Sunday, 2 December 2012

Lviv and its mixed heritage

There’s something peculiar about Lviv. I sensed it from the time I entered the town. It almost felt as if for good measure, Cyrillic alphabets had been stuck onto the board of a building which houses a McDonald’s restaurant along Shevchenko Prospekt, where my hostel is located. A walk around the city over the 4 days I spent there returned me to Poland, Austria, and to a much lesser extent, Kyiv. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Lviv felt less Ukrainian, or even Russian, than Kyiv. It almost seemed as if I had slipped into some other territory without passing through immigration.

Take the city’s historic heart for example. This part of Lviv survived the bombings of the Second World War and the ensuing occupations by the Nazis and Soviets. It has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The many arteries reveal several architectural styles that embellish Lviv. Neglect has however raised concerns, as I found out at an outdoor exhibition. Having read the detailed text and walked around the smaller alleys I came face to face with a city whose facades have grown wrinkly, windows peeled, and courtyards pimpled by loose stones. But awareness is growing and the people are making the effort to reverse this trend.

Before I reached Lviv, I was told that the town is a bite-sized version of Krakow in Poland. This should not come as a surprise, considering Lviv breathed Polish air for much of its history up till the mid-1940s. A stroll in the Lychakiv Cemetery confirms this, as one would find many Polish graves (on a related note, this cemetery is part of the tourist trail and is worth your while if you have time to spare). In the early 1940s, Lviv, which is also known as Lwów in Polish, fell under Nazi control. In 1944 it was captured by the Soviet Red Army. Subsequently, it was subsumed into Ukraine following the Yalta Conference. Poles living in Lviv were relocated, and Lviv was populated by Ukrainians with a Russian minority.  

It is little wonder then that pro-Ukrainian sentiments are the strongest in this part of the country. But this doesn’t mean to say that Lviv has totally shed its Soviet past. Look around and you will find Ladas plying the roads; hidden in some small street on the outskirt of the centre is that Stalinist building; there on another street you find a Soviet-style cafe (e.g. Kabinet Cafe) – perhaps for the tourists, or simply the nostalgic. Yet another reminder of the Soviet past is the absence of some houses on Chornomorska Street. In 1956, as Soviet tanks rumbled through the area, several houses came tumbling down. That space is now a playground.

Nevertheless, while Kyiv seems to turn east towards Moscow, Lviv prefers to assert its own identity and, if at all, lean West. The city claims to be the least Soviet in Ukraine, and its cafe culture is but one testament of its Central European credentials. I had firsthand experience in the form of the Lviv Coffee Festival. It was perhaps the highest form of tribute I have witnessed to a beverage that courses through tens of millions of veins every morning and indeed throughout the day. But how did coffee become synonymous with Lviv? Some say it was during its time under the Habsburg Empire that coffee made its debut in Lviv. Other sources say that it was in fact a son of Lviv who opened one of the first coffeehouses in Europe, even if his version of the drink was referred to as ‘coffee, Vienna style’ (with sugar and milk).

As I was winding up my visit to the city, I met a fellow tourist who arrived from Kyiv: a Russian from the city of St Petersburg who was visiting for the weekend. Several times he lamented the fact that the people refused to speak Russian even though they probably could. ‘They’re different from the Ukrainians in Kyiv’, he swore, ’they won’t even speak English!’ I listened and took his observation into account. My own experience suggested otherwise, because the Ukrainians were more than happy to accommodate an outsider (except Russians, perhaps?). Still, I couldn’t understand why the Ukrainians should be speaking anything other than their own mother tongue. I read somewhere that the Cold War ended over 20 years ago...

p/s I'd like to add that the entire Rus (including a much younger Moscow) originated from Kyiv. This is in relation to my point that Kyiv seems to look east to Moscow -- which refers to the Cold War/post-Cold War era.