Lviv’s resilience in a time of war

  • 2015-07-02
  • By Will Mawhood

Over a year on from the start of the conflict in the east of Ukraine, TBT’s associate editor Will Mawhood travels to Lviv, a city in the West of the country traditionally described as the “cradle of Ukrainian nationalism.” While a shaky truce brokered in Minsk keeps the peace in the east for now, Mawhood reports on how life has changed on the Ukrainian home front.

Lviv doesn’t really feel like Ukraine – not like the idea that most of the world has of the country, anyway. The city centre, at least, a place of centuries-old Catholic churches, narrow cobbled streets, baroque balconies and eccentric bars and cafes, could easily be placed a few hundred miles north or west of its actual location. It’s in the extreme west of the country as it is – Poland is 50 miles away; Slovakia, Hungary and Romania around a hundred further.

While Lviv is still largely unknown as a destination to Western Europeans, it is one of the most popular places for tourists from other parts of Ukraine, who regard it as a chance to visit Europe without leaving the country.

But despite its air of mystery and otherness, this is a Ukrainian city – many would say the Ukrainian city. It’s the only one of the country’s ten largest conurbations where the Ukrainian language unambiguously dominates over Russian in everyday life. Despite being barely a third of the size of the capital, Kyiv, Lviv is perceived by many as the nation’s cultural capital. The area around Lviv is also where resistance has traditionally been fiercest to incursions from neighbours, whether to Poles from the north, Germans from the west or Russians from the east.

Former president Viktor Yanukovych was never popular here, his Party of Regions scoring under 5% in Lviv oblast in the last parliamentary election before he was forced from power. And over the last year or so, Lviv has been possibly the most passionate of all Ukraine’s major cities in its support of the aims of the revolution, and the struggle against Russia-backed separatists in the far east of the country.

Nevertheless, lying at the extreme west of the country, Lviv is hardly on the frontline – indeed, it’s a good deal closer to Berlin than it is to Donetsk. It’s true as well that Lviv doesn’t currently feel like a city in a country at war – the picturesque lanes of the Old Town are cluttered with restaurant tables full of people loudly enjoying the humid Ukrainian summer, tour guides point out intricate figures carved in the facades of old buildings to gaggles of attentive visitors, well-dressed people swish busily about.

But clues are there – in many restaurants and shops there are collection points for donations to support the army fighting in the east. Posters commemorating the recent Europe Day declare confidently that “Ukraine is Europe”; others, stuck up in trams, remind passengers that “Crimea is Ukraine.” The flag and the coat of arms are everywhere, often paired with the stars of the EU: hanging from balconies, stamped on T-shirts, stuck onto windows. Yellow and blue ribbons are tied to rucksacks and railings.

On the city’s central street Svobodu Prospekt under the stern gaze of the statue of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, a little permanent camp has been set up, a reminder of the war: a truck ambushed in the east, its fuselage crumpled and pocked by bullets, bears an exclamatory typewritten sign; elsewhere, a display encourages people to hit a bloodstained caricature of Putin. Further down the square small tents have been set up by charities, as well as the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda. As Ukraine’s most patriotic city, Lviv has sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to the front; citizens of the far west were also over-represented among those wounded and killed at the Maidan protests.


Economic tumult

Lviv has also certainly not been unaffected by the economic turmoil that followed the removal of Yanukovych’s government, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of the Donbass. The hryvna was the world’s second worst-performing currency of 2014, outdone only by the Russian rouble. Before the Maidan protests, which started in November 2013, the exchange rate hovered around ten hryvnas to the euro; within a month of Yanukovych’s fall, this number had almost doubled, and at the greatest low reached so far, in February this year, a euro would get you 37 hryvnas.

It has since rebounded quite a bit, and now sits around 23 to the euro, but this has not yet filtered through to prices, which continue to rise. Since the corresponding increase in wages has been small, day-to-day life for the average Ukrainian has become significantly more challenging, and with the currency’s purchasing power so drastically reduced, foreign travel, even to nearby Poland, has moved out of reach for most. Ira, a journalist working in Lviv, recalls a recent trip she took with her mother to Krakow for the May public holidays. On that day, a single coach was leaving the Lviv bus station for Poland, whereas a couple of years previously there would have been several lined up at any one time.

But the currency collapse has not led to impoverishment for everyone. Lviv is Ukraine’s centre for IT services and many workers in this sector have their salaries pegged to the US dollar. These people have, in effect, become more than twice as wealthy in real terms since the revolution, as the rise in prices has been nowhere near as precipitate as the fall in the hryvna’s value. For western Europeans – and even for most eastern European EU citizens – things are very cheap indeed: a meal in a city centre restaurant is rarely over three euros; a tram ticket is roughly eight cents.

Lviv-born Yura works for a Ukrainian IT company, dealing primarily with international customers, and so his wages are tied to the dollar, not the hryvna. He made numerous trips to the Maidan protests in Kyiv last winter, and was there when the order was given to fire on protesters in February last year. Like most in western Ukraine, he is fervently patriotic and anti-Russian, and in favour of closer EU integration, including the introduction of a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens. But getting visas for the EU isn’t something he has recently experienced serious trouble with – he currently holds a Polish shopping visa, which gives him access to all the Schengen Zone countries on condition that he spends a certain amount of money in Poland annually.

But for most Ukrainians, arranging travel to the EU is a much more stressful affair, requiring huge amounts of time and effort, with no guarantee of success. On the day we meet Marta, a teacher of Ukrainian, she is very upset: she had planned to spend a week in Croatia in July, volunteering at a camp, and already has acquired a Schengen visa from Poland; but to get to Croatia, she has to pass through Hungary, which requires her to arrange a separate transit visa, and this is what has caused the problem. The closest Hungarian consulate is in Berehove, an eight-hour train journey away; Marta went there, having already attempted to fill in the required forms, but quickly ran into bureaucratic problems.

As she says about her experience, “I need a visa for the day after tomorrow – they say a week, but I don’t need it then”. The situation is not as black and white as it seems, however; as she explains, it is understood that those who don’t want to wait can slip officials extra; those who can’t or won’t simply have to wait. She names the overwhelming bureaucracy, and the concomitant corruption, as the biggest problem Ukraine faces – producing a thick folder full of forms and explaining that a non-governmental organisation she is involved with has just won a grant from Lviv city council; to open a bank account for this purpose requires signatures and approval from a dizzying array of administrative departments, a slow and frustrating process.


Rebel History
Lviv makes a lot of its rebellious history – indeed, often manages to market it successfully. Hidden away under the city’s immaculate baroque central square, Plasha Rynok, is Kryivka, a themed bar that takes inspiration from the partisan movement active throughout the western Ukrainian countryside in the ‘40s and ‘50s, following its forced incorporation into the Soviet Union. Shout “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) to the fatigue-clad man at the door, and you’re allowed down into a series of claustrophobic, overheated tunnels, intended to evoke an underground forest bunker. It’s not really a place for a quiet beer: the space resounds with gunfire and chants celebrating either drinking or Ukraine, or both. Every now and then, the lights are cut, and gun-wielding staff conduct a search for a moskal (Russian infiltrator), before hauling one unlucky punter off for a mock-execution.

Owned by the same group is Pravda Beer Theatre, recently opened on the other side of Ploshcha Rynok, a pub and brewery which attempts to bring craft beer aesthetics to the Ukrainian scene. They’ve produced a series of attention-grabbing products, most strikingly Putin Huilo (roughly translated, “Putin is a Dickhead"), named in honour of the chant popularised by Ukrainian football fans. The label displays a naked, satanic-looking Putin, holding a nuclear bomb in one hand and the downed MH17 airliner in the other, and it’s complete with a mini-essay at the side of the bottle, explaining that by annexing the Crimea, Russia has posed an existential threat to the post-war security order.

Pravda co-owner Yuri Zastavny explains that his decision to bring out such a politically charged product was motivated by the tendency of drinking to start discussions: “every bottle is a small message… we are a country that is in a war, and in a war for a reason. We took it not only as a means to get people behind the table, but also to say what is Ukraine’s cause, what is Ukraine’s position to them.” Yuri sees the war in the Donbass as being, in essence, the war for independence that Ukraine did not have to go through in 1991.

It’s not totally unthinkable that, had Yanukovych somehow managed to cling onto power after the killings in February, Kyiv would now be struggling to cling onto the far west, not the far east. In Lviv, the day after the order was given to fire on protesters, local government buildings were stormed and ransacked and the oblast government declared itself independent of the capital’s control. The police in Lviv were overwhelmingly supportive of the protests and refused to carry out the orders of the national government – an event commemorated by a huge mural near Lviv’s main bus station, which proudly declares “the police are with the people”. Crowds of people blockaded an army base in the city, suspecting that troops would be sent to Kyiv to put down protests there.

Pro-Russian voices are extremely difficult to find here, but they are not totally absent. Clark, a native of New York state teaching English in Lviv, estimates that among his students, fewer than one in ten express any sympathy with Russia; those who do tend to be either older people, nostalgic for the imperfect but familiar Soviet system, and those simply worn down by the hardships of the past year. The west’s proximity to wealthier nations can also aggravate a sense of frustration with Ukraine: Pavel, a retired engineer from Chop on the Hungarian border, has few positive words for the new government, angrily complaining that his pension of 100 euros a month would be several times higher if he lived a couple of miles west – or in Russia.

It is the presence of these neighbours that has contributed most to both Lviv’s central European feel, and its westward-looking mentality. This region was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and following its collapse in 1918, modern-day western Ukraine was divided up between Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, meaning that Lviv spent 20 years fewer in the Soviet Union than Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa – or Donetsk and Luhansk.

All of Ukraine’s western neighbours now theoretically support its territorial integrity, but Hungary and Slovakia have vacillated on the issue of the war, anxious about alienating Russia, and have repeatedly called for an end to sanctions. Romania has been more consistent in its support, but is regarded as too poor and corrupt to be a totally reliable partner at present. By far the most important regional supporter is Poland, a strong and consistent advocate of Ukraine’s cause. This is more than slightly ironic, given that relations with Poland have, historically, been pretty traumatic, owing to Lviv’s twenty-year stint as a Polish city.

Traces still remain – faded stencilled Latin letters heavy with giveaway “z”’s can be seen on older buildings throughout Lviv; further down Svobodu Prospekt, within declaiming distance of Shevchenko, stands a statue of Poland’s own Shakespeare – Adam Mickiewicz.

But the time is not remembered particularly fondly by people here – under Polish rule, Ukrainians’ rights were suppressed. Poles, for their part, remember the wartime atrocities committed by Stepan Bandera’s partisan UPA forces against the region’s Polish inhabitants. Among the older generations, these memories still exert a lot of power – one local tells me that his elderly mother still refuses to set foot on Polish soil, even when this enormously complicates journeys westwards. But among younger people, I only hear positivity about the northern neighbour, and schools offering Polish language courses are very visible, catering to those hoping to take advantage of the considerably higher salaries there.

Clark feels that Poland serves as a positive, plausible model for Ukraine – for the west at least – a stable, democratic, comparatively prosperous country with strong cultural ties to the Lviv region: the west of Ukraine is predominantly Catholic, and the Ukrainian language is closer to Polish than to Russian; even the folk customs are similar. Even visually, the resemblance is striking: “Krakow basically looks like a cleaned-up version of Lviv,” he says.

At the same time that Lviv is becoming more like Europe, it seems that Ukraine may, very slowly, be becoming more like Lviv. I have heard many reports of Russian speakers in theoretically bilingual Kyiv suddenly switching to Ukrainian in all their interactions; people even reported to me seeing a sudden increase in the number of residents of the capital wearing the vinnytsia, the embroidered folk costumes seen with great frequency in the west. Svetlana, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from Zaporizhia, a large city in the south very near to the Crimea, says that many in her city are sympathetic to the Russian perspective, at least partly due to the effect of the media. Before coming to study in Lviv she was uncertain; now, she is very clear what she thinks: Russia is an aggressor.

By invading Ukraine, it does seems that Putin has inadvertently gone some way to achieving the unthinkable – turning the weak, pliable, internally divided land on his south-western border into a united, determined foe. Issues like language and the interpretation of history – especially Soviet history – remain potent, but since the war has started they, understandably, seem to matter less. As Yuri said, while raising a glass of Putin Huilo: “he has unified Ukrainians like no one ever has before.” The Ukrainian-speaking, outwards-looking, defiantly independent city of Lviv may not be an outlier for much longer.