Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

Svobody Strasse – Viennese Lviv: Ramparts, Promenades & Prospekts (Lviv: The History of One City Part 47)

In the late 18th century the nerve center of Lviv began to shift. Rynok Square which had once been the city’s commercial and cultural heart slowly lost its centrality to city life. The elegant baroque tenement houses that proscribed its boundaries were still just as beautiful as they had ever been, but the merchants and guilds that had called them home for centuries, exercising power from their immaculately adorned halls, could only watch helplessly as Austrian officials began to remake the city into a Habsburg one. Most of the city walls which had ringed the old town, segregating the haves from the have-nots, were torn down. Now the city’s expansion could radiate outward, the limits of Lviv (Lemberg to the Austrians) were seemingly limitless, the barriers to growth both physical and mercantile were disbanded. The city was administratively restructured into five districts. The insular, monopolistic special interests that had held the reins of power for so long were disbanded or fell under Imperial control in just a few years.

The Austrians had a new “enlightened” vision of what Lviv must become. This meant remaking the city in their image. Building projects would now be approved and administered by a centralized bureaucracy. A new center for the city would rise in the area that today is Prospekt Svobody. This area had formerly been used as a city garden and park like green space. Now it would become the chief rival to Rynok Square (Ploscha Rynok), a public space for a growing city, a place for the masses to socialize and speculate, a city that would reflect imperial ambitions. The reach of the Austrian empire would now be extended into the forlorn frontier of Europe.

Lviv's main promenade in 1853 - before the Poltva River was covered

Lviv’s main promenade in 1853 – before the Poltva River was covered

Promenading the Poltva
The main focal point for Lviv’s makeover was where the Poltva River ran adjacent to the western side of the city walls. In 1776, a scant four years after Austria took control of the city, these walls were torn down.  This area was known as the Hetman’s Ramparts, their destruction opened up new possibilities to expand the city. The ensuing rubble was used to fill in a large defensive embankment that had guarded the area near Saints Peter and Paul Garrison (former Jesuit) Church. This new beginning was not without its problems. The backfill used to fill the embankment proved to be highly unstable and prone to collapse. Such a major public thoroughfare demanded safety and stability. With characteristic Teutonic efficiency the Austrians managed to overcome this problem. Smooth, parallel streets were placed along the eastern and western banks of the Poltva. A promenade akin to the glacis in Vienna was constructed. It was given a thoroughly Austrian name, Karl Ludwig Strasse.  Lviv was being westernized, as the Austrians attempted to bring order and structure to what they saw as a quasi-Oriental outpost.

A series of arched bridges soon spanned the Poltva and poplar trees were planted to line the promenade. Lviv now had its own mini Ringstrasse, with it would come a sense of belonging to something greater than weary, downtrodden Galicia. This all sounds positively romantic. It is easy to imagine women in long, colorful dresses covered in floral patterns, strolling along the promenade twirling pastel parasols. While they walk arm and arm with their husbands dressed in their Sunday best suits, carrying brass tipped canes and sporting bowler hats. There was much of this, but the truth was also quite literally messy. The Poltva was fetid, teeming with sewage. The smell could be overwhelming and created a less than healthy environment.  Commercial businesses in the area were filled with speculators. Loan sharks and confidence men proliferated.

Postcard of the promenade in 1905 - present-day Prospekt Svobody

Postcard of the promenade in 1905 – present-day Prospekt Svobody

Falling Upward: Lviv Unlike Itself
Both the comforts and vices of modernity were on full display.  A new city was born as the center of economic and social gravity moved close to the banks of the Poltva. The promenade became the throbbing heart of what was fast becoming a modern city, one whose population would come to be measured in the hundreds of thousands. In 1871, one side of Karl Ludwig Strasse was renamed Hetmańska, in honor of the Polish Great Crown Hetman Stanislaw Jablonowski, while the other side retained its name. Near the end of the 19th century the Poltva would be covered. It was not so much a river anymore as a culvert. The initial reason for the siting of the city was now hidden by concrete. Nature, in the form of flower beds and several species of trees were added to the urban landscape. In one sense, the promenade was nature made over in man’s image. Grand buildings, such as the Skarbek Theater (Maria Zankovetska Theater) and the Museum of Industry (Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts), were constructed.

Lviv, as the administrative center for the quixotically named Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, was transformed into a showpiece for the Austrian provincial administration. Here was a vision of Habsburg grandeur that happily promoted imperial interests. This was a representation of industriousness with a human face, an imposition of the Habsburgs enlightened self-interest. Here is what the empire did for its citizens, now all they had to do was believe. On a more troubling note, the new center of Lviv could hopefully obscure the dire poverty and endemic hand to mouth subsistence that was the miserable lot for the overriding majority of the province’s citizens. A smoke and mirror substitute for broad prosperity.

Early 20th century photo of the main promenade in Lviv

Early 20th century photo of the main promenade in Lviv

Center Staged – Where The Heart Beats Strongest 
The destruction of the western side of the Old City Walls and that area’s successful conversion, from ramparts to a public promenade and commercial center, can be seen in the fact that in present day Lviv this is still the city’s heart. It is where locals and tourists intermingle. It is a place where pedestrian and automobile traffic competes most fiercely, thousands jostle each day for urban elbow room. It is a public space where the multitudes come to stroll, while just a stone’s throw away business and commerce carries on. It is the place where Lviv’s major protests have taken place on multiple occasions over the past 25 years, where its citizens have found the courage to confront the Soviet legacy. Prospekt Svobody today, like Karl Ludwig Strasse during the 19th century, is Lviv at its most modern and European, filled with energy and possibility, freedom and dynamism.

Suffering In The Service Of Money – Death & Luxury at Lviv’s Citadel Inn (Lviv: The Story of a City #12)

The first time I visited Lviv’s Citadel was by accident. This would never have happened if I had not become lost on a morning run. I had never been in Lviv before and had done no prior planning as to a running route. My accommodation, the Old City Hostel, was adjacent to Prospekt Svobody, the heavily trafficked boulevard in the city center. Leaving the hostel around 8:00 a.m. I headed out across the Prospekt, a mistake I would never make again. Both foot and auto traffic was heavy. The entire city seemed to be going to work or school. At several points I was reduced to running in place while crowds of annoyed and surprised pedestrians stared at me like I was crazy. They had a point. The sidewalks were packed, but crossing streets was even more dangerous. I dodged in and out of traffic, trying to look both ways before darting out into the road. After running for my life across several city blocks, the heavy foot traffic subsided, but the sidewalk narrowed. Close by I noticed some woods, perhaps this was a park. Unfortunately these woods covered a very steep hillside. I managed to make out a very rough path into the woods. It was steep and narrow. Normally I would avoid a trail that was in such poor condition, but I was desperate. The path headed up an incline of at least 30%.  Soon my legs were burning and I was gasping for air. At one point I nearly slid down the hillside, as the soft, sandy earth gave way. This was not going well.

One of the Citadel towers in Lviv

One of the towers that was part of the Citadel complex – first built by the Austrians in the mid-19th century to keep control of Lviv in the event of a mass uprising. The complex became a Nazi POW camp, Stalag 328, during World War II.

Running Up Against The Past – The Citadel: Towers of Death
Through the thick foliage I spied a very large structure at the top of this hill. Surely, the path had to go there. I broke through the undergrowth and found the trail went around the building, which was large and red. Making a complete circuit of the structure only took about a minute. The only other foot traffic was a man walking his dog. After a couple of laps I started to study the structure. Its shape and red brick exterior made me guess that it had been a part of some type of antiquated military structure. The area around was overgrown and unkempt. Whatever it was, the structure looked as though it had seen better days. Little did I know at the time that this building had once been a major part of a complex in Lviv known as the Citadel.

Later I would discover that the building had been the setting for some of World War II’s most murderous activity. 280,000 Prisoners of War, mostly Soviet, had been held in the four “towers” that made up the Citadel. Over 100,000 of these perished in the complex, mainly of starvation. During the war, the Citadel was officially known as Stalag 328. Of course, during my run I knew nothing of this history. The obscure, abandoned building was just an object to run laps around. When I learned of its wartime history I was stunned. Later I learned something even more disconcerting. Nearby was the “Second Maximillian Tower” also known as the “Tower of Death.”  This was where prisoners were interrogated and held before execution. It was in much better condition, not restored, but refurbished as the Citadel Inn, a luxury Five Star Hotel.

The Citadel Inn

The Citadel Inn – once known as the Tower of Death now a luxury Five Star Hotel in Lviv

The Past Reduced To A Price – Five Star Stalag
This past autumn I revisited the grounds of the Citadel, this time I was walking not running. I made my way through the woods, this time taking a much better kept path. The building I had done laps around was still there, looking much the same. It was still in rather poor condition. As I studied the structure, I could not shake the ominous feeling that came from the knowledge that so many people had died inside of it. The 100,000+ death toll still boggles my mind. It is equivalent to over half the United States servicemen killed in the entire European theater of operations during the war. The total number of those who were either starved to death or executed at Stalag 328 cannot be compared to the Western Front POW experience. What shook me further was the fact that with the majority dying of starvation, there is little doubt that cannibalism likely took place on the grounds.

Trying to come to terms with such brutality is one thing, but when set against the present reality of the Citadel Inn, it is unfathomable. The manicured grounds, the pristine parking facility filled with high dollar SUV’s and the picture perfect glass door entrance, were chilling. This was not history, but reality, with the past reduced to a price. The people who died and suffered within the Citadel’s Walls deserve better, Lviv’s citizens deserve better. I have been to many dreadful places in Central and Eastern Europe, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the KGB Prison in Vilnius, the ghost town of Pripyat close to Chernobyl and the House of Terror in Budapest to name but a few, but the Citadel Inn is by far the most unsettling. It does not try to make history right, it does not tell what happened inside those walls, it ignores an ungodly amount of human suffering all in the service of making money. Could there be anything further from the wartime history of this place? The answer to that question is unfortunately yes. The Citadel Inn’s website has the last word…for now:

“If you’re planning a vacation or business trip, the question of where to stay in Lviv has at last disappeared. In the heart of the city, at the luxury “Citadel Inn” Hotel & Resort, you will feel the homeliness and appreciate the superior quality of rest and relaxation at our fabulous 5-star hotel, which offers an unforgettable experience of comfort and service. Restaurants in Lviv reflect the hospitality of the locals – it’s not just simply a place to eat! Our panoramic restaurant “Garmata” will open the pages of high European and Ukrainian cuisine for you, with an amazing panorama of this Lemberg city.”

A lone eloquent memorial on the grounds of the Citadel

A lone eloquent memorial on the grounds of the Citadel

Lenin Leaves Lviv – From Beginning to Unending: Decommunization in Ukraine (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #5)

This past spring the Ukrainian Parliament passed four bills in an effort to decommunize the nation. On May 15th, President Petro Poroshenko signed these bills into law. They call for the removal of all communist era monuments in the country within six months. The bills were popular in the western and central parts of Ukraine while they were heavily criticized in the east. Due to the high percentage of ethnic Russians in the East and the fact that the Russian language is the region’s lingua franca, the attempt to move Ukraine away from its Soviet past and the symbolism that goes with it has been highly controversial.

Lenin statue in Donetsk, Ukraine

Worn out – a Lenin statue in Donetsk, Ukraine (Credit: Andrew Butko)

Excess Baggage – A Long & Bloody Shadow
An entire generation of pensioners looks back nostalgically on the Soviet era. They selectively recall that life was stable, people were taken care of, Ukraine was part of an empire and most importantly, Ukraine’s ethnic Russians were living under the protection of a Russian dominated polity. Most of these people lived during the latter decades of the Soviet Union, when the system was at its most ossified and stagnant. Strangely enough, these were some of the best days of Soviet rule in Ukraine. Such a statement exposes just how horrific Soviet communism was in its first three decades for Ukraine. A study done by the Institute of Demography in Moscow quantified the human catastrophe of Soviet rule in Ukraine. The Institute estimated that Ukraine suffered 7.5 million “excess deaths” due to the policies of the Soviet Union. By comparison, the much more well-publicized genocidal policies of the Nazis resulted in 6.5 million deaths.

Whereas Ukraine was thoroughly denazified in the immediate years after World War II – no matter what the Putin regime and its cronies might say – the decommunization of Ukraine only occurred in fits and starts following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mainly in the western part of the country. What does it actually mean to “decommunize” in Ukraine? It is an arduous historical, civic and public works process. The historical and civic parts generally consist of expert commissions vetting people and events from the Soviet era that had places named after them. The vetting is done to see if the people or event in question was associated with murderous or anti-Ukrainian policies. The same is done for statues, sculptures, memorials and buildings raised to publicly commemorate a person or event. Statues are often the most prominent public monuments to come under scrutiny.

Unveiling of Lenin statue in Lviv

Unveiling of Lenin statue in Lviv on January 20 1952 (Credit Central State Kinofotofono Archive after G.S. Pshenychny from

The Ghosts of Communism’s Past – Street Fights
The public works part of the process is most noticeable in the removal of monuments. Even more arduous, is the task of changing thousands of place names. The decisions on what to change and rename can often take months. This process, fraught with the politics of both present and past will be anything, but easy. In Ukraine these decisions have the potential to transform the way people not only memorialize the past, but whether or not the nation makes a decisive turn from the neo-Soviet ideas propagated by Russia’s current leadership and moves towards a more western orientation.

According to an article on the Radio Free Europe website, the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk will have a 46 person commission reviewing the names of “about 80 streets, embankments, squares, and boulevards…five of the city’s eight regions, and the name of the city itself” for possible renaming. While this is a daunting task, as mentioned earlier Ukraine has 7.5 million reasons to proceed with decommunization. Incredibly, this process seems to be just a continuation of one that started twenty six years ago in the heart of Lviv, which for good reason is known as “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.”

Bringing A Dictator Down – Lenin Leaves Lviv
Lviv’s Opera House stands at one end of Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Boulevard). This Austro-Hungarian era architectural wonder bookends the pulsing heart of Ukraine’s most Europeanized city. A large public space begins in front of the Opera House. This is an area where lovers embrace, old men spend entire afternoons in games of chess and heart shaped balloons are sold. In short, a place reserved for leisure and comfort. Near the beginning of this area, about 50 meters in front of the opera house stands a fountain. It was here from 1952 until 1990 that a fifty foot high statue of Vladimir Lenin stood. It was reputedly the only Lenin statue in Ukraine with his name written in the Ukrainian language. What this meant, was not that Lviv loved Lenin. On the contrary, western Ukrainians despised Lenin and the Soviet tyranny that placed a stranglehold on Ukrainian statehood.

The Lenin statue was imposed on Lviv just like communism was, from an unaccountable clique of Communist party bosses who had the blood of million on their hands. The charade came to an end on September 14, 1990 when over 50,000 Lvivians surrounded the space to watch as the statue was toppled and removed. It was a remarkable event that occurred over a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated. (Note: This was the second Lenin statue taken down in the Soviet Union. The first was toppled in Vilnius, Lithuania, by another nascent national movement that of the Lithuanians which had been suppressed by the Soviet Union after World War II.) This was just the beginning of a process that has been greatly accelerated by the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. Since the Maidan, over 500 Lenin statues have been taken down in Ukraine. And the end is nowhere in sight.

Lenin in oblivion

Lenin in oblivion – on the wrong side of history (Credit: Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed)

Taking A Stand – The Right & Wrong Sides of History
Lenin for the majority of Ukrainians is a symbol of oppression. Yet there are those who still revere what this man and these statues stood for. The fight to keep many of these up will continue. In the rebellious, anti-Maidan, pro-Russian region of Ukraine, the so called “Donetsk People’s Republic” a Lenin statue was actually restored. Lenin has long since ceased to be a man and more of a symbol, but what that symbol stands for: tyranny, mass murder and a failed ideology is what most Ukrainians have been standing against.