Every time I tell someone that I recently traveled to Ukraine they suddenly go quiet and look at me with raised eyebrows. In their facial expressions I can tell what they really want to say, “Are you crazy?” Before they say anything though, I mention that I was in Lviv, that sparkling cultural and economic capital of the western Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the eastern Ukraine. I tell them that Lviv is in the “European” part of Ukraine. Of course, they have little idea of what that actually means. “European” in the context of Ukraine is code for a safe and civilized part of the country. The truth is that despite bad governance, endemic corruption and a reputation for lawlessness, for the traveler almost anywhere in Ukraine with the exception of the Donbas region is really safe, much safer than almost any American inner city.
Lviv (& Ukraine) Looks West – War Comes To The East
For those who have traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, they know that the city of Lviv is the epicenter of both Ukrainian nationalism and support for joining the European Union. These two ideas, on the face of it would seem to be incompatible. After all, nationalism is usually aligned with a yearning for sovereignty. Ukraine is already a sovereign nation and wants to keep it that way vis-a vis-Russia. For many years, the majority of Ukrainians in the western portion of the nation have favored joining the European Union. They would gladly give up a bit of sovereignty in the hopes of prosperity and security. Following the Russian takeover of Crimea and their continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine it is hardly surprising that the central portion of the country, especially the capital of Kiev also views the EU with favor. The European Union gives Ukraine the best opportunity for collective security. They cannot hope to defeat the nuclear arms wielding Russian military forces in a straight up one on one contest, but association (or membership) with the European Union would provide them a counterweight which might keep the Russian bear at bay.
Presently though, Ukraine is at war. It is a war between west and east, between western values and Putinism and most tragically between fellow Ukrainians whatever their ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. It can be called a border war, a guerilla war, a rebel war or Putin’s war, but Ukraine is at war with itself and also with Russia. There are those who will say that Ukraine is really at war with the Donetsk People’s Republic. At times over the past year that has been true, but this past summer when the “People’s Republic” was left to fight alone, the Ukrainian armed forces pushed them back. If not for Russian support the rebellion would most likely have been snuffed out and the whole sordid conflict ended. Tragically, the opposite has occurred. The war looks to continue and may well escalate. Slowly, the European Union, the United States and the popular media have come to recognize that this is a war. It is difficult to get specific figures for the casualty totals, but estimates now are given of over 5,000 people killed with many more wounded. The fighting continues to escalate with no end in sight.
Signs of Life, Signs of War – States of Tension
What does traveling in Ukraine while is at war mean for the traveler? A state of limbo is pretty much what I saw and felt in Lviv this past December. The war is there and it is not there. On one hand, there were men in combat fatigues at the train station getting ready for deployment to the war zone. On the other hand, people were still going to work, shops were open and there was even a Christmas market in the city center. Of course what else are people going to do? They have to go on working and living. Day to day life only stops during a modern war when the shelling and shooting comes to the front door. For Lviv the war is still hundreds of kilometers away. Nonetheless, there are many signs of war in the city. They include pictures of Vladimir Putin with a Hitler moustache, a young lady asking for donations to support Ukrainian soldiers and memorial wreaths in the color of the Ukrainian flag laid at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in the city center. A man with no legs holds a cup to collect coins from passersby only a stone’s throw away from the famed Opera House. Was he a wounded war veteran or an invalid? Makeshift memorials have cropped up at the Lychakivkse Cemetery honoring those native sons of Lviv, many of them volunteers, killed fighting in the Donbas.
Then there are signs that the war is also felt on a much more personal level. I saw long lines in many of the banks, with none of the customers looking happy. More than once I noticed people feeding Euros into machines at banks, trusting their deposits to a machine rather than a human. There was always a husband or wife, friend or relative standing very close to them while they did this. Perhaps they were being guarded not so much from their fellow citizens, but from bank employees. The banks are running exceedingly low on Euros and dollars. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvna, has plummeted as the war in the east drags on. There is also a weird sense of strained normalcy that is just as disconcerting. A nation is at war, the people are struggling and the traveler is perfectly fine. The city and nation can use the income from tourism, thus they put their best foot forward. The citizens are helpful and pleasant. The hotels and restaurants are extremely cheap by western standards, but what kind of traveler wants to benefit from a nation’s misery? A strange feeling of quiet guilt consumed me while I was there.
Life & Death In Lviv
This was the situation I experienced in relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan Lviv. It made me wonder what it must be like further to the east, closer to the war zone. The signs of war in Eastern Ukraine must be more visceral and violent. Nonetheless in Lviv the war is leaving its own scars. The bodies are being brought back home, volunteers for the army keep heading to the train station, the war continues. Who knows where and when it will end? Life and death go on. An entire city is in a state of perpetual tension, waiting for something horrible, miraculous or matter of fact to happen.