Lviv, Lvaugh, Lvove: A Ukraine Dispatch
by Eugene Ipavec
“There was room enough there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough there to bury five millions of lives.”
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
There are several different reasons to visit a country in turmoil, with an associated spectrum of moral valences. The shadiest is no doubt disaster tourism ("plightseeing"), basically rubbernecking at freeway carnage but on a grander scale. But sociopaths are a small minority of the people who venture into a hot zone, most of whom do so for entirely legitimate reasons. The mundane clockwork of everyday life does not halt in an international crisis; family may still need visiting; business may still need transacting. There are also ambassadors of noble causes: aid workers, diplomats, humanitarian NGOs. The reason can even be blandly amoral; thirty years ago, during the bloody unraveling of Yugoslavia, I had the very surreal childhood experience of spending family vacations on the suddenly ghosted Adriatic coast, with the distant rumble of artillery audible on warm summer nights.
None of those reasons are mine. I like the Ukraine. I visited Kyiv briefly four years ago, as part of an ill-advised multi-country whirlwind tour. I'd always hoped to come back sometime and see it in greater depth. Like many people I was infuriated by the Russian invasion, as close to an act of pure evil on the geopolitical scale as the world has seen in the last decade: murder in the service of theft, without even the fig leaf of lies. After two years of pandemic overtime and creeping burnout, I was determined to take some time off. What began as an idle thought gradually grew more tangible: why not Ukraine?
The first stop had to be Poland, as the airspace over the Ukraine is closed, necessitating an entry by land. It didn't occur to me until I was already in midair and reading The Secret Agent that it was unintentionally hilarious to have brought Conrad as an in-flight book to Poland --- coals to Newcastle, as it were. A good choice, though; a bit aimless in the beginning, but the landing is incredible, and the theme of moral blindness and poorly thought-out violence is very apropos. (It's also a shame that I'm extremely done with my education, because I have this idea for a Comp Lit essay on “The Strange Survival of Euphuism in Victorian Literature” that would have absolutely slapped.) Kraków is a pleasantly variegated city, with a lively mix of historic buildings, nicely renovated pre-war stuff, dilapidated communist-era housing, and shiny boxy modernism. My hotel was a nice old brownstone that had been subdivided into a kommunalka during the bad old days, so the rooms were tiny and oddly shaped, but with incongruously grand soaring ceilings.
It's a pity I didn't get to see as much of Kraków as I hoped, as the weather was wet and stormy, but at least it broke for a few hours in the afternoon --- long enough to wander around downtown a bit, buy a phone charger (somehow Poland uses a completely different type of plug than all of the rest of Europe *and* the Soviet bloc), and get tomorrow's train ticket to Lviv, Ukraine's second city, not far across the Polish border. Which turned out to be surprisingly simple; the cashier did not even issue any pro-forma warnings about the safety of traveling to Ukraine.
(Speaking of which, safety does not feel like a major concern. Ever since the original Russian offensive against Kyiv was beaten back in March, the conflict has largely been confined to the country's southeast and coastline. There is always a slight risk of a stray ballistic or cruise missile dropping on your head in any major city, but Russian long-range strikes west of the Dnieper have so far been very limited, and in a country of forty million the individual odds are I feel tolerable, no worse than those of getting hit by a bus in Brea.)
The Polish trains run only as far as Przemysl, on the border. (BTW these unholy consonant pileups are why the Poles have such a bad rep for orthography. Even fellow Slavs (Hi!) often have no idea what the heck to do with this kind of thing.) At the border it becomes necessary to switch trains, as Ukraine (along with the rest of the former Soviet Union proper) uses a different rail gauge.
Przemysl was the first time in thirty years that I've had authentic Communist train station goulash, and for that alone it will always have a place in my heart. Aside from that, though, the town feels a bit sad, partly because it is clearly a century past its heyday --- there is lots of graceful-but-decaying Austro-Hungarian architecture, and by "decaying" I mean that many buildings are strung with netting so random pedestrians don't get brained by a chunk of stray Victorian scrollwork cracking off some weathered facade. But the main reason Przemysl feels sad because it is full of unhappy, harried-looking Ukrainian refugees, plus soldiers and aid workers.
The border-crossing process itself was a bit unnerving: the platform being packed with refugees, we had to wait in line for several hours to board. Instead of the immigration service, the passport checkpoint was manned by the Polish Army, and the corporal in whose queue I wound up in was not in a good mood; he barked at everyone, to the point where the refugee lady in front of me with a toddler was driven to tears. The train itself was massively delayed by the need to process so many people, many of them without the usual travel documents --- when you are fleeing your home in advance of the Russian army, there is generally no time to apply for a passport. I shared a compartment with a woman and her teenage daughter returning to Odessa, having run out of money to shelter in Poland. I asked her if she was worried; the Russians have not given up on taking Odessa, after all, and are still infrequently but regularly bombing it. She shrugged, tiredly; the situation was not optimal, she said, but they had nowhere else to go. After another long delay at the border to accommodate Ukrainian immigration control, arrival at Lviv was not until one AM, four hours late. Unfortunately, the hotel I had booked did not have a 24-hour front desk. One thing that did not seem to have changed in the last four years is that Ukrainian cities have no nightlife to speak of; everybody goes to bed remarkably early, like it's a school night. I was reconciling myself to the prospect of standing around in the dark waiting for the doors to open up at dawn (as Ukrainian Army patrols sporting AKs would wander by, stare at me oddly, and ask for my papers) but, happily, the hotel did have a night manager, who eventually noticed someone waiting outside. The next ten hours are kind of a blank.
Lviv that afternoon and evening did not feel like a major city in a country fighting a war of national survival. The streets and parks were full of families enjoying the nice weather, young couples were canoodling, restaurants were full, public transit was running --- everything seemed eerily normal, other than the fact that the train station was packed with refugees, the Ukrainian Army had a noticeable presence on the streets, and many outdoor cultural treasures were either sandbagged or wrapped in anti-shrapnel netting. That aside, you would never guess there was a serious conventional war happening a couple of hundred miles to the east; the only place I saw people even acknowledge the war was the Lviv Cathedral of the Armed Forces, full of memorials to the fallen, shredded fragments of Russian missiles, and hosting a permanent prayer vigil. (I did also pass a basement Airsoft venue which advertised the opportunity to shoot paper targets with Putin's face on them; the entrepreneurial spirit is
hard to kill.)
This strange sangfroid might have something to do with the fact that the city has barely seen any attacks--- the accuracy of Russian long-range weapons has turned out to be questionable enough that they have mostly avoided striking places close to external (in this case Polish) borders. It might also have something to do with the fact that even early in the invasion, when the Russians still nursed a heady ambition to take the entire country, Kremlin propaganda tacitly conceded that the oblasts near the Polish border could not be incorporated into Russia because of "cultural differences," for which read "too many Catholics." At any rate, once the initial offensive was seen to fail, Lviv apparently slowly calmed down; the manager of my hotel told me that things were very different back in March, when the whole city was under martial law for months and the refugee situation was far, far worse.
Lviv is a remarkably photogenic city. Behind every random corner one bumps into a building that would stand on its own as an iconic landmark in many European cities, and each of the city's dozen great churches would make a perfectly acceptable cathedral anywhere else on the continent. Many of them had boarded-up windows, and many (but not all) public statues and monuments had had anti-shrapnel cages erected around them, draped in white shrouds reading "We'll be able to admire them again after we win."
(A Note on Getting Around: especially in smaller population centers, Ukraine is a bit awkward to navigate if you speak no Ukrainian (or Russian). I am fortunate in knowing the distantly related Slovene and Serbo-Croat, and to have retained the Cyrillic alphabet I learned as a kid; I can't hold a conversation, but I can order meals, buy things in stores, and read fairly well. Without this, the absence of bilingual signage especially would make getting around pretty difficult.)
After a few days in Lviv, I took a train east to Ternopil, a provincial capital about a quarter of the way to Kyiv. (For some reason, my mind kept trying to say "Tiraspol" instead of "Ternopil," which is kind of mystifying because I've never been to the former city or had any real cause to think about it. I'm just glad I watched my words at the train station, or I might have wound up halfway to Moldova on a sleeper car before noticing.) This ride was in daytime, but there was not much in the way of scenery, just forests and open green fields; it does not help that all the cabin windows have had an anti-shatter film applied, making the outside view distractingly fuzzy. I shared the wildly uncomfortable compartment with four friendly college-age locals, who played Uno and were excited to learn that I lived near (relatively speaking)
Hollywood, as one of them wanted to move to America and be in movies.
Ternopil ("field of thorns," cheerfully) was basically a miniature version of Lviv, with a third the population and a very nice manmade lake (actually a reservoir on the river Seret, with a huge, lush park beneath the dam.) For a lakeside town, the terrain was surprisingly wavy; the 16th century city fathers apparently wanted to emulate Rome and built atop a bunch of hills, which would be more charming if I hadn't somehow booked a hotel that was way the heck out in the boondocks (actually, Google Maps advises me it's not even in Ternopil proper; the street that it's on serves as the municipal boundary, so the hotel itself technically lies a hundred feet into the suburb of Petrykiv.) But anyway, I got lots of exercise huffing and puffing up and down various scenic inclines, and to make things more fun the sporadic summer showers that had dogged me since Krakow seemed to be getting more frequent.
I was surprised to learn that (like Kyiv, but unlike Lviv) Ternopil had been completely annihilated towards the end of World War II; the old town seemed to preserve some nice fin-de-siecle architecture, and the communists weren't normally particularly fond of spending money on restoring bourgeois prewar stuff, but perhaps that's just the fifteen percent of the city that survived the Red Army siege in 1944?
(It is sort of notable that Ukraine --- both the prewar and communist parts --- is chock-full of the kind of walkable urbanism that is simultaneously the Holy Grail of municipal planning in the US yet also regulated out of existence almost everywhere. It is kind of grimly hilarious that if you could somehow teleport a random Ukrainian town to almost anywhere in the US, it would instantaneously dodecatuple in value since it is the kind of living arrangement which everybody there wants but nobody is allowed to build.)
The Ternopil lakefront itself has a bit of a touristy vibe, but the town seems to very much be a domestic destination. You can tell because there's hardly any foreign-currency exchanges, all the hotels have untranslated Cyrillic names, and there's a grand total of one souvenir stand downtown.
My hotel in Ternopil was actually pretty swank (despite being in the boondocks, in a row of auto parts stores) but it did boast one of the weirder beds I've slept in: it was literally
slightly convex (along the long axis), which is I'm guessing why I fell out of it in the dead of night. (This is BTW why foreign travel is an enriching life experience; why fall out of your own boring bed when you can fall out of one in a different hemisphere?)
I was worried the final leg of my trip, the voyage to Kyiv, was going to be unpleasant, since it is an eight-hour ride and Ukrainian rail stock is not overly comfortable. But, happily, I was able to book a sleeper service, so I spent most of the trip blissfully unconscious and arrived in Kiev at the crack of dawn. The city looks to be completely intact. Unlike the west of the country, there is a very heavy military presence on the streets here, and many government buildings are not only barricaded with sandbags but fortified with massive concrete blocks; there is also evidence of street barricades having recently been dismantled. (Not surprising, as the Russian advance in March made it to the city's northern suburbs.)
And yet, the vibe on the streets is pretty similar to Lviv --- people going about their business, surprisingly indifferent to the murderous behemoth rampaging to the east. Between the golden-domed cathedral of St. Michael on Mikhailivskii Square and the imposing columned hemicycle of the Foreign Ministry, the Ukrainian Army has set up a display of wrecked and burned-out Russian military equipment captured at the front. The people of Kiev --- old ladies, young couples on dates, teenagers on electric scooters, parents with kids --- come and stroll around the little labyrinth of rusted hulks, chatting quietly and eating hot dogs and ice cream. I don't think this is what Putin had in mind.
*All photos by the author
Eugene Ipavec was born in what was at the time Yugoslavia and has lived in Orange County for thirty years. He has been published in the Santa Monica Review.