8 Jul

Chernobyl Ghost Town: a Trip to Pripyat

by Kate Rutkovskaya

The quiet town of Pripyat – a Ukrainian town that will never be the same again.

On April 24th, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant took lives of hundreds of people and became one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

The accident that happened that day at the plant in Ukraine (which was part of the USSR at that time) left an enormous trace on the Earth’s ecological state and people’s health.

The tragedy resulted in the biggest radioactivity release in the human history.

Chernobyl Ghost Town: a Trip to Pripyat

Disaster chronicle

So what happened? I’ll try to keep it simple. Generally speaking, it was an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, starting with an imperfect reactor designed by the incompetent Soviet engineers followed by a human error topped by the absence of clear policies and disaster recovery procedures.

Continue reading >

27 Feb

Captivating Sofiyivsky Park in Uman

This park is a famous example of a lavish landscape-garden design and is built around themes from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. It was commissioned by Polish Count Potocki as a birthday present for his wife Sofia in the late 1700s. Sofia was a great beauty in her day and is still a bit of a mystery. Was she really a Greek saved from slavery by the wealthy count, who had fallen in love when he first saw her? Well, the world may never know, but the park is a stunning creation and testament to such a romantic notion.

Sofiyivsky Park

Sofiyivsky Park. Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arhivator/2344557915/

Uman is a small city located about halfway between Kyiv and Odesa, making it an accessible stopping-off point for travelers, even if only for the day. The city is reachable via bus and private car, with very limited train service from Cherkasy (the oblast center). Sofiyivsky Park has a new entrance on the Kyiv-Odesa highway (International Street) and an older, more elaborate entrance on Sadova Street in Uman. The park is open May through November from 9am to 6pm. An entrance fee is charged, but access is free for those entering prior to 9am and after 6pm. Extra fees are charged for tour guides (multiple languages spoken), minibus tours, rowboat rentals, and boat rides. Approximately 500,000 visitors travel here each year to see the park and experience a step back in time to a charming and leisurely lifestyle.

Island of Love

Island of Love. Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arhivator/2344563051/in/photostream/

Sofiyivsky Park has fantastical lakes, fountains, grottos, gazebos, bridges, pavilions, statues and much more! Purchase a map at the entrance and plot out an itinerary, for the park covers over 385 acres and is crisscrossed by numerous paved walkways with few posted signs. The map allows visitors to target areas to see—all with intriguing names such as the Island of Love, Ionian Sea, Flora Pavilion, or Grotto of Apollo.

Grotto of Apollo

Grotto of Apollo. Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/minarge/3636755071/

Noted for its incredible beauty, Sofiyivsky Park became one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine in 2007. However, Sofiyivsky is not simply an enchanting fairy-tale place to visit, the park is also part of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine. The park is officially designated as a dendrological park and engages in the research of tree and shrub cultivars and organizes conferences on dendrological, horticultural, and conservation topics. There are research institutions along with hotels and conference venues on site.

Sofiyivsky Park was a fabulous birthday gift centuries ago and truly remains impressive today! Travelers to Ukraine should definitely add it to their must-see list.

By Cheryl S. Pratt, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Text and opinions herein are the author’s only and do not reflect in any way the position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

23 Feb

Koktebel: Sun-kissed Beach Resort on Black Sea

Koktebel is a small Black Sea resort town nestled against the mountains of Kara Dag in Crimea. Koktebel has a beautiful natural setting: white pebbly beach and azure-blue sea set against the jagged, dark backdrop of Kara Dag.

Koktebel has a softer, slower character than Feodosiya, its brash big-sister resort located a few miles to the east. Koktebel does not offer the high level of tourist infrastructure as Feodosiya, Yalta, and similar resorts in southern Crimea. Nevertheless, it offers a pleasing array of fun activities and attractive sights that appeal to families with kids, young adults looking for nightlife, and harried travelers seeking seaside relaxation.

Koktebel: Sun-kissed Beach Resort on Black Sea

Koktebel: Sun-kissed Beach Resort on Black Sea

Koktebel was first “discovered” by the multi-talented Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932), a Russian poet, translator, critic, and painter. He and his entourage of intelligentsia and artists came to sun-kissed Koktebel in the early 1900s. Voloshin built a charming home on the beach with a fabulous view of the sea. It is now a museum, open to the public for guided tours in Russian. Today the building is surrounded by the crowd of street vendors that comprise Koktebel’s promenade.

Bring your beach umbrella, sunscreen, a good book and relax! There’s plenty of beach space away from the frenzied activity of Koktebel’s promenade. However, the promenade is a great place to people-watch and also has a wide-range of bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and food kiosks. Partake of Koktebel’s famous cognac and wine here. Purchase a few bottles for gift-giving. Although Koktebel vineyards produce only a small percentage of Ukraine’s cognac and wine, their products are well-known for their outstanding quality (evidenced by the many awards they have won).

Koktebel Morning

Koktebel Morning

Interested in marine mammals? Koktebel hosts a dolphinarium, which includes performances by Black Sea dolphins, northern fur seals, and other animals who make their home in Crimea. The ticket kiosk is conveniently located on the promenade. Another kid-friendly place that caters to families and youth groups is the Water Park, which is located a short walk off the promenade.

If visiting Crimea in the fall, be sure to check out the Koktebel Jazz Festival in September. This festival’s vibrant mix of live performances is attracting more and more attention each year. Koktebel is also the gateway to the Kara Dag Nature Reserve. This unique terrain resulted from ancient volcanic activity and subsequent wind erosion and is now protected to encourage biodiversity of plant and animal life.

Koktebel Morning

Koktebel Morning

Visitors can reach Koktebel via car (Route P29) or bus from many convenient locations in Crimea. Alternately, include it as part of a paid excursion originating from the neighboring city of Feodosiya. Accommodations in Koktebel include a small hotel and hundreds of guestrooms rented out by local residents. For those who enjoy lots of people and activity, come to Koktebel in the summer high season (June, July, August). For those who prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting in spring (late April and May) or fall (September and October).

By Cheryl S. Pratt, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Text and opinions herein are the author’s only and do not reflect in any way the position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

22 Feb

Staryy Krym: Step Back Centuries

Visiting Staryy Krym in Crimea is like grasping a bit of history in your hand. In fact, the name of the entire peninsula (Crimea) came from this town’s name. Staryy Krym means “Old Crimea”, an adaption of the centuries’ old name of Eski Krim, given to the town by Turkish inhabitants.

Although today quite modest, Staryy Krym once boasted being the center of the Crimean Yurt, a branch of the mighty Golden Horde. In the early 1200s the Golden Horde (including the formerly nomadic Tatars) swept through Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Crimea. Crimea became part of a huge empire that stretched from China in the east to beyond Kyiv and Moscow in the west, and Staryy Krym became capital of the Crimean portion of the empire.

The Monastery of Surb-Khach

The Monastery of Surb-Khach

Staryy Krym was also a major stopping point on the ancient caravan routes that wove their way around the Black Sea, resulting in a vibrant mix of nationalities—Armenians, Turks, Genoese, Tatars, and Russians. In its 13th- and 14th-century heyday, Staryy Krym was such a prosperous, powerful city that contemporaries labeled it the “second Baghdad”. Alas, in the early 1500s, Staryy Krym began its slow decline as the Crimean Khanate’s focus shifted to the up-and-coming Bakhchisaray.

Staryy Krym: Step Back Centuries

The Monastery of Surb-Khach

What tops the must-see list? The monastery of Surb-Khach (Holy Cross) in the hills outside of town. Founded by Armenian refugees in 1338, the monastery’s stone buildings are being restored from centuries of wear and tear, along with reconstruction of beautiful religious details destroyed by the Soviets when they ruled Crimea. The Surb-Khach monastery is amongst the oldest Armenian sites in Crimea. Tours are free of charge. Monks still reside here, so portions of the property are not open to the public. Visitors can drive or walk the paved road that pleasantly winds uphill for two miles to the monastery. A cookhouse nestled in the forest behind the monastery prepares food for the monks and also sells light refreshments and tea to hungry travelers.


Green Museum

The oldest mosque in Crimea is located on Halturina Street in Staryy Krym, a short walk off the main street of Lenina. Ozbek Han Mosque was constructed in 1314 by the Tatars. It has been restored and is in use today. Next to the mosque are the ruins of an ancient medresy (Islamic school) built in 1332.



Other sights in Staryy Krym include the Alexander Green Museum, a tiny three-room house that Green (also known as “Grin”) lived in at the end of his life (1932). Some say his books (e.g., Scarlet Sails) have timeless appeal on the level of such writers as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. The museum is at 52 Karl Liebknekht Street, a narrow sidestreet parallel to Lenin Street. Donations appreciated.



Today, this quaint town is overshadowed by its Black Sea resort neighbors of Feodosiya, Sudak and Koktebel. Should Staryy Krym be left to obscurity? No! It is definitely worth a day trip. Reach it by bus or car (Route P23). For visitors arriving by bus, be prepared to do lots of walking to take in the sights, for there are no mini-van routes (“marshrutkas”) in Staryy Krym.

By Cheryl S. Pratt, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Text and opinions herein are the author’s only and do not reflect in any way the position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

20 Apr

Bakhchisaray: The glorious Khan’s Palace and more!

In Bakhchisaray, the must-see is the Khan’s Palace (“Hansaray”) that dates back to the 1500s. It was the center of the Crimean Khanate (a Muslim Tatar state) and remained a political-cultural-religious hub for the Crimean Tatars until 1944 when Stalin sent the populace into exile. Today the palace is a museum consisting of an extended stand of buildings, gardens, fountains, and minarets.

Bakhchisaray Palace

Bakhchisaray Palace

Bakhchisaray’s Khan’s Palace has been nominated to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage site and is the only extant palace of the Crimean Khanate. The only other two Muslim palaces in Europe are Spain’s Alhambra and Turkey’s Topkapi Palace. Although visitors can enter into the palace’s courtyard for free, a fee is charged to enter the buildings. Visitors can tour on their own or as part of a guided tour (English language tours can be arranged).

Bakhchisaray's Khan's Palace

Bakhchisaray's Khan's Palace

The Khan’s Palace also has romantic allure. Its Fountain of Tears was made famous by Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisaray”. One of the last Tatar rulers, the cruel Qirim Giray Khan, lost his young wife, and in his grief had a marble wall fountain built “so that the rock would weep, like him, forever.” The fountain is adorned with a white and a red rose to honor the two lovers.

There are other gems to find in the medieval winding streets of Bakhchisaray, a sun-drenched town located about an hour south of Simferopol. The town is host to a number of restaurants specializing in Crimean Tatar cuisine.  There is also the USTA Workshop with its traditional Crimean Tatar crafts, most notably pottery and intricate silver jewelry.

Currently being restored is the Madresy, an ancient Muslim school. The grave of Ismael Gasprinky, a beloved Crimean Tatar journalist, poet, and political activist, is also located in Bakhchisaray, and a small museum in his former home is open to the public free of charge.

For visitors willing to do a little uphill walking, a 20-minute trek past the Khan’s Palace is the Uspensky Monastery (a cave-church and Orthodox Christian monastery) that is built into the limestone cliffs.  This is free of charge, but donations are appreciated.

The Khan's Palace

Uspensky Monastery

For the more ambitious visitor, the famous cave-city Chufut Kale is a further 25-minute walk (mostly uphill) from the monastery. Dozens of caves have been dug into a plateau, which affords a great 360-degree view. Former settlers also built fortress-like stone walls, installed a massive gate, and constructed a mausoleum and prayer house. A small entrance fee is charged.

Cave-city Chufut Kale

Cave-city Chufut Kale

Cave-city Chufut Kale

Cave-city Chufut Kale

Bakhchisaray is a short trip from Simferopol and Sevastopol – go by train, bus, or private car. If arriving by bus or train, grab a marshrutka (mini van) with the sign “?????? ?????” (Old city). It’s a short, inexpensive ride.  The best time to visit is in the spring through the fall. Colorful flowers will be in bloom in the spring and summer, and the fall will be cooler. Be sure to wear comfortable footwear, for you’ll do a lot of walking in beautiful Bakhchisaray.  Also, be sure to have your camera charged and ready for a stimulating photo adventure!

By Cheryl S. Pratt, a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Text and opinions herein are the author’s only and do not reflect in any way the position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

3 Nov

Tales of a Recovering Vegetarian

Before coming to Ukraine I had been vegetarian for five years and anyone who has lived with me can also attest to occasional forays into veganism. I had decided long before coming to Ukraine that I would break my vegetarianism when I moved here. Once my departure was official, I started reintroducing meat into my diet. My roommates from this time can tell you that me trying to learn how to cook meat was usually the entertainment of the night.

I personally decided to start eating meat again for one main reason: I didn’t want to be seen as rude or difficult. If you are planning on moving to Ukraine and are vegetarian I would highly recommend considering your options. If you are planing on just visiting Ukraine and maintaining your vegetarianism here are some tips:

  • Study your food words in Ukrainian and Russian
  • Your soup will be meat-broth based, except this and move on.
  • The breakfast of champions is a Snickers and bag of chips
  • Your options in winter are going to be fewer then your options in summer
  • Expect meat to pop up in places you wouldn’t think it would be
  • ?????? (potato pancakes) is usually a safe bet.

For my carnivores I have advice for you too. My top three favorite foods that include meat in Ukraine:

  • ????? (borscht) – If Ukraine had a national food it would be borscht. If you visit Ukraine and don’t have borscht at least once I would have to say you didn’t really experience Ukraine. Every restaurant, even the Italian ones, have borscht on the menu. Excellent with a side of ???????? (papmpushkas), fluffy garlic rolls.
  • ??????? (holypsi) – Cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, onion, and ground-up meat simmered in a pot of tomato broth. These are the first Ukrainian food that I will make for my friends and family back in the states.
  • ??????? (shashleek) – The Ukrainian version of barbeque. Juicy chunks of pork slow cooked over charcoal. A dish that defiantly calls for a cold beer or a few shots of vodka.

Being a vegetarian in Ukraine is not impossible. I know many Americans who live here and have maintained a vegetarian diet. I also know a small handful of Ukrainians who are vegetarian. I remember one conversation with a Ukrainian where she told me she is the only vegetarian in her family and is viewed as an anomaly. The way I see it is this: there is a Ukrainian word for vegetarian so people here are aware of the concept but will still give you a hard time when you tell your food preference. You should see the looks I get when I explain veganism.

Julia Grebenstein is a Peace Corps Youth Development Volunteer working in Central Ukraine. To read more about her experiences in Ukraine, follow her blog at http://jgrebenstein.wordpress.com/.

27 Oct

Reflections on a summer in Dnipropetrovsk

I’m sitting in the backseat of a small compact car trying to gain my bearings as the rain comes pouring down in faster and harder gushes. The radio station begins to play a mediocre 90’s song barely heard above the rain pounding on the roof. The decade old American pop hit offers a bizarre backdrop of English to the Russian being exchanged in the front seats and the ridiculous amounts of water, potholes, and unruly traffic that we weave in between.  To my right I see we are driving a long a wide river and to my left I can make out buildings no higher than six or seven stories, a plethora of flashy advertisements, and massive, identical apartment buildings only distinguished by their varying shades of crumbling pastel yellows and blues. As I try to shake off my exhaustion and involuntarily closing eyes, I think, Welcome to Ukraine Faith!

My first car ride to my host family’s apartment captures a bit of how I felt during my Eastern European adventure… a unknown, wild ride. Working as a counselor for a Jewish camp in Dnipropetrosvk, Ukraine was the job description but what I ended up experiencing kind of felt like living a summer novel. My host family provided large, expressive characters that I got to know mostly through miming, translating, and smiling. My host mother, her 9-year-old daughter, my host mother’s parents, brothers, and the brother’s girlfriend. They spoke virtually no English but took a great interest in learning about America- engrossed in looking at my passport, asking me about “American business men,” and the cost of random items. They treated me like a queen on my birthday (a tiara, balloons, and cake!) and worked hard to finally find food I would eat since I declined their most generous gifts of pork, ham, and cheese. (By the way, since it’s very hot in Ukraine, imagine them all in their underwear most of the time.) The apartment was small, but clean and organized and definitely “a home.” The building on the other hand was built at least forty years ago. There was trash strewn everywhere, windows broken, and some walls completely bare of paint. It struck me that a sense of communal space was totally lost on its inhabitants.

Much of the city that I would come to see over the next weeks would also contain old, abandoned buildings, covered in trash- only to be found right next to a new modern looking apartment building or shopping complex. Nobody seemed to mind.

The other characters in this strange novel were my five fellow counselors, two girls and three boys, from various universities around the US, our respective host families, our school “family” of children (1st-4th grade), teachers and administrators, and the Jewish community.

Over the next three weeks we worked at the school from 9am – 4pm, assisting the ESL teachers, teaching English through games, arts&crafts, field trips, dance, and sports. Knowing no Russian ourselves, it was often frustrating and confusing to know if the kids were gaining much from our being there. As the kids became more comfortable around us and we around them, we realized that our presence was at least exposing them to non-celebrity status Americans that they seem to idealize on TV. We also hoped that immersing them in English would help them feel more comfortable being around English in general. A new dear friend and Jewish leader of the community referred to us as “angels” for teaching English to his children; a gift that would help them advance their jobs and income later in their lives.  What struck me was how deeply this community believed in what we were there to do. Their sense of immense appreciation clung to their sincere and humble words and eagerness to assist us in any way possible. Over the next weeks we were welcome into more than a half dozen homes for Shabbat meals, lunches, and even my 22nd birthday party one week after we arrived.

In these homes we learned about the history of the city and life in Ukraine in general and for Jews specifically. We heard stories of pre-soviet union restriction and despair and how the only things Jews seemed to know about “being Jewish” was “Matzah” and the “problem” that it seemed to be for everyone else. I met Jews who homed crucifixes in their apartments out of what seemed a cultural Ukrainian habit and although they do not consider themselves Jewish by practice, send their children to the Jewish school because “at least it is safe and doesn’t have drugs.” We learned of the numerous Jewish projects and quickly understood the amount of energy, money, focus, and momentum the leadership appears to have in empowering and growing their community. We learned that thousands of Jews are still finding out that they are Jewish, and even more still do not know. I walked along the main commercial road, Karl Marx, acutely aware of the irony in that, and crossed the intersection of Karl Marx and Lenin with my mind churning through old history lessons. I also tried a few Russian delicacies, almost all including some form of potatoes, and learned a few phrases of Russian. I have yet to learn a word of Ukrainian, as it is not spoken in this city of mostly Russian immigrants.

I made some wonderful friends in my co-counselors and felt a sense of deep connection with the Dnipropetrovsk community. Their warmth, honesty, generosity, and love of life, freedom, and their families reaffirmed my deep belief that we really aren’t as different as our history books and politicians might lead us to believe.

This post was submitted by Faith Brigham who participated in JCRC’s Boston English Immersion Camp in Dnipropetrovsk in the Summer of 2010.

15 Jun


Sometimes its hard to find good information about traveling in Eastern Ukraine. However, that is not to say there isn’t anything to write about. And don’t forget that half of the Euro 2012 games will be played in Easter Ukraine! The site below offers good information on Donetsk, one of the larger cities in the East, and the location of a brand-new soccer stadium for Euro 2012. Check it out!


1 Jun

My Favorite Story

By Scotty Colson
I was in Krasnodon as part of the Community Partner’s program.
Birmingham and Krasnodon were matched up.  Krasnodon is in the far east
of the country right on the border with Russia separated only by the
Donets (sp) river.   The city officials were taking us to a factory they
wanted to someday re-open and to get investment for.  The road up to the
factory was nice until we got a half mile from the factory and then the
road became an almost impassable trail.   After this bumpy ride I got
out of the car and asked; “Hey what happened to the road”.  I was
informed by the Chief of Police who was with us “Road Stolen.”   I did
not think I heard him right so I asked for a translations.  Sure enough
the road had been stolen!  The road was made of slabs of concrete and
someone had stolen about half a mile of concrete slabs.  I asked the
Chief how you report a stolen road.  Without missing a beat he said; “On
the incident report you give the address as the street formerly located
When we went into the factory it had been closed for about 8 years.  It
had been a word working factory.  All the old banners exhorting the
workers to strive for victory in the class struggle against the
imperialist capitalists were still hanging.   Everything was left just
like people had put their tools down and walked away.   Every surface
was covered in about an inch of dust.  Except one room.  This room had a
large generator.  It was perfectly clean and shiny and looked like it
was ready to fire up.   Next door was an office with a bed and furniture
and small stove.  The office was apparently a home now.  Outside the
window was a nice garden with chickens and goats and vegetables growing.
The lady living in the office came in to see what were doing there.  She
was thrilled to see people visiting the factory.  When the factory was
in operation she was in charge of the generator I mentioned earlier.
Since the factory had closed she had not been able to get other work and
had lost her home.  She moved into the factory 6 years before and made
her a home there and every day she cleaned the old generator in hopes
someone would come back and open the factory and give her back her old
job.  We went away from this factory realizing that patience is a virtue
that can be overdone.

21 May

For Ukraine

For the beauty of Ukraine I paused,

I paused to contemplate.

I contemplate the land and its changing contours.

I think about the changes this land has seen and the changes it has endured.

But the land remains.

It remains ever present, ever enduring.

I contemplate the Ukrainian culture and all its diversity,

a diversity that I can never totally experience nor understand.

But I enjoy all those cultural aspects that I am blessed to receive.

For the culture endures.

It remains as a rock,

a solid foundation for Ukrainian people.

I contemplate a history that is both sad and inspiring.

Ukraine has seen its share of history;

Ukraine has been history.

Its history has defined it;

Its history has shaped it;

Its history has changed it.

But Ukraine endures.

Its history is indeed before it.

The past is merely prologue.

The enduring spirit of Ukraine demands as much.

I contemplate the character of Ukraine’s people.

God indeed must have decided to put the best of women in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian woman’s beauty is unsurpassed;

Her heart is exceedingly warm and exceptionally strong;

Her smile is a bright spring day;

Her intellect is Ukraine’s hidden strength.

Ukrainian men have been granted a country of beautiful women as a gift from God.

But God has exacted a heavy price from Ukrainian men.

Ukrainian men have died in tragic numbers and in tragic ways.

Yet, they are true patriots.

They are brave;

They are consummate hosts;

They endure.

They are many of my best friends.

I know that no better friend could any one man have but a Ukrainian.

I contemplate where Ukraine is going.

It matters not what I think however.

It only matters what Ukraine does.

But, Ukraine has history;

It has culture;

It has the land;

But, most importantly, it has its people.

I have seen its beautiful and irrefutably strong women;

I can call many of its men my friends.

I know Ukraine will endure.

It will do nothing less.

Rusty Brooks

October 2001

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