Patriotic War Museum is an exhibition dedicated to the atrocities committed during the Second World War. A series of giant halls lay out in graphic detail the horrors of the war that claimed more than 8 million Ukrainian lives. In the grounds of the museum towering above her surroundings stands Rodina Mat, which translates as Nations Mother. Built in 1981, this monumental piece of Soviet realist statuary, featuring a titanium female warrior stands 91metres high, it is visible from pretty much everywhere in the city.
The following day involved a long journey on the road, leaving Kiev at 9am and finally arriving in Odessa at 8pm. The journey passed through endless featureless agricultural landscapes, unsurprising as Ukraine was considered the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. The trip was punctuated with what can only be described as one of the most incredible and surreal visitor experiences imaginable, a tour of a former Soviet nuclear missile base. The Pervomaysk Strategic Force Missile Museum is a repository for many of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles, missile launchers, tanks, planes and other military equipment. A comprehensive tour of the site museum presented displays graphically depicting the horrors of war, after which we proceeded down into the missile launch control room. Situated 45 metres below ground and at the end of a 150 metre tunnel complex, the room contained two missile control stations. Sitting at the control panel I dialled in the 12 digit launch code, turned the release key and pressed the launch button, the wall display lit up showing that I had successfully launched 10 missiles towards their targets in the USA, impact time 25 minutes. The true horror of the capability that a place like this possessed to inflict on the world is truly mind numbing….welcome to Armageddon. At one time there were 176 nuclear weapons stationed in Ukraine, making it the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal.
Our next destination was the city of Odessa, and as usual we begin with a city orientation tour. Odessa is structured with a large wide road system set out in a grid pattern, the city centre is replete with innumerable coffee shops, restaurants and fashionable retail outlets to cater for the increasing tourist trade. Odessa has a multitude of sites to offer the discerning visitor; the Russian Orthodox Panteleymonivska Church resplendent with its five silver onion domes was built by Greek monks in the late 19th century, the magnificent Odessa Opera House built in the 1880’s and the extravagant art nouveau Falz-Fein House to name but a few. Situated some 15Km outside the city are the Nerubayske Catacombs, a network of labyrinthine tunnels originally used to mine the limestone rock for building material. Riddled with 2,500Km of tunnels the complex was used by the partisans during the Second World War. Now set up as a museum the tunnels are full of artefacts from the partisan times; living quarters, a kitchen, a school and a hospital all form part of the complex that was the headquarters of Odessa’s wartime partisan movement. An absolute highlight of today’s tour was to view the last remaining statue of Lenin on a plinth in the Ukraine. Secreted away in the courtyard of a local factory, Lenin has had a makeover and is now spectacularly disguised as Darth Vader.
As with everywhere else in Ukraine Odessa’s car of choice is the Russian Lada, in fact the Lada is still currently manufactured to the same passé design specification from over 40 years ago. Apparently the reason the design is unchanged is that the cars are so good that nothing can be improved!
Another lengthy day on the road and we cross over the border from Ukraine into Moldova followed by another border crossing into the breakaway state of Trans Dniester. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Trans Dniester which was then part of Moldova declared itself an independent state. A brief civil war erupted with a ceasefire declared in 1992, since when Russian forces have installed themselves there as de facto peacekeepers. The Russian presence there is a subtle reminder to other countries in the region of Russian power and influence. Trans Dniester’s status is that of a self-proclaimed state not recognized by the international community; with a population of some 500,000 it has its own parliament, flag, currency, military and national anthem. The capital city of Tiraspol retains two magnificent statues of Lenin, but apart from the Soviet-style brutalist architecture and a collection of war memorials there is not really too much to recommend it.
The Kvint Brandy Factory is considered the national symbol of Trans Dniester, and its product is exported world-wide. An extensive tour of the factory along with a tasting session and lunch in the board room made a most welcome break from a hard day on the road. Well-fed and watered it was then back across the border into Moldova.
The Moldovan landscape is much the same as that of Ukraine, flat and featureless agricultural scenery. The economy is agricultural based as Moldova has no natural resources like oil or minerals, the main produce being walnuts, grape vines, rapeseed and sunflowers. Moldova has a population of 3.5 million, and unlike its neighbours uses the Latin alphabet as opposed to the Cyrillic.
A morning tour of Moldova’s capital city Chisinau starts with a chance encounter with the city’s Memorial Day Parade, this annual event commemorates the fallen of the Second World War. Along with the war veterans, a section of the parade involves the relatives of those killed holding flowers and placards with photographs of those who perished, whole families walk together even with small children, it was a very moving encounter. The parade was a fantastic opportunity to capture photographs of veterans resplendent in their uniforms and families all dressed up in their Sunday best for the occasion. The parade culminated in a concert in the local park. Chisinau has its fair share of orthodox churches and government buildings, very few old buildings remain as most of the city was destroyed during the war and additionally as a consequence of a devastating earthquake in 1940, so the architecture is mainly 1950’s Soviet-style brutalist or ultra-modern. One day in Chisinau is more than adequate to connect with all the city has to offer.
The archaeological and ecclesiastical complex at Orheiul Vechi, approximately 50Km north of Chisinau, occupies a remote, rocky ridge overlooking the Raut River. The cave monastery dates back to the 13th century and was dug into the cliff by Orthodox monks, its chapel consist of an elaborate altar and some ancient frescoes. The modern Ascension of St Mary Orthodox Church was built in 1905 and has recently undergone extensive sympathetic renovation. The entire complex was closed down and abandoned during Soviet times, religious services only resumed in 1996.
Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl
Crossing the border back into Ukraine we arrive in Chernivtsi, a lively and ramshackle city with a mixture of sympathetically restored ornate buildings alongside partially ruined ones that are in need of some tlc. A full day exploring Chernivtsi affords a decent opportunity to indulge in its many visitor attractions. The central pedestrianised area has a plentiful supply of coffee shops, restaurants and street entertainers that cater for Chernivtsi’s increasing tourist footfall. Constructed in 1882, the UNESCO listed Chernivtsi National University is the city’s most impressive attraction. The red brick buildings are a wonderfully eclectic mixture of Moorish, Byzantine and Hanseatic architectural styles. The 19th century Cathedral of the Holy Spirit is a huge pink confection of a building, the interior sports several enormous chandeliers and some impressive frescoes. Situated at the head of an elongated park, where families come to stroll and weary tourists come to relax and recharge the batteries, your eye is inexorably drawn to the magnificent art nouveau Koblyanska Theatre. An absolute delight to photograph, this exquisite building is the ubiquitous backdrop for a multitude of tourist selfies. A real oddity amongst the many religious buildings in Chernivtsi is the 1930’s St Nicholas Cathedral. Nicknamed the drunken church due to its four twisted turrets surrounding its cupola, the blue and white turrets create an optical illusion that make for the most unusual of photographic subjects.
Situated high up on a cliff on a bend in the Dniester River is Ukraine’s finest castle, the 15th century Khotyn Fortress. With walls 40 metres high, 6 metres thick and five impressive watch towers, the fortress was strategically situated on a vital trade route that passed through the region. This advantageous position enabled the incumbent power in the fortress to levy substantial taxes on traders passing through their domain.
Kamyanets-Podilsky is one of those places that attracts tourists by the coach load. A picturesque town founded in the 11th century, the architecture and culture here has Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Armenian influences imprinted on its character. With a plethora of churches, restaurants, ornate buildings and tourist shops, Kamyanets-Podilsky is a wonderful town to stroll around and wind down from the rigours of the tour. The undoubted highlight of any visit here is the town’s 16th century fortress, built in the shape of a polygon with nine towers linked by an impressive defensive wall. The fortress grounds are filled with various museums and cafes; worthy of note are the debtors hole where locals were held until their debts were covered, the torture chamber with its vast array of gruesome implements and the building housing a record of the fortress’ fascinating history down the centuries.
In a country like Ukraine it can be easy to become churched-out, then you discover a bijou gem like The Church of the Holy Spirit. Way off the beaten track in the small village of Rohatyn, this all wooden church was built in 1598 and constructed without the use of any nails or fixings. Inside the church are a collection of gilded icons, including the oldest icon In Ukraine. Like many churches it was closed down during the Soviet era and was fortunate to survive destruction, a fate that befell many religious institutions during that era.
The Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, with a population of around 1 million, possesses history and stunning architecture in abundance. Lviv’s UNESCO – listed cityscape is the country’s least Soviet influenced, and lends more of an Eastern European charm evident in cities like Prague or Krakow. Prior to the Second World War Lviv like many other Ukrainian city’s had a large Jewish population with a rich history going back many centuries. With Nazi Germany’s occupation of the region, Lviv’s Jewish population of over 150,000 was imprisoned in the city ghetto. After the liquidation of the ghetto the survivors were deported to Belzec and annihilated, merely 850 survived at the end of the war. The world famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was one of those who survived. A very moving memorial to those lives lost is located on the site where the ghetto once stood.
Being Ukraine’s top tourist destination, Lviv has an abundance of churches, museums, art galleries, hotels and restaurants to cater for the ever increasing number of tourists arriving year on year. Quite interestingly the number one tourist attraction in Lviv is not a church, a museum or an architectural masterpiece but a cemetery. The Lychakiv Cemetery is a protected historical monument, established in 1786, it is packed full of gloriously ornate tombs of the good and great of Western Ukraine. The most poignant section of the cemetery contains the fresh graves of local soldiers killed in the conflict with Russia currently raging in the east of the country.
Next up is one of those truly wonderful holiday experiences, an overnight sleeper train journey. Leaving Lviv at 11.19pm the train arrives in Kiev at 7.00am. Sharing my compartment with two local Ukrainians, one a lawyer and the other a lady who now lives and works in Epping, the conversation is a fascinating exchange of information between three people whose paths cross for just one night.
Returning back to Kiev there is an opportunity to catch up on the sites missed out when in the city at the commencement of the holiday. A visit to the Chernobyl Museum - a precursor of a visit to the site itself - is a sobering and altogether scary experience. It is obviously exceptionally difficult to convey the full horror of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The museum exhibits aim to inculcate visitors into the true scope of the disaster and to ensure that the lessons from this tragedy are never forgotten. The museum represents a fitting memorial to the memory of the lives lost in the disaster, and the ongoing legacy that has followed in subsequent years.
A short metro ride from the centre of Kiev is the site of Babi Yar. On 29th September 1941 Nazi troops rounded up Kiev’s 34,000 strong Jewish population, marched them to the ravine at Babi Yar and massacred them. During the course of the Nazi occupation it is estimated that 100,000 people were killed and buried in the ravine. Today the area is a park where the locals stroll and children play, many no doubt oblivious to the gruesome history around them. Scattered around the park are a series of monuments dedicated to the various groups that the Nazis targeted for execution, among them Jews, Gypsies, Russian Orthodox Priests and Ukrainian nationalists. A memorial at the site reads; “Babi Yar is the place of mass executions of peoples of various nationalities, religions and political beliefs, one of the most horrible pages in the chronicle of evil and suffering, written with human blood” .Babi Yar today is somewhere that is haunted by the ghosts of the past, its history still has the ability to numb the senses, and yet it is a history that serves only as an almost insignificant footnote among the numerous atrocities of that period.
If ever there was a case for leaving the best till last this was it, a tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Situated a couple of hours drive north of Kiev, the site is the world’s most unlikely tourist attraction, a thought provoking tour of an apocalyptic terrain, the location of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. At 1.26am on 26th April 1986, following a botched safety test, reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded spewing out a vast cloud of radioactive material. For 2 days the Soviet authorities covered up news of the incident, until they were forced to disclose details when the Swedish government registered a high concentration of radioactivity over its country. Subsequent to the disaster an exclusion zone was placed around the plant, the population of 135,000 within the zone were evacuated, and the intervening years has seen nature reclaim the towns and villages within the zone presenting the visitor with the vision of a post - apocalyptic landscape. After the incident a large concrete sarcophagus was erected which enclosed reactor Number 4; in 2016 a huge new sarcophagus was put in place, inside robotic cranes are dismantling the old one along with the reactors radioactive core and endeavouring to make the area safe again.
The town of Chernobyl situated a few kilometres from the reactor, once a thriving model Soviet town, today is a dormitory location for some 1,500 workers on in and out shift patterns who are involved in the ongoing clear up work at the plant site. A tour of some of the villages in the Exclusion Zone reveals houses and their contents left as they were at the time of the evacuation of the residents back in 1986. In the village of Parishiv we meet Ivan Ivanovich aged 84, one of the so called self-settlers who have refused to leave their homes, he is one of only 2 residents left from a population of 280 families prior to the disaster. This elderly gentleman recalled stories of what life was like in the village before, during and after the explosion.
Hidden away deep in a forest in the Exclusion Zone is the now defunct former Soviet radar military base Chernobyl 2. Completely overtaken by nature with derelict buildings crumbling away, redundant equipment lies scattered all around, the complex looks like it has been trashed prior to its evacuation. The main attraction here is the gigantic radio antenna known as Durga 1, measuring a mind boggling 750 metres long and 150 metres high, it was part of the Soviet early missile detection system. Redundant and rusting away, Durga 1 stands as a stark reminder of the irrefutable paranoia of the Cold War period.
The city of Pripyat is the poster destination for the “Chernobyl Experience”, built three kilometres from the plant site, it housed the plant workers and their families totalling a population of 50,000 people. Two days after the disaster the authorities evacuated Pripyat, telling the residents to take only a small case of clothes as they would be back home in three days, over 30 years later they have never returned. Today Pripyat lies derelict and reclaimed by nature; the town hall, the cinema, the swimming pool, the supermarket, the football stadium and the residential buildings, like all of Pripyat they are slowly crumbling away, the detritus of a once thriving city, now presenting a post- apocalyptic vista straight out of a futuristic nuclear disaster film.
The iconic image of Pripyat is the fairground with its gigantic Ferris wheel and bumper cars, never actually used, the fairground was due to open to the public on 1st May 1986, but the explosion at the power plant four days earlier meant that never happened. The sad and decaying fairground presents an image frozen in time, somewhere that should be alive with children playing is just a ghostly reminder of the fragility of existence, a clarion call for the future of the planet.
The final act of any visit to the exclusion zone is to get close up and personal with the reactor itself. Standing there the realization is apparent of the sheer size of the new sarcophagus covering the reactor and ultimately the reason for its existence. The sheer enormity of the catastrophe that occurred here and its ongoing implications just bulldozes the senses. Now the journey is complete, and the ultimate photograph is ready to be taken of you standing in front of this monument to man’s attempt to harness nuclear energy, to record the reason that first inspired you to embark on this incredible journey.
This adventure presented a unique opportunity to discover three countries where tourism is still in its infancy, conferring an exceptional opportunity for the inquisitive traveller to venture into a relatively undiscovered part of Europe. Amongst the numerous highlights on this trip there are two that stand out above the rest, the Pervomaysk Strategic Force Missile Museum and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Places such as these are more than mere tourist attractions, they are mind numbing excursions opening a portal into the realms of the unknown for the average individual. To be afforded the freedom to visit certain places that exist nowhere else on the planet, places that were top secret and off the grid just a few decades ago, made this holiday a remarkable experience that will endure long in the memory.