Facelifting Lviv – Where The Streets Had So Many Names (Lviv: The History of One City Part 52)

In 1991 Ukraine became an independent nation. For the first time ever in its long and conflicted history it had finally achieved statehood. Casting aside the yoke of foreign rule led to many changes in the nation, nowhere more so than in Lviv. Soviet symbols were quickly removed. Tourism became one of the major economic engines. The historic Old Town was renovated, along with several other areas in the city. The changes have accelerated since those heady days following the Soviet collapse. The Orange and Maiden Revolutions were acutely felt in the city as citizens spilled into the street, protesting for weeks on end to combat bad governance and corruption. Lviv gained a nickname, “the most Ukrainian city in Ukraine” due to its role as a major force in creating a national identity. One transformation brought about by Ukrainian statehood and that has surprisingly lasted has been street names. The fact that most of Lviv’s streets have kept the same name given them following Ukrainian statehood is characteristic of a degree of stability lacking in other areas of the nation, especially the East. It also just might signal the end of a centuries-long process – accelerated during the chaotic 20th century – where Lviv’s streets underwent a withering number of name changes.

Lviv directional signpost

All signs point to change – In Lviv the names have rarely stayed the same

War Changes Everything, Especially Street Names
It has been said that war is a great innovator. In the case of Lviv’s street names, war has been both a great degenerator and regenerator (portmanteau words). The degeneration occurred when street names were changed to reflect the heroes of Nazism and Stalinism. The regeneration took place as new names reflecting the dominant Ukrainian presence in the city came to grace the streets.  These name changes were far from the only ones. The situation regarding name changes has been fluid over the last couple of centuries as conquerors, whether by treaty or military force, occupied the city and proceeded to put their own superficial stamp on the city. Nowhere has this been as true as in heart of the city center.

Prospekt Svobody, the grandest boulevard in Lviv has undergone no less than 17 name changes over the past 200 years. Transliterated the current name means Liberty Avenue which seems appropriate since the boulevard was the setting for mass protests to liberate Ukraine from cronyism and corruption twice in the last twelve years. Yet for thirty-one years (1959 -1990) Prospekt Svobody was named Lenin Avenue, after a man who stood for the opposite of liberty. The same was certainly true of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator’s name was given to the boulevard for much of the German occupation of Lviv during World War II. The names of these blood soaked ideologues were added to the boulevard in due course as a symbolic reminder to Lvivians of the ideological force exercising control over the city. The first German names given to the boulevard following the invasion, Museumstrasse then Opernstrasse, were likely dropped because of their banality.

Name Calling – The Forgotten & The Famous
In prior decades the Polish presence in the city informed two martial names for the boulevard, first Hetmanska then Legionow. While both were serious and forceful names, they were much more ideologically moderate than the names of those tyrants that were to soon follow. The Habsburgs named the boulevard after a lesser light of the ruling family, a figure who today is all but overshadowed by his son. Archduke Karl Ludwig was once a name on the lips of every Lvivan who strolled along Karl Ludwig Strasse. He was the brother of Emperor Franz Josef and for a short time was part of the Galician provincial government that called Lviv home. If Karl Ludwig is remembered for anything today, it is as the father of Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination sparked the First World War.

Another famous street in Lviv has managed to have more name changes than Prospekt Svobody. Ivan Franko Street, including separate parts of it, has gone by no less than 28 names since the late 19th century. Today it is named for one of Ukraine’s most beloved sons. It is fitting that Franko, who was born in Galicia and spent part of his life in Lviv, ended up with one of the city’s most important streets named after him. Less known is the fact that Franko died lonely and impoverished in the city. Interestingly the street was named for him not after Ukrainian national independence, but following the Soviet reoccupation of the city in 1944. Franko was one of the few individuals considered a hero to both the Soviets and nationalistic Ukrainians. The Soviets recognized him for his promotion of socialism and worker’s rights. Ukrainians revere him today because he advocated for their rights, against the oppressive rule of aristocrats, capitalists and Polish elites. He received the honor of having the entire street named for him. This is unlikely to change.

Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv

One thing that has never changed – Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv (Credit: Yarema Dukh)

The Unchanged – A Place & A People
Speaking of street names unlikely to change, the endurance of Krakivska Street in the Old Town goes against the trend of name changes in Lviv. Despite the virulence of anti-Polish forces during World War II, culminating in the expulsion of ethnic Poles from the city in the war’s immediate aftermath, the street has maintained this name since the mid-15th century. In medieval times, the name denoted that this was the street which led to Krakow. The only changes to the name have been the various transliterations of it into the languages of the ruling authorities. Even the Germans called it Krakauerstrasse.

One other Old Town Street that has only experienced a bare minimum of changes is the short – both literally and physically – Ruska street, which extends from the southeast side of Rynok Square to Pidvalna Street. The name was first given in 1472. This was the main street going through the Ruthenian (a pre-20th century term for Ukrainians) section of the Old Town. There is poetic justice in the continual use of this name. It staying power is representative of the unbroken presence of the Rus’/Ruthenian/Ukrainian people throughout Lviv’s history and their ability to survive the changes both superficial and geo-political which have transformed the city. Though names, loyalties and identifications have constantly changed in Lviv, the Ukrainian people have always remained.

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.