The trees of Kiev are bare as spring approaches. It's late March but still cold after the Russian-Ukrainian winter. You can see why Easter, the celebration of resurrection, means so much here. Easter in Kiev will be special in 1988 for another reason; it is the millennium of Russian Orthodox Christianity. In 988, Orthodoxy became the official religion of Kievan Rus, the medieval principality that formed the basis for later Russian culture.
Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, considered different world religions before choosing Orthodox Christianity. Kievan envoys to Constantinople observed Orthodox rites in Byzantium and incorporated many of them into their own worship. Shortly after the Kievans were baptized in the River Dnieper, Vladimir married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. So with Orthodox Christianity came many aspects of Byzantine civilization, which was then at its peak.
The religious and cultural millennium will be celebrated this year throughout the Soviet Union. Many American groups have arranged tours for the event, most of them going to Moscow, now the headquarters of the Orthodox Church in the USSR.
Kiev, the site of ``the baptism of Russia,'' as Russians describe it, preserves church sites dating back to the early 11th century, including St. Sofia's Cathedral and the Pechersky Monastery, now visited by Soviets and foreigners alike.
During my Easter-time stay, I was among the tourists visiting the Pechersky Monastery. Pechersky, the site of medieval learning encouraged by Vladimir's son and heir, Yaroslav the Wise, is no longer active as a monastery, but people still come to pray, according to Galya, our Intourist guide.
An important aspect of the monastery is the catacombs built along the banks of the Dnieper. We followed the tunnel, passing quiet and shadowy museum docents, who are usually pensioners. In an underground church, brightly painted walls bear holy images, along with gold, resembling a Christmas display.
Walking through underground tunnels, we passed the cells where monks lived. In glass-covered coffins lining the passageways are the mummies of early Russian monks and saints, including Nestor, author of the first surviving Russian chronicle. All are clothed in purple velvet embroidered with the Cyrillic alphabet.
The monastery was taken over by the state in 1961, Galya said. The Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 11th century as part of the monastery, is still in ruins from German bombings in 1941.
In the monastery's Ukrainian art museum, it was delightful to see nature-inspired tapestries and intricately painted Easter eggs. We learned that superstitious farmers placed such eggs on their fields to ensure bumper crops, and that young women presented them to their prospective husbands. There were also stringed instruments, powder flasks, cheese boxes, weavings, ceramics, porcelains, and glassware. Here, students still can learn about these Ukrainian arts.
We visited a park with an arch framing the view of the Dnieper. The arch symbolizes the reuniting of the Ukraine with Russia after the Nazi occupation - it's basically a war monument, although it also serves to remind everyone of the common Kievan roots of the Russians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians.
Easter coincides with a Soviet school holiday. So we didn't see children in their school uniforms, which include delicate white bows in the girls' hair. But we did see them in youth groups or paired with their grandparents, usually babushkas (grandmothers), as most men of that generation died during the war.
On a hill overlooking the Dnieper is St. Andrew's Church, a Russian baroque edifice designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli during the reign of Czarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. The church, placed strikingly atop a sharp promontory, is restored in brilliant blue, green, and gold.
The reluctant spring seems closer here than in Moscow, but at night, the wind becomes bitingly cold. A companion and I, eager for adventure, walked Friday night in Kiev after seeing an elegant Ukrainian folk dance program, with graceful footwork and ribbons like a Maypole dance.
We passed the Kiev University building, a grand, pillared structure painted bright red as it was in czarist days, and the Kiev gate, reconstructed where ancient medieval brick was found.
One morning we went into a bread store, with a long line of people. I'd never seen so many kinds of bread. The Ukraine takes itself seriously as ``the breadbasket of Russia.'' The giant grain fields were impressive from the plane as we flew into Kiev.
After buying a slightly sweet round loaf, we decided to find out what people were lined up for. Looking through a window, we saw what looked like hatboxes stacking up higher and higher - with the word torte (cake) on it. Easter cakes!
That morning, St. Sofia's overflowed with visitors, both foreign and Soviet, waiting to view the historic church at the spring holiday. We were awed by the ancient, restored frescoes and mosaics vaulting upward toward windows admitting natural light. St. Sofia's is considered the first of the Russo-Byzantine masonry churches, which later became innumerable throughout Russia.
On another day, we went to the covered peasant market. Farmers are allowed to grow crops around their houses as long as they also work on a state job or collective farm. Their high-priced vegetables looked more robust than those in the windows of the state stores.
I asked a peasant woman selling hyacinths if I could take her picture. She refused. Then she asked if we had tufli (shoes) for sale and also inquired about my denim pack. I said no, but I opened my pack and gave her some candy, explaining they were very small chocolates from America. I handed them to her; she was slightly skeptical until I said ``podarok, podarok,'' which means gift.
That made her and several other vendors nearby smile with abandon. She insisted I take some hyacinths, which she had just tried to sell me for two rubles. I kept them; they brightened our day and sweetened the air. Strangely, the spring flowers matched my pastel raincoat and glasses, and undoubtedly furthered my attention-getting appearance as a foreigner. After this incident, I felt as if each smile I received was a word of peace.