Monumental Distortions – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part Two)

Polish sculptor Antoni Popeil designed what many now call the best Mickiewicz monument in Europe. Popeil’s vision called for a column 21 meters in height, surmounted not by Poland’s greatest poet, but by a flaming torch symbolizing the idea of inspiration. Further down the column stood a 3 meter tall sculpture of Mickiewicz being given a lyre (a metaphorical reference used to show a poet’s skill) by a winged angel, the genius of poetry.  The column would be constructed with Italian granite from Milan, the foundations would be granite and the figures cast from bronze. Popeil had been educated in the Fine Arts in Lviv, Vienna and Florence. He was a highly accomplished artist whose creative talent was nearing its peak.

The winged genius of poetry brings Mickiewicz a lyre on the column

The winged genius of poetry brings Mickiewicz a lyre on the column – Design by Antoni Popeil

Of Ceremonies & Wars – The First Four Decades of Mickeiwicz In Lwow
The design may have been done, but the monument was far from completion. Funds would have to be raised in order to pay for the column. Among the fundraising activities that occurred were theatrical and musical performances, the latter featuring works from famous Polish composers. Jubilee chocolates, stationary and commemorative postcards were all sold to cover construction costs. The city and local population chipped in with important monetary contributions. At this time, 49% of Lwow’s population was Polish and an even greater percentage were Polish speakers since much of the city’s large Jewish population spoke the language. Lwow’s aristocratic and middle classes rallied around the building of the monument. The Mickiewicz column was in essence a Polish monument.

The monument was finally unveiled at a grand ceremony on October 30, 1904. Thousands were in attendance at the event. The city set aside 20,000 crowns for expenditures. Visitors came from as far away as the cities of Krakow, Stanislaw (Ivano-Frankivsk) and Chernivtsi.  None other than Mickiewicz’s oldest son, Wladyslaw was in attendance. The festivities lasted two days with a wide range of events. The ceremony was a signal success. The column was now well on its way to becoming one of the most memorable landmarks in the city. The monument somehow still occupies the same place today as it did in 1904, despite the fact that it was witness to no less than four wars, two of which were among the most violent in human history.

Mickiewicz Column in Mariyska Square, Lwow

Mickiewicz Column in Mariyska Square, Lwow – early 20th century postcard

The Monument Endures, The Polish People Do Not – Creating Lviv
In a bizarre twist, the square in which the column stands was given Mickiewicz’s (Mitskevycha in Ukrainian) name by perhaps the most anti-nationalist regime of the 20th century. After the militantly atheist Soviets occupied the city in the latter part of 1939, they took down the St. Mary sculpture which had adorned a fountain near the Mickiewicz column. They then renamed the square for the great Polish poet. This was done despite the fact that all the while they were carrying out a murderous persecution of Polish intellectuals and crushing nationalist resistance. The renaming stuck. What vanished instead were the Poles of Lwow.

As late as 1944, a majority of the city’s population was ethnically Polish. In the aftermath of World War II somewhere between 100,000 to 140,000 Poles were forcibly relocated to what had once been Eastern Germany, but was now Western Poland. Demographic statistics give a bleak summary of the changes that were undertaken in Lwow. The proportion of Poles in the city dropped from 63% in 1944 to 10% in 1950 to 4% in 1959. Poles did the same thing to Ukrainians in what is today southeastern Poland, but they attempted to resettle and assimilate them (i.e. make them Poles) in the northern and western parts of Poland. Today ethnic Poles are less than 1% of Lviv’s population, but they certainly make up the greatest number of tourists visiting what was once known to them as Lwow. The Polish language can be commonly heard on a summer’s day in the center of Lviv. A city largely defined by Polish culture for several centuries, now only has Polish visitors, monuments and architecture to show for their once outsized presence.

The Mitskevycha Column still stands today in Lviv

The Mitskevycha Column still stands today in Lviv (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Nationalism In Another Nation
The defining symbol of Polish national feeling still stands with the Mitskevycha column at Mitskevycha Square. If the column has made it this long it is most likely to stay. Anti-Polish feeling in western Ukraine has waned, especially in the face of a growing Russian threat in Eastern Ukraine. The Poles have been strong supporters of Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. Old historical wounds from the World War II era have slowly begun to heal. Mickiewicz is still a symbol of Polish nationalism, but with modern Poland’s increasingly friendly relations with Ukraine, there is no longer a feeling that the monument is an imposition. Now it feels more like a tradition, one that surges through the past and into the present of this beautiful city. Nevertheless, Poles and Ukrainians look up to the column today with very different feelings. To Ukrainians, Mickiewicz and Lwow are a thing of the past. To Poles, Mickiewicz and Lwow continue to be part of who they are.

Click here to read A Monumental Proposal – The Mickiewicz Column In Lviv (Part One)

One thought on “Monumental Distortions – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: A Monumental Proposal – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part One) | Europe Between East And West

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