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Travel: Straddling east and west

Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, is a fascinating blend of ancient and modern, east and west



It's only a half hour taxi ride from the airport to the Dnieper River where our ship is docked but by the time it was over I had shed all my preconceived ideas about the city of Kiev. Everything I had read about modern Ukraine - its depressed economy, runaway inflation and mass unemployment - had prepared me to find a drab Eastern European city struggling with economic hardship. But Ukraine's capital city is anything but drab.

As we made our way through centre town I was surprised to see broad boulevards packed with shiny late-model cars and crowds of well-dressed pedestrians scurrying past modern shops stocked with everything from TVs to high fashion clothing. Except for the golden domes of Eastern Orthodox churches scattered among the modern steel and concrete buildings I could have been in any prosperous Western European city.

I expressed my surprise in a later conversation with Henry, one of the ship's officers. "It's true," he told me "Kiev is a very rich city in a very poor country. There are more BMWs and Mercedes here than in my hometown of Berlin."

Asked about the source of the city's wealth he shrugged. "There is a lot of industry here." Then added with a smile "And there are other sources of money."

I left it at that but over the next couple of weeks I got some insight into those "other sources."

It's generally acknowledged that 60 per cent of Ukraine's economy operates outside the tax system. As one fellow told me with a chuckle, "If your company is paying taxes its time to fire your accountant." And many of the movers and shakers of Ukraine's underground economy have migrated to Kiev and brought their money with them. They have also turned it into a vibrant, modern city while still preserving the legacy of its long and turbulent history.

One of the oldest cities in Europe, Kiev straddles the Dnieper River on a site that has been continuously occupied for 1,500 years. In 879 Viking traders displaced the original Magyar settlers and established the principality of Kyivan Rus. Scandinavian King Oleh declared himself ruler and for the next 360 years Kyivan Rus prospered as a commercial and cultural centre on the trade route between the Baltic and Black seas. Christianity was adopted as the official religion and many of Kiev's magnificent domed churches were built during the Kyivan Rus period.

On a hill high above our anchorage on the Dnieper River the green, gilded domes of St Andrew's church are silhouetted against the sky. According to legend the site was chosen by the Apostle Andrew who predicted: "On these hills divine grace will shine. There will be a great city, and God will erect many churches here." And he was right. By the 12 th century there were more than 400 churches and monasteries in the Kyivan metropolis. But in 1240 Mongol raiders took over from God. Kiev was sacked and only a few of the original buildings were spared, among them the majestic St. Sophia Cathedral.