A trip by rails to Kiev is a dream come true for the vintage train enthusiast.  Watching the villages pass by and the countryside turn from mountains to the flat expanse of the Ukraine interior can trick one’s mind into believing time travel does in fact exist. Nostalgia floods all five senses as the smoked sausages and other home cooked food brought by fellow sojourners fill the train car with a distinct aroma.  The train car becomes a home on tracks for fifteen hours.  If not for a lack of leg room and people passing by, the rhythm and rocking of the train can put you to sleep as if you were a baby in a cradle. The trains appear to date back to the 1980’s or 1970’s, if not back to the Khrushchev era.  All of the twenty train cars have a uniformed attendant who collects your ticket as you board the train, locks the bathroom at every station stop, and sells coffee and tea throughout the journey. A second class train ticket for the 550 mile, 15 hour overnight train ride from Transcarpathia to Kiev costs $12 and includes a bed, clean sheets, pillow and a blanket to use.

Train stations are like a museum with old time waiting rooms and ticket counters. In larger train stations the high ceilings and waiting rooms are often decorated with mural-like paintings of rural landscapes or communist propaganda scenes of loyal peasants and factory laborers working in stoic diligence for country and people.  Station entrances are often guarded by statues of the anonymous, nameless, brave and patriotic WWII Red Army soldiers.  The remembrance of WWII soldiers displayed in these statues and paintings is in stark contrast to the reality of the millions of soldiers who raped and pillaged their way across Eastern Europe during World War II.  These same soldiers, depicted by the statues as heroic and patriotic, were also mistreated by their own superiors and senselessly killed in battle.  These “heroes,” promoted by statues and propaganda throughout the Soviet Union, were often given a hero’s welcome home by being sent to the gulags for the crime of having been to Germany and the West during the war and were suspect of having seen and approved of another way of life.

We recently traveled to Kiev, assisting as chaperones for a class trip.  Every spring the graduating class from the Reformed High School takes a trip to Kiev.  We were blessed with wonderful warm and sunny spring weather.  It was a joy for us to be able to spend time with the students.  The long train ride to and from Kiev provided for hours of visiting, playing games, and enjoying the scenery out the train windows. It was fun to be with the students outside of the classroom and to get to know them better and more personally as well as to see a nonacademic side of the students. It was great to spend quality time with the graduating students shortly before they finish the school year and go their separate ways in life.  We were left with many good memories from the trip.  We began the journey on a Thursday afternoon, traveling on the overnight train and arriving in Kiev in the early morning.  After site seeing all day Friday we boarded another over night train back home arriving very tired on Saturday afternoon.

For nearly all of the students it was their first time visiting the capital city and they seemed to enjoy it very much.  It was also a unique experience for many.  All of the students are ethnic Hungarian and speak Hungarian.  Transcarpathia looks more towards Budapest than it does Kiev.  Despite living in Ukraine, for many in Transcarpathia, Kiev is a far away capital city where people on the street speak foreign languages of Ukrainian and Russian.

Kiev with a population of 2.8 million is the capital and largest city of Ukraine.  Kiev is an ancient city that according to legend dates back to the 5th century.  Kiev became an important city and reached its “Golden Age” from the 10th-12th century under the Rus, an ancient Slavic people living on the steppe who both Russians and Ukrainians owe their heritage too.  After the Rus converted to Christianity in the year 988 Kiev became a religious center.  Today Kiev is full of Eastern Orthodox monasteries and Orthodox cathedrals and churches.  In 1934 the Soviet government demolished one of Kiev’s most famous landmarks, St. Michael’s monastery. Only in 1999 did the church get rebuilt and reopened. Unlike the villages and countryside you pass through to get to Kiev, Kiev is a combination of modern buildings and Soviet era architecture.  Left in ruins after WWII, Kiev was rebuilt with wide boulevards, communist era architecture and concrete apartments typical of the reconstruction of many cities east of the Iron curtain following WWII.  Today many flashy buildings erected or refurbished post 1991 also dot the cityscape of Kiev.  Save for a couple of neighborhoods, few of the cobblestone streets and classical architecture characteristic of many European capitals, still exist in Kiev.  In comparison to many other European capitals, Kiev would probably not be described as beautiful in the way Rome, Paris or Budapest are, but none the less Kiev is a vibrant and fascinating city combining many eras of history.  In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened just 60 miles north of Kiev.  Fortunately for the city of nearly 3 million people the prevailing winds that day were blowing the opposite direction.


About Eric Hoeksema

Stacey, my wife, and I are located in western Ukraine, living with and working among a Hungarian population in Transcarpathia, Ukraine.

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