Unfailing Faith in a Golden City

In 1986 we should have flown to Kiev but were instead rerouted to Yalta on the Black Sea. When, some years later, we came to the Ukraine, there was a chilling reminder of the reason for those altered travel plans: the signpost pointing toward Chernobyl.

Even in mid-October it was Indian-summer weather, gold everywhere: in the winding river Dnepr; the amber and bronze of lime and chestnut leaves fluttering down along tree-lined streets; the glittering domes and cupolas of Kiev, the Golden City of 400 churches. There was a friendliness here that was missing in Moscow, a strong sense of independence: "We are Ukrainians, not Russians!"

We always like to escape from official guides, exploring on our own. We saw the Great Gate of Kiev, green and golden St. Andrew's, St. Sofia, the Monastery of the Caves, and the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra. All the time, history was nudging us with reminders of how often down the centuries Kiev had been razed to the ground yet had always risen again.

There is usually some particular encounter that marks your stay in some as-yet-unknown place. The one we would never forget took place in the great Cathedral of Vladimir. We had entered to hear the beauty of the singing and to sense something of the mystery of the Orthodox service.

Close beside us, an elderly man sang with a wonderful bass. We kept looking over at him, listening. This old man's life, judging from the deep furrows on his face, had not been a serene saunter through flowery fields.

At the end of the service he caught up with us at the door. He had picked us out as foreigners.

Where did we come from? Schott Landia? Were we Pravoslavny - Orthodox? No ... Protestant? For a moment we fancied he was frowning, dismissing us as heretics. Instead, his sad lined face was transformed by a wonderful smile; he had been trying to form a phrase of welcome and had found it: "We are all born under the same sky." We shook hands, and he introduced himself as Igor Borisovich.

"I know a very little English. Perhaps we could talk together."

"We hope so," we began. We wanted to tell him how different his Orthodox church was from our small austere Church of Scotland, when the vast crowd surged past, sweeping us with it, and we lost him from view. We kept looking out for him, but, like the needle in the haystack, how could we ever find him again in all Kiev?

As sometimes happens, we did meet again. On our second-to-last night we had just taken our seats in the Kiev Opera House for Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," when "look!" we whispered. "Igor Borisovich!" He was at the end of our row, smiling at us.

During the intervals, we talked together in an odd mixture of English, Ukrainian, and Russian. So we had remembered him, he said. Of course we had; we had thought of him as Born-Under-the-Same-Sky Igor, we told him. The name delighted him.

For years he had been starved of communication with the outside world. "Not so very long ago, I wouldn't have dared speak with you," he admitted. "We were warned to avoid foreigners. Too often they have dangerous ideas. And informers lurked everywhere. I don't think you have known such fear in your country. But now comes this glasnost to set us, almost, free. The most wonderful of all is that our churches are open again."

At each interval we learned a little more about his life. In the 1930s he had lost his parents during Stalin's nightmare imposition of mass starvation; in the last war his entire family had been killed. "Since then, after so much grief, music has been my chief comfort. Ukrainians love to sing, and in our Orthodox church we have fine singers. I used to have quite a good voice myself," he added with a funny, diffident grin.

"You still have, Igor Borisovich; we heard it in Vladimir Cathedral."

That pleased him, too. "Tomorrow night you must come with me for the best of all. A choir is singing in the Monastery of the Caves: no organ, no orchestra, only the God-given human voice. It is like hearing angels come down to earth."

That last night in Kiev was one of autumn stillness. Not a leaf stirred, and frost was in the air. We passed through the gate, Church of the Trinity, and entered that landscape of golden domes of Pecherskaya Lavra. There we saw church upon church and passed the transfiguration of the Saviour, the Nativity of the Virgin, and finally the Exaltation of the Cross where our concert was held.

With the proud smile of someone revealing marvels, Igor Borisovich led us to our seats. We sat together under golden icons and frescoes, where down the centuries believers had hoped and prayed.

We were strangely, wonderfully reminded of those small, unadorned churches in the Western Isles of Scotland, we told Igor, for they shared the same serenity and sense of sanctuary. "And the same Orthodox refusal of any musical instrument other than the voice of man," we added.

"Hear the angels," Igor whispered as the choir began to sing. "I imagine they come to your island churches, too."

When the concert was over, we walked together under a wide starry sky, the music we had heard echoing in our ears. We went very slowly, holding back the moment of leave-taking, talking in the way one does when bidding a friend farewell, unsure of ever meeting again.

We recalled with Igor the endless invasions of Kiev: the Mongol hordes, Napoleon, Stalin's merciless butchery, Hitler and the Nazi invaders with their infamous concentration camps of Darnitsa, Syerets, and Babi Yar, the black cloud of Chernobyl. "We suffer, yet still we endure," he said.

Reluctantly, we reached our hotel, time to part. "We feel that we have known you for many years, Igor Borisovich," we said, shaking hands.

"Perhaps after all we will meet again and talk together like this," he said. "Who knows? Only God! You have heard of that wise phoenix bird," he went on. "It always rises up out of the cinders - Kiev is like that bird. Don't forget us."

He looked suddenly very old and weary but always with his good smile. We would certainly remember Born-Under-the-Same-Sky Igor, and when we thought of him, we saw him, too, like some ancient, slightly bedraggled phoenix, forever refusing to accept defeat, flying eternally upward from the ashes.

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