(Along the Southern Bug River in Mykolaiv)
Mykolaiv is a major city of southern Ukraine, pop. 500,000 as of 2008, located on the Buh (pronounced boog) River, about 65 kilometers inland from the Black Sea and 120 kilometers east of Odessa. Mykolaiv is known as the city of shipbuilders and is the main shipbuilding port of Ukraine and indeed all of eastern Europe, as it also was for the former Soviet Union. There are three major shipyards where all manner of boats are made, both commercial and military, as well as the Admiral Makarov University of Shipbuilding. The city also plays a major role in the engineering, metallurgy, and food industries.
Mykolaiv is not a place that is going to show up as a major attraction on anyone’s tourist map radar. It’s primarily a working class city without a whole lot to recommend it as a travel destination in and of itself. There are no geographically scenic areas and not really a lot of history in terms of castles and such as you find in other areas of Ukraine. The city is relatively young for this part of the world, founded in 1789 for the express purpose of establishing an inland seaport and shipmaking town, and it’s been that ever since. But if for some reason you find yourself in Mykolaiv and wondering what to do with your time, there are certainly things to do and see that are worth checking out.
(The Shipbuilding and Naval Museum)
As you might expect, there is a shipbuilding and naval oriented museum in town, located just a couple blocks off the main drag, Sovietskaya Street. It houses a nice variety of artifacts, models of famous ships built in Mykolaiv, and covers a good bit of general shipbuilding history. It’s certainly worth the hour or two it takes to go through it for anyone with an interest in the subject. It also provides an opportunity for a Westerner to get the Eastern European and/or Soviet perspective on things, especially 20th century events like World War II.
I find this to be one of the most enlightening aspects of visiting Ukraine. Like most American baby-boomers, according to the history we learned in school (at least for those who were paying any attention at all) the U.S. defeated Nazi Germany just about singelhandedly. Okay, we might concede to getting a little help from the Brits, but the Soviet Union? They got their butts pounded by the Nazis, didn’t they? Well, yes, for a while they did. And then the Reds turned it around and kicked the Nazis all the way back to Germany, just like we did.
It’s instructive – and not hard to understand when you consider the post WWII Cold War aftermath – to realize that not only is history written by the victors, but it can be written differently by each of the victors and inconvenient details can be omitted entirely when they don’t square up with the current worldview, especially when those victors are no longer allies but now arch-enemies. Oh, sure, the real history is there for those with the interest to go dig it out for themselves but for the average schoolkid who doesn’t give a fig about history to begin with, if it’s not in the basic textbook, it never happened.
In talking to my wife about this, the same thing obviously happened on the other side, too. She was taught that the Great Patriotic War was won more or less singlehandedly by the Soviet Red Army against the evil Nazi Empire with very little or no mention at all of the Western Front and the part played by England and the U.S. The truth, of course, is that neither side would probably have defeated Germany alone if Hitler hadn’t been an idiot and tried to fight on two fronts. Talk about not learning from history, does the name Napoleon ring a bell, Adolf?
(Orthodox chapel in the birch trees)
One thing you should do if you’re in Mykolaiv is take a stroll down Sovietskaya Street and see all the beautiful ladies promenading around town. It’s just as good as Deribasovskaya Street in Odessa. Okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say my wife is from Mykolaiv so I’m not exactly impartial, but there is something about those southern Ukrainian cities that seems to have brought out all the best female traits in natural human selection. For any normal, red-blooded male it’s the best show in town, and free of charge to boot.
(Small but beautiful)
Aside from girl-watching, there is plenty more to do and see on Sovietskaya Street. Shops, cafes, a park where on a nice day you can watch the pensioneers playing chess, smell the flowers (or buy some fresh-cut for your lady in one of the many flower stalls) and generally just relax while strolling down the middle of the street. It’s a pedestrian only zone for a good kilometer or so, with only the crossing streets open to vehicular traffic.
(Workers of the World marching to...McDonald's?)
Another interesting thing you’ll notice hanging around Soveitskaya Street is the distinct contrast between the old Soviet era buildings, statues and monuments and the new capitalisitic drive of private enterprise. Nowhere is this more evident than at one particular intersection where you have a very large, workers-of-the-world-unite type sculpture right next door to a…yep, you guessed it. McDonald’s. You couldn’t make this stuff up, no one would believe it.
(Government buildings and monuments in Admiralskaya Square)
If you’re on Sovietskaya street, keep on walking toward the river to the intersection of Admiralskaya street and view the extremely BIG Soviet era monuments.
There’s the inevitable war memorial with a clutch of soldiers in action poses, and the even more inevitable Lenin statue, this one being an absolute colossus which dwarfs any other I’ve seen in the entire country.
(Posing with my buddy Comrade Lenin)
It’s set in the middle of a large, open square where on any given day you’ll be among lots of local folks out for a stroll. Along the nearby riverfront walk you’ll find a pair of old cannons which were once used in defense of the town and now provide tourist photo opportunities of which we took full advantage.
(Defending the city)
There’s a decent art museum in town which we visited, with some excellent old school oil paintings by a bunch of artists I never heard of. This also proved to me that Eastern Europe is susceptible to the same modern art-snob chicanery as the west. After viewing two floors of lovely, traditional, representational artworks, we visited the third floor which was hosting a show of contemporary “art” (and I use that word loosely) showcasing all the worst aspects of painting, sculpture, multimedia and other assorted misuses and abuses of the art world.
It was a live show with several so-called artists in attendance and people milling about chatting and sipping champagne and nibbling snacks. My wife and I meandered through with our mouths agape at the sheer awfulness of the majority of work on display, hoping to find something exhibiting any shred of redeeming value, but our search proved to be in vain. Most of the stuff looked like it had been created by drug-addled psychotics in the middle of their worst withdrawal-fueled nightmares for the sole purpose of shocking or offending any potential audience, as if they were all competing to see who could produce the ugliest work imaginable. To say that a six-year-old could create something better would be an insult to six-year-olds. At least a six-year-old would try to produce something coherent or beautiful instead of stuff that looks like it came from the local asylum or the chimp house at the zoo.
(Entrance to Mykolaiv Zoo)
(Hippopotamus from Southern Bug River)
Speaking of zoos, Mykolaiv is home to one of the biggest and best zoos in Ukraine. In fact locals will tell you it is hands down the best in the country. I can’t make that comparison since I haven’t visited any others, but Mykolaiv’s is big and features all your standard varieties of animals large and small that you’d find in just about any large city zoo, so if you’re an animal lover or zoo afficionado I’d say check it out.
(I'm glad there's some glass between us)
For Irina and I, zoos are a mixed bag. We love the animals but always come away rather depressed at seeing all these magnificent wild creatures behind bars. I know zoos do great work in terms of preserving some of the threatened species, and it is the only chance for the average person to see most of them up close. I think if you gave the animals a choice, they’d go back to the wild, but who knows? Maybe it would be just the opposite and they’d say “Are you crazy? I get three square meals a day and don’t have to run all over creation to find it. I’m staying right here.”
(Inside the zoo)
Like I said, Mykolaiv isn’t a city you might seek out on it’s own, but that’s the great thing about travel. If you have the right attitude, then wherever you find yourself is an adventure, with plenty of interesting people and places to become acquainted with and remember.
(Back on the shores of the Southern Bug River)