The Past, Present & Future of Lemberg, Lvov and Lviv
November 30, 2005
Letter From Ukraine
Modest River, Wide Chasm, With Europe 'Over There'
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
LVIV, Ukraine - "Beautiful but poor" is a common shorthand description of Lviv, a city of 800,000 people in western Ukraine, and it takes only a few hours here to sense the accuracy of the phrase.
Lviv - which is known as Lvov in Polish, Lemberg in German - was once as European as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and wishes to be part of Europe once again. But it is not in Europe. At least not as defined by the border of the European Union, though that border is a mere 50 or so miles from here, where the Bug River separates Ukraine from Poland.
Lviv is the periphery. Here is where Europe officially ends, even if the end has an arbitrary, technical quality to it, because the plain fact is that there seems no particular coherence to the reality that Chelm, just across the river in Poland, is part of Europe, while Lviv (pronounced luh-VEEV) is not.
Both, after all, were cities in the Austro-Hungarian Galicia Province, with Lviv the bigger and vastly more important one.
Both were part of Poland for something on the order of 500 years, including at least a few decades of the 20th century, before the Nazis invaded and then Stalin moved the territory of Ukraine to the west, and Lviv became just another battered and tragic city in the Soviet Union.
But the problem for Lviv is that its European aspiration defies some of the most important elements of its recent history. During the years of Soviet control, it became a city in a different time zone from the European Union, literally and figuratively: an hour later on the clock than Chelm, Krakow and Madrid, a quarter-century or so behind in other measures.
Now that Ukraine has been free from Soviet control for a nearly a decade and a half, its European aspirations have revived, and it seems reasonable for the acting mayor of the town, Zinovyj Siryk, to confidently predict, "After Poland, we are next," referring to membership in the European Union.
But as Mr. Siryk well knows, Lviv has fallen a long way behind its neighbor, one of Europe's poorer new members.
"It's a real border, not just a line," said Andrij Yurash, a scholar of religion at the university here.
"There's a real difference economically," he continued, offering this statistic as explanation: the city budget of Lviv is about one-tenth that of Krakow, another big, formerly Galician city in Poland, about 190 miles west of here, a city of roughly the same size as Lviv.
"It's the heritage of the Soviet period," he said, "because the whole network of economic relations was destroyed here."
To walk the streets of Lviv, a year after the Orange Revolution gave national expression to Ukraine's preference for the European zone of civilization over the Russian, is something like stepping into a time capsule.
There is much heavy residue of the basic fact of Lviv's recent past: during the time that it was a Soviet city, Lviv was ripped from the European womb, and many things about it - from the airport built in the style of a Stalinist Greek temple, with columns and a cupola, to the generalized dilapidation of its buildings and streets - are emblems of that rupture....
But it was not only the economic infrastructure that was destroyed during the Soviet period.
"You have to remember that after World War II, 90 percent of the population of Lviv changed," said a local historian, Vasyl Rasevych. "The Jews were eliminated. The Poles went to Poland. And before World War II, 50 percent of the population was Polish, 30 percent was Jewish."
When Stalin grabbed Western Ukraine for the Soviet empire, Red Army officers helped themselves to the homes and apartments of the city's better-off. Factories and their workers were moved here from farther east to replenish the depleted population.
"Up until the 1960's," Mr. Rasevych said, "Lviv was a Russian-speaking city."
Lviv speaks Ukrainian now, which is an element of revival. In a city where some 200,000 Jews were annihilated by the Nazis, Jewish children now play at the kindergarten at Hesed Arje, a new Jewish community center.
If the heavy hand of the Soviet dictatorship had not left such a powerful imprint on Lviv, where Joseph Roth, the Austrian-Jewish writer, went to college and where Sholom Aleichem, the originator of "Fiddler on the Roof," wrote some of his stories, this city would almost automatically belong to the European club.
Maybe, as Mr. Siryk, the acting mayor, predicted, Ukraine will be the next to join Europe.
If that is the case, for Lviv, history will have been set right.
This was a fascinating article with a personal meaning to me. My grandfather, Abraham Sommer, was captured in 1916 by the Tsarist Russian forces when they took Lemberg. At that time, he was in the Austro-Hungarian army. By the time he came back from Siberia, it had become Polish Lvov. Now it is Ukrainian Lviv with a Russian-speaking population, something I had not learned before.
His birthplace, Buczacz (Buchach in German), was taken by Stalin from Poland and remains part of the Ukraine.