The most instructive textbook covering the last two-hundred and twenty-five years of Eastern European history is not written on paper, but in stone. The western Ukrainian city of Lviv, home to some of the most atmospheric architecture in all of Europe, is also the location of one of its most fascinating necropolises, Lychakiv Cemetery. Cemeteries are built to memorialize the dead and Lychakiv is full of mournful statuary and sculptures, but it is also a place filled with the passions of life. These passions exhibited good and evil, idealism and radicalism in unwavering fervor to the most extreme ends. There are perpetrators buried here who were party to unspeakable crimes in the service of empire, royalism, nationalism, fascism and communism. There are victims buried here who suffered in the name of these same ideologies. Heroes and villains, the famous, infamous and anonymous all ended up together in Lychakiv. Their lives and deaths have become a lesson to the living of what human beings can become. A walk through Lychakiv is not just a stroll through the past two centuries of this fated city’s history. It is also a window into the soul of humanity, for better and worse.
Where A Whole World Resides
The arched neo-Gothic entranceway to Lychakiv is a portal into a world of kaleidoscopic diversity. Plots and graves, tombs, chapels and mausoleums of every size, shape and configuration imaginable are packed together as thick as the foliage which consumes many of them. Many of these graves are architectural wonders in their own right. The juxtaposition of good and evil, vanished magnificence and depraved fanaticism can often be found interred and sometimes memorialized within a whisper’s distance of one another. Up and down uneven pathways, shaded by gigantic trees, illuminated by shafts of sunlight are the graves of Polish aristocrats and Soviet apparatchiks, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainian soldiers past and of the near present, soldiers of the SS Galician Division and the Red Army, all opposing each other in silence. Ukrainian and Polish literary heroes, Armenians, Orthodox acolytes, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and the Lwow Eaglets, that flower of Polish youth who fought for Lwow in the hopes and dreams of the Second Polish Republic. Victims of Fascism and Communism now rest side by side with little to distinguish them. For all of this haunting presence there is also the disturbing, ever present absence of Lviv’s once thriving Jewish community. And so it goes on and on. This is the way of Lychakiv, a way the world of Lemberg, Lwow, Lvov, Lviv once was and still is to a limited extent. The diversity of souls is much like itself, where patterns appear and disappear. A world where colleagues became enemies and cowards were turned into heroes, a space filled with dashed hopes and soaring dreams. Lychakiv is a place that is present inside all who live and breathe. This is where a whole world resides.
Beginnings Of An End – The Creation Of Lychakiv
Lychakiv, like all cemeteries is supposed to be about ends, but what separates it, is that it can cause an examination of the means that were used to achieve those ends. Yet this cemetery also had to have a beginning. Despite its ancient and timeless feel its start occurred in neither medieval nor renaissance times. This seems a bit odd in a city that is known for its antiquated, rustic architectural aesthetics. Central cemeteries for the city’s dead were first conceived in the early modern age of the late 18th century. Up until its conception, the dead were buried adjacent to churches. The idea of large cemeteries away from the city’s urban areas was conceived to help protect the living from the dead. Bodies left in the open or given improper burials often lead to periodic epidemics which could demographically devastate the populace. At this time Lviv (then known by its German name Lemberg) was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. They had taken control of Galicia in 1772. One usually does not relate cemeteries to modernity, but Lychakiv was a way to clean up and modernize Lviv. It would help bring the city up to standards of urban hygiene that were the rule in central and western Europe. In 1783 a decree was issued by Lviv’s authorities that banned burials within the city limits. Three years later, designated areas were set aside for burials, one of these was Lychakiv. In 1787 the first burials took place at what was then known as Lyczakowski Cemetary. The name was Polish, as were most of the inhabitants of the city at that time. Poland was in the process of being partitioned and would no longer exist as a political entity by the end of the 18th century. The city and cemetery were overseen by Lviv’s authorities. Many of these authorities would be Poles themselves, they continued to dominate the city even after Poland ceased to exist as a political entity.
Speaking In Silence
Death of empire, republic and ideology has been as much a part of life in Lviv, as the Lychakiv cemetery has been part of death in the city for over two centuries now. Poles may have been a majority in the city for much of this time, but they like so many others have now all but vanished from Lviv. This is nothing new or out of the ordinary for this place. No one ethnic group or nationality has been able to hold sway over Lviv in either living or dead form since Lychakiv came into existence. Just the same as no one group holds power over the past here. In this cemetery, permeated by so many silences, everyone seems to have a say. In Latin or Cyrillic, in German, Polish, Armenian, Ukrainian and Russian the names engraved in stone are what is left of the dreams, passions and folly from the vast waves of humanity who tried to control this astonishing city in an accursed region. Lychakiv today is a testament to the fleeting nature of power and passion. It exists, not so much to memorialize death, but to remember and contemplate life. Here in Lychakiv, is how a resurrection really feels.