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You cannot read more than a couple of sentences about Kharkiv before Freedom Square (sometimes also translated as Liberty Square) is mentioned. It is clearly one of the prides of the city, not least because of its size. It claims to be one of the largest squares in the world, at almost 12 acres, and I have seen suggestions that it is the largest in Europe, although others dispute this and say that red Square in Moscow is the larger. And Wikipedia says that it “is currently the sixth largest city square in Europe, and the 12th largest square in the world”. But whatever the maths and the arguments, this is one pretty big space!
It was developed during the late 1920s and early 1930s during a period of growth for the city. It has a somewhat unusual shape, with a long rectangular section that runs eastward from Sumskaya Street, and a rounded area beyond and behind the statue of Lenin at the western end. The length of the rectangular section is 750 metres, the width of its side is 130 metres, and the diameter of the rounded portion is 350 metres – and no, I didn’t get my tape measure out to check!
There are a number of classic 1930s buildings around the square, including the building of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration on the eastern side (on Sumskaya Street) and the old Kharkiv Hotel on the north. The Derzhprom building (the Palace of Industry – to the right of Chris’s head in my main photo, with the radio mast) was the second tallest building in Europe and the tallest in the Soviet Union at the time it was built, 1928, with a height of 63 metres (207 ft). The south side is edged by the Shevchenko Gardens. When we were there the rounded section behind Lenin was in use as a small market, selling mainly clothes and textiles (including some nice traditional embroidered shirts), and also with a few food stalls – you can just see these in my main photo of the Lenin statue in my next tip.
The square is the focal point for collective activity in the city, whether celebration (a large Christmas tree is erected here each year) or protest. It was also the venue for the Fan Zone during the Euro 2012 Football Championships. But on most days, and certainly when we visited, it seems vast and almost empty.
But be careful when walking around the square. It is a through route for traffic but there are no road markings whatsoever, so it’s hard to know from where a car might suddenly appear! But the centre seemed to us to be usually traffic free, and it affords sweeping views of the square and of the statue of Lenin that overlooks it – the subject of my next tip.
Written Mar 5, 2013
It is sometimes mistakenly said that the impressive and autocratic statues of Lenin that were a feature of every major city in the Soviet Union were all pulled down when the Union was dissolved in 1991 or soon after. Not so. Many remain, especially in Russia, Belarus and here in Ukraine. Wikipedia has what it claims is a complete list.
The one here in Kharkiv, which dominates Freedom Square, was erected in 1964, and is the largest standing statue in Ukraine. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stands on a red-granite pedestal carved with patriotic revolutionary scenes (see photo three) and gestures towards the former Communist headquarters, now Kharkiv Oblast Administration – although as one local irreverently pointed out to our friend, he seems rather to be pointing the way to the public conveniences!
Next tip: a more recent addition to the cityscape around Freedom Square, the Kharkiv Palace Hotel.
Written Mar 5, 2013
Shevchenko Park lies immediately south of Ploshchad' Svobody (Freedom Square) and is a popular spot for locals to stroll and relax. It is also home to the botanical garden, a dolphinarium and the city’s zoo (the oldest in Ukraine), although we didn’t visit any of these (it wasn’t really the weather for botanical gardens!).
The park was established in 1804-1805 by Vasiliy Karazin, the founder of Kharkov University, and thus predates Freedom Square to the north although they seem to belong together. In addition to the main attractions of the gardens and zoo, there are play areas for children, small kiosks selling newspapers, cigarettes and sweets (although most seemed to be closed when we strolled through – perhaps business is too slow for them to bother in the coldest months),some cafés and several notable monuments. Those we made a point of visiting are dealt with in my following tips, but there are many others. Whatever you want to see here, or indeed if there’s nothing in particular, it’s nice to come for a walk to enjoy the park alongside the locals – whatever the weather. In the summer’s heat no doubt the trees provide welcome shade and the benches a place to rest and people-watch, and in the winter you can still enjoy the sense of getting away from the traffic and city bustle.
Next tip: the biggest monument here by far, that to Taras Shevchenko
Written Mar 5, 2013
South of Ploshchad' Svobody (Freedom Square) on Sumskaya Street, on the eastern edge of Shevchenko Park, you can hardly fail to miss the imposing monument to Ukraine’s national poet. The large bronze statue, 5.5 metres tall, stands on a round pedestal of natural silicate giving an overall height to the monument of 16.5 metres. The work of Soviet sculptor Matvey Manizer and Soviet architect Joseph Langbard, it was erected in 1935 and unveiled in a great ceremony in March of that year.
The main statue is surrounded by 16 smaller statues made of bronze depicting characters drawn from the history of Ukraine and the works of Shevchenko. The figures include a collective farmer, a Red Army man, a miner and a peasant woman, epitomising the Soviet sensibility – or as one website I read put it, “representing the working people in the fight for their rights and freedoms”.
The same website explains the figures in more details:
"Let’s divide all the figures into three sketches.
The first is a collection of "rebellious" characters from T. Shevchenko’s works. This includes "Kateryna" from the poem with the same name ("peasant with a baby", symbolizing the image of a single mother), "Dying Gaydamak", "Gaydamak with a scythe", "Tearing shackles" from the poem "Haydamaky" telling about events of Cossack peasant uprising in 1768 in Right-Bank Ukraine, "Bound Zaporozhets", "Peasant Woman", "bearing a millstone", "soldier-recruit".
The second figure includes participants of the Russian Revolution: "Worker with a flag", "Student", "Worker with a rifle", "Sailor", "Red Army soldier".
The third represents the changes occurred after the revolutions in the Soviet Union: "The peasant", "Miner", "Woman with a book".
The style of the monument is fairly brutal and uncompromising, but the detail in the faces of the various characters softens it and I found several them appealing, especially the peasant woman, Kateryna, carrying a baby (photo two). It seems that touching the foot of one figure ("Dying Gaydamak"?) is considered to bring luck, as the big toe is polished and gleaming (photo three), and clearly Shevchenko is revered by local people as someone had left flowers (probably a wedding bouquet) at his feet.
Taras Shevchenko, poet and artist, might be said to be Ukraine’s equivalent of England’s Shakespeare. He was born into a peasant family and was orphaned by the age of eleven. After some difficult years when, among other things, he worked as a servant and as a shepherd, his artistic talent was recognised and he got a place to study at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
But it is for his poetry that he is probably best known and most respected. Many of his works were inspired by the difficult conditions under which poor Ukrainians were forced to live. He never forgot his humble roots and associated himself with the fight against the Empire. He was arrested in 1847 and imprisoned for writing works considered to be inflammatory and was subsequently exiled, forbidden to write or paint. Pardoned in 1857 he planned to buy land in Ukraine and live there, but was ordered to return to St Petersburg. His health suffered as a result of his exile and he died young, aged just 47, seven days before the Emancipation of Serfs was announced.
Understandably, his works and life as a revolutionary poet are still revered by Ukrainians and his impact on Ukrainian literature and culture is immense – as is this monument to him.
Next tip: another monument, this time to football
Updated Mar 5, 2013
If the Ukrainians’ reverence for Taras Shevchenko is akin to worship, so too perhaps is a football fan’s passion for the game, so it is perhaps fitting that not far from the monument to the national poet is this monument to football. When we saw it we assumed that it was a very recent addition, owing its presence here to Kharkiv’s role as a host city for the Euro 2012 Championships, but it is just a little older than that, having been set up by local team FC Metalist in 2001. And as we were here to watch Newcastle play that team, nothing could be more appropriate than a few photos in this spot!
The bronze ball is half a metre in diameter and weighs over two tons. It was unveiled by Oleg Blokhin, who played for Dynamo Kiev (I don’t know why not a Metalist player!) and was a gift from the club to the fans. It was restored in 2012 for the championships, with a new granite pedestal and wiring for night-time illuminations. Apparently even before the monument was placed here this was a popular spot for local fans to gather, to read newspaper reports of matches and discuss the game. If you want to meet any fellow football fans it could be a good spot to try.
Next tip: the nearby 50th Parallel marker
Written Mar 5, 2013
Another sight to look out for on the eastern fringes of Shevchenko Park is this marker line for the 50th Parallel. It is claimed that Kharkiv is the largest of all the cities situated on this parallel worldwide (others include Krakow, Prague and Mainz). The parallel passes through 12 countries, among which are the Czech Republic, Poland, Mongolia, Canada, Belgium, Great Britain, China and Russia. The bronze globe set in the ground shows the distance from Kharkiv to some major cities, and local people believe that stepping on it will bring you luck. Well, Chris and Pete did step on it and Newcastle won the match, so maybe there is something in that?!
Next tip: the striking Mirror Stream Fountain
Written Mar 5, 2013
The Mirror Stream Fountain seems to be a landmark of considerable pride for Kharkiv, described on one website as “the most outstanding architectural structure” of the city. Another website even claims that it is under UNESCO protection but I have not been able to find it listed on the UNESCO site.
The fountain is situated in a small park, Skver Peremohy (Victory Park), on the eastern side of Sumskaya Street (opposite the Opera Theatre). It was built in 1947, to commemorate victory in the Second World War. We didn’t see it at its best, as the fountain was not flowing in the icy February temperatures, but we did see the colourful night illuminations.
This is a popular meeting place for locals and newly-weds often come here to have their photo taken in front of the fountain. We saw a couple of wedding cars parked across the road one morning (photo three) but didn’t see any sign of the happy couple.
Next tip: Sumskaya Street
Updated Mar 5, 2013
Sumskaya Street ("ulitsa Sumskaya") is one of the oldest streets in Kharkiv, dating back to the 17th century. The street was named after the neighbouring city of Sumy which it connected with the fortress here. Until the mid 19th century it was largely rural in character, with thatched timber and wattle-and-daub houses. But in 1831 a plan was drawn up to develop this and other city centre streets as befitted the newly declared status of Kharkiv as the provincial capital. Only stone buildings with approved designs were permitted to be built. By the end of the 19th century, Kharkiv had become a major financial and industrial centre, and the buildings on Sumskaya reflected that. Many of them remain today, and many have been nicely restored. Their neo-classical styles are worth photographing especially if the sun shines on the details.
But the rural past is maybe not so far away after all, as photo two shows. A novel was published a few years ago called “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” (by Marina Lewyca) so when we saw a tractor progressing slowly down this elegant, busy urban street I just had to grab this shot!
The street has a number of bars, restaurants and shops, including a very new shopping mall with well-known global brands represented. We found a couple of eating / drinking places that appealed to us, and my next two tips describe these, starting with Gogol Mogol coffee shop
Updated Mar 5, 2013
At the foot of Sumskaya Street you arrive at a busy corner at the top of Konstytutsii or Constitution Square. The first impression I had here was mainly of the traffic, but look beyond this and you will see many fine buildings. The square has developed over three centuries and consequently is an interesting mix of styles. It started in the 18th century as a site for markets and fairs, and for winter sleigh rides – hence its original name, Market Square. Later it took a new name from the nearby cathedral, St Nicholas – Nikolayevska Square. But the cathedral was demolished in 1930. During the Soviet times, the square was re-named to commemorate the Bolshevist revolutionary M. Tevelev and still later received the name of the Soviet Ukraine Square.
One building that will surely catch your eye, as it did ours, is that of the former Russian-Asian Bank on the corner of the square and Sumskaya. This is a modernist building from 1910, designed by Saint Petersburg architects Munz and Spiegel in the style of Modern. If a local suggests that you “meet at the thermometer”, this is where they mean. On the side of the building that faces the square is a giant thermometer 16 metres tall, which was installed by Kharkiv Institute of Metrology in 1976. And it does even tell the temperature – and the one degree showing on it in my photo (photo two) is pretty accurate for the temperatures we were experiencing so I think it can be relied upon.
My main photo shows another of the square’s more striking buildings, that of the former Land Bank. Now a college of motor transport, this was built at the end of the 19th century by the architect Alexis Beketov (after whom one of Kharkiv’s Metro stations is named) and restored in 1952. Beketov was known for his ability to combine the styles of different eras in his designs. This one is an imposing two-story neo-Renaissance building with large arched windows crowned by a stone parapet
The city’s historical museum is located on the west side of the square. We didn’t have time to go inside, but I think it was development work here (a new wing is planned according to the museum’s website) that had led to part of the square being closed off by hoardings, making crossing the road even more hazardous than I imagine it usually is here!
The southern side of the square has been modified in recent years. Where once were old tanks, and a monument to the Bolsheviks, is now a remodelled plaza and elegant statue to the goddess Nike (photos four and five). She was the Greek goddess of Victory, and despite the similarly recent incursions of global brands into Ukraine, I don’t think her presence here is related to a famous manufacturer of sports goods!
Next tip: nearby Bursatsky Spurk
Written Mar 5, 2013
On the west bank of the River Lopan several squares lead downhill to the various bridges, and these are known as “descents”. One such is Bursatsky Spurk, which heads down from Constitution Square. It is lined with some elegant buildings. The name Bursatsky Spurk means Seminarists’ Descent, and it comes from a seminary, “bursa”, on its north side. This was built in 1773 and then re-built twice, in 1825 as designed by E. Vasiliev and in 1885 by B. Pokrovsky and K. Tolkunov. The last of these still stands and today houses Kharkiv State Academy of Culture, as seen in my photo.
At the foot of the slope, cross the busy road to pass some small shops and the Billa supermarket (rather less elegant!) This leads to the river bank, from where you can get good views of the Cathedral of the Annunciation across the river and of the Dormition Cathedral on this side.
Next tip: the Cathedral of the Annunciation across the river
Written Mar 5, 2013
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