Just thirty years ago most of the famous churches in Lviv were either shuttered or utilized as storage facilities. The Dominican Cathedral was a Museum of Religion and Atheism. The Armenian Cathedral housed works of sacral art, not on the walls, but in boxes. The Bernadine Church had been closed for decades and fallen into disrepair. The Church of Sts. Olga and Elizabeth was nothing more than one big Neo-Gothic warehouse where cement and chalk were stored. Meanwhile, the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church (Jesuit Church) had become one of the larger book depositories in the Soviet Union with over a million volumes. Today the situation is completely opposite. The churches are revered as architectural monuments that contain some of the most glorious sacral works of art in Eastern Europe. Several are part of the Ensemble of the Historic Center that has made Lviv’s Old Town a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What happened to the churches of Lviv during the Soviet era is rather disgusting. Paradoxically, it must also be said that at least the Soviet administration did not physically destroy the churches. Their neglect was largely benign with the unintentional consequence that the churches could be restored and that is exactly what has happened. On the other hand, a quarter century after the Soviet Union’s collapse Lviv has spent much of that time forgetting the Soviet era. This is due to a combination of factors, including a focus by the city’s tourism bureau on promoting Lviv’s Renaissance, Baroque and Austro-Hungarian past. As well as Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment that has led to the city’s Soviet past being relegated to the dustbin of history. The glorification of physical culture from the Soviet era has yet to happen and will likely never occur.
Socialist Lviv – Blunt & Brutal
An interesting thought experiment is to try and imagine what Soviet era structures in Lviv might be deemed worthy of protection. The Center for Urban History of Eastern Europe, which is located in Lviv, has a website (http://www.lvivcenter.org/) that acts as a vast storehouse of information regarding the city’s architectural history. A thematic section on the site called “Socialist Lviv” offers a list of the most notable Soviet era structures in the city. The list unfortunately does not include the city’s main bus station, a hideous structure that looks like a reject prop from a 1960’s science fiction B-movie. The list has a total of 31 different buildings and monuments. A handful of these no longer exist, such as the Monument to the Stalin Constitution. In 1940, during the first Soviet Occupation it was placed at an intersection of several streets with the city’s commercial center, what is today Svobody Prospekt. The Nazis destroyed the monument after their arrival in Lviv a year later.
The Soviets got there chance to build many other monuments after they swept the Nazis out of the city a few years later. Of course, many of these idolized their victory in the so-called “Great Patriotic War.” The list includes the “Monument to the War Glory of the Soviet Army”, the “Monument to the Tank Soldier” and the “Monument to Doctors Who Died in World War II.” There is nothing clever about the names for Soviet war monuments. They reflect the system itself, blunt and brutal, always in your face, leaving no doubt as to what they are meant to convey. At least the names are memorable, if not the sculpture, which like much of Soviet architecture is entirely forgettable.
Building A New World – Entertainment, Education & Rigidity
The Soviet era architecture built in Lviv was less about a building’s aesthetics and more about its utilization. How could it be otherwise? Such terminology as industrial Soviet modernism, monumental modernism and late Soviet modernism do not lend themselves to the imagination. The buildings represented a new world, which at least aesthetically, was certainly a lesser one. Even the names were cringe worthy. For instance, a building constructed as a prototype for the majestically named 700th Anniversary Street was named the Regional Statistics Department. The name was about as inviting as the building, a nine story vertical structure placed atop a two story horizontal one, with each building placed at right angles to the other. It was built with those rare aficionados of slab concrete, rigidity and functionalism in mind. It is not memorable, but it is still standing. An ensemble of like styled structures was planned for 700th Anniversary Street. After only a few were built the project mercifully ended.
The list of structures for “Socialist Lviv” contains no less than six cinemas. These were important for propaganda. As the decades passed and Soviet rule relaxed, they became a favored form of entertainment. Surely, the movies shown inside were more interesting than the architecture which had nothing in particular to recommend it. Movies could entertain or educate. It is the latter which was communism’s greatest achievement. Mass education is one of the Soviet era’s longest lasting legacies. Perhaps this is why there are three buildings from Lviv Polytechnical National University on the list. It was not so much that they were built to last, as they were built to be used. They are still in use today by thousands of students. Only an architecture buff would find these buildings of passing interest. The important idea behind them is that they have helped provide students with a first class education. During the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Second Polish Republic, Lviv had thousands of illiterate and uneducated citizens. The Soviets rectified this problem, but the system exacted a dreadful toll on the people.
Copying the Enemy– Stalinist Designs
Speaking of dreadful the use of the word Stalin, Stalinist or Stalinism usually has horrifying connotations. Ironically the one building from Soviet-era Lviv worth seeing is done up in the style of Stalinist Neoclassicism. This is the Veterinary Medicine Academy Main Building found on Pekarska Street. Though the building is only three stories high it dominates the immediate surroundings. This is mainly due to its columned portico, which has more in common stylistically with ancient Greece or Rome. The Soviets and especially Stalin were unable to defeat Western Civilization. Instead they stole from it. Unfortunately theft ends up debasing rather than sustaining a civilization. This speaks volumes about the Soviet system’s ideals and mind numbing architectural achievements.