We loved Kiev. We have a couple weeks free between our time in Paris and the start of a week-long bike trip in northern Italy and we played around with a few different ideas of how to spend the time. The winner was to hop around a little: five days in Kiev, five days in Vienna, and then two days in Venice where we’re meeting the bike group. We don’t usually move around quite that much, just dropping into a couple capital cities, but somehow this just seemed to work.Why Kiev? Well, Mark was here with his dad back in 2012 and had a great time. Geographically, Ukraine is the largest state wholly in Europe and I was really curious about how it was dealing with the war with Russia. And we have an old friend, an old graduate school classmate, whose been living here for 25 years and we figured she might have some interesting stories to tell. Boy, were we right about that one!
First, a little background. A thousand years ago Kievan Rus was a powerful federation of Slavic tribes reaching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south with its capital in Kiev (or Kyiv as it is often spelled). Closely allied with the Byzantine Empire, the Kievan Prince Volodymyr converted to Christianity bringing the rest of the Slavs with him. Under his son Yaroslav the Wise it became geographically the largest state in Europe until ultimately it fell to the Mongols in the mid-13th century.
After centuries of eclipse, Ukraine was swallowed by the Russian empire in the 18th century. Subsequently Kiev experienced a burst of growth in the late 19th century, thus explaining much of the gorgeous architecture in the old center of today’s city, and eventually becoming the third most important city in the Soviet empire. Ukraine experienced independence three times during the 20th century though the first two – at the end of World War I and during World War II – were both brief as the country was again swallowed by the Soviets.The third time, though, was the charm. As Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush worked furiously in the late 1980s to prop up the Soviet Union – a story told brilliantly by Serhii Plokhy in The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union – Ukrainian leaders played a key role in the peaceful separation of the various now-former Soviet Republics. From the perspective of the Bush administration this was not the preferred outcome; Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker were, not unreasonably, fearful of the instability that could result from Soviet dissolution. In particular, a large portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was on Ukrainian territory. What would become of those nuclear weapons?
They came up with what seemed like a great solution: Ukraine would voluntarily cede control of its nuclear weapons, handing them lock, stock, and barrel over to the new Russian government. An amazing step, the first country ever to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons. In return Ukraine received written guarantees from the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia to protect its territorial integrity.
Ironic, huh? Less than a quarter of a century later Russia – one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s borders – invaded. In 2014 Ukraine’s president began backing away from agreements to move closer to the European community and instead partner more closely with Putin’s Russia. Lots of Ukrainians thought that was a pretty terrible idea and would congregate at the Maidan – the square in the center of the city – to protest (thus the protests were known as the Euromaidan). The government cracked down, there was violence, protesters were killed, and ultimately the President was pushed out of office.
Days later Russian troops moved into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and ultimately annexed it. Not long thereafter Putin invaded Ukraine’s eastern territory, the country’s most industrialized region, where they remain to this day. It goes without saying that the guarantees given by the U.S. and Great Britain haven’t proven particularly useful. Notwithstanding the hope of millions that we could move toward a nuclear-free world, one can imagine that efforts to convince other countries to give up their nuclear weapons based on guarantees of protection might be greeted with a level of skepticism in the future.
With that background, then, we were off to Kiev. Somewhat to my surprise, the war seems to have all but no impact on Kiev. It’s been brutal on the country’s economy, of course, but even so Kiev comes off as this beautiful, green, pleasant, European city. Lots of nice cafés, good restaurants, lots of street life. Great parks, beautiful architecture, stunning old churches. If you didn’t read newspapers – what the heck are newspapers? – OK, if you didn’t read the news you would never know from a visit to Kiev that it is a country that’s been invited by Russia. That’s all hundreds of miles to the east.So we walked around a lot, too much even. You see, Kiev has the world’s deepest subway system but we walked so much that we never got to experience it. We toured a few old churches and a great monastery. Sat in beautiful parks reading. Ate great food; you can tell that produce in Kiev is much closer to the source than in many parts of the word. Dodged a few heavy rainstorms.
The highlight of our stop in Kiev, though, was a day spent with Natalie a former classmate from our public policy school days. An ethnic Ukrainian who was born and raised in Chicago, she moved to Kiev a few years after we graduated and eventually started a private equity firm. And then she became Ukraine’s Minister of Finance. As Bloomberg news put it, “The American Woman Who Stands Between Putin and Ukraine,” as important as Ukraine’s generals.
Now you understand why we thought she might have interesting stories to tell. When a new Prime Minister was installed a couple weeks ago she declined an offer to retain her post and so has recently returned to private life which is presumably why we had much of a day to spend catching up instead of, well, whatever time she would have spared from trying to stop widespread corruption, usher in tax reform, balance the budget, finance the war, refinance the country’s debt, and all those other little things for which a Finance Minister is responsible. Oh, and for a while it seemed as though she would be asked to form the new government and thus become Prime Minister herself. Ultimately that didn’t work out though.
You can imagine how Mark & I, with our interests in politics, fiscal policy, and Russian history, kept pushing for more information, more insights, more background. I mean, how often do you get a chance to interrogate a Finance Minister on how things really work, what really happened? For policy geeks it was amazing, and all that while reconnecting with an old friend. Inspiring, and truly one of the highlights of our three years on the road.
As we left Kiev I had one regret: that we didn’t have more time to explore Ukraine. I’d have loved to go to Lviv, the cultural heart of Ukraine and supposedly one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in Europe. There’s great hiking in Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains. I’ve long wanted to see Crimea, but of course that’s not going to happen for a while. And then there are all those restaurants we didn’t get to. I think that means this was not our last visit to Kiev.