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Ye olde travel guide: Kiev 978 AD

Robert Low offers his advice to travellers visiting 'Lord Kiev the Great' now that it has found peace (of sorts) under the rule of Prince Vladimir

Illustration by Jonty Clark
Published: November 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm
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This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 


When to go

Summer is the season to visit, since the best route is by sea and it freezes in the winter, as do the rivers. Besides, the young Prince Vladimir has finally succeeded to the thrones of both Novgorod and Kiev, and is planning a big celebration for mid-July 978.

Kiev is also the safest it has been in years, because Vladimir was at war with his brother, Yaropolk – whom he recently had killed at a truce – and all the trade routes to and from Kiev were cut off for most of that time. Now all you have to contend with are the usual dangers – drowning and local thieves.

What to take with you

Money and trustworthy friends who know how to sail, speak the language and count. The easiest and safest route to Kiev is across the Baltic and up into Lake Ladoga. Then you go down the rivers – the Lovat, Dvina and Dnipro.

Politicians usually split into respective factions and then fight it out with fists and sticks through the streets

Make sure you have an interpreter and a supply of goods for bribes. Be sensible – buy Baltic amber cheap in the west and trade it for silk in Kiev and you will easily pay for your holiday.

Costs and money

Kiev is the centre of trade routes from Baghdad out to Afghanistan and even the fabled lands beyond that. The basic monetary unit is the silver grivna. The clue to the grivna is in the name – it means ‘something valuable to hang round your neck’. A grivna is not a coin, it is a weight, usually a longish hexagon weighing five ounces. It pays to know your grivna – but most traders will be happy to take your silver in any form at all providing it balances the scales and is pure.

Prices will amaze you. Silk and furs are remarkably cheap compared to further west, for example, and traders such as Khazar Jews, Baghdad Arabs and Byzantine Greeks will expect to haggle, for that is considered as much a joy as a necessity.


The city will be heaving with folk anxious to take advantage of the revived trade links. It already has a population of 15–20,000 (Rome currently boasts 35,000) but, in the summer, transitory migrants swell the numbers to 50,000.

You have to pay for accommodation here. In the Podol area, where the common people live, you can find someone to let you space in one of the two types of dwellings: a mud hut partly buried in the ground, or the more elaborate timber-andclay khaty, with its clay oven. If they offer you bread and salt, you are safe from harm.


The people here eat really well – you will see this immediately as you journey past orchards of apples, pears and quinces to where freshly picked cherries are drying on rooftops. Geese, mutton, chicken – it’s all here, for a price.

The best drink – called ‘green wine’ – is lethal. It is distilled from grain and left to freeze during the winter, the ice skimmed off at regular intervals. Since that is water, what is left is progressively stronger alcohol, changing from clear to pale green and, best of all, dark green.

Sights and activities

Kiev is built entirely of wood and the people treat it as a living person, calling it ‘Lord Kiev the Great’. The best sights are the markets and the most colourful are those for silks and furs.

The people here are pagan, though Christians are tolerated – Vladimir’s grandmother, Olga, was one and was made a saint. In the main square, however, you can see Volos, the great totem of their god with his gilded moustache and fierce glare – people come to place offerings at the foot of the timber pole, make deals under his gaze and even get married.

If you want to see politics in action, you can wait until the Veche, the local city council, disagrees to the point of loggerheads. They usually split into respective factions and then fight it out with fists and sticks through the streets.


If you are found guilty of petty crime, the Veche will fine you heavily, for they prefer money over blood.

However, if you commit a serious crime it is probably best if you start running. For murder and arson, there is only one punishment: they impale you publicly.

Robert Low is a journalist and historical novelist. His latest book, The Lion Wakes, was published this year by HarperCollins. Visit www.robert-low.com

Kiev today

‘Lord Kiev the Great’ remains one of Europe’s great crossroads, and sums up the urban attractions of today’s eastern Europe.

Ukraine's capital, Kiev is a richly historic city, with a huge monastery complex dominating one bank of the Dnipro river and a wealth of churches, palaces and monuments from its eventful past. Chief among them is Mother Motherland, a huge, sword-wielding statue dedicated to the fallen from the Great Patriotic War. Take a walk up there on an early summer's day and you might just see some superb floral displays as well as this city icon.

Kiev is a beautiful place with a fantastic eating and drinking scene, especially in the summer months when locals shed their leather jackets and let their hair down. At this time you can spend hours wandering along Khreshchatyk, the city's main drag, pausing where you like for a beer, or have a nose around Andriyivsky uzviz, Kiev's loveliest cobbled street. You can even take a dip in the river from the city's Hydropark, from where Kiev looks simply sensational.


Football fans should get the chance to see Kiev next summer, when five matches of Euro 2012 are held here. It'll be buzzing but busy then, and this is a year-round destination. It has all the ingredients of Europe's next big thing, so come now before the word gets out.


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