(This post had been intended for deposition on Saturday morning; however, this was pre-empted by the site difficulties. This is cutdown version. See the end for further information.)
With all my travel to and around Ukraine, I have indeed made it to Kyiv (that’s the Ukrainian version of “Kiev”). Kyiv is beyond beautiful. Kyiv is majestic.
Kyiv began as a Norse outpost. As Viking traders began to make use of a fairly easy route to Constantinople (up the Narva River, a fairly easy portage across modest terrain, and then an easy journey down the Dniepro River to the Black Sea), around 800 they established a fortified post at about the only terrain feature along the Dniepro – some high bluffs along the western bank. Thus was born the city of Kyiv.
The local Slavs realized quickly that these Viking traders, whom they called Varangians or Rus, knew what they were doing. Lacking leadership themselves, they came to the traders and made an offer. They offered the lead guy kingship, and the choice of any one of their many excellent-looking princesses to be his queen.
With good leadership and a good position along a major trade route, Kyiv grew rapidly in strength, wealth, and importance. In 988, the Kyivan leader Prince Vladimir accepted Christianity from Byzantine missionaries – while one of those missionaries, Cyril, gave the Slavs a written alphabet for their language. Vladimir ordered all his subjects to convert with him; they were all herded along the main boulevard of Kyiv – called to this day “Christening Boulevard” – and into the shallows of the Dniepro for a mass baptism.
Kyiv continued to grow and prosper as an eastern outpost of civilization. By the early 13th century, it was the second largest city in Europe – second only to Paris – with a population of 50,000.
But all that came to an abrupt end on 6 December 1240.
When dawn broke over Kyiv on 6 December 1240, the population was 50,000.
By nightfall, the population had been effectively reduced to zero.
After a brief siege, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu, broke into the city. The city was quickly pillaged, burned, and demolished. Gone were the 400 churches. Gone were the monasteries. Gone was the legendary “Zoloti Varota,” the famous “Golden Gate” – known musically as “The Great Gate of Kiev.” And gone, mostly, were the 50,000 inhabitants – slaughtered or, for the few survivors, dragged off into slavery.
Think you’re having a bad day? Methinks that 6 December 1240 qualifies as the ultimate “bad day.”
(This descriptive history was to be followed by a photo-essay/walking-tour-of-Kyiv; photos by your humble correspondent. There isn’t enough time this evening to work that up; it can be added on Sunday if there is “popular demand.”)