wealth inequality

By the River Dnipro | Footloose | thenews.com.pk

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Statue of Bohdan — a famous Ukrainian general.
Statue of Bohdan — a famous Ukrainian general.

“The best national cuisine in the centre of Kiev!” The sign was emblazoned outside a restaurant in the Maidan Square. Nothing unusual, as such signs are common in town centres around the world.

Except that this was a restaurant offering Halal Crimean Tatari cuisine, and it was in the centre of Kyiv or Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. It was early November 2013, a world away from where Ukraine is today.

Crimea is no longer a part of Ukraine. At the time of writing, the country is in the throes of global strategic games between two superpowers and their allies. The Russian forces have crossed the borders and are encircling Kyiv. Ukrainians, backed by the Western Bloc are resisting. There is death and destruction and as often is the case, civilians bear the brunt of this violence.

I had landed in Kyiv on a typical cold, dark and dreary November (2013) afternoon. It was a business trip lasting a couple of days. I was accompanied by colleagues from the Middle East. They did not appreciate meetings early in the day, so our work was scheduled to start in the afternoon. This gave me ample time in the mornings to explore the city, provided I got up early enough.

My location was fortunate, I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel and my room had nice views over the river Dnieper or Dnipro. One of the longest rivers in Europe, Dnipro originates in Russia, meanders through Belarus and Ukraine before ending in the Black Sea. Right behind the hotel was a funicular which was a convenient and a pleasant way to reach the city centre, also called Maidan Square.

Early mornings, I skipped breakfast to head to Maidan where there were enough coffee shops to satiate my hunger. A freezing walk around the area gave me a glimpse into the history of the country.

The main street was flanked by large, dark and ominous-looking buildings, harking back to Ukraine’s communist past. It was now a pleasant stroll with shops and restaurants. Billboards advertised shiny new cars. Even back then wealth inequality, that now haunts much of Europe, was stark. Homeless and beggars sat next to the international designer boutiques and flashy cars.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the religion practised by the majority. In fact, the most beautiful landmarks in Kyiv are the churches. They stand out with their distinct architecture especially with the unique design of their domes topped with golden spheres. They are brightly colored and large.

Murals.
Murals.

I did get to try their most popular dish: borscht. This is a soup consumed across Eastern Europe and Ukraine claims to be its origin. It is rich, sour with beetroot as the main ingredient. The restaurant Kanapa served borscht in a distinct cabbage bowl.

One of the largest churches I visited was St Sophia Cathedral which is close to the Maidan. It is over a thousand years old and is named after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. As a UNESCO heritage site, it is well maintained with distinctive green colour and includes colourful murals and a recognisable bell tower.

Another famous landmark church I saw was St Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. With its beautiful pastel blue colour and large golden domes, it stood out on the Kyiv skyline. Built relatively recently, it is around 300 years old.

Given the paucity of time, I was unable to fully explore the culinary scene of Kyiv, although I did get to try their most popular dish: borscht. This is a soup consumed across Eastern Europe and Ukraine claims to be its origin. It is rich, sour with beetroot as the main ingredient. The restaurant, Kanapa, served borscht in a distinct cabbage bowl.

Bell Tower.
Bell Tower.

Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Europe. The economy’s main sector is agriculture as it is home to one of the more fertile soils on earth. Though it has some remnants of industries from the USSR days, it is one of the largest grain exporters in the world. This explains the jump in prices with the onset of the Russian invasion.

Historically, the region has been home to Slavs. Kyiv was the first capital of the Kyiv Rus empire more than a thousand years ago. The empire gave cultural legacy to the broader region, including the Baltics. This empire was eventually destroyed by the Mongol invasion.

It is this shared cultural heritage that President Putin invoked in his speech on the eve of the latest Russian invasion. While this claim is disputed by some historians, Ukraine’s location has meant it has long been a pawn in the tussle between empires.

A few weeks after my visit to Kyiv, the Maidan Square became a centre of the Revolution of Dignity protests. These protests had the domino effect of catastrophic events after a Moscow-friendly president was replaced by a more West-looking Turchuynov. Russia, fearing uncertainty at her Western borders, invaded Crimea in 2014 and later formally annexed it. Further NATO overreach eastwards has now triggered the latest invasion.

Qirim Tatari Restaurant.
Qirim Tatari Restaurant.

The Tatari restaurant, called Qirim, I mentioned earlier harkened to bygone times when Crimea was inhabited by a large Muslim minority. They were of Turkic origins and operated under the patronage of the Ottoman empire. After World War II, they were forcibly evacuated to Central Asia under the Stalinist purge. This forced transportation led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

As Ukraine hit the news, my mind took me to the pleasant but freezing mornings I spent wandering around Kyiv. I was fortunate enough to experience the beauty of the city and it is very uncertain when one would get an opportunity to do so again.


The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets@travelutionary1

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