Settling Affairs Past & Present – Lemberg 1914, Lviv 2014

In the early hours of a chill winter morning last December I made my way by taxi to the train station in Lviv, Ukraine. I was bleary eyed, with a dull headache from a restless night’s sleep. It is always this way when I have an early departure. In this case my train, headed non-stop towards Budapest, was to leave the station at 5:45 a.m. I could not miss this train since it was the lone non-stop express into Hungary that day. My taxi surged through empty streets. The city was in a deep sleep, with dawn still hours away. Arriving at the station, I exited the cab. My attention was suddenly taken by all the activity in and around the station. Glancing about, I noticed groups of soldiers in fatigues, walking slowly towards the station. They were toting packed duffel bags. These soldiers were headed to the Ukraine’s far eastern reaches, to the war zone of the Donbas.

Lviv's Famous Railway Station

Lviv’s Famous Railway Station – since 1991 the flag of Ukraine has flown atop its dome (Credit: Benhaburg)

The War At Home
The fact that these soldiers were disembarking from the most “Ukrainian city in the Ukraine” to points east should not have been that surprising. Here in the most nationalistic part of Ukraine soldiers were heading off to combat, fighting to save a distant part of their country. The war was on the other side of the country, but if a separatist onslaught was not stopped in the Donbas Region now, it might conceivably reach the doorsteps of Kiev or Lviv in due course. I looked at these men, wondering to myself, how many had seen combat before? Were they conscripts, professionals or volunteers? How many would come back alive? How could they look so calm and nonchalant? Surely they must have known the same things as I did.

The war against Russian backed separatists was a terrible mess. Ukrainian forces were barely holding on to Donetsk. Men were wounded or dying every day. I looked at these soldiers and thought will courage and luck be with them. They were stocky, well built, but otherwise regular men. I wanted to reach out and touch them. Just to see if they were real, because their presence made the war real for me. The war was suddenly no longer lines on a map, news stories from the Kyiv Post or International New York Times or grainy YouTube videos with muffled explosions and shouts of Slavic words. No these were real men, leaving a real place, heading off to a real war. I would travel back to Hungary on that day and a little later fly home. These soldiers might never come home. This could be the last time they would see their hometown. Here I was walking only a few yards apart from men who a month from now might no longer exist, be badly wounded or left with psychological scars for life. Suddenly the war felt very close.

Hours before dawn - the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

Hours before dawn – the Hours before dawn – the Lviv Railway Station on a cold December morning

A Russian Front – Unsettling Affairs
Lviv has a majestic, eclectically elegant domed train station. It is so grand and imperial that it is hard to believe that the building would ever have anything to do with war, especially in 21st century Europe. The station looks more like the type of place eternally waiting to greet the ghost of Franz Josef or some other important administrator, arriving to survey the far flung reaches of empires lost long ago. If such a dignitary were to have somehow traveled forward in time to that chilly December morning, they might not have been so shocked by the sight of soldiers at the station speaking in a Slavic tongue. After all, a century before exactly this same situation had occurred. There had even been an American witness. The only difference was that the soldiers were not Ukrainians going to fight Russians, but Russians occupying what was to eventually become part of Ukraine.

The surreal symmetry of this history came home to me when I stumbled across “Field Notes From The Russian Front” by Stanley Washburn, an American journalist working as a correspondent for the London Times on the Eastern Front during the First World War. One of the chapters deals with his experiences in Lemberg (as Lviv was then known). Following the Russian takeover of the city after the Austro-Hungarian retreat, Washburn arrives at the train station to find soldiers everywhere.  “We arrived at three in the morning. The great waiting-room was packed with sleeping soldiers, while the dim light revealed the various baggage-rooms crammed with scores of coated figures sleeping beside their stacked rifles. The first-class dining-room is a hospital, and filled to the doors with stretchers and cots on which the wounded are waiting to be transferred from one train to another, or else to be removed to one of the local hospitals in the town. From the second-class waiting-room all benches have been removed, and there only remains one big table, used for hurried operations that cannot be delayed. At every door and in every passage sentries stand with fixed bayonets.”

Obviously what I saw was very different from the scene Washburn witnessed. There were no sick or wounded. The Ukrainian soldiers were not occupying the station, they were leaving it. Yet the fact that the station was once again crowded with soldiers, shows that war still casts a long shadow over this region, as do Russian actions. The fact that men gathering at Lviv’s train station were heading off to face forces backed by Russia, shows that the Great War fought a century ago did not manage to settle, but rather unsettle affairs in Ukraine. If anything, the Battle of Galicia in 1914 inaugurated an era that threw the region into a chaotic upheaval which is still playing out today. Russian occupation was temporary at that time and later Soviet occupation lasted less than fifty years. The Russians see Ukraine as their backyard, but they are far from getting near Lviv or anywhere else in the western half of the country.

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914

Russian soldiers on the square in front of the Lviv Railway Station in 1914 (Credit: Ihor Kotlobulatov)

Turning Enemies Into Enemies
The Russian occupation of Galicia in 1914 was heavy handed. They managed to alienate a Ukrainian populace that spoke a relatively similar language. As Alexander Watson shows in Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I The People’s War, “The Tsarist army’s attempt to retake Galicia as a Russian land was a disaster. People who had once sympathized with the Tsar’s pan-Slavic aims were alienated by his army’s brutality and religious intolerance.”  A hundred years later, the Russians have managed once again to turn the overriding majority of ethnic Ukrainians against them. Russia sees Ukraine, even the western portion as part of its sphere of influence. Yet it is hard to see any Russia influence here that has not been a bad one. Not so long ago Galicia and Lemberg were crawling with Russian soldiers. Now that region and the city at its heart are sending soldiers to fight against Russia. There are parallels with the not so distant past here, but there are also irreconcilable differences. Ukrainian men were leaving their homes behind before dawn on a dark December day to try and settle such differences. I saw it for myself that chill winter morning.

Ukraine Is At War – Things You Do Not Want To Know About Eastern Europe (#2)

Every time I tell someone that I recently traveled to Ukraine they suddenly go quiet and look at me with raised eyebrows. In their facial expressions I can tell what they really want to say, “Are you crazy?” Before they say anything though, I mention that I was in Lviv, that sparkling cultural and economic capital of the western Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the eastern Ukraine. I tell them that Lviv is in the “European” part of Ukraine. Of course, they have little idea of what that actually means. “European” in the context of Ukraine is code for a safe and civilized part of the country. The truth is that despite bad governance, endemic corruption and a reputation for lawlessness, for the traveler almost anywhere in Ukraine with the exception of the Donbas region is really safe, much safer than almost any American inner city.

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

Lviv (& Ukraine) Looks West – War Comes To The East
For those who have traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, they know that the city of Lviv is the epicenter of both Ukrainian nationalism and support for joining the European Union. These two ideas, on the face of it would seem to be incompatible. After all, nationalism is usually aligned with a yearning for sovereignty. Ukraine is already a sovereign nation and wants to keep it that way vis-a vis-Russia. For many years, the majority of Ukrainians in the western portion of the nation have favored joining the European Union. They would gladly give up a bit of sovereignty in the hopes of prosperity and security. Following the Russian takeover of Crimea and their continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine it is hardly surprising that the central portion of the country, especially the capital of Kiev also views the EU with favor. The European Union gives Ukraine the best opportunity for collective security. They cannot hope to defeat the nuclear arms wielding Russian military forces in a straight up one on one contest, but association (or membership) with the European Union would provide them a counterweight which might keep the Russian bear at bay.

Presently though, Ukraine is at war. It is a war between west and east, between western values and Putinism and most tragically between fellow Ukrainians whatever their ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. It can be called a border war, a guerilla war, a rebel war or Putin’s war, but Ukraine is at war with itself and also with Russia. There are those who will say that Ukraine is really at war with the Donetsk People’s Republic. At times over the past year that has been true, but this past summer when the “People’s Republic” was left to fight alone, the Ukrainian armed forces pushed them back. If not for Russian support the rebellion would most likely have been snuffed out and the whole sordid conflict ended. Tragically, the opposite has occurred. The war looks to continue and may well escalate. Slowly, the European Union, the United States and the popular media have come to recognize that this is a war. It is difficult to get specific figures for the casualty totals, but estimates now are given of over 5,000 people killed with many more wounded. The fighting continues to escalate with no end in sight.

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

Signs of Life, Signs of War – States of Tension
What does traveling in Ukraine while is at war mean for the traveler? A state of limbo is pretty much what I saw and felt in Lviv this past December. The war is there and it is not there. On one hand, there were men in combat fatigues at the train station getting ready for deployment to the war zone. On the other hand, people were still going to work, shops were open and there was even a Christmas market in the city center. Of course what else are people going to do? They have to go on working and living. Day to day life only stops during a modern war when the shelling and shooting comes to the front door. For Lviv the war is still hundreds of kilometers away.  Nonetheless, there are many signs of war in the city. They include pictures of Vladimir Putin with a Hitler moustache, a young lady asking for donations to support Ukrainian soldiers and memorial wreaths in the color of the Ukrainian flag laid at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in the city center. A man with no legs holds a cup to collect coins from passersby only a stone’s throw away from the famed Opera House. Was he a wounded war veteran or an invalid? Makeshift memorials have cropped up at the Lychakivkse Cemetery honoring those native sons of Lviv, many of them volunteers, killed fighting in the Donbas.

Then there are signs that the war is also felt on a much more personal level. I saw long lines in many of the banks, with none of the customers looking happy. More than once I noticed people feeding Euros into machines at banks, trusting their deposits to a machine rather than a human. There was always a husband or wife, friend or relative standing very close to them while they did this. Perhaps they were being guarded not so much from their fellow citizens, but from bank employees. The banks are running exceedingly low on Euros and dollars. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvna, has plummeted as the war in the east drags on. There is also a weird sense of strained normalcy that is just as disconcerting. A nation is at war, the people are struggling and the traveler is perfectly fine. The city and nation can use the income from tourism, thus they put their best foot forward. The citizens are helpful and pleasant. The hotels and restaurants are extremely cheap by western standards, but what kind of traveler wants to benefit from a nation’s misery?  A strange feeling of quiet guilt consumed me while I was there.

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

Life & Death In Lviv
This was the situation I experienced in relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan Lviv. It made me wonder what it must be like further to the east, closer to the war zone. The signs of war in Eastern Ukraine must be more visceral and violent. Nonetheless in Lviv the war is leaving its own scars. The bodies are being brought back home, volunteers for the army keep heading to the train station, the war continues. Who knows where and when it will end? Life and death go on. An entire city is in a state of perpetual tension, waiting for something horrible, miraculous or matter of fact to happen.