A Fantasy That Exists Only In The Mind -Svirzh Castle (Lviv Oblast)

Of the famous castles near Lviv, Svirzh Castle is the one most likely to be overlooked by visitors. This is a bit astonishing since the castle is only 44 kilometers (27 miles) from the city center. It is also unfortunate since the castle and its immediate surroundings offer an excellent example of the seamless integration of nature with architecture. Just below the castle lies a lake which makes for a fabulous photo opportunity. The fortress-like walls of the castle loom above the placid waters which often reflect a mirror image. While this makes an enchanting scene for visitors, the lake along with marshes and swampland was once a vital part of the castle’s defenses, surrounding it on three sides. These natural elements were utilized in the 16th and 17th centuries as necessary security measures, but are now viewed as a hallmark of beauty. This is an excellent illustration of the difference between the historical Svirzh Castle and how it is perceived today. The castle’s past was marked by calamity and insecurity. For many of its earlier inhabitants, the idea of being entranced by the lake’s beauty would have seemed just as foreign as the invaders besieging the castle walls. Today the major threats to Svirzh Castle are more benign, questionable administration and a lack of financial resources.

Svirzh Castle - the integration of nature and architecture

Svirzh Castle – the integration of nature and architecture (Credit: Sviatoslav I of Buyanova)

Natural Defenses – Security & Anxiety at Svirzh
What exactly is the point of visiting Svirzh Castle? Is it to learn about the past? So we can take many impressive and beautiful photographs? Or is it to relive a fantasy that never quite existed? The latter question probably comes closest to the truth. The perception of Svirzh Castle as it exists today in the Ukrainian countryside is more fantasy than historical reality. One stands at the shore of the lake, looks up at those venerable stone walls, imagining a magisterial and glorious past, if only that were true. There is the fantasy of what we want to believe and there is the reality of what actually transpired. While the castle looks formidable, those stone walls were not enough to fend off invaders. The defenders at Svirzh relied more on its commanding natural position, atop Belz Hill, surrounded on three sides by lake and marshland. These natural defenses were a better defense than any castle walls. Attackers could drown in a watery grave or become bogged down in an impenetrable, fetid muck swarming with mosquitoes.

As for the walls, these were rebuilt and the castle’s defenses modernized by none other than Pawel Grodzicki, the same general who conceived the Arsenal complex in Lviv. This was done after the castle was captured and put to the torch by the Tatars in 1648. Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack forces occupied what was left of the castle on multiple occasions in the ensuing years. The castle did later withstand sieges by Turkish forces in 1672 and 1675. Thus the castle offered protection in fits and starts, depending on the foe. When it did not, the consequences were horrific for the defenders, with slavery or murder awaiting them. Looking at the present day romantic, dreamy landscape of Svirzh Castle makes it is hard to connect past with present.

Entrance to Svirzh Castle in winter

The entrance to Svirzh Castle in winter (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Vanity of Preservation – Reimagining Svirzh
Reading through the history of Svirzh Castle brings up another fascinating question, what is the point of the numerous preservation efforts to reconstruct and restore Svirzh Castle? The answers have varied over time, from the vanity of aristocrats, recognition in popular culture and the passion of preservationists.  The fact that the castle still stands at all is nothing short of miraculous. It ceased to act as a fortress in the 18th century and became a residence for one wealthy Polish magnate after another. An assumed magisterial past may have existed, but it is hard not to see Svirzh Castle’s 19th and 20th century history as a constant struggle against the forces of degradation, destruction and poor administration. In 1907 a thorough overhaul of the interior was undertaken by its aristocratic owner, Count Robert Lamezan de Salins. It was given new furnishings, with fine art and furniture, valuable paintings and a large library stored within its walls. This was more an update than a restoration.

Within the walls of Svirzh castle

Interior Design – within the walls of Svirzh castle (Credit: Denis Vitchenko)

This refurbishment lasted all of seven years, as an invading Russian army at the outset of World War I, did as thorough a job of destruction on Svirzh as the Tatars carried out in their own time. The Russians set an all-consuming blaze that left nothing but the castle walls standing. Count Lamezan de Salins did not give up though. He returned after the war to start the reconstruction process anew. This was stopped once and for all, by the Soviet invasion of the area in 1939. It also signaled the end of over four hundred years of Polish aristocrat’s calling Svirzh their home. The nobility was swept away by war, occupation and finally communism. The same could have happened to Svirzh Castle, instead it suffered mostly from neglect. It was not until the late 1970’s that it came back into the public consciousness after playing a starring role in a Soviet film version of the Three Musketeers. The Union of Soviet Architects began yet another reconstruction which ended with the Soviet collapse.

Svirzh Castle at dusk

Svirzh Castle at dusk – its future is cloudy (Credit: Олександр Бистріков)

A Future Forever In Doubt
Such preservation efforts take passion and patience. The rewards are few. Despite such dedicated efforts the main continuity to be found in Svirzh’s history is that its future is constantly in doubt. Though tourists can now walk the grounds and are given access inside its historic walls, the past decade has shown that the future of Svirzh will continue to be in flux. In 2007 a Law On Concessions was passed in Ukraine allowing private investors tax advantages if they put financial resources toward the preservation and maintenance of certain castles. Svirzh was one of these. Payments do not have to be made until the property shows a profit. It is doubtful that Svirzh can make enough a profit from tourism to cover preservation costs. What then will become of the property? Will the state regain control? That brings up a final question, who should profit from the past? The answer might be everyone, but only when preservation work on the castle continues.

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