Michael Portillo visits Kiev, described in his guide as the Jerusalem of Russia. At the St Sophia Cathedral he discovers how Ukraine adopted Orthodox Christianity.
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My Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guide dated 1913
has brought me east to the borderlands where Europe meets Asia.
My journey will take me from the grasslands of the Steppes
to the shores of the Black Sea
and run along the ridge of the mighty Caucasus Mountains.
To a volcanic land of fire.
I'll explore countries which at the time of my guidebook were under the
rule of a tsar but which a century ago fell to a revolutionary empire
the likes of which have never been seen.
I'll encounter Cossacks and Communists.
Monasteries and mosques.
Tea and black gold.
On my journey through these enchanting lands
I'll try to understand the tensions and conflicts of today.
I'm travelling to a region whose people felt a strong sense of
nationhood over centuries when their country appeared on no map.
I'm in Ukraine which first existed as an independent state
only in 1991.
In my Bradshaw's, its cities
are listed under Austria-Hungary and Russia.
And, before that, parts of it belonged to Poland
and the Ottoman Empire too.
Ukraine means borderland and standing at the edges of Europe,
it has long been torn physically and emotionally between East and West.
The struggle to control its territory and to win its allegiance
continues in the present day.
My journey starts in the north of the country
in the capital city Kiev.
The cradle of Slavic civilisation.
I travel West to Lviv where the flame of Ukrainian nationalism burns
brightly and onward by overnight train to Odessa on the Black Sea.
A thriving port and seaside resort.
On my way I cross swords with Cossacks.
You need to hold it firmly
but tenderly, like a woman.
Put on a pinny to learn the secrets of Ukrainian cuisine.
I'm just dying to lick my finger
because this looks absolutely delicious.
Encounter the body and soul of a mummified monk.
That is extraordinary.
I'm seeing the hands of the Saint there.
And get down and dirty in the spa.
I'm now lying in very warm mud
and the lady with the rubber gloves has begun a fairly intimate massage.
My first stop will be the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Bradshaw's tells me it's commercial, strongly fortified, picturesque,
sometimes termed the Jerusalem of Russia.
Perhaps meaning the core of its religion.
The source of its spiritual life.
Kiev Central Station dates from 1927.
With ornate chandeliers hanging from lofty ceilings,
it's a landmark of the architectural style known as Ukrainian Baroque.
In the city itself, I find a mix of building styles from different eras.
And overlooking everything, the gigantic Soviet Motherland Monument.
I'm heading straight to the heart of ancient Kiev
on a route that takes me almost vertically straight up.
Odin bilet, pozhaluysta.
Alongside the native Ukrainian, Russian is widely spoken here
and luckily I can remember just enough from my school days
to scrape by.
I've taken the funicular to see for myself why, centuries before there
was a city of Moscow, there was a city of Kiev.
Set on high, commanding ground above the River Dnieper,
which runs for more than 2,000km
from the heart of this, the vast Eurasian landmass,
to the Black Sea.
Until the turn of the 20th century,
the top of the hill could be reached only by climbing a wooden staircase.
But by the time of my guidebook,
tourists were able to ascend with ease.
Bradshaw's has brought me to the Saint Vladimir monument
on an elevated, open space by the river, a favourite promenade.
On the whole, history is not made by individuals.
It's about economic forces, social change, new ways of thinking,
but every now and again one person makes a decision
which by itself shapes the future.
Volodymyr was such a one
and his decision determined the development of Ukraine,
and indeed Russia, for more than 1,000 years.
I'm heading for Kiev's oldest church
which dates back to 1017.
My guidebook describes it as generally surrounded
by pilgrims and beggars.
Today, you're more likely to find Kiev's faithful
mixing with tourists.
I'm meeting an historian
to find out why this cathedral is so important.
-Nice to see you and welcome to Kiev.
-Thank you very much.
And the glorious St Sophia Cathedral looking wonderful in this weather.
When is there first an important city of Kiev?
The settlement in the territory of Kiev existed from
at least to the early 6th century.
But at the beginning of the 9th century, the Vikings came here,
they recognised the significance of the trade route from the northern
Europe to Byzantium and they turned Kiev into their stronghold.
And these Vikings, are they the people that we know as Rus?
Yes, they were called Rus.
This name was used as a label to name them
and it was also used as the place name for this territory,
the Middle Dnieper area.
Kievan Rus', as it became known
was the first great Eastern Slavic state and included large swathes of
And its greatest leader's critical decision was one of faith.
Tell me about Volodymyr, who has a statue here.
Volodymyr is one of the greatest rulers of the Kievan Rus'.
His name is usually connected with the adoption of Christianity.
And is it true that Volodymyr shopped around
looking for the right religion?
Yes, there is a curious story in Kiev's primary chronicle
about Volodymyr, who sent embassies to the neighbouring countries
to ask to them to make presentations of their religions.
For example, he refused to take Islam
because this religion prohibits drinking the wine.
He said the drinking of wine is the joy of Russes.
According to myth, having also rejected Judaism and Catholicism,
Prince Volodymyr the Great decided on the Orthodox version of
Christianity because of the overwhelming beauty of its liturgy.
Actually, his decision was political.
Volodymyr chose Orthodox Christianity to align himself with
the powerful Byzantine Empire and to boost the prestige of his realm.
I suppose this created a doctrinal gulf
between the Catholic countries of the West
and the Orthodox countries of the East.
Yes, it could be compared with the Iron Curtain, for example.
Built to unite the religious and political authority
of Kievan Rus', Saint Sophia's, with its wealth of Byzantine decor
remains a powerful national symbol.
The interior is really breathtaking, isn't it?
And I would like to point your attention on this beautiful
mosaic which is called Mother of God Oranta.
It was made by Greek artists,
but today it is considered as one of the important symbols of Ukraine
just because Kiev is the heart of Ukraine
and Saint Sophia is the heart of Kiev.
Is this also a heritage that is more widely claimed,
for instance, by Russians?
Yes, I think that's Saint Sophia Cathedral and Kiev are very
important places for all of Eastern Europe,
not just Ukraine and Russia.
It is an important part of Russian historical myth
and many people in Russia still believe
that the best thing they can do is to reunite the Kievan Rus'.
The results of this ideology are clearly visible in Crimea,
or in Donbass now.
Bitter fighting continues in those Eastern regions of Ukraine
after they were annexed by Moscow in 2014,
a move welcomed by their large Russian-speaking minorities,
but contrary to international law.
It's extraordinary to encounter symbols that are 1,000 years old
and to find that they are politically sensitive today.
My guidebook tells me that churches
and religious establishments are numerous in Kiev
and there's another that,
like St Sophia, attracts throngs of pilgrims.
To reach it, I will first go a long way underground.
This is the second very long escalator I've been on.
The stations are incredibly deep.
And very splendid.
This particular station, Zoloti Vorota,
is often heralded as one of the most beautiful Metro stops anywhere.
And from the most stunning station I'm heading
to one of the deepest in the world.
Arsenalna is 105 metres below ground.
The 70-acre complex of churches and cathedrals,
collectively known as the Pechersk Lavra,
is probably the holiest place in all of the Eastern Slavic states.
Bradshaw's has brought me
to the Pechersk monastery caves of St Anthony,
"Where in niches repose 82 saints,
"some of the mummified being elaborately dressed."
What a fascinating place.
Brother Innocent is one of nearly 160 monks
who look after the caves and churches.
How very nice to see you. This is an extraordinary place.
-And you have, in the niches here, the bodies of saints.
What is it like for you, Brother Innocent,
to be in this very special place, to spend so much of your life here?
Monks came to these caves in search of quiet and solitude.
And here they remained after death.
In the cool, dry environment, the bodies, now numbering over 100,
were preserved naturally with no need for embalming.
Brother Innocent, this is a very special moment.
Thank you so much.
Sometimes our holy relics, they smell very nice.
And I'm seeing the hands of the saint there.
That is extraordinary.
The relics of Saint Unitist.
And he lived in the 15th century.
And I can catch the smell now coming from the cask.
But as you say, it's not a bad smell, it's a good smell.
And each of the relics, they have their special smell.
Oh, that's extraordinary. Thank you so much.
We've come to the cluster of churches known
as the Upper Lavra, where the faithful gather
several times a day.
Today's Ukrainian Orthodox service
for the eve of Pentecost has drawn many worshippers.
Under communism, 80% of church buildings in Ukraine
were destroyed and their priests persecuted.
The Pechersk Lavra was closed down until 1988.
The elaborate rituals and the beautiful singing of the monks
makes this very special.
The face of the congregation is deeply impressive.
Religion was repressed in this country for decades
and it seems somehow to have burst out with renewed fervour.
In a different part of Kiev, I find another group of devotees.
As the sun begins to set on the city, I'd drop in on what I might
call a sect whose focus is not the soul.
They are rather more... body worshipers.
Well, this must be one of the strangest things I've ever seen.
This open-air gym, known as the Kachalka, opened in the 1970s
and all the machines make use of scrap metal.
There are marine parts, there are automotive parts,
there are radiators.
Very popular with the men and women of Kiev who come,
in a very special way, to pump iron.
You can work out here for no charge all year round.
A chance to build some muscles of steel.
-You look pretty serious about your body building.
Are you kind of professionals, or something?
Yes, professional, but not body-building. Strong woman.
-Is that what it's called, strong woman?
How well do you do?
Number two and number three in the world.
-Thank you very much.
Don't let me stop you.
Well, as you would expect, I feel duty bound to have a go.
I'm going to try and lift this piece of machinery.
Perhaps heavy lifting is something best left to the strong women.
I'm keen to find out about another chapter in this region's history
in a park just west of the city centre.
Welcome to the Cossack settlement.
Thank you very much.
-So, you're Ludmila?
-Michael, nice to meet you.
Hi. Well, these look very fierce Cossacks, wow.
-And beautiful horses.
I've come to Mamajeva Sloboda to see how these warrior horsemen lived.
-I will help.
There we are.
A martial community, recreated in this living history museum
of 100 wooden buildings,
is populated by fierce-looking Cossacks...
..whom I'm joining.
Oh, thank you. What is it you do, now, with this sword?
You need to wave your hand.
And then like that, OK.
-OK, let's try that.
-You know, you need to hold it firmly
but tenderly like a woman.
I'm not sure I'm getting the hang of this, Ludmila.
Like a good start, at least.
What I don't have that all is the wrist action.
I don't know how they turn the sword around and bring it through.
Wisely, they've taken away my sword and given me...a twig.
-In my mouth?
Put it in your mouth.
I don't think my dentist is going to like that.
So, Ludmila, who were the Cossacks, originally?
They were defenders of Ukrainian land.
In the 12th century, Mongolian Tatars destroyed everything here.
And Turkish, like Ottoman Empire,
Crimean Tatars, Polish invaders,
they lived here and Cossacks didn't want to be slaves.
They took a weapon and they started protecting our lands
from any invader.
So they were a military group, they were warriors?
Yeah, for sure.
Refusing to submit to the rule of Russia, or of their western
neighbour Poland, the Cossacks established free communities on the
rich plains of the Steppe,
where they survived independently, hunting and fishing.
Only after the appearance of Cossacks at the end
of the 16th century, we could feel ourselves people.
We could feel free, we could feel ourselves Ukrainians.
It seems that Ukrainians look to the Cossacks to establish their national
-identity, their heritage.
-Yeah, for sure.
Like, everyone has this Cossack blood. I am a Cossack.
I have it in my veins for sure and actually I believe that it's
important to know about our national heroes, to know about our history
and to tell it to our future generations, to our kids,
to our grandchildren, just not to let them forget who we are.
From the 17th century, the lands of the Cossacks were absorbed into the
expanding Russian Empire and their church was subordinated to Moscow.
Russians designated Ukraine "Little Russia".
I've come to meet historian Yaroslav Hrytsak
to find out why that history has so much resonance today.
Jaroslav, what is the special relationship
between Ukraine and Russia?
In many senses, Russia used to define itself and still defines to
a large extent in religious terms.
And this means the orthodoxy.
And this place is the cradle of the orthodoxy itself.
So Russia sees this place as the start of its own history.
Apart of the symbolic meaning, there is a very pragmatic reasons.
First of all, whoever has control of this region has strategical advantage.
You have to feed the Army and the grain is here.
By the end of the century,
Eastern Ukraine has the largest industrial centre
of the Russian Empire which produced steel and mine,
also strategically important.
And last but not least, access to the Black Sea.
Everyone knows about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine
in the 21st-century. Is it partly a conflict about who owns the history?
I would not say partly. It's very much so.
It's very much so, because the main issue
is who claims historical legitimacy of this territory.
I've arrived at a monument constructed in 1982
when Kiev was still an integral part of the Soviet Union.
It was built to celebrate Russian-Ukrainian friendship.
With so much shared history, it was inevitable that Ukrainian
independence would provoke a mixed response.
-Are you Ukrainian?
-I was just looking at the statue here.
Was it important to you that Ukraine is now independent?
Yes, of course.
It's very important for me because I was born in 1981
and I feel that I'm more Ukrainian, not Russian any more.
You are a child of independence,
you were born in the year of independence?
Yes, I am. Yeah.
I don't like when our countries separate, I don't like it,
because I have friends in the Russian country,
I have a lot of friends and I like Russian people.
On my rail journeys, I encounter history and I sometimes make
the mistake of believing that it's done and dusted,
as though history had come to an end.
But with Russia and Ukraine locked in conflict
over territory and historical memory,
here in Kiev, I feel my journey is about the future.
We don't know how this story ends.
A political map of Europe, 1913, the year of my Bradshaw's Guide
and the first thing that strikes you is the enormity of Russia.
This tells you how important is Ukraine.
This is the bread basket for Russia,
but also the access for so much of Mother Russia to the outer world is
through the Black Sea and through Ukraine.
My journey will take me now from Kiev to Lemberg,
now known as Lviv, in those days across the border
in the Austro-Hungarian Empire
and then I will travel back into what was the Russian sector
at Odessa on the Black Sea.
-Are you travelling to Lviv?
-What's Lviv like?
I have come from Kiev, is it different from Kiev?
Yes, it actually is.
Because Kiev is like a busy Ukrainian city, like,
more making money and live your own life and Lviv it's more like
culture, it's more about soul and people think more about tradition.
The rail journey from Kiev to Lviv is five and a half hours
on a nonstop fast train.
Without changing country, it feels as though I'm moving from
eastern to western Europe.
Bradshaw's tells me that Lemberg, as it was then known,
already had a population of more than 200,000.
Surely, such a sizeable city deserves to be better known.
Arriving in Lviv,
I'm plunged into its old world charm
of classical buildings and cobbled streets.
But, for now, I'll leave architecture aside
as I'm on a secret mission.
I'm headed for a bar which is called Kryivka, which means bunker.
It celebrates the activities of the Ukraine insurgent army which fought
successively against the Nazis, the Soviets,
the Poles and the Czechoslovaks.
And they are still worried about enemies,
so to get in I need a password,
and the password is "glory to Ukraine".
A secret door.
Never before have I had to swear not to be a communist or a
Moscowvite in order to get a drink,
but, whatever it takes, I seem to have arrived at the very
heartland of Ukrainian patriotism.
Elegant and cultured, the city of Lviv
exudes a kind of battered charm.
Everything here stands in stark contrast to the capital -
starting with the churches.
Behind me, the enormous dome of the Roman Catholic Dominican Cathedral.
That train ride from Kiev carried me away from Russian Orthodoxy.
Lviv is certainly challenging my preconceptions about the former
Soviet Union, and the buildings described in my Bradshaw's
have Austrian names, like Rathaus.
This feels much more like the city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
than of Joseph Stalin.
And my early impression is that people here are fervently
Ukrainian, perhaps even more so than they were in Kiev.
Free from the crushing rule of the Russian tsars,
Ukrainian nationalism flourished in Lviv under the more benign rule
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
CHOIR SINGS UKRANIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM
The very title of the song, Ukraine Has Not Died Yet,
reflects the country's perilous journey towards statehood.
Suppressed by the Soviets, the anthem was officially adopted
only in 1992.
Dmitro, that was fantastic. Thank you very much, indeed.
-Do you mind if I speak to the choir for a moment?
Anyone speak English?
Those of you that speak English, how did you feel today, singing your national anthem?
-Do you feel good?
And what was the song about?
Peace and prosperity.
Any mention of the Cossacks?
-What do you say about the Cossacks?
We will show everyone that we are Cossacks, very strong men.
Thank you, choir. Wonderful performance.
Such patriotic fervour owes its strength to one man
who single-handedly stoked a new wave of national feeling.
Taras Shevchenko, leading figure in a Ukrainian national revival,
this one in the 19th century, but, unlike the Kievan Rus' or the Cossacks,
his weapons were not the sword and the whip
but rather the pen and the paintbrush.
There are more statues of Shevchenko in Ukraine than any other
I've come to the Ivan Franko National University to talk
to Professor Iryna Starovoyt, an expert on the poet.
Libraries are one of my favourite things
in the world and this one has the musty smell of dust,
and ancient books and human wisdom.
Iryna, tell me about the poet, Shevchenko.
Well, he was born in 1814 as a second-generation serf
in the Russian Empire but he was actually bought out of serfdom
because of his artistic gift and he's managed to become
an academician, painter and a very important poet.
So, what was it that he was writing, what was political?
He was very ironic about Russian imperialist regimes and he was,
we would say in contemporary speech, deconstructing them.
Shevchenko was arrested for criticising the Tsar
and sentenced to a form of penal servitude,
25 years as a private in an army battalion.
And Tsar Nicholas II himself added a devastating rider.
Taras was to be completely prohibited from writing and painting.
That would have been the worst part of the sentence for him.
Because that was sentencing not only your body but also your soul and
Shevchenko put that in his diary later on, saying that even if he
would be a monster, a vampire,
such a sentence would be the cruellest torture ever.
Iryna, what a very beautiful library this is.
Indeed, and it contains some exquisite books as well.
One of them is Shevchenko's volume of poetry
printed during his lifetime.
Tell me about the circumstances of the poem that you are going to read?
He, at that time 33 years old, was sitting
in Novopetrovskoe Fortress, thinking
he will never see his beloved fatherland again.
IRYNA READS IN THE FORTRESS
"It does not touch me, not a whit
"If I live in Ukraine, or no
"If men recall me, or forget,
"Lost as I am in foreign snow -
"Touches me not the slightest whit.
"But it does touch me deep if knaves,
"Evil rogues lull our Ukraine asleep
"And only in the flames let her all plundered, wake again.
"That touches me with deepest pain."
I'm curious to see whether Shevchenko's words mean as
much to the younger generation.
Are you great fans of the poet Shevchenko?
He's like a prophet to us, because he was living back
in the 19th century, but all of his words are topical even now
in the 21st century.
Independence of Ukraine was the most important thing in his life,
and his words are filled with this feeling that he loves Ukraine,
that he was proud to be Ukrainian and he could see the bright future of our country.
Perhaps there's only one thing that draws us close to the
Ukrainian soul as Shevchenko's poetry,
that's the national cuisine.
I'm told that the very best Ukrainian food is served not in
restaurants, but in the home.
-Are you Ivana?
-Yes, I am.
-This is Katerina.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your home, Katerina.
Katerina is known as the best cook in the neighbourhood
and Ivana's here to help.
My goodness, there's food everywhere.
Now, I've heard about this thing called Vareniki.
Yes, Vareniki, you're perfectly correct.
That's the most favourite dish of Ukrainian cuisine,
and now you'll have a chance to try and make it because it's not that
hard, but very tasty, though.
Oh, thank you, thank you.
What do you think, Katerina?
So, we have a dough over here and, out of this one,
Vareniki is usually made.
Vareniki are a type of filled pasta.
-So, now we cut them out.
What is this filling?
This is a sour cheese filling.
Oh, thank you.
In Ukraine we say that Vareniki have to be small,
otherwise if they are too big to swallow in one bite
then it means that the wife is lazy.
I'm just dying to lick my finger, because this looks
Vareniki are so important in the life of Ukrainians that we even how
whole love stories and the tragedies devoted to Vareniki.
One of the most popular is when the young man loves the girl
and Vareniki that she makes.
Then the enemies come and stole the girl and Vareniki.
He goes to his friends and together they fight back to liberate the girl
and Vareniki, of course.
So, Vareniki are the way to a man's heart.
-Oh, for sure.
-Now, in the...
-In the water.
-In the water.
The water has to be boiling, one and then...
The water is boiling.
In they pop.
They are cooked incredibly quickly.
Ah, they look very good.
-That's how it should be.
-A little sour cream like that.
In Ukrainian cuisine, we have another thing than just bon appetit,
we have a smachno.
Let you to have a tasty food.
Mm, that is good.
-It's very cheesy, a little bit sweet and a very lovely dough.
-That was a good job.
Oh, thank you.
The romance of the night express carrying me to the Black Sea.
Travelling in Ukraine is very affordable.
For less than £20 you can sleep in comfort through the 12-hour journey.
Ah, I have a private compartment all to myself
with homely touches like a pillow printed to look
like a sort of folk costume,
and curtains made to look like silk.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm feeling very tired.
Ah, a little chai, black tea in the morning.
I shall shortly arrive in Odessa.
Bradshaw's tells me it's the most important commercial place
on the Black Sea.
"Regarded as the fourth town of Russia."
I know this city only from its legends,
having passed into history as the creation of Catherine the Great.
Into literature as the home to an enormous dynamic Jewish population,
and into mythology because of Eisenstein's film,
the Battleship Potemkin.
In coming here today I fulfil a personal lifelong ambition.
This station, with its shiny dome,
immediately makes me feel that I've arrived at a seaside pavilion.
Odessa Station dates from the birth of the railway itself in the
latter half of the 19th century.
In bygone days, stations were often referred to as cathedrals of steam
and this one has a dome, and pillars,
and a balustrade and chandeliers.
What a welcome to a great city.
Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great,
imagined Odessa as a St Petersburg of the south.
It seems that peeling back the Soviet layer,
the city is rediscovering its cosmopolitan side,
with the sunny climate and the sandy beaches that have made it a populous
seaside resort since the 19th century.
Looking like pink and white icing sugar,
and mentioned in my Bradshaw's Guide,
the Hotel Bristol had a name that would have made of the early
20th century British traveller feel reassuringly at home.
In 1905, shortly after the Bristol Hotel opened its doors,
the London newspapers carried the story of a mutiny at Odessa.
The crew of the battleship Potemkin
had murdered the captain and thrown his body overboard.
The ruthless response of the Tsar's forces was reimagined
for cinema on the monumental stone steps at the gateway
to Odessa's port.
In Eisenstein's 1925 film the Battleship Potemkin,
the Russian soldiers were stationed at the top and gunned down men,
women and children on these steps.
It was commissioned by the Soviet authorities to mark the 20th anniversary of the mutiny.
It's absolutely correct that more than 1,000 citizens were massacred,
but the events did not unfold in the spectacular way depicted in the
movie, but set against such cinematic drama
the truth has stood no chance ever since.
Privoz Market started in 1827
as a handful of horse-drawn carts,
and has grown to be the largest food market in Odessa,
and indeed Ukraine,
or, according to some locals, in the entire world.
By comparison with the rest of Ukraine,
here in Odessa I'm seeing a greater variety of faces.
Different ethnic types.
The place is more cosmopolitan,
a kind of human fruit salad.
I want to find out what lies behind the cultural and ethnic mix of the
city from an historian.
Olga, we meet in this absolutely beautiful square
with a view over the Black Sea.
But also, this immense statue of Catherine the Great.
Why is she commemorated in Odessa?
Well, she was instrumental in the city's foundation.
In the 1760s, '70s and then '80s
she carried out a series of military operations.
The Ottomans were pushed back and the Russian Empire gained
territories along the Black Sea including this piece of land.
And the city was founded in 1794.
Catherine started to plan the city with broad, straight avenues
and classical buildings.
But only after her death did it really blossom.
And to whom do we owe the city as it is with its very Western-style?
To a large extent, to a French aristocrat, Richelieu,
who was appointed the city governor in 1803 by the Russian Tsar.
This land initially didn't have many people,
so the Russian Empire needed to attract people here,
so the first brochures,
the first articles about Odessa in European languages,
this was his initiative.
And that attracted the European merchants here.
My guidebook is from 1913,
and it tells me that by then it's the fourth largest Russian city.
Who was living here?
The population was very multinational since its foundation.
A French aristocrat visited Odessa during Richelieu times
and he left a note which said that through the beautiful squares
strolled the Greek, the Turk, the Jew, the Moldavian, and the Russian.
The Englishman, and the French, and the German.
Many of them wearing the costumes proper to each
and speaking different tongues.
And the Jews were a big part of this?
Yeah, the Jews started coming here from the city's inception.
By late 1800s they made about 30% of local population.
The rich Jewish culture of Odessa was recorded by its many writers and artists.
Most famously in the short stories of Isaac Babel.
Today, Jews make up just under 5% of the population,
but the fact that they're here at all is a small miracle.
I've come to the city's great synagogue
which is at the heart of the community.
Given that the Jewish population of Odessa was wiped out
during the Second World War,
it's a pleasant surprise to find the faith
so fervently practised here today.
London-born Refael Kruskal is the senior rabbi here.
It's very, very good to see you.
Nice to see you.
Today, are you a sizeable Jewish community in Odessa?
We are one of the largest Jewish communities, I would say,
in the former Soviet Union and the most vibrant, for sure.
Even bigger than cities like Moscow and Kiev
because of the fact that Odessa was always a Jewish city.
Jews came to Odessa because they found a welcome here.
During the 18th century, Catherine the Great reserved an area
of 1 million square kilometres, known as the Pale of Settlement,
in which Jews were required to reside.
But the liberal minded tolerant Duc De Richelieu
arriving to govern Odessa saw what the Jews could offer.
The Mayor of Odessa Richelieu
decided he wanted to let as many Jews in as possible.
He wanted to go out and tell them how important their involvement
for building Odessa was and they built up the banking industry,
the export and import,
and they became very, very important in Odessa.
But anti-Semitism was never far from the surface in this part of Eastern Europe.
Violent attacks on Jews, known as pogroms, occurred sporadically in Odessa.
And at the time of my guidebook were seared into the memory.
1905 is the worst of the pogroms.
Does that really mark the high water point of the Jewish population?
There were about 300 people killed during the pogroms of 1905,
and lots of people you'll meet around the world from Odessan descent
will tell you that their grandparents left after 1905.
Among those who fled Odessa after the pogrom
were the grandparents of both singer Bob Dylan
and film director Steven Spielberg.
For those remained, life returned to normal,
but in the decades ahead worse was to come.
The Jewish population was eliminated in 1941.
How is it that there could be any kind of a revival after that?
People felt comfortable to come back,
they didn't blame, as such, the Ukrainians,
and the local people knew their culture, so they welcomed them back.
Rabbi, are you optimistic about the future of the Jewish community of Odessa?
There's lots and lots of Jews who want to stay here,
they feel very connected to their roots in Ukraine.
Though Ukraine is going through a difficult period,
I think that the Jews of Odessa and the Jews of Ukraine will survive it
with the Ukrainians and get to a much better period
where they'll be, well, where they will be able to flourish.
This little train is taking me to Kuyalnik Lyman,
which Bradshaw's tells me is a bathing resort
five miles east of Odessa
with a town hydropathic establishment.
I'm informed that Lyman means wet sand or mud bath.
For over 200 years, people have been travelling to the Kuyalnik Estuary
to seek relief for all sorts of ailments.
And at the time of my guidebook,
it would have been at the height of its popularity.
After being separated from the Black Sea during the Middle Ages,
the estuary was converted into a huge salt lake
by the scorching southern sun.
Its mineral rich mud is reputed to have medicinal properties.
Kuyalnik Lyman... Good?
You look very, very healthy on it.
Why don't I have the mud as well?
The clinic which opened on the banks of this estuary
became the largest and most modern in the whole of the Russian Empire,
growing even more under communism.
Much of the vast complex has now fallen derelict.
I'm really attracted to this place with its picturesque shabbiness.
It may seem crass to say so,
but the tourist almost misses the Soviet Union
now that everywhere you go is so much the same.
Glass towers and fast food outlets.
Historian Vladimir has been delving into the archives.
What an amazingly historic and charming place.
When did this hydropathic establishment first open?
It was 1843.
Erast Andriyevsky, you can see his statue here,
he was a doctor in the Russian army.
So he founded the first special resort.
What is special about the mud?
This mud is unique for all skin problems
and with some venereal diseases, it was this kind of stories.
It was obviously extremely popular.
Was it, like other spas, also a place for the rich and for the famous?
It was very popular and in the Russian Empire it was unique.
And Nicholas II,
he visited here and inside this complex a special residence
was constructed for the tsar and for the family.
The Tsar was not alone.
So popular was this clinic with the upper echelons of society
that a special train service was laid on from Moscow.
The spa is still open for business.
And what's good enough for the emperor and autocrat
of all the Russias is good enough for me.
The place feels like a cross between a monastery and a hospital.
None of the luxury or pampering that you might expect at a spa.
Oh. OK. Shorts off.
And the attendants are strict disciplinarians.
THEY SPEAK UKRANIAN
I'm telling her that it's very, very good
and actually there is a fearful smell of rotten eggs and...
..underneath me there's all this really...
sticky, muddy stuff.
Look at that.
But it feels soft and, oh, it's meant to do you lots of good.
Good for the skin, good for the bones, good for the joints.
I'm really pleased I'm here.
A lady wearing rubber boots and rubber gloves.
This does not look like good news.
I'm now lying in very warm mud
and the lady with the rubber gloves
has begun a fairly intimate massage,
using warm mud.
And, as they say in the movie business, it's a wrap!
I really can't leave town without visiting the opera house.
The Duc De Richelieu believed that placing the arts at the heart of the city
would attract the right kind of people to Odessa.
"The theatre, west side of Pushkin Street," says Bradshaw's,
"is one of the finest in Russia."
Surely an understatement.
Is not this one of the loveliest opera houses in the world?
The interior is one of the most stunning I've ever seen.
And on the stage they're preparing to rehearse Sleeping Beauty.
What a privilege.
MUSIC: The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky
The theatre's resident opera and ballet companies are world-class.
A fairy tale ending to my tour of Ukraine.
The Sleeping Beauty, music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky,
a Russian composer.
When I was in Kiev I felt that I was at the origin of Ukraine,
but also arguably of Russia, too.
And certainly at the heart of Russian orthodoxy.
Lviv feels like the product of Austrian and Polish Catholicism,
whilst Odessa was the conception of a Frenchman
and its history is that of the Jews, as much as anyone.
Despite this diverse heritage,
people everywhere feel enthusiastically Ukrainian.
Defiant that their nation should be free
to choose to span east and west.
Next, my borderland adventure takes me to Georgia and Azerbaijan,
home to medieval monasteries and magnificent mountains.
Peeking through the clouds now, 5047 metres up, we skim the top.
There I'll taste the Georgian soul.
You're drinking, now, my family's heart
and my family's energy inside of the glass.
And discover a source of great riches.
A view of the terminal from up here is absolutely extraordinary.
It is immense.
With his Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide in hand, Michael Portillo ventures east to a land which a century ago was part of the Russian Empire and today is the independent state of Ukraine. His rail journey takes him from the grasslands of the Steppe to the shores of the Black Sea. In this borderland where Europe meets Asia, Michael crosses swords with Cossacks, learns the secrets of Ukrainian cuisine and gets down and dirty in a mud spa.
Beginning in the capital Kiev, Michael explores the city described in his century-old Bradshaw as the Jerusalem of Russia. At Kiev's beautiful St Sophia Cathedral he seeks to understand the history behind Ukraine's current conflict with its vast neighbour and discovers how Ukraine adopted Orthodox Christianity. He encounters mummified monks in a medieval monastery and works out alongside two of the strongest women in the world. Outside the city he rides with Cossack warriors and gains an insight into Ukrainians' national identity.
Boarding the fast train to Lviv, Michael reads in his Bradshaw that the city was formerly known as Lemberg and at the time of his guidebook it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among its cobbled streets and classical buildings Michael discovers the seeds of Ukrainian nationalism in poetry and song. Under the guidance of the best cook in the neighbourhood, Michael learns to make Vareniki, the sour cheese-filled pasta, which is so popular in Ukraine. Michael beds down on the night express to Odessa and enjoys breakfast on board before setting out to explore a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with French, Italian, Russian and Jewish influences. At the city's Great Synagogue he hears how the once sizeable Jewish population is beginning to recover after the violent pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Holocaust.
An excursion to a nearby bathing resort popular at the time of his guide and during Soviet times leads Michael to a hydropathic establishment where he braves an intimate massage in warm mud. A performance of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty at Odessa's exquisite opera house rounds off his journey.