Lufthansa highlights Kiev: Klitschko’s Kiev
The last wave of sultry summer weather hangs heavy in the streets. This place is hot – and that’s not just because the girls wear their skirts outrageously short. Kiev is wearing a smile and the big man is beaming. “I am Vladimir,” says Vladimir, shaking your hand and, fortunately, releasing it in one piece. He is a friendly person. If you ever thought that boxers were bloodthirsty dimwits who would happily pummel you into a coma, today is the day you learn otherwise. Before you stands an intelligent giant of a man who knows his books, his art and all about good manners, and has a PhD in sports. He even asks politely how you are.
Only Kiev is a place that can sometimes knock you for six. The way the future clashes with the past here is almost like a punch on the nose. Take the military parade yesterday, for instance, when tanks lumbered down Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main shopping street, where Porsches had been gliding only hours before; and where more than one individual had slipped out of his bespoke suit and adopted the guise of a stalwart party soldier clicking his heels. Cell phone one minute, rifle the next. There was a reek of pride, mixed with defiance and old gasoline in the air as these noisy giants set the sidewalk quaking as they rumbled past Prada posters and spectators marking the day with good old-fashioned solyanka stew instead of lobster soup. Even old Lenin on top of his pedestal on Tarasa Shevchenka boulevard looked pleased.
It is more than two decades since the Ukraine gained independence from Moscow, and Vladimir Klitschko says that “Kiev is moving forward very, very fast now.” He loves his city, the taste of home, but the pace of life here worries him. He notices it every time he returns from Florida or Hamburg, his other homes, to visit his parents in Kiev. Yet another new skyscraper, another new supermarket, yet again a case of build first, think later. “That’s not good,” says a solemn Vladimir.
We walk. Walk back toward the past without overtaking the present. He ambles along, his strides long and leisurely, as though determined to defy the city’s bustle. Did I say leisurely? Just the idea of strolling through Kiev with Vladimir Klitschko without causing a stir is as ridiculous as Non-Ukrainians being able to pronounce street names like Mychajlo Kocjubyns’koho properly. Kliiiiiiiiiitschkoooo!, they shout wherever we turn! He is the World Heavyweight Champion, his brother Vitali ran for mayor here and Vladimir is a modest, gentle hero who rarely escapes a cell phone camera.
We stop outside St. Michael’s Abbey; two monks in black habits would like to have their photo taken with him. They thank him courteously and bless him once his mighty back is turned.
“I used to be a communist and only found my faith later. Marx called religion the opium of the people and Uncle Lenin didn’t want them praying either,” says Vladimir, putting some bills into an old beggar woman’s rusty pot. She crosses herself and retrieves a fat bundle with shaking hands. Thank Heavens! It seemed to come from somewhere above, out of the shadow of this friendly giant, God bless him. Or was it even him?
Vladimir drops his voice as we enter the church. There’s the sweetish smell of incense, he takes a candle, lights it and places it in the stand in front of a brightly colored fresco. The place exudes a sense of security and longing. The light of the candles flickers up to the high vaulted ceiling. The abbey’s silence is awe-inspiring, but also deceptive because history was trampled under foot right here. “You can take that literally,” he says. For the Russians, all of this was just worthless litter back in the 1930s, during Stalin’s persecution of the Church. Away with it all!
Stalin and his henchmen tried to eradicate all memory of Kiev as the mother of Russia’s cities. They blasted the bell tower, tore out the mosaics, melted the gold and sold it abroad, and then blew up the whole building. After that, they turned this sacred ground into a soccer field. “Soccer!” says Vladimir and goes outside to swallow his anger. He points to the roof over the blue portal, where the Archangel Michael sits enthroned, his golden wings glinting in the sun. He is the city’s patron saint. He lay buried in the dust of a filthy back yard for a long time before someone discovered him there. Now he looks pure, almost innocent, but the original is safely behind glass in the basement; the one up there is a replica, like everything else here. Reconstruction of the abbey was begun in 1996. With infinite patience, Kiev reclaimed its history, stone by stone, and the Klitschkos donated large sums from their charitable trust.
The brothers pressed mosaic pieces into the fresh new walls themselves, and when the abbey was dedicated they attended the service to join with the people in easing the city’s wounded soul. They were celebrated as philanthropists who do a lot of good with their fists; who not only champion old churches, but also join the battle against AIDS and drugs. “I help wherever I can,” says Vladimir, “because Kiev is in my heart.” He lays the roots of his native country bare, and that sometimes means standing through long masses. Standing for a long, long time because Russian Orthodox churches have no pews.
A couple of years later he came back again to help. Not far from the abbey, he climbed onto a platform on Maidan Nesaleshnosti, Independence Square, where freedom means more than having a McDonald’s around the corner.
No, on a stormy day in the fall of 2004 he looked down on the seething fury of a nation; on more than 200 000 demonstrators who continued to protest, frosty night after frosty night.
They had traveled to Kiev from all over the country. Nothing was the same anymore. They screamed their protest at the election fraud, they refused to stand for being duped. They beat their breasts and stood strong. Liars! they yelled, we have the power! According to the official announcements, Victor Yanukovitch had triumphed with 49.96 percent of the vote, while Victor Yushtchenko had won only 46.61 percent. People vented their anger for days on end, held out despite the damned cold. Yushtchenko, their political favorite, was finally declared president, and Vladimir Klitschko, too, was very happy about that.
But that’s enough talk now, enough rooting around in the past. It’s time for something to eat now, on the Dnepr, the city’s broad river. At some points the river is so wide it’s called the Kiev Sea. On the way there, the phone rings, as it has so often today. Vladimir lowers his voice, sounds stern. “My Gold has gone,” he says, “but I want it back.” A few years ago, Klitschko lent the gold medal he had won at the 1996 Olympic Games to a sports museum in Kiev. The museum closed down and the trophy has disappeared. Yet another story in which he clashes with the past. We stop at the Khutorok, a place that specializes in Ukrainian food on a riverside street that rejoices in a name it would be hard to tell to a taxi driver: Naberezhno-Khreshatitskaya Vul.
From there, we cross the Dnepr on a small boat. The food is served in a corner where we sit on wooden chairs. Vladimir clearly enjoys his role as host. He orders everything Kiev has to offer – and it’s enough to feed an entire wedding party: borsht, a vegetable soup with beetroot; sharkoe, a type of pot roast; salo, salted lard, and blinis, those rolled-up pancakes onto which you carelessly spread caviar. All of this we wash down with kwas, a bread beverage made of rye and malt; and a lecture from Vladimir on why vodka before a meal cleanses the palate. He nips at his glass and wishes us good health.
The boat rocks gently as it moves through the sun-sparkling water, and even if all this greasy food has a German like myself looking forward to a good beer and a green salad this evening, you would never tell him that. For one thing, he would be offended, and for another, you don’t contradict a nice boxer. Don’t ask, he cries, drink, eat! We drink and, well, we eat until the boat ties up at the wharf again. Then he gets another call. His gold medal has been found. At least for today, Vladimir Klitschko has made his peace with Kiev.