Fragments from a War Diary, Part #142
Lviv is an intense, exotic, intoxicating and even unique city that is unlike virtually anywhere else I have ever been. That is because it combines a number of extraordinary features all in one place and I think this is why people fall in love with it. Although it is very frustrating at times, it is undoubtedly also exceptionally charming. When a foreign visitor first thinks of Lviv they may imagine a relatively unknown relatively provincial post-Soviet city in a remote corner of Ukraine, its on the plains of Galicia, a long-forgotten part of Eastern Europe that formed part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, itself an empire that people have no recollections of and never learned about at school. And in one sense the city does feel very remote, a long train journey from Warsaw or Krakow, the two Polish cities the average European may have heard of and in the middle of a war zone. That is the outsider’s impression of this city: rather obscure, and with a history nobody much knows about.
One of the things I have been trying to do in these diaries is to correct those impressions and to give an accurate idea of what this extremely unusual city is really like to be in. I hope I have conveyed the extraordinarily deep culture. The city centre is an open, living museum of exceptional historical buildings constructed in a variety of different styles as Lviv changed hands between different empires including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire and the Second Polish Republic. Lviv has also been an aspiring capital city, of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, and it feels more than just a provincial capital. The city rocks with the pomposity of a national capital, with symbols of Ukrainian patriotism and even nationalism everywhere you look. In this regard Lviv is much more striking than Kyiv. As I was walking home yesterday a large crowd of people had unrolled a giant red and black flag outside the City Hall, itself a grand and dominating building in the middle of Rynok Square that feels like a dominant historical square in central Vienna with the people bustling everywhere around and the noise and the bars and the cafes and the restaurants and yes, more and more people everywhere. The red and black flag is that of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the paramilitary unit led by that most controversial of recent Ukrainian historical figures, Stepan Bandera. The crowd were chanting nationalist slogans. I wonder how many of the people in this political demonstration really understand how complex and difficult a character Stepan Bandera really was.
There is a huge statute to Stepan Bandera in another equally impressive square a little outside Lviv. In Lviv Bandera is treated as a national hero and the controversies about his life and activities have been whitewashed in this part of Ukraine. I wonder what the many refugees from other parts of Ukraine think of these displays of support for Bandera, who is much loathed by many Ukrainians because he was anti-semitic, generally racist and organised terrorist attacks against other parts of Ukraine in the aftermath of World War II which ultimately led the KGB to assassinate him in 1959. So there is a side of Lviv that represents an extreme nationalism and while the patriotic fervour is admirable and I do admire it in the midst of war, on occasion it can become excessive. At some point after the war is over, or even before, there must be a national reckoning with the excesses of past Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainians as a whole must ask themselves whether they really want to portray Bandera as a national hero or whether it is better to relegate him to a footnote in history as a profoundly divisive character that does not paint their country in the best light internationally.
Lviv is an exciting city because there are so many people in the streets and there is a constant sense of buzz. There are so many things to do that every day is packed with adventures and meetings and cultural events and different kinds of work. In this sense it is virtually unique in Ukraine because every other city I have visited in wartime, without exception, and including Kyiv, feels empty and washed out as all the people have fled in fear of Russian occupation or bombardment at some time or other. In the event the Russians did not occupy the greater majority of Ukraine but we can forget now that in the early weeks of the war there was a real fear that they would occupy virtually the entire country. It was never Russia’s intention to occupy the Lviv region; it is not of interest to them and they understood that in this area, devoid in its entirety of Russian first-language speakers or Russian cultural and political sympathies, or with fond reminiscences of the Soviet Union which was Lviv’s bleakest period in its recent history, they would face stiff and probably irremediable local opposition to their rule. Perhaps sensing this, Ukrainians fleeing the fighting or the threat of invasion flocked to Lviv and now the city is jam packed with people from all over Ukraine.
The city is also jam packed with foreigners, who have come to support the Ukrainian cause, and it has become the capital of all the foreigners’ activities. Despite being the formal capital of Ukraine, Kyiv feels peculiarly empty. Lviv feels where all the action is. Of all the cities I have visited in the former Soviet Union, Lviv is the one in which local people and foreigners mix the most and you can feel the international influence upon the city and the development of her culture. Lviv is undergoing yet another of her many transformations in her rich and colourful history, as the land once known as Galicia is enjoying an influx of different people from both east and west many of whom may end of staying here indefinitely and changing the multicultural composition of the city and the region permanently.
Lviv is a city at war. Each day at Midday a solitary trumpeter plays from a top window in City Hall to the crowds below, commemorating the Glorious Dead and reminding the people to keep the spirit of the Ukrainian nation alive. The air raid sirens have returned, as Lviv once again becomes a target for Russian winter military operations. The constant milling around of internally displaced peoples reminds us that Ukrainian society has been profoundly dislocated by the Russian invasion. The incessant reports of chaos at the border with Poland to the west are unrelenting. The Ukrainian government seems unable to keep a basic border through which most war supplies are flowing working efficiently. It is Ukraine’s most important supply artery and it is thoroughly disorganised. The military presence is very high in Lviv: soldiers are seen on virtually every corner, and there are far more of them than I have seen in any other city in Ukraine with the exceptions of Kherson, Sloviansk and Zaporizhzhia. It is time to take a few days out from Lviv and to head somewhere quieter, for a rest, as I reflect upon what comes next.
But before I do that, I am going to the opera tonight, just as I went to the ballet yesterday. For me, Lviv is a cultural treat and I am going to relish it. It is not every day that you live within five minutes’ walk of a world famous opera house whose best tickets are on sale for a mere US$10.