Having The Quality Of A Bad Dream –A Teenager’s Memories Of The Soviet Occupation of Lwów (Lviv: The History Of One City Part 53)

Exactly a week before Christmas in 1927 Stanislaw Szyblski was born into wealth and privilege. The second son of a highly cultured family in Lwów (Lviv’s Polish name), he would live an idyllic childhood filled with warmth and love. Unfortunately, his teenage years turned out to be the opposite of his childhood. Lwów was caught in the cross hairs of the Second World War, suffering every horror imaginable, combat, pogroms and occupation. Stanislaw grew up fast as he learned to dodge bombs and the occupation authorities while bartering for the necessities of life. He and his family were able to survive through their wits and guile, but ended up fleeing the city prior to the Red Army’s reoccupation in 1944. They had no illusions about what a second Soviet occupation would mean after barely surviving the first one. That first occupation, from 1939 -1941, is recounted in Lwów – A City Lost: Memories of a Cherished Childhood authored by Stanislaw’s daughter, Eva. In a series of vignettes the surreal nature of the Soviet occupation is conveyed through stories of what life was like when one of the most depraved and bizarre regimes in history controlled Lwów.

Lwow - A City Lost

Lwow – A City Lost is an engaging collection of Stanislaw Szyblski’s childhood memories of the city from 1927 – 1944

The Real “Stab In The Back” – Poland & Lwów Betrayed
The plight of interwar Poland leading up to and including the first months of World War II might best be explained by “the stab in the back.” In this context, the phrase has a dual meaning. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the phrase to express their belief that Germany did not lose World War I, instead they were stabbed in the back by Jews and Socialists. This lie helped Hitler take the German nation to war. They would seek vengeance for the supposed wrong done to them. The Second World War started with an attack on Poland. The shame and humiliation felt by Germany would now be imposed on their eastern neighbor. As part of this campaign for vengeance, bombs were dropped on Lwów, causing a teenage Stanislaw Szybalski to hide with the rest of his family in a basement. The geo-political became personal. This was just the beginning of further horrors to come.

A “stab in the back” for Poland took place soon thereafter as it was invaded by the Red Army advancing from the east. This was the product of a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin, whereby the Soviets would get free reign in eastern Poland for not opposing German aggression in the rest of the nation. This stab in the back would lead to years of repercussions for families such as the Szybalski’s. Their wealth and prominence made them targets for the Soviet regime. They were in the cross hairs of class warfare, enemies of the state in waiting. They were lucky to escape deportation or worse. During this time Stanislaw witnessed how the Soviet regime bent and warped society to the point that everyday life became a series of misadventures. Strange and paradoxical circumstances became the norm as Stanislaw’s family did whatever they could to survive.

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lwów

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lwów following occupation of the city in the autumn of 1939

Strange Luxuries – Stealing At A Moderate Rate
There were those in the city who saw the Soviet occupation as a good thing, whether they be communist sympathizers or rapacious opportunists. Some of these would be collaborators could not hide their joy when the Red Army marched into the city. They took to the streets to greet them. This small crowd was met with a volley of gunfire, as the soldiers thought they were being attacked. This resulted in multiple dead and wounded. While tragic, what else was to be expected from soldiers that were little than an armed rabble. Stanislaw remembered how “the men were in a horrible state; unshaven, dirty, wearing filthy uniforms…their guns were hanging from simple twine.” Stalin’s foot soldiers helped themselves to the consumer goods and material wealth of Lwów. The soldiers were children in a fantasy world, barbarians who had broken through the gates of a capitalist heaven. They proceeded to sack and pillage with little regard for the inhabitants. This left the store shelves barren except for a few strange “luxuries.”

According to Stanislaw, the shops were empty “with the exception of the cheapest sort of tobacco, made from leftovers, and to go with it, you were able to buy matches and vinegar.” In occupied Lwów survival was a matter of being inventive, opportunistic and clever. Like everything else during the Soviet occupation these traits were turned on their head since they were enhanced by theft. A Soviet scientist working with Stanislaw’s father at Lwów’s famous Typhus Institute gave him a piece of valuable advice on how to navigate the Stalinist system. “If you stole too much they locked you up, or killed you. If you didn’t steal, you were going to die of starvation. Therefore, you had to steal at a moderate rate.” This took an incredible amount of self-discipline. Unwittingly the Soviets were teaching resourcefulness in the most counter intuitive ways.

Statue of Lenin being removed after the Germans occupied Lwów in June 1941

Goodbye Lenin – statue of Lenin being removed after the Germans occupied Lwów in June 1941


Surrealism & Survival – Cheating Fate In Lwów
Daily life was dominated by the surreal. For instance, the Soviets did not give Stanislaw and his fellow students textbooks. They were to take copious notes and study these. Soon there was a shortage of notebooks. It hardly mattered since the notebooks were regularly confiscated from the students. The Soviets also attempted to impose a six day week. This only led to greater inefficiencies and more chaos. They soon gave up trying. The surreal also affected that greatest of survival instincts, hope. Hope kept people from giving up. Unfortunately this had unintended consequences. Spirits were raised when German authorities came to the city and registered ethnic Germans who would then be repatriated. Many non-ethnic Germans registered as well, hoping to escape Soviet rule, instead this delivered them up for deportation. The Soviets later got these lists from the Germans and then arrested those whose names were found on them. They were deemed “unreliables” since it was obvious that they disagreed with Soviet rule. These unfortunates were then deported to Kazakhstan.

As Stanislaw points out though, any Jews among the deported were in luck, since this helped them escape the clutches of the Nazis who were soon to come, a paradox of a paradox so to speak. Material wealth could end up as yet another double paradox. The wealthy were branded as enemies of the state by the Soviets, yet riches were also an advantage for those who managed to avoid the pillaging and deportations. Survival of the richest goes some way in explaining the Syzblski’s ability to cheat fate. For a long time, money was essentially worthless, but the bourgeoisie were not totally bankrupt. Stanislaw’s parents were able to provide for their family by trading possessions for food and living space to keep the authorities from foreclosing on their precarious existence.

The wealth of goods up for barter in Lwów could be found at a makeshift market behind the city theater. It was here that Stanislaw learned just how primitive and backward the Soviets were. He tells a story that sums up the bizarre nature of the first Soviet occupation of Lwów. “One item I recall was Polish ladies nightgowns. Soviets loved to buy them for their women who wore them as evening gowns when going to the opera or theater.” It goes without saying that a night at the opera in Lwów had a much different meaning under Soviet rule. With their “ladies” dressed in bathroom attire they went out for an evening of high culture, little did they realize that their ignorance was on display for all to see. This in essence was the Soviet occupation of Lwów, marked by the bizarre, surreal and backward. It had the quality of a bad dream, but when the city finally awoke, the nightmare regime of the Nazis was standing on its doorsteps.

A Transcendent Vision – Lwów’s Ossolineum: Triumph of the Intellect (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #6)

The cultural destruction wrought upon Eastern Europe by war and revolution is not well publicized in the west.  Hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, maps and artifacts have been stolen or destroyed as a direct result of conflict. Consider for instance, the successive Soviet, Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lviv during World War II. While the human destruction has been largely documented, the loss of cultural wares and institutions has been almost forgotten. In the aftermath of World War II, the city’s Polish culture, like its majority ethnic Polish population was uprooted. Much was lost in the upheaval, but fortunately some parts of the Polish intellectual legacy were so important and prominent that they managed to be at least partially saved. Chief among these was the renowned Ossolineum (National Ossoliński Institute), an intellectual powerhouse of Polish literature and learning.

Statue of Józef Ossoliński

Statue of Józef Ossoliński on a buidling in present-day Lviv

The Immense Legacy of What Was Almost Lost
Prior to World War II, the Ossolineum held hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, autographs and maps, many of which were the rarest of their kind. The material losses of the Ossolineum in Lwów (the Polish name for Lviv) can be somewhat quantified, but the intellectual loss was incalculable. The library survived in another form, in another city, in a new part of Poland. Today it is a storehouse of Polish culture in Wrocław (formerly Breslau, Germany). Meanwhile a new institution was created in the exact same place where the Ossolineum once stood, the Lviv National Vasyl Stefanyk Scientific Library of Ukraine. The library, like the city, became Ukrainian focused.  Nevertheless, it is something of a miracle that both Ukrainian and Polish intellectual traditions still survive at these institutions today. This would not have been possible without the immense legacy of the original Ossolineum and the strong vision of its founder, Józef Ossoliński, a man who had also lived through geo-political changes which his love of learning had managed to transcend.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński was the scion of Polish nobility. The Ossoliński family’s aristocratic roots stretched all the way back to the earliest days of the Polish Kingdom. Over the centuries they acquired estates across the eastern parts of the kingdom. One of these, Krzyżtopór, was home to the largest castle in Europe before the construction of Versailles. The family’s wealth and splendor was threatened by the late 18th century in one of the most turbulent periods in Polish history as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared during three partitions. The Ossoliński family estates were now in lands ruled by the Austrian and Russian Empires. It was during these times that Józef Ossoliński came of age. Because of his homeland’s geopolitical situation Ossoliński developed hybrid loyalties, straddling the lines between Polish nationalism and adherence to Austrian rule.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński – the visionary who founded the Ossoliński Institute

A Gift Of Knowledge – Creating the Ossolineum
At the time when the Commonwealth suffered through its third and final partition in 1795, Ossoliński was living in Vienna where he was head of the Austrian Imperial Library. He was known to be a voracious reader and researcher with a love for learning that has rarely been surpassed in Polish history. Ossoliński was able to use his cleverness to great personal advantage, co-opting Austrian policies to expand his own personal library holdings. When Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monasteries, Ossoliński took the opportunity to expand his holdings through acquisition of many rare books and manuscripts. In his later years, he decided to transform his personal library into an institution to promote Polish literature, learning and history.

Ossoliński had earlier been involved in the reestablishment of the University of Lwów in Austrian ruled Galicia. This helped lead him to a decision years later that the city would become home to the Ossoliński National Institution (Ossolineum). To house the institution he acquired another asset from a shuttered monastery, an abandoned convent building. Within these walls, where spiritual enlightenment had once taken place, the enlightenment of intellect would now take precedence. Sadly Ossoliński did not live to see this happen. As a matter of fact, during the last years of his life he could not see at all. Ossoliński had lost his vision, but his love of learning was so great that he employed Polish students to read aloud to him. Ironically, this took place far from Lwów and Poland, Ossoliński lived out his finals days in Vienna where he died in 1826. The Ossolineum opened the next year.

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

From Polish Intellectual Resistance to Renaissance
At the time of its founding, the Ossolineum was an island of Polish culture beset by sweeping tides of Germanism. The Austrian authorities had imposed the German language on Polish Lwów. The city’s was given a German name, Lemberg. The language on public signage was changed from Polish to German. The professional classes were completely dominated by Germans. The Poles were reduced to second class status in a city where they held a majority. The Ossolineum acted as a bulwark of Polish intellectual resistance. This alarmed Austrian authorities to the point that they took harsh measures against the Ossolineum during its early years. A director and his closest associates were imprisoned for treasonous activities. At times the entire facility was shut down and catalogs of its holdings taken away.  During the Revolution of 1848, an Austrian general openly regretted that the building had not been subjected to artillery fire.

It was only in the late 1860’s, following the Austrian loss in the Austro-Prussian War and the Habsburgs historic compromise with Hungary, that Polish culture was finally given room to blossom in Galicia. The Ossolineum was in the vanguard of this Polish intellectual renaissance. Illustrious Polish aristocratic families, such as the Lubomirski’s, bequeathed their entire personal museum collections to the institution. A famous publishing house developed, known as the Ossolineum Press. World War One delayed progress, but this turned out to be only a temporary setback. During the interwar period, the Ossolineum’s holdings expanded to over 220,000 works with everything from rare tapestries to coins to the largest newspaper collection in Poland. It was an incredible accomplishment of Polish intellectual achievement, but then the World War II began and everything changed.

Vasyl Stefanyk Lviv's National Scientific Ukraine Library

Vasyl Stefanyk Library now on the former site of the National Ossoliński Institute

Worst Was Yet To Come – The Ossolineum on the Brink
In 1928 an article entitled “The Centenary of a Great Home of Research in Poland, The Ossolineum, 1828 – 1928” in The Slavonic Review by Roman Dybosko stated, “the Ossolineum, now entering, in a free and reunited Poland, on the second century of its existence, we behold – and I think must admire – a house which has outlasted the earthquakes of a tragic national history, and proudly stands as a monument to the power of self-sacrifice and endurance, in the service of high ideals of culture and progress.” The author wrote this a little too soon because the worst earthquakes, from both east and west, were yet to come.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.

How A Resurrection Really Feels – Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery

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.

You Will Never Walk Alone - Into Lviv's Past at Lychakiv Cemetary

You will never walk alone – into Lviv’s past at Lychakiv Cemetery

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.

Stepping out of death and into life at Lychakiv

Stepping out of death and into life at Lychakiv

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.

In silences they speak - statuary outside a tomb in Lychakiv

In silences they speak – statuary outside a tomb in Lychakiv

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.

Goodbye To All That – Lviv & the Habit of Heartbreak

Goodbye to All That, that famous post World War I book, is the autobiography of Robert Graves, the English poet, writer and scholar. Much of the book deals with Graves traumatic experiences during the war. The title ironically refers to the passing of the old order that existed prior to the war. Such ideas as duty, honor, patriotism and by extension empire all were sacrificed at the front.  For Britain the old order died on the battlefield and so too for many other empires and nations. But for Britain, though it would suffer again in another worldwide conflagration just a couple of decades later, its most traumatic experience ended with the First World War. A way of life, a way of belief, died once and for all time. Sure there was much horror and loss, triumph and decline to come, but the worst for Great Britain was over with by the Great War’s.

Lemberg, Lwow, Lviv
On the other hand, for Eastern Europe the horrors of the First World War were only the beginning. The region has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to all that, again and again and again. The war was just the start, both a beginning of the end and the start of a series of new beginnings that keep coming to an end. There is no place which better reflects this continuing series of historical upheavels than Lviv in the western Ukraine. It sits astride the geopolitical fault lines of east and west. The city began the 20th century as Lemberg, morphed into Lwow and finally transformed into Lviv. It has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to one war, one revolution, one ideology at a time.

What is it that Lviv keeps saying goodbye to? The old order, but which one. Consider that if there is someone in Lviv today who is one hundred years old (and in a city of 725,000 citizens there must surely be at least one), then they have lived under at least eight different political regimes, two of which were among the most lethal in human history and all of which repressed the population to a greater or lesser extent. Lvivites have suffered, survived and amazingly even thrived under a withering array of empires, nations and political entities. Life has never been boring for them, even if history has been unkind and often cruel.

Lviv - What A History

Lviv – What A History

Baffling Swiftness, Terrifying Brutality
Imperial, ideological and idiosyncratic usurpers have come and gone, with baffling swiftness and terrifying brutality. There was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which vanished, but left a lasting architectural and cultural imprint. It lost Lviv to the Russian Empire for nine months during the war, an interlude of occupation that saw the last Tsar, Nicholas II visit the city, but his empire was pushed back and then swept away, as were the Austrians by the end of the war. The first successor state, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, lasted all of three weeks. A sneeze mistaken for a hurricane at the time. Despite its brief tenure, it would have an afterlife of influence that would eventually be resurrected.

This still born republic was followed by two decades of another one, specifically the second Polish Republic. A golden age for the Poles, but like all golden ages, it is called such because worse, much worse followed. And that was the rule of the Soviet Union, two horrific years of purges and purgatories followed their occupation and incorporation of the city. Then the Germans arrived, an ill wind from the west and scattered the Soviets. They proceeded to blood spatter and scatter Lviv’s vibrant Jewish community with a whirlwind of holocaust. The Germans came and went, their blitzkrieg moving as fast in reverse as it had moved forward during invasion. In their wake, the Soviets came once again to purge and repurge in the name of Stalin. The Poles were moved out, more Ukrainians moved in. In barely the space of five years, Lviv had suffered four rulers, one ethnic group eradicated, another one expunged and a greatly oppressed one suddenly favored. This was history as whim, as caprice, with neither logic nor empathy.

The Soviets stayed for the next four and a half decades, a miracle of mediocrity, corruption and stasis. That must have seemed like a lifetime, but the clock was ticking away their time in power. The only difference is that in this case the clock moved much slower. Perhaps the clock had no hands, stolen like so much else from this charming city. Ukrainians finally put the hands back on the clock and reset the time in 1991. As it began to tick forward, the nation of Ukraine was finally born once, but not for all time. It was a false dawn. Progress slowed to a crawl, bogged down in a quagmire of corruption.

A Habit Of Breaking Hearts, Nations & Empires
The bog of corruption seemed to thicken as the years went by, but then it froze this past winter and the people found their footing. It started at Independence Square and the Maidan in far away Kiev, but the truth is that resistance never really ended in Lviv. It is in this border lands DNA. The most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine is just that, always and forever. It has said farewell to so many and so much. It has become a habitual heart breaker of political entities.

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week's fight for freedom

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week’s fight for freedom

It confidently declares independence and the rest of the world reacts with shock. Was a new nation being born? Was an old one being given new life? Lviv and the greater region just passed into its eighth political iteration in just a century’s time. At this point the wheel of history here is not so much turning, as it is spinning. Propelled forward by an unseen force, the will of a people who have decided to take hold of their future. Fate has had its way with Lviv over the last hundred years, well goodbye to all that. It is finally a city’s, a region’s, a people’s turn to have their way with fate.