In Love with Lviv, or how I took a bus ride through the western countryside
Lviv is the largest city of western Ukraine, a bastion of nationalistic pride and the soon-to-be 755 year old heir to the Polish-Lithuanian and Hapsburg empires. Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets from the bus station on the outskirts of the city, cinder blocks of Soviet-era apartments fading into the charming gothic and baroque of the center, my only thought was “when did I get to Europe?”
I left Kyiv last Wednesday for Kamianets-Podilskyi, itself full of western Ukrainian charm, as part of a Fulbright promotion tour of sorts. The small-to-medium sized town is probably best known for its ancient fortress, which guarded against Turkish invasion in the days of the Polish empire. Legend has it (and so does Anna Reid) that a Turkish sultan once asked who fortified the city. “God himself”– to which he answered, “then let God himself storm it.” But as always, God needn’t do what we can do to ourselves, and the Turks did storm and capture the place once or twice along the way, until it nestled firmly into the Austrian busom from 1773 , right until the empire’s collapse in 1918.
I didn’t raise the issue of Turkish occupation, but I did speak about my research at the university. This is a 10,000 student school, a place that pulls students from all over the oblast (district) and even from more distant parts of the country. Founded 1918, it boldly declared, in the midst of a period that might be called the Polish-Bolshevik war. The rich facade of the university certainly did not look particularly Soviet, even if the school itself assimilated to the education system following its 1921 “attachment” to the Ukrainian SSR.
The university informed two of its professors that I would be speaking to some classes, with the aid of an interpreter (this is a Ukrainian speaking city, naturally, and I’m not nearly at the level to field questions from university students). Highlights of my talks: applause from a group of history students when asked to say something in Ukrainian, discussion about reforms in the energy sector, and my controversial decision to speak honestly about my opinions on language policy in Ukraine (“relax,” in a nutshell). I strolled along the old city, took a stone bridge across a breathtaking canyon in spring bloom, and made my way to the bus station for a 6 hour trip to Lviv that could have been done in 2 had the roads been properly paved.
And then I was in Lviv. This is the only place I have visited in Ukraine that gave me flashbacks of Spain, Paris, or Potsdam, right down the overpoweringly fragrant kava that dominates the social life of the city. Much of the social life of the city center, in fact, seemed to revolve around sitting in cafes and looking cool. I don’t mind.
No sooner did I arrive than I was off to Kryivka. I’ll call this bar famous in Ukraine because it’s infamous in neighboring Russia, where its UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) theme doesn’t rub so well. In a nutshell, this was a group of nationalists that banded together in the Second World War to fight both the Nazis and the Soviets in an effort to win autonomy. They’re extraordinarily controversial, least of all for accusations about Nazi collaboration (a not entirely unknown phenomenon during this time period, though the motives were almost always hope for independence). But here, in Kryivka, you can feel like a patriot while liberating a few beers from their casks. The ‘secret’ password: “Slava Ukraini,” “glory to Ukraine,” to which one must always answer “glory to the heroes!” And for good measure, I was asked if I was a “Muscolin,” a derogatory word for someone from… well, see the beginning of this paragraph.
But kitschy bars aside– of which there are a great many in Lviv, including one eyebrow-raiser dedicated to the very Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch who gave his name to masochism– the question that is Ukraine does have a special urgency in this city. It was here in Galicia that the Ukrainian nationalist movement truly flourished and took root, and Lviv remains the proudest bastion of that tradition– perhaps even more than in Kyiv, where most people don’t view the issue of Russian-Ukrainian bilingualism in particularly political terms. Whereas in Lviv, you’re most likely to hear tourists speaking Russian– to whom the local cafe’s are happy to serve.
The statues of Greek gods that dot the corners of Market Square especially seem to scream of the city’s unique, and at first blush seemingly un-Ukrainian, history from the Austrian period. It is here that my lovely fellow Fulbrighter who hosted me lives– what Maidan Nezalezhnosti would be in Kyiv if it were made for sipping coffee and flirting with passerby’s. But then, it’s in the very nature of Ukraine to be a mix of civilizations. I’ll leave it to the Ukrainians to tell me if the flirting part is in their nature.
Said host and her cohort toured me around the comparatively small city center, the whole time of which I was in a kava-induced seduction with the city itself. Feeling artsy, I took a trove of photos, to which I will leave the rest of this entry.
I’m going to come back to Lviv soon. There’s a city-level energy efficiency project that meets regularly there, meaning I can even justify it as part of my work. Ura!