There’s nothing more fascinating than a writer’s house. This is the table where they sat to write, this is the view that inspired them, this is the garden they walked in. My novel Compassion, which relates the fate of the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror, gave me a foolproof excuse to poke around writers’ houses. Nearly all my characters were based on real people, and I went to see the places they had lived and worked.
In 2010, I visited Akhmatova’s house in St. Petersburg (see The House on the Fontanka) and Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino (see Pasternak’s Dacha), but before that my husband and I went to Ukraine as pathfinders for my characters in Kiev and Yalta.
Our plane from Paris lands in Kiev at noon. The year is 2007, Ukraine is independent, and the city is now called Kyiv. For the time being, things are calm. Ukraine is opening up to democracy and the wider world beyond the Soviet fold. No visas are required with our European passports. The Orange Revolution is three years in the past. The mood is hopeful.
The Euromaïdan is yet to come, and so is Putin’s annexation of the Crimea.
Kyiv feels closer to Eastern Europe than to Russia. The people in the street aren’t as glum, and the air is lighter. St. Andrei’s Hill is overrun with arts and crafts and restaurants and galleries, all spilling over the cobbles in a relaxed late-Saturday mood. There’s a service in progress in St. Andrei’s Church, which was built in the eighteenth century by the Italian architect Rastrelli (whose main claim to fame is the Winter Palace), and the chanting swells gloriously round the church.
Andrei, the main character in Compassion, arrives in Kiev in 1920 to find a city torn apart by civil war. Andrei is an artist, half-Russian and half-English. Many years later, he tells his granddaughter what it was like:
Some of the houses had been destroyed for firewood, and those that were still standing seemed about to fall down. The streets were clogged with refuse, the shops were shuttered. People in rags shuffled past clutching odd-shaped bundles… Sitting on a broken wall by St. Andrei’s Church… an outline caught my eye, and I looked more closely. There was something interesting about the way the building reared up from the rubble… I found myself reaching for a pencil and paper […] I was so absorbed in my drawing that I jumped when a voice behind me said, “That’s very good.” I turned round and found myself looking at a skinny little man with an ardent, curious face and a mass of curly black hair.
The little man with the curious face is a poet called Ilya Kishkovsky, who will become Andrei’s companion for the rest of his journey through war-torn Ukraine. Andrei is a fictional character, but Ilya is modelled on the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who died in the Gulag in 1938.
The description of Kiev is taken mainly from Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote about the city in his Civil War novel The White Guard. Bulgakov’s childhood home, which he used as the setting for his novel, stands a bit lower down the hill. Sadly, it’s closed by the time my husband and I get there in the late afternoon, but we admire the façade.
At the bottom of the hill is Podol, the old port area beside the River Dnipro, now gentrified and trendified, with edgy restaurants for gilded youth. Being neither young nor gilded, we take the funicular back up the hill and eat dinner in a restaurant for tourists. The décor is izba-style logs and the waitresses are decked out in traditional embroidered blouses, but the cuisine is post-Soviet cosmopolitan and so are the flat-screen televisions showing the inevitable football match. A delicate balancing act between past and future.
The most sacred place in Ukraine is the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery complex dating back to the eleventh century comprising churches, museums, refectories, dormitories, and a series of caves housing mummified monks (mummification apparently being caused by properties in the soil, rather than a mass outbreak of sanctity). Not much is left of the eleventh-century buildings, and the current style is baroque with some Art Deco touches. The Upper Lavra is a museum now, but the Lower Lavra is a working monastery, and its churches are surrounded by trees: apple, cherry, lilac – all in bloom. It’s like walking through an orchard with golden domes.
The bells toll for the end of the morning service with a persistent monocord clang. A procession of chanting monks walks past amid the trees. With their long beards and soft round black hats, they could be straight out of the time of Ivan the Terrible. The bells stop ringing. An instant of silence, and then more bells chime in from further away, taking up the message. I tried to work this scene into Compassion, but the characters objected strenuously and I gave it up.
On Sunday afternoon, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, the Khreshchatyk, is closed to traffic, and we join the other pedestrians taking the air. Contrary to local claims, the Kreshchatyk does not rival the Champs-Elysées, but it’s wide and open and tree-lined and a good place to walk. Kyiv is wonderfully green: the streets in the centre are lined with trees, and there are plenty of parks and open spaces. The writer Viktor Nekrasov lived in one of the streets leading off the Kreshchatyk in the 1960s and 1970s, before he left for Paris. As a boy, he lived with his mother on Rue Roli in Paris, which is just across from me on the other side of the Parc Montsouris. Granted, that was in 1910, but I feel a neighbourly interest. After being forced to leave the Soviet Union, Nekrasov became a regular visitor to my office at Radio Liberty, and I have a signed copy of his book Carnets d’un Badaud, which I’m using now as a nostalgist’s guide to Kiev.
Viktor Platonovich would be surprised to see the pâtisseries and chic clothing stores that have invaded his old haunts. The people on the street this Sunday are mostly young. The boys have round open faces, and clutch bottles of beer. The girls wear skimpy provocative clothes set off by demure downcast glances. Traffic in the city centre consists of black Mercedes, black BMWs, and black SUVs. Tinted windows are de rigueur. We have dinner in a restaurant with plush couches, skinny waitresses, hefty bouncers, and bad wine. The service is snail-like but there’s an endless parade of fashion shows on a television screen to distract us. How can the world have so many runways?
[Note: Apologies to readers for the variations in spelling. I’ve used “Kiev” when referrring to the city during the Soviet period, and “Kyiv” when applied to the present. I trust it’s not too confusing. My Ukrainian friends insist.]