Love In Lviv & Lithuania: From First To Last Sight – The Romance of King Wladyslaw IV & Mistress Jadwiska (Lviv: The History of One City Part 25)

Change, it seems like it will never come and then suddenly it arrives all at once. It is a cliché that life can change in a matter of moments, but improbably it happens. After the change occurs, it becomes hard to imagine what life was like before then. That brings us to a famous Eastern European love story, a romance that involved a monumental change in circumstances for one young lady. A break with her past that set her and her exalted lover on a star crossed course. On a spring day in 1648 at Merkine Castle in the woods of southern Lithuania, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Wladyslaw IV Vasa was clinging to life. He was suffering from kidney stones and a dose of medication had made the problem much worse.  At his bedside was his longtime mistress Jadwiszka.  The King was dying and a romantic dream was going to die with him. When Wladyslaw finally succumbed after several days of suffering, his life and legacy moved into history. Jadwiszka lived on, but after her lover’s death she disappeared from the scene. What happened to her next is left to the imagination, but the romantic dream she had lived with King Wladyslaw would live on forever in the heart of a city 600 kilometers (372 miles) to the south, that city was Lviv, the hometown of Jadwiszka.

House at 30 Rynok Square

House at 30 Rynok Square – where Jadwiszka Luszkowska looked at King Wladyslaw for the first time (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

A Conquest Of Love
In 1634, during the second year of his reign, King Wladyslaw IV visited Lwow (Polish name for Lviv). The city, one of the most important and prosperous in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was a hub for East-West trade. The King and his entourage made their way straight to the city’s commercial heart, Rynok Square. As Wladyslaw strode past the houses and mansions which lined the square a woman caught his eye. Looking out from one of the windows of the house at 30 Rynok Square was a beautiful young lady. She, like so many others that day, was paying her respects to the monarch. Her beauty immediately grabbed the King’s attention and possessed him. Wladyslaw was enraptured from the moment he laid his eyes on her. The lady was Jadwiszka Luszkowska, the daughter of an impoverished merchant. They fell deeply in love. That first glance spawned an unlikely romance. It upended Jadwiszka’s formerly mundane life. As for the King, she not only melted his heart, but also sent the royal court around him into an uproar.

King Wladyslaw IV Vas

A Love Supreme – King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Paul Peter Rubens)

The king’s courtiers attempted to cure him of love sickness. The powers that be in the Roman Catholic Church sprinkled Holy Water upon him to no avail. The archbishops believed that Jadwiszka might hold supernatural powers. She did not possess any otherworldly powers, but she did cast a spell, one known as love. The would-be lovers were from different classes and backgrounds. Jadwiszka was seen as inferior to Wladyslaw. How could the King stoop to such a level? This just goes to show that the churchmen and courtiers did not understand the power of passion and an all-consuming love. Nevertheless, they were able to ensure that Wladyslaw did not marry Jadwiszka. The court arranged a traditional marriage of royalty, whereby the King wed Archduchess Cecilia Renata of Austria. The archduchess was pious, polite and a woman who treated those around her as equals. What she was not known for…her looks. Portraits from the time show the Archduchess sporting an outsized chin. The marriage was a political one, done to keep the royal blood pure and Wladyslaw under control. There was still the problem of what to do with Jadwiszka.

Archduchess Cecillia Renata of Austria

Archduchess Cecillia Renata of Austria – first wife of King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Peter Danckerts de Rij)

Of Romantic Affairs  – Arranged Marriages & the  Madness of Love
Cecilia Renata, with help from the King’s courtiers, arranged for a marriage between Jadwiszka and the Lithuanian nobleman, John Wypyski. She moved with him to a large landed estate in the beautiful Trakai area of Lithuania which he had received from the court as a gift for the marriage. This estate, a hunter’s paradise, was then frequented by Wladyslaw who went to spend time with Jadwiszka there on numerous occasions. As for the King’s arranged marriage, Cecillia bore him three children, none of which lived past the age of seven. The last one was stillborn, with the Archduchess dying of an infection a day after labor. The King was said to have taken the loss very hard, but it did not keep him away from his beloved Jadwiszka, even after he married again. Wladyslaw’s second marriage was to a French Princess Marie Louise Gonzaga, a lady who would achieve a rare feat, marrying not one but two Polish Kings (after Wladyslaw’s death she would marry his brother John Casimir II). Marie Louise was not exactly a beauty queen. In Justus Van Egmont’s contemporary portrait of her, she has a second chin and arms that look about the size of her shoulders. This was also a political marriage, conjured up by French royalty to inflict grievous harm to the alliance between the Austrian Habsburgs and Poland.  Marie Louise bore Wladyslaw no children. The King would not take political advice from her. He was a man known to follow his own course stubbornly, no matter the outcome. Of course he continued seeing Jadwiszka.

Marie Louise Gonzaga

Marie Louise Gonzaga – second wife of King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Justus van Egmont)

Much is known about the political affairs of Wladyslaw, but hardly anything is known about his private world with Jadwiszka. She was probably the closest anyone ever came to being his true soul mate. Perhaps her beauty, romance and grace eroded his legendary stubbornness. He was known to be self-centered and vain. This is not surprising since men who are in love with themselves often fall under the spell of beautiful women (unfortunately no pictures exist of Jadwiszka).  Maybe Jadwiszka acted as a reflection of his vanity. No one can say for sure. The only thing certain is that from the first time their eyes met that day in Rynok Square in Lviv, a fourteen year whirlwind of romance ensued. Fourteen years is a long time, but not long enough for those who are madly in love, yet unable to be together for extended periods. The periods of absence from each other may have served to further stoke the fires of passion or remind them how improbable their romance actually was. The fact that they were unable to be together on a consistent basis likely made them savor their intimate moments even more. In this case, absence made hearts grow closer.

Merkine mound in southern Lithuania

Merkine mound in southern Lithuania -site of the castle where King Wladyslaw IV Vasa died (Credit: Arz)

Love At Last Sight – To End As The Beginning
It is said that in the days prior to his death Wladyslaw was coherent. This gave him time to set his affairs in order. He would have had much to ponder regarding the royal line of succession and what would happen to his policies, peoples, castles and lands. All of this was of importance, as it pertains to the realm of high politics, but what about the realm of the romantic heart. This realm was where the King and Jadwiszka had lived together, away from the courtiers, arranged marriages and intrigues, away from all the whispering campaigns tried in vain to thwart their relationship. They had been able to overcome all of the petty political obstacles because theirs was a true, lasting romance.  This was the kind of love that changes a man and a woman irreparably, to the point where they cannot imagine the world before they knew one another or without each other. A romance that makes a clean break with the past and in the process creates a reality unto itself. This was not the story of a fairy tale. It was the story of two people destined to be together, to begin the wedding of their hearts at the very heart of a great city. And to end in a castle amid the woods of Lithuania, with the dying King looking at his beloved mistress for the last time, just like the first time in Lviv when the King saw that beautiful young woman looking at him.

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.

Poland’s Man of Many Nations – Adam Mickiewicz: A Life On the Periphery

If Adam Mickiewicz could be transported to the present, the famous Polish poet would be perplexed by the Poland that exists today. On one hand, he would almost certainly find it immensely gratifying to discover that a Polish state had been reconstituted and the late 18th century partitions which had splintered the Poles into three states under foreign domination were a thing of the past. A contiguous Polish state dominated by Poles is now thriving in East-Central Europe. Conversely, he would be shocked to learn that the region he had grown up in had been excluded from the modern nation of Poland. He would have been just as surprised to learn that the Lithuania he was born into was not only excluded from Poland, but also Lithuania. And Lithuania as it exists today has only a small minority of ethnic Poles. Just as bizarre, Mickiewicz would find that he is considered the national poet of not one, but three nations, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. The latter, something of an afterthought in Mickiewicz’s life, now is home to his birthplace. These complexities are actually not quite as quixotic as they might at first appear. Actually Mickiewicz’s geographic existence was contradictory as well. For a man who loved Poland, who wrote some of it most famous literary works, who was a Polish nationalist through and through, he spent remarkably little time in the Poland that exists today.

Adam Mickiewicz birthplace

Zaosie – Artistic rendering of Adam Mickiewicz birthplace

A Man Of Multiple Cultures
Adam Mickiewicz was born on Christmas Eve 1798 in Russian Poland, an area that only a few years before had been in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This area had long been associated more with Lithuania than Poland, though it continued to be claimed by both right up until the Second World War. Today it is quite a different story. A reconstruction of the home Mickiewicz grew up in can now be found in Zaosie, near the small city of Navahrudak in western Belarus. Yet Mickiewicz was certainly not Belarussian and his life was dedicated to opposing Russian rule in his homeland. With all of these competing identities, the question of Mickiewicz’s ethnicity is one that has been posed by historians and defies easy categorization. Modern claims often impose today’s prevailing beliefs on identity. These beliefs are based around nationality. Such ideas did not apply during Mickiewicz’s lifetime. To complicate matters, he grew up in a frontier area, on the periphery of Poland, Lithuania and Russia. This was a multi-cultural land. The great poet’s background reflected that.

Mickiewicz came from a family of poor Polish gentry. His forebears may well have been ethnic Lithuanians who had been Polonized. His language of choice was Polish, but he was also fluent in Lithuanian. It seems that when it comes to the life of Mickiewicz, Poland and Lithuania are somewhat synonymous. It is probably best to say that he identified as Polish, but came from Lithuania. An example of this can be found at the beginning of his epic national poem Pan Tadeusz which was written in Polish, but the first line of which states, “Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health.” The full Polish title of the work, Adam Mickiewicz, czyli ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historia szlachecka z roku 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu księgach wierszem (Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman’s Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse) also refers to Lithuania.

Mickiewicz monument in Minsk, Belarus

Man of many nations – Mickiewicz monument in Minsk, Belarus (Credit: Zedlik)

Everywhere But Home – Paris Is Not Poland
The mystery of Mickiewicz’s identity does not stop there. Some historians state that he was also partly Jewish, coming from his mother’s side of the family. Others argue the opposite. One thing is for certain, different groups dominated Mickiewicz’s home region in distinct ways. The Poles and Polonized Lithuanians as landed gentry, Belarusians as the peasantry, the Jews town life and the Russian state administratively. Due to decades in exile, Mickiewicz spent the majority of his life away from his beloved homeland. And it was not just Russian Poland that he was estranged from. In truth, he spent an astonishingly small amount of time in what his today Poland. His longest sojourn was several months in the Prussian ruled part of western Poland, in the city of Poznan starting in the latter part of 1831. The historic capital of Poland, where one of his most famous statues stands today and his remains are interred, Krakow, was terra incognita to Mickiewicz.

In 1848, the year that Europe blew up in Revolution, he was offered a position to teach at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, but the offer was withdrawn under pressure from Galicia’s Austrian administrators because of Mickiewicz’s credentials as a fervent Polish nationalist. The latter half of Mickiewicz’s life was spent mostly in Parisian exile. This was where he would find a home teaching and writing. He became involved in helping lead the large Polish émigré community in the city. Paris may have been a home, but it was not a homeland. It was in his long and unsuccessful efforts on behalf of Polish independence that Mickiewicz was carried to his last, improbable port of call. In 1855 he sailed in the early autumn to Constantinople, where he would spend the next several months trying to organize Polish military forces to fight under the Ottoman Turks in the Crimean War against Russia.

Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Warsaw

Home Is Where The Heart Is – Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Warsaw

Life & Death On The Fringes Of Europe
Mickiewicz’s lifelong opposition to the Russians brought him to the very edge of Europe. Where East and West converged, Mickiewicz lived out his final days. Constantinople was a long way from Poland, but so was Paris. After only a few months, he contracted cholera. He died soon thereafter, just a few weeks before his fifty-seventh birthday. Sadly, over the final twenty three years of his life Mickiewicz was unable to set foot back in his beloved Poland. That was what he most longed for, but history decided otherwise. His was a life spent on the periphery, the defining characteristic of his geographic existence. As for his identity, it was definitely Polish, but greatly influenced by a Lithuanian homeland, in addition to Belarusian and Jewish neighbors. Mickiewicz was a man bred from multiple cultures. Perhaps that is why his words and deeds still speak to so many across the ages.

Greatness That Cannot Be Ignored – The Potocki Palace: Lviv’s Grandest Residence

A jarring spectacle awaits those unsuspecting pedestrians strolling along Kopernyka Street in Lviv. Past the first floor shops and multi-storied apartment buildings piled one atop another there suddenly appears a fence of forged iron. Behind this stands the Potocki Palace. Here, set back rather incongruously, looks to be a bit of fin de siècle France. A feeling of the surreal pervades its placement on what seems to be the wrong street, in the wrong city, lost amid the wrong nation. It is a sight of fantastical surprise. Much of its magnificence stems from its unexpectedness. For all the wrong reasons the Potocki Palace is so incomprehensibly right.

The way to Potocki Palace is totally deceptive (Credit: Lidiya Vezdenko)

The way to Potocki Palace is totally deceptive (Credit: Lidiya Vezdenko)

A Palace To Match The Potocki’s
A palace in Louis XVI style on a side street off the main boulevard in Lviv, Ukraine, can it be real? How did it end up there, by incident or accident? Was it the product of pretentious gilded wealth?  All of these questions come to mind because of what the Potocki Palace is and who built it. The palace consists of three stories and three halls, a Beaux Arts, late 19th century masterpiece. It seamlessly integrates classical, renaissance and baroque elements. It brings to mind a manor house gone mad with grandeur. The French stylistic influence is apparent, as it should be since it was first designed by a Frenchman then adapted by a local Polish architect. The interior contains marble fireplaces and ornate mirrors. It contains several colored rooms, including Blue and Red ones, where the walls at one time were covered in silks of the same color. There was a hall covered in mirrors, a touch of Versailles in what was to become and still is today Lviv’s most magnificent palace. Designed for meetings and official receptions, during the winter it hosted grand balls and banquets. Social gatherings warded off the depressing effects of dark, cold Eastern European winters. The Potocki Palace was the place to wine and dine Galicia’s glitterati. It was also a direct reflection of the family that it was named after. The Potocki’s were among the wealthiest aristocratic families in not only Galicia, but all of Austria-Hungary. They were rivals to all but the Habsburgs in fame, glamour and wealth.

Potocki Palace in Lviv

Amid a sea of urbanity stands the Potocki Palace in Lviv (Credit: Andrey Okhrimets)

The Potocki’s were an ancient and noble Polish aristocratic family. Their lineage stretched all the way back to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Through the centuries they managed to acquire vast tracts of land and titles of nobility. They parlayed positions as military leaders and statesmen into political power in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Following the Austrian takeover of Galicia in the Polish partition of 1772 the Potocki’s managed to insinuate themselves into the good graces of the Habsburgs with their loyalty. Through this strategy they became perhaps the most powerful of the Polish elites in Austria’s far eastern frontier. This was a mutually beneficial strategy, as the Habsburgs were not interested in pouring resources into the province, but rather extracting them. The Potocki’s were more than glad to assist them if it solidified their own exalted status. The land and structural holdings of the Potocki family were vast in the extreme. As late as the first half of the 20th century they held approximately 25% of the entire land area of Galicia. They owned at least forty chateaux, manor houses and palaces scattered across the province. Among these holdings were a mid-19th century hunting homestead on the edge of Lwow (Polish name for Lviv). It was owned by Count Alfred Wojciech Potocki, a politician and entrepreneurial businessman who had started sugar production and textile manufacturing businesses. He was intimately involved in political affairs as a member of the Galician provincial parliament and the Austrian Empire’s House of Lords. His political interests meant that he spent a good deal of time in Lwow. The count decided to have his hunting lodge pulled down. In its place, he envisioned the construction of a grand palace that would play host to dignitaries and officials from across the empire. This was the genesis of the Potocki Palace.

Potocki Palace in Lviv

Potocki Palace in Lviv contains the Lviv Picture Gallery

Marriages of Inconvenience
Unfortunately, Alfred Wojciech, would die a generation before its completion. His son, Alfred Jozef, would inherit the project. Alfred Jozef was more politically accomplished than his father. At one point, he attained the position of Minister-President of Cisleithania, which was the head of government for the Austrian administered portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At other times he held positions as Minister of Defense and for Agriculture. Due to his stature, it was little surprise that when Emperor Franz Josef toured Galicia in 1880 that a reception was held for him at Alfred Jozef’s newly completed palace. It was at this reception that Alfred Jozef’s wife, Maria Klementyna famously refused to stand when the Emperor entered the palace at an official reception. Maria also came from the elite of Polish aristocracy, from the Sanguszko family. She was a Polish patriot through and through, having little use for Austrian rule over what she felt were ancestral Polish lands. The Emperor ignored the slight. Everything else with his visit to the palace went smoothly. This visit inaugurated an era where the Potocki Palace took its rightful place as the preeminent official meeting place and residence in the city. This status largely continued right up until the outbreak of the Second World War. Of course, the war performed a radical transformation on Galician society

Following the imposition of Soviet rule, the Palace’s surroundings underwent radical change. Much of the adjacent parkland was developed into apartment blocks. The urban environment of the city encroached on both sides of the palace facing Kopernyka Street. Only at the front, where it was set back from the street, could those glimpsing through its magisterial gates perceive the depth which had originally been part of the design. This had been done to make the structure look like it was part of a park like setting. Such visual designs were now a thing of the past, as was the Potocki family in Galicia. The family’s surviving denizens had fled into western European exile. The role of the palace changed from the mid-20th century onward as it went through several iterations. Sovietization was imposed with characteristic thoughtlessness. Only a group of mind numbing Soviet bureaucrats could create such a name as the Institute of Geology of Mineral Resources of Academy of Science Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Fourteen words, ten that were polysyllabic and four of’s, added up to one long title that was quite a mouthful of banality. Nonetheless, this was one of several Cold War era titles and uses for the palace. It also gives an idea to the fall in prestige for this brilliant architectural creation. Later and much more appropriate, the Palace became a Civil Registry office for weddings. Marriages were finalized inside its grand halls. This was a bit of unintended aesthetic symmetry, since the palace’s exterior does seem to have a festive air about it. Wedding ceremonies still occur on-site today.

Potocki Palace in the winter

A Palace for all seasons – Potocki Palace in the winter (Credit: Mykhaylo Kozelko)

A Palace’s Past Present
After the nation of Ukraine formed in 1991, the palace was co-opted for use as a presidential residence. It can now be visited for those wanting to view the interior which contains the Lviv Picture Gallery of the European Art Museum. In a sense, the Potocki Palace has come full circle. Its walls are now home to magnificent works of art just as they were at its inception. The artwork is a good match for the scale and grandeur of the structure. The original intent of the palace as a magnificent home for meetings, banquets and balls has also been reestablished. The Potocki Palace is a brilliant piece of the past surrounded by the present. A jaw dropping step stopper on a side street, it stands today as Lviv’s palatial pièce de résistance.

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Visions of Greatness, Delusions of Grandeur – Eastern Europe: Too Much History

For the Romanians it is ancient Dacia, for the Czechs it is the Kingdom of Bohemia, for the Slovaks it is the centuries long fight for independence, for the Poles it is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for the Hungarians it is Saint Stephen and the Arpad Dynasty. For the Serbs, it is the Serbian Empire, for the Croats, it is the Kingdom of Croatia and so it goes on. Each one of these peoples had a period of greatness that they can look back on with adoration. Even if it was hundreds of years ago, in a world much different than the present, that scarcely matters. What really matters is that once they were the rulers rather than the ruled. In Eastern Europe, it seems every nation enjoyed a long ago day in the sun.

Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

A Great Place To Start?- Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

The Past Isn’t What it Used To Be
In an essay titled Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Istvan Deak states the following: “Public fascination with national history, especially with a faraway often mythical, past as a guide to future action is hardly a Hungarian monopoly! Rather, such fascination is common to East Central Europe as a whole. Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs have had little choice but to find inspiration and consolation in visions of past greatness when faced with the miseries and powerlessness of the present.”

Dealing with the challenges of the present often is easier for an Eastern European when they can recall a historical past where their people were on top. It is as though, if it happened once, it could certainly happen again. It is the possible dream. A glorious period deep in the past allows for optimism, even if the future is filled with uncertainty or gloom. I once asked a Hungarian about what would happen if one side or the other won the next election, their reply was revealing, “well whatever comes, we all know it won’t be good.” That was a statement informed by history. I can’t imagine my opinion would be any different if my nation had suffered through a 20th century like Hungary’s. Or for that matter, had been overrun by the Mongols, occupied by the Turks for a century and a half, and then followed by another century and a half of Habsburg absolutism. This same Hungarian talked of Saint Stephen, a man who lived over 1,100 years ago, as though he had just left the building.

Tomek Jankowski writes in his recently released Eastern Europe: Everything You Need To Know About The History (And More) Of A Region That Shaped Our World And Still Does: “The past for Eastern Europeans is not restricted to dry, dusty books on shelves that only a few socially maladjusted nerds read; the past is a living part of life for Eastern Europeans, and their discussions about the present are often clothed in language of the past.” Jankowski quotes historian Lonnie R. Johnson who says: “Some of the problems Central Europeans have with themselves and with one another are related to the fact that their history haunts them.”

The former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain – the former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain
The final part of that last sentence, “their history haunts them” is an eloquent critique on the presence of the past in the psyches of Eastern Europeans. The ghosts of empires, wars and revolutions past exists somewhere in that nebulous space between reality and imagination. This is in contrast with how the past is viewed by western Europeans. In the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany, the past is to be respected, but the present is still pretty good and the future just might be better. It is as though an invisible iron curtain still divides Western and Eastern Europe. In the west they look forward, in the east they look backward.

Quite obviously, none of these countries are glorifying the present or recognizing it as a golden age, despite the fact that Eastern Europeans are freer than at any time in their history. Even Ukrainians, who just ousted the oppressively corrupt Yanukovych regime, at present, enjoy freedom of movement, relative freedom of the press and a degree of civil rights unprecedented in their long and contentious history.

Lest They Forget
Is it really possible for a people to have too much history? It is not so much the quantity of historical events as it is the depth to which these events have skewed the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. In Bulgaria, time and again I heard the phrase, “five hundred years of slavery” in reference to the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The people I heard this from, were not historians or geriatric wanna be khans, they were students working the front desk at hostels or leading the free city tour in Sofia. Their average age could not have been more than twenty-two. Yet they spoke of the dreaded Turk as though he had just been run out of the country last week.

But the past in Eastern Europe is not just about what is remembered, it is also about omission, about what is forgotten. In western Ukraine, there is the wonderful mittel European city, par excellence, Lviv. It is identified by the catchy phrase, “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.” This conveniently ignores the fact that it was majority Polish right up until the Second World War. Polish Lwow is ancient history. In Kosice, Slovakia there is the beautiful old town which was the main reason the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is packed with buildings that were the handiwork of the Hungarian bourgeois and German burghers who respectively called the city Kassa or Kaschau. This is supposed to be Slovakia? It’s quite the trick to fool the tourist; it’s quite the feat for the Slovaks to fool themselves. Lest they forget!

Forgetting and remembering, it’s all about the past in Eastern Europe. The past really is a different country in Eastern Europe, it bears little resemblance to the present and for that reason it is all the more appealing.