Fragments from a War Diary, Part #77
The city of Lviv is a historical and cultural treasure. Founded in 1272, for most of its history it was an eastern outpost on various empires and Kingdoms, and was closely associated with Polish influence and also the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The exquisite compact city centre reflects these traditions, with grandiose architecture appearing around every corner. The city seems to have undergone a period of highest cultural development in the nineteenth century and leading up to World War I, when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, the eastern part of Poland within the Austro-Hungarian territories. The Peace Treaty of Versailles saw the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary, which had fought on the side of the Germans against the victorious Allies. Lviv had always been a centre of a traditional and distinctive Ukrainian culture, the Ukrainian language have some commonalities with Polish but being written in the Cyrillic script and being quite distinctive in many ways.
The Ukrainians had long craved their own nationhood amidst the empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and for a brief period after World War I they had it. In 1918 Lviv was briefly the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic; but this structure did not exist as an independent Second Polish Republic was fashioned out of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Second German Reich, in what was imagined to be a solution to the so-called “Polish Question” that had bedevilled nineteenth century European diplomacy. Lviv then became the capital of the Lwów Voivodeship (a sort of federal unit) in the Polish Republic, and it remained with this status until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 resulted in what had been eastern Poland being invaded and absorbed into the Soviet Union. The city then became commonly known by its Russian name of Lvov.
However in 1941 the Nazis tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union, and Lvov was one of the first cities to fall. The city’s Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust, and after the Soviet Union recaptured what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine and indeed occupied Poland pursuant to the notorious secret “Percentages agreement” reached between Churchill and Stalin in October 1994 diving central Europe into spheres of influence. The Polish population of Lvov was expelled to Poland by the Soviet administration between 1944 and 1946, and the city became exclusively Ukrainian. By then an isolated western outpost of the Soviet Union associated with Ukrainian culture, separatism and nationalism, Lvov was neglected during the Soviet era as of little interest to Moscow and the city’s grand buildings and nineteenth century architecture crumbled.
When I visited Lviv in 1994, the city was a sad sight to behold. The fronts of treasured historical buildings had crumbled and pieces of masonry that had fallen from the buildings could be seen in the streets that were full of potholes. Exhausted old Soviet trams plied the avenues. Thankfully drab Soviet architecture had not penetrated the centre of the city that had mostly escaped the war damage typical of other Ukrainian cities during World War II, and work could commence on renovating the city’s architecture and reinvigorating its temporarily suppressed culture upon the independence of Ukraine in 1991. Nevertheless it was a long process because Lviv, as the city again became known, was not immune from the horrendous economic torrents that washed across the entirety of Ukraine in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The city’s new economic renaissance really began with the stabilisation of the Ukrainian currency (the Gryvna was introduced in September 1996 and has remained tolerably stable since then due to advice from the International Monetary Funding and other international experts about sensible macroeconomic policies that Ukraine’s successive leaders, to their credit, have generally followed) and an influx of investment from neighbouring Poland as her economy grew, in particular after Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. Lviv once again refashioned itself as the capital of a distinctively Ukrainian culture, with undertones closer to Poland than to Russia and the all-pervasive Sovietism that had captured culture and heritage across the CIS countries.
Lviv is home to no fewer than five universities and as a city whose official population is somewhat more than 700,000, Lviv feels like a giant student town. Its centre is awash with cheap and cheerful bars and coffee shops and economic clothes and gift shops, suitable to the bulging student population from across Ukraine, many of whom have come to Lviv to escape the war elsewhere in the country. Indeed the true population of Lviv is now unknown since the beginning of the war, because there has been such a massive influx of people into the city from elsewhere in the country. Aside from a few missile attacks on military installations in the environs of the city in the early weeks of the war, Lviv has remained mostly unscathed by the war and indeed the city has found a new prosperity as a safe haven from the conflict elsewhere in the country and for that reason it has also established itself as a base for the international community in Ukraine. As a result English is now commonly spoken in the city - but on no account attempt (as I have) to speak Russian in Lviv, as it is deeply frowned upon and will produce reactions of ire or contempt. The people of Lviv, for the most part a highly educated lot, would far rather speak even rudimentary or fragmented English than they would Russian, even though many of them speak Russian fluently as was inevitable being brought up in the Soviet Union.
Lviv was the birthplace of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian writer whose peculiar sexual fetishes gave rise to the word sadomasochism, and he seems to have left his own distinctive mark upon the city. Outside Amsterdam and Soho, I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many sex shops, strip clubs and houses of ill repute as I have in Lviv. Quite who the clientèle of these various establishments are, I am not entirely sure; I strongly suspect they may be the incoming foreigners and international community members, as local people can surely not afford to buy all this sex. It is rather bemusing to find one of Lviv’s best known strip clubs, notoriously open well past curfew, right opposite the historical City Hall. There is also a Sacher-Masoch cafe in the heart of the city’s cobbled streets, that I have not frequented, that by all accounts will whip its customers for a fee; the fee is apparently halved upon request if you are wearing military uniform. Everyone it seems has their own contributions to make to the war effort. Notwithstanding these oddities, the city is enormously good natured and an exceptionally pleasant place to spend a few days.
The grandiose Lviv Opera House, situated in the centre of the city’s main thoroughfare, is an extraordinarily elaborate and ornate structure awash with gold trimming and subtle wooden carvings and more than rivals the other major opera houses of Europe. Opened in 1900, it is associated with Solomiya Krushelnytska, a turn-of-the-century soprano singer with a reputation for extravagance and decadence. Her portrait in the front hall of the Opera House has been covered as a mark of respect to the dead and bereaved during the current conflict; but her spirit undoubtedly lives on in the people of Lviv. Today the Opera House still has performances, but for the most part of a somber nature, to commemorate and comfort those who have suffered so grievously as a result of the inhuman Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There is so much more to be said about Lviv’s rich and illustrious history and culture; I have barely scratched the surface. What I can say, however, is that Lviv is well worth a visit for any tourist, notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine is a country at war. The Ukrainian government is encouraging tourism, and Lviv has more than enough to satisfy the cultural tourist at any time of year. Within just a few hours’ drive of the airport at Rzeszów (pronounced “Zhezhov”) in Poland, and with an easy border to cross (at least if you do it on foot), Lviv is well worth the effort. Come and pay it a visit, and do your own little bit for the Ukrainian war economy.