Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova with MIR Traveler James Burch

Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova with MIR Traveler James Burch

In the spring of 2017, MIR traveler James Burch set off on MIR’s Belarus, Ukraine & Moldova small group tour. It’s an in-depth tour of three countries that used to be republics in the Soviet Union:  Belarus (Byelorussian SSR) between Poland and Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova (Moldovian SSR) between Ukraine and Romania. Following is the day-by-day account of his adventures in these unfamiliar countries.

  • Arrival into Minsk, Belarus

    May 7-8, 2017

    I flew on Baltic Air from Berlin to Riga, Latvia and then on to Minsk, Belarus. This country requires a visa, which was not an easy process.

    I was a little nervous about passport control and customs. My seatmate, a Swede, was taken away into a back room because his medical insurance papers were not good enough.

    When my turn came, it took 10-15 minutes. The officer looked at all the stamps in my passport and then looked at them again under a black light. She inspected the title page with a magnifier like a jeweler would use, then entered my data on her computer, then inspected the title page again, then the medical form. I was finally let through. What a relief seeing the MIR agent with a sign!

    Our hotel, the Minsk, is in the city center on their main thoroughfare, which is eight lanes with very wide sidewalks. We were surrounded with government buildings and universities. All the architecture nearby is monumental. Since the city was 85% flattened in the war, the center is new, but the neoclassical Stalinist buildings don’t look new.

    The monumental Minsk post office in typical neoclassical style

  • Minsk, Belarus

    May 9, 2017

    Minsk was a pleasant surprise. There are enough old or restored buildings that the city doesn’t look new. The sidewalk and streets are new and really clean. It is moderately hilly with a river flowing through parkland.

    Freedom Square and the Holy Spirit Cathedral

    The national art gallery is small but quite good. Much of the art, though, is Soviet propaganda.

    “Liberation of Minsk” by V. Volkov

    May 9 is the anniversary of the end of the “Great Patriotic War” and is also their memorial day. The city is plastered with flags and red-white-and-green bunting.

    Memorial Day marker in downtown Minsk

    And, Lenin has not left. This statue is in front of the parliament building.

    Lenin surveys his former domain

    We stopped in a small village close to Brest and had a farm fresh meal.

    Our hostess, Nina, puts on these feasts for tourists. We had, in typical Slavic fashion, homemade vodka, vegetable soup, stuffed fish, sliced tongue in aspic, sauerkraut, pickled julienne carrots, veal stew, re-baked potatoes, cheese blintzes, baked apples (Nina is the largest exporter of apples in Belarus), and ice cream. I know I forgot about half of what was served.

    During the meal, we were serenaded. It was such fun!  We danced in a line out the door and around the garden.

    Our lunch performers in traditional Belarusian dress

    After lunch, we drove an hour into the countryside to visit the site of the village of Khatyn where nearly all the inhabitants were murdered and the town razed as a reprisal for partisans assassinating some Nazi officers. This is a memorial to all the 2.3 million people intentionally killed in Belarus.

    There is a chimney stack for each of the 26 houses destroyed. Each has a bell on top and one rings every 30 seconds.

    Chimneys at Khatyn Memorial

    There is also a Graveyard of Villages with a monument, containing a handful of soil from each of the 433 that also met Khatyn’s fate.

    Graveyard of Villages

    Finally there is a black stone monument with three birch trees representing the 3/4 of the population to survive the war. The fourth corner has a flame to represent the quarter of the whole country killed.

  • Brest, Belarus

    May 10, 2017

    Today we drove the 4+ hours from Minsk to Brest, near the border with Ukraine and Poland. On the way we stopped at the birthplace of Thadeusz Kosciuszko (yes, I had to check that spelling), a Polish hero and the chief engineer of the US Revolutionary army. He was born to a Polish family in what is now Belarus.

    The trip included some sun, rain, and snow!  At one point it was 38F/3C.

    Brest was the site of a major defeat in WW2. While the Soviets thought they were still at peace with the Nazis, the German army surrounded the Brest Fortress and attacked the Red Army. The Soviets held out for over a week but were finally defeated and killed. We saw part of the May 9th ceremonies in front of this memorial:

    WWII Monument in Brest Fortress

    Tomorrow we are off to Ukraine.

  • Lviv, Ukraine

    May 11, 2017

    We left Brest, Belarus for a 30-45 minute drive to the border to Ukraine. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to leave Belarus!  I know they are concerned about people stealing icons and other cultural treasures but they never even opened our luggage. It took us about twenty minutes to enter Ukraine. Then came about five hours of very slow driving on in-serious-need-of-improvement roads.

    We made one very interesting stop at a gas station where the proprietors taught the men the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no:’

    Bathroom tutorial in rural Ukraine

    We ended up in Lviv, the major city in western Ukraine. This city was founded in 1272. After 75 years of independence it was ruled by Poland who called it Lwów. Then, after about 350 years, it was taken over by the Austrians who called it Lemberg. In 1918 it was part of an independent West Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic for six months. Between the wars it was Polish, again. After Nazi occupation, it became part of the Soviet Union until independence in 1991. Whew, my head is spinning.

    It is a charming, small city of under a million. Most of the city center survived the war and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an interesting blend of many styles of architecture. 

    We visited several beautiful old churches. With a history like theirs, you might not be surprised to know that Ukraine has five major Christian religions which account for about 85% of their population:  Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate, Ukrainian Autocephalous (self-headed) Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church – Latin Rite, Uniate or Eastern Rite Roman Catholic. Whew, again.

    The weather was cool but sunny. By late afternoon it was about 60F/15C. We took all morning exploring the city. Right near our hotel is the opera house (more on that later).

    Lviv’s beautiful Opera House

    Next was the fascinating Armenian cathedral, begun in 1363.

    Gorgeous interior of the Armenian Cathedral

    Then more churches, town hall square, a pharmaceutical museum, city walls, etc. After lunch we walked through a lovely cemetery with many beautiful monuments.

    Example of the detailed and elaborate cemetery headstones

    Then to the central hill for a view of the city and to the Catholic Cathedral of St. George. Here, in 1826, Franz Xaver Mozart conducted the Ukrainian premier of his father’s Requiem.

    Our awesome tour manager, who is a native of Lviv, got seven of us tickets to Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, a one-act opera I had never seen. It was sung in Italian. The good news is they have subtitles. Ya wanna guess the bad news?  We sat in the 5th row and the tickets were $10. It was very well done and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The opera house is small and very ornate, built in about 1900.

    View from the cheap seats

  • Lviv, Ukraine

    May 12, 2017

    Another missive from Lviv. It has been a rainy day but warmer than the last week. Still it was a most interesting day.

    We started by going to the Lviv Art Academy where we met Prof. Roman Vasylyk, a world expert on, and creator of, icons.

    Icon expert Professor Roman Vasylyk

    Twenty years ago he began the Sacred Art Department at this university. It is the only degree-granting school of sacred art in the world. Most icons are created in monasteries or convents.

    It is the end of term so the building is full of very high calibre final art projects in many fields. Of course, we ended in the icon section.

    Icons, very generally, are religious scenes emphasizing the spiritual rather than the physical. Some we saw were traditional and some were contemporary.

    Icons of the Virgin Mother and Child

    Prof. Vasylyk has traveled all over the world lecturing, creating or restoring icons.

    Our next stop was to Chevchenko Hai, an ethnology park within the city of Lviv. It is as big as the city center and cemetery combined and is densely forested. The dozens of buildings were nearly all brought up from the Carpathian Mountains to the south. It contains dwellings:

    A decorative Easter egg woven out of willow branches sits outside a  traditional reed-roofed house

    and at least two wooden churches:

    The unique designs of the church domes are typical of the Carpathian Mountain region

    Afterward, we took an hour’s ride to the countryside to visit a goat farm.

    Snack time on the farm

    We toured the cheese processing operation and then had a cheese tasting and lunch.

    Now, about our group. We are 16 – 15 Americans and a Canadian who lives in DC. They are all very well traveled (I feel like a stay-at-home) and congenial. We are all having fun together.

    Two families have interesting stories. In one, both the husband and wife are descended from people who fled the Minsk area in 1910 during the pogroms. They had done some research and were able to find the wife’s family village and home a few days before joining our group. It was too far back for anyone to remember their family.

    The other is two sisters and a husband/brother-in-law. Their parents fled western Ukraine separately ahead of the Red Army. They met in a displaced persons camp, married, and had the older daughter. The younger was born in the US. MIR, our travel company, arranged a guide and a van to take them to the father’s village. There they met cousins and explored the cemetery.

    Our guide says it is not unusual to have people come to Belarus and Ukraine to search out their roots and possibly their family. She says these quests are often successful.

    This night we went out for dinner before our early morning (5:15) departure to the airport.

  • Kiev, Ukraine

    May 13, 2017

    After our very early departure from Lviv, we arrived in… 

    Welcome to Knib

    No, we are not in Knib. That is the Ukrainian Cyrillic spelling of this city. Kiev is the Russian name which the Ukrainians do not use. They spell it Kyiv in our alphabet. We have heard different pronunciations but the accent must be on the first syllable.

    Here is another common word we see:

    A welcome sight, especially when hungry

    That is ‘restoran’ in Cyrillic. I am beginning to catch on.

    We started with a bit of a bus tour and then got out at the Golden Gate, a reconstruction of an 11th century city gate:

    Kiev’s Golden Gate

    On our way to Saint Sophia Cathedral we passed a square where hundreds of kids were practicing their dancing for part of the Eurovision Celebration held last evening. (It is a contest where each European country enters a song. Portugal won.)  Their energy was helpful, considering how slow we were after a 4:30 wake up.

    St. Sophia is the city’s oldest church, begun in 1011.

    Even on a cloudy day, St. Sophia Cathedral shines

    It contains the largest collection of 11th century mosaics and frescos in the world. It is truly magnificent (but, unfortunately photography is not allowed.)  The Soviets first planned to destroy it but later turned it into a museum of atheism.

    After the collapse, the government wanted to return the church but the divided state of Ukrainian religion produced no clear claimant. So, the place is maintained as a secular museum of Ukrainian religion and on rare, special occasions, services are held with all denominations participating.

    Our guide was a director of the museum so the tour was extensive.

    We toured around the city some more and ended passing Euromaidan (Euro Square) where the 2013-2014 demonstrations occurred. Peaceful demonstrations against corruption and the government’s withdrawal of its bid to join Europe turned violent when government sharpshooters killed 75. Eventually 100 were killed – “The Heavenly 100.”  The demonstrators finally succeeded in getting the president to resign, but because of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, the country cannot join either the EU or NATO.

  • Kiev, Ukraine

    May 14, 2017

    This morning we traveled about 45 minutes out of town to the private home of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, the one deposed by the “Dignity Revolution” of 2014. He was a poor petty criminal who entered politics, and eventually Transparency International named him as the top example of corruption in the world.

    In this little village he took over the Communist Party’s retreat house of about 25,000 sq ft, redid it as a pleasure palace and then added another 25,000 sq ft as his home. It is so opulent and garish that it is overwhelming. Its nickname is the Museum of Corruption.

    One of the dining rooms:

    Yanukovych’s dining room decor

    In the gym:

    Private boxing ring

    Many of the students from the Maidan came out to the house to protect it from looting after Yanukovych fled. One of them was our guide. The gigantic grounds and the house are beautifully maintained.

    Early in the afternoon we went to a museum and learned the technique of making Ukrainian eggs. It involves a fountain-pen type nib filled with wax and used to draw designs on the eggs. We saw some beauties and then made our own. We had fun but our results were less than museum quality.

    Egg painting workshop

    Next was a stop at the Famine Monument remembering Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine in 1931-32. (These places have really tough histories.) [More about this famine, called the “Holodomor,” in tomorrow’s post.]

    Last activity of the afternoon was a two-stop ride on the metro. We entered at Arsenalna Station, at 345 ft/105 meters, the deepest in the world. We had to take two very long, very fast escalators down to the platform.

    Next was, of course, a dinner of Chicken Kiev. Delish.

    The evening entertainment was the Kyiv National Ballet’s performance of La Bayadère/Bayaderka/The Temple Dancer by Marius Petipa, music by Ludwig Minkus 1877. It was a beautiful production, but hard to follow. Act II ended with the female principal dancer dying of snake bite. Act III opens with the male inconsolable. In the original he is given opium. We saw him charmed by a snake charmer. He goes off into a dreamland with his lover with the most beautiful choreography I have ever seen. Thirty-two women in white dance down a ramp and fill the stage. Then comes a mass of fluid motion called the Kingdom of Shades. 

    I have found a link on YouTube that shows this scene. Cut out the first and last two minutes and here is the best eight minutes of dance I have ever seen.

    And, that was Mothers’ Day.

  • Kiev, Ukraine

    May 15, 2017

    A quick Kievan history:  From the mid 9th century to the mid-13th a confederation of most of the Eastern Slavic tribes covered the lands between the Baltic and Black Sea. It was called the Kievan Rus’ and is the foundation state for Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. During this period, a vast monastery was founded in Kyiv called the Pecherskaya Lavra (monastery) or Monastery of the Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates from 1051.

    The monks dug a huge system of caves where they lived, worked, and placed their dead. Eventually they moved above ground but the bodies left behind became naturally mummified.

    The modern Lavra is 60 acres/24 hectares. It contains nearly a dozen churches (all in operation), a bell tower:

    Pecherskaya Lavra belltower

    and many other buildings. It is still an active monastery and houses about 120 monks. The central building is Dormition Cathedral which was destroyed in the war and rebuilt. (Dormition, or sleeping, is the Orthodox term for when Mary ascended to heaven, Ascension of the BVM to the Catholics).

    Beautiful golden domes of Dormition Cathedral


    Paintings of the apostles decorate the side of the Lavra

    We went in and a mass was going on so we got to hear the hauntingly beautiful singing of the men’s choir. Again, no photos.

    Finally we walked way down a hill to the caves. Over the years they have been so cleaned up that it felt like narrow corridors with side chapels and shelves to hold the mummified monks. Their bodies are wrapped in beautiful shrouds so that only their hands are showing. Then, they are placed in glass coffins.

    Throughout the complex there were pilgrims. I was surprised at how many were young.

    Also in the complex is a museum of micro miniature art. A Kyivan sculptor created objects that are measured in millimeters. Each is behind a magnifier. One is a complete chess set and board on the head of a pin. One is the Little Prince, his plane, and the earth all in gold. Several are busts of famous people carved out of cherry stone. Extraordinary.

    That ended our visit to central Kyiv. On the way out of the city we heard about the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor. This was a manmade disaster created by Stalin to squash the Ukrainian independence movement and to crush the Ukrainian resistance to collectivization. He collected and sold off Ukrainian agricultural products while leaving too little to feed the population. The number of deaths is unknowable but estimates are 7-10 million.

    Out next stop was the Chernobyl Museum. It is housed in an old fire station that responded to the explosion, 62 miles/100 km from Kyiv. 

    It is very sobering. The Soviets didn’t begin to evacuate civilians for 36 hours despite the astronomical level of radiation. They didn’t even own up to the explosion for three weeks. The closed zone is the size of Luxembourg.

    The last stop of the day was at Babi Yar, a ravine 1.5 miles/2 km long where the Nazis lined up their victims on the edge and shot them. In the first 48-hour period in 1941, they killed 34,000 Kyivan Jews. Overall over 100,000 people were killed there.

    Menorah at Babi Yar

    Fortunately the weather has changed and the day was sunny and in the low 70’sF/20’sC. Otherwise this could have been a morbidly depressing day.

  • Odessa, Ukraine

    May 16, 2017

    Greetings from Odessa. We flew in last evening. This port on the north shore of the Black Sea has been inhabited since prehistory. In 1792, Catherine the Great founded this Russian city on territory taken from the Ottomans. She named it after the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which was believed to have been located here. Later, it was found that Odessos was at the location of modern Varna in Bulgaria, but the name stuck.

    This warm water port was very important to Russia and grew to be the 4th largest city in the empire after St Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw. 

    Being such a large industrial port:

    Port of Odessa

    I expected a drab, industrial city. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. It is really charming. It has many late 19th century buildings like this hotel:

    The reconstructed art nouveau Bolshaya Moskovskaya Hotel

    or this former palace of the Tolstoy family:

    Tolstoy family palace

    or the opera house:

    Art nouveau Opera House

    One thing that makes the city so pleasant is that very few buildings are more than three stories tall. And, there is a story here.

    Odessa sits on top of a huge deposit of yellow sandstone and limestone. These were extensively mined for building materials and the tunnels have formed a massive system of catacombs 1500 miles/2500 km long and up to 180 feet/60 m deep. Mining under the city was ended in the early 20th century but the weight of large buildings might cave in the catacombs so they are kept low. More on this later.

    We spent several hours walking the city and touring a small but good museum of archeology. It has local artifacts from the Greeks:

    Greek artifacts in the archaeology museum


    Roman glass


    Scythian bronze elk

    and on and on.

    Odessa is built on a plateau so the nicest addresses have great views of the harbor. In 1825 a flight of stairs was built to connect the plateau to the harbor. From 1837 to 1841 it was greatly enlarged and became the symbol of the city. The top step is 41 ft/12.5 m wide and the bottom is 71 ft/ 21.7m wide. The full set of 192 steps is 426 ft/142 m long and rises 75 ft/24 m.

    The construction was so precise that from the top one can see only the landings and no steps. From the bottom one sees only the steps and no landing. Unfortunately, the stairs are closed for repair but we did see them.

    Potemkin Steps

    The “Potemkin Steps” were made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin. You can see the stair scene on YouTube.       

    After the Stairs we went to the “Museum of Partisan Glory,” where for several months Soviet partisans in the catacombs held out against the Nazis. Finally the Germans made a serious effort to close the tunnels and a member of the resistance led them out through an unknown, blocked exit. The complex included dormitories, a school room, kitchen, laundry, workshop, etc.

    Catacombs in the Museum of Partisan Glory

    Tomorrow morning we take a bus to Chișinău, the capital of Moldova.

  • Chișinău, Moldova

    May 17, 2017

    Moldova. As you might expect, this is not an easy topic. Ancient history is way too complicated, so I’ll start in the 14th century when the Principality of Moldova was born. For much of its existence, it was a vassal state to the Ottoman Empire. In 1812, Russia took over and it became Bessarabia.

    In 1859 Bessarabia merged with Wallachia (don’t ask) to form Romania, but Russia took over the whole area again in 1878. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Bessarabia became independent, as the Moldavian Peoples’ Republic. The next year it merged with Romania. In 1940 the Molotov-Ribbentrop gave the lands to the Soviet Union and the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic became part of the USSR.

    With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Moldova declared its independence. Its constitution named Moldovan, then Romanian, as the national language. (Moldovan is a dialect of Romanian.) The Ukrainian and Russian inhabitants of the east bank of the Dniester River did not want to be part of the new non-Slavic country and declared an independent Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990 with the help of Russia. It is more commonly called Transnistria and is recognized by only one member of the UN.

    There it is in a nutshell.

    We left Odessa and drove about two hours across lush black-earth farmland to the border where it took us 55 minutes to leave Ukraine. It then took another 50 minutes to enter Moldova.

    Along the route we passed through a number of small villages. Many had gas service. The gas pipes are yellow and are above ground. Here is one crossing a road:

    Why did the gas pipe cross the road?

    Chișinău is the capital and dominant city. It has a population of 735,000, in a country of about 3,000,000. After our arrival we took a walk around the city center. Here is the central square. On the right is the Triumphal Arch built in 1840 to commemorate victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29. The Bessarabians melted down Turkish cannons and made a 7 ton/6400 kg bell.

    To the left is a bell tower originally built in the 1830s, along with the Cathedral of the Nativity behind it. The bell was too big for the tower so it was hung in the Triumphal Arch until 2011. The Soviets blew up the original bell tower in 1962. It was replaced in 1997; this time it was large enough to accommodate the big bell.

    Central Square and bell tower

    The cathedral was spared by the Soviets but they destroyed the decorations and made it an art museum.

    Off the central square is a nice city park (with free WiFi throughout). At the entrance is this statue of King Stefan III, the Great, who was canonized in 1992. He is considered the greatest Moldovan king for all he did to unify the Romanians.

    King Stefan Monument

    We have a full day of Moldovan touring tomorrow. Again, the weather has been A-1!  Lucky us.

  • Outside Chișinău, in the Moldovan Countryside

    May 18-19, 2017

    Chisinau is a cute little city, and we pretty well did it in one day. On Thursday we went out into the countryside. First we went to a sprawling monastery that the Soviets let crumble and is just being restored:

    Curchi Monastery

    The grounds are well tended:

    Hardworking monk

    Fortunately we were allowed to take pix inside:

    Beautiful frescoes lining the monastery dome

    Next we went to a cave church in Orheiul Vechi. We approached it through a traditional village and climbed to the entrance. Then, down a tunnel to a church carved out of the stone:

    Cave church altar

    The place is maintained by a 67-year old monk who retired from his job as a civil engineer:

    Our guide, Natalia, chatting with the monk

    The view from the church was beautiful.

    Next stop was lunch in a village near the church. A local woman cooked us traditional foods like our farm lunch in Belarus. For entertainment, five girls sang and danced along with an accordion accompaniment:

    Lunch entertainment

    The last stop of the day was the Cricova winery. Their cellars are in 75 miles/120 km of tunnels that were originally dug for their limestone. It sounded like the Odessa caves but were much more finished. (What is it about caves in this area?  We visited four!) We took a tram into the really cool caves to see the operations:

    Rows of wine aging to perfection

    We ended in a very elaborate tasting room:

    The perfect place to enjoy a wine tasting

    That evening we had our goodbye dinner and the tour was over.

    Now, some thoughts about what we saw.

    Belarus is the last Soviet dictatorship in Europe. As expected, politics was never discussed.

    Once we got to Ukraine that changed. Both our tour manager and our local guide in Kyiv were very forthcoming about their country. After independence in 1991, everyone was very hopeful. Then by 2004 the electoral process had been corrupted. International observers said the results were skewed and people in the streets got a government change. That was the Orange Revolution and it got peoples’ hopes up.

    Then in 2014 the former president Yanukovych withdrew Ukraine’s application to join the European Union and that got people out into the streets, again. This “Dignity Revolution” turned violent but the president was forced to resign and run to Moscow. Yet again, the people got their hopes up. Things are still pretty good in the government but the country is still crippled by corruption. The people are discouraged, again.

    Then there is the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the mining and heavy industry region. Russian propaganda is still strong and their story is that the troubles are a civil war. We did not feel the effects of the war, but Ukrainians get daily updates on casualties.

    Friday morning I had a 7am pick up and flew out of Chisinau to Istanbul, then on to London.