Fragments from a War Diary, Part #157
The historical Polish fortress and palace complex of Stanisławów dates back to the seventeenth century when it was built by the Potocki family, a noble family associated with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a relatively moderate and liberal multi-ethnic religious empire comprising parts of what are today Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Russia, amongst other modern states. It was unstable and had perpetually shifting borders, until it was successively partitioned out of existence at the end of the eighteenth century in a series of acts of military occupation by the Commonwealth’s neighbouring powers that the Commonwealth, in a state of constant political instability, was unable to resist. The Commonwealth was characterised by a political system called “Golden Liberty”, in which different noblemen had equivalent political rights, and arguably it represented a nascent form of democracy (amongst noblemen). Nevertheless for precisely this reason it proved unstable and was unable to maintain a common standing army to serve as a deterrent against foreign existential threats, which is why its neighbours were able to agree to partition its territory so straightforwardly.
Stanisławów was at one time the southernmost outpost of the Commonwealth, built by Stanisław (“Rewera”) Potocki, a senior Polish nobleman and a close advisor to King John II Casimir, to resist invasions by the Russian Empire. But on the Second Partition of Poland, Stanisławów fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that likewise occupied the city now known as Lviv. In the Austro-Hungarian period the complex was developed into a comprehensive city and much of the historical architecture in the centre dates from that period and is of a typical Austro-Hungarian style. The Austrians called the city Stanislau in German but its population remained predominantly Ukrainian in ethnicity and in Ukrainian the city was called Stanislaviv. Nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, the attractive historical centre is mostly a product of this era. Upon the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the generalised chaos in the region at the end of World War One, Stanislav (as the city was by then called) became the capital of the extremely short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic, which was an assertion of nationhood by the Ukrainian peoples who had been living in territory that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that was now dissolving in the face of Austria’s abject military performance in World War One and her territories being overrun militarily by Germany which then of course was defeated and Austria-Hungary was dismembered at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918-1919.
The West Ukrainian People’s Republic was not to survive the Versailles Peace Conference and the balance of contemporary Ukrainian territory, what for a while asserted independence as the Ukrainian People’s Republic (Ukrainian territory that had been part of the Russian Empire), was not to survive the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. As a result of the Versailles Peace Conference both Lviv and Stanislav were absorbed into the Second Polish Republic that was intended to resolve the so-called nineteenth century diplomatic conundrum of the “Polish Question” of how to grant ethnic Poles a homeland in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Stanislav’s existence under the Second Polish Republic, in between the two World Wars, was relatively quiet and uneventful although as the Second Polish Republic became increasingly authoritarian in the late 1930’s the substantial autonomy granted to Ukrainian-dominated federal units of the Republic was withdrawn and Ukrainian minority rights were suppressed.
Stanyslaviv was occupied by the Soviet Union in October 1939 upon the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In July 1941 it was occupied by the Nazis as they pushed forward on their eastern front in the invasion of the Soviet Union and it became the seat of the Stanislau Kreis, part of the Nazis’ General Governorate for the Occupied Polish Region. In August 1944, as the Nazi German forces fled in the face of the Red Army, Stanislav (as the Soviets decided to rename it) was liberated and then incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of an enlarged Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine that embraced the Ukrainian territory formerly part of the West Ukrainian Peoples Republic and then the Second Polish Republic. Confused yet? You are not the only one. The endlessly shifting political boundaries in this region are one of the challenges in fixing the borders of contemporary Ukraine. They have always moved, and now we are facing a situation in which we are trying to impose a permanent and settled democratic polity on the region in which the use of armed force is no longer legitimate as a method of capturing and recapturing territory in central Europe. The military tradition for changing borders prevailed until 1945, and this sort of thinking dominates the ideology in Moscow today.
After Stanislav’s incorporation into the Soviet Union, the grim and ugly business of Soviet construction projects began. Stalinist communist blocks started emerging in the city centre, in between the historical Polish and Habsburg buildings. The region around the railway station is a monstrosity of ugly communist modern architecture. The no doubt once peaceful and tranquil atmosphere of Stanislav as a historical cultural artefact has shattered, and today the city has a dreary communist feel. There is a single gigantic hotel in the centre, and as I write these words the air raid sirens are blaring. Ivano-Frankivsk, as the city is now called (Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to rename the city after Ivan Franko, the Ukrainian social democratic political thinker, imagining to be a Marxist when really he was quite the opposite) is under attack from the Russians. The hotel tannoy orders us to the air raid shelter. The hotel is, I suppose, a prime target for a strike because it is by far the largest building in the centre. It’s such a shame that the Soviet system imposed this sort of architectural, cultural and political degradation upon historical towns such as Stanislav. And now the Russians are doing their best to blow up their own ugly Soviet work.