Ukrainian Summer: L’viv – Many Nations Bone of Contention – L’viv, Ukraine

L’viv – Many Nations Bone of Contention

L’viv, Ukraine

The “Florence of the East” from Castle Hill
So here we are now, finally, in Ukraine, after having been unable for days to make up our minds, whether to cross the Slovak-Ukrainian border or not.

There are so many tales of horror making you mad, tales of false policemen robbing you, of bribery and car theft, which are collected and published even in guide books that claim to support the independent traveller. They especially warn you to not to go into the east of Europe in your own car. They have filled us, my wife Irene and myself, with neuroses up to the brim. We have travelled a lot in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria by car, but Ukraine…?

Be this as it may, the only time we ran into trouble was when we were in Spain, where we had our car broken into.

This is L’viv, and this is the hotel of the same name, a classic example of Soviet-style drabness, reminiscent more of a penitentiary than a hotel, but, of course, very cheap. We made a concession to all the warnings by taking our car into the guarded parking place behind the hotel. This wasn’t quite easy – to put it mildly. When we arrived last night and had gone through the bureaucratic process of checking in and I was trying to park the car in the back of the hotel, the car park attendant produced a huge, hand-written list and painstakingly put in all the vital information: name, address, passport number, license-plate number… All this was an odyssey of misunderstandings, pantomimic gestures and futile efforts to understand each other’s language. I had a Ukrainian dictionary with me, which I had miraculously fished from the internet, helping you to form such indispensable sentences like “the peace activist produced a miss when shooting at the person to be vaccinated”, but leaving you a bit in the lurch when it came to genuine linguistic breakthroughs.

When I had finally understood that he wanted to see the receipt, I had to walk back around the whole block (no architect had thought of an entrance at the back of the hotel), go up four floors into the room, collect the receipt, walk back, find out, that this was not the receipt he wanted, but that you had to collect another one for parking at the reception, queue again, walk back etc. etc. This was a hard, but necessary lesson of survival in a post-communist environment.

In the morning we visited Lychakivsky Cemetery.

Funny way to start the sightseeing of a city. But certainly not a bad start in this case, because this cemetery is a history book made of stone. Not only that it it the first cemetery we meet which you have to pay an entrance fee for – it’s a museum officially. It gives testimony of the turbulent, often bloody history of this forgotten place in the troubled heart of Europe.

They call it the “Père Lachaise of Eastern Europe”, which holds the graves of many of the national heroes of the young Ukrainian Republic, like Ivan Franko, the nationalistic poet and writer who upheld the Slav identity in the already disintegrating Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the time before World War I.

This place is huge, 400,000 people lie buried here.It’s a wild place with towering trees and hills where you can hike around a whole day and get lost between the rows of graves without ever getting bored. When we reach a clearing atop a hill, we find two monuments side by side: the marble pillar of the “Ukrainian Memorial to the Warrior of the Army of Galychnia” and its Polish counterpart, a temple-like structure in white marble, in front of which the “Little Eagles” of Poland have found their last resting place. In the chaotic days at the end of World War I both Ukraine and Poland went at each other’s throats over who should rule the Lemberg of the Austrians, called L’vov by the Poles, L’viv by the Ukrainians. Unfortunately, many young Polish boy scouts where in town in the days when the Ukrainian army attacked in order to make L’viv part of their country. It must have been a juvenile bloodbath, as the regular Polish army wasn’t there yet. Often the rift during this fratricidal war went right through the families, who had to choose whether they wanted to be Ukrainians or Poles and, as a consequence, sometimes found themselves shooting at family members.

From inside the Polish marble temple we hear the songs of a group of Polish tourists wafting wistfully over the hills. Poles arrive here by the busloads, and – being Germans ourselves – we can understand their pain: this land was to them what Germany’s eastern territories were to many of our fellow countrymen. They lost their homes when Stalin brutally pushed Poland to the west. The Polish cemetery looks quite new: its restoration was only completed in 2001, the Russians having tried to obliterate the memory of the pre-Soviet age by destroying the monuments.

No wonder that there are oldtimers today who have changed their national identity four times without leaving the place of their birth: Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Soviet and Ukrainian. It seems that some people need not travel to see other countries, the countries come to see them…

On our way back we find the graves of two young men side by side: one of a Socialist working-class hero with the hammer-and-sickle emblem on his chest, another one of a contemporary soldier with the Christian cross above his tombstone.

Armenian Cathedral
Armenian Cathedral
We ride downtown in a tram that rumbles along worn tracks that were built in an age long past. Female conductors sell tickets and collect tiny amounts of money. The city looks a bit like a strangely familiar place. Prague looked so before it was styled up and converted into a flashy tourist place. Here we still can see the sordid splendour of a city that hasn’t hidden its scars yet. What a place brimming with multi-cultural flair this city must have been! Even today there are Poles, Ukrainians, Armenians. But the German-speaking population has gone, the Jews have been slaughtered. It’s depressing that – wherever you go in Europe – there’s hardly a place where you don’t come across some of the Nazi atrocities of World War II. There is nothing left of the synagogue but the site it stood upon, and the only Jewish relic we see is their former hospital with its cupola of coloured bricks serving as a hospital for women today.

We enter the mystical womb of the Armenian cathedral with its colourful frescoes, enjoy
some chorales in the Transfiguration Church, and rest a bit near the Shevchenko memorial that juts up from the ground like a shark fin. This westernmost – and most Western-minded – big city of Ukraine – where many people don’t like being spoken to in Russian – is – alas! – cut off from the rest of Europe by the EU’s “visa-curtain” that severs traditional trade links to its western neighbours. Still we feel the vital power of this place that cannot be subdued. Brides in white dot the city like daisies, with photographers trailing behind and animating them into taking up more and more daring, at times even lascivious poses. A little later the brides – being good girls again – take their wedding bouquets either to the monument of Shevchenko, another national hero, or to the little white statue of Mother Mary. Mother Mary is considerably in the lead over Shevchenko, as far as the number of bouquets is concerned.

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