When I hear news about Ukraine, I don’t think of global politics. I think about a man who sold me honey at Kherson’s outdoor market. I think of my former co-workers. I think of the bread lady at the kiosk down the street who would only sell us the very best of what she had to offer. Kherson, Ukraine was my home for nearly a year, and today I would like to take you on a walk down its main street as a tribute to a precious way of life.
Ushakova Boulevard in Kherson, Ukraine runs straight from the railway station to the Dneiper River quay. Along its sides, many of Kherson’s important buildings have stood for decades. The street is lined with broad pathways and sidewalks, covered by enormous green leaves from chestnut trees in the summer, made dangerous by ice and snow in the winter. If you walk one street in Kherson, it should be Ushakova, and it should be in early summer.
Like many post-Soviet railway stations this one impresses you with complex walkways leading from the arriving trains. There are overhead walkways, round and about walkways and zig zags. Follow the other passengers, and you will eventually find yourself in the building’s reception area, filled with high ceilings, wooden walls and Cyrillic-lettered notices. Head out the station’s entrance, and you have found the city’s Grand Avenue – Ushakova.
Near the station, the buildings that line the street are Lenin-era buildings, gentler than the newer concrete-block buildings. The Stalin-era buildings, the concrete ones, were built unemotionally, to last. The Lenin-era buildings were built with love, wood, and high ceilings. Many are beginning to slowly crumble, waiting for someone to decide their future.
Soon, you pass by one of those newer concrete buildings, and notice that even it is beginning a slow crumble of neglect. Other buildings on your walk, the Music College for example, are sturdy, well-tended and vibrant.
There is an extravagant Naval College and a long, industrial-looking post office. From your sidewalk, you peek through an open lot and see a beautiful little Orthodox church. Tall feathered stems from grasses wave between you and the church, surrounded as it is with a graveyard that grows field grasses high during a quick and vigorous spring.
Ushakova here becomes a true boulevard. Benches for sitting divide two wide walkways that line each side of the street. The traffic lanes of the street are narrow compared to these pedestrian walkways. More buses than private vehicles fill the avenue. But there are many, many people – like you – walking. To keep up with your Ukrainian sidewalk companions, you’ll have to quicken your pace. If you want to sit and watch for a while, pick a bench and rest.
But don’t stop long, for farther down the boulevard is Lenin Square. When I was taking this walk, in 2010, a huge statue of Lenin stood in the middle of the expanse of concrete. It is no longer there, having been pulled down during the Maidan protests of 2011-2012. Even empty, the size of this rectangle of concrete will impress you. Massive public areas, like this one, are here and there around Kherson. Once a city of 500,000, now retreating to near 200,000, this amount of common space feels overwhelming.
All along Ushakova, you have passed restaurants, many with cafe tables along the sidewalk. Now, as you reach the pedestrian street of Suvarova, you see there are many more, as well as shops and perhaps some sidewalk artists and vendors.
The avenue here begins a steep descent to the Dneiper River. There is a beautiful wharf walk along the river that runs through a park that is allowed to grow wild with spring grasses, then – just in time – trimmed with weed whackers in a fit of tidiness.
Something invades your peaceful river thoughts – the Hotel Fregat. A futuristic design sixty years ago, the building and grounds now look like a sad mockery of the 1960’s. It hasn’t fallen into disrepair, just fallen wildly out of fashion. Maybe a little disrepair, too.
But the river is glorious. Ushakova ends here, at the wide, powerful, decisive Dneiper. Large and small outboard motor boats can take you back and forth to the islands just across the current. Yachts sail by, but not often. Enormous commercial ships ferry goods occasionally. Most of the time, you can stand here at the quay with just you, your thoughts, and the steel-colored waves.