Lviv, Ukraine: Standing at the Crossroads

Lviv, Ukraine is a city with a pulse. People bustle through the cobblestone streets with an air of friendliness and a purpose. The 13th century buildings line streets that veer towards the town’s center where natives and tourists indulge in local delicacies such as coffee, chocolate, or beer. The eclectic art scene includes sacred sites and museums. There are also theatres and operas scattered throughout the metropolis. Festivals often take place on the streets highlighting the national clothing and costumes that represent the many cultures of Lviv. Throughout the years, several countries and rulers have controlled Lviv. Neighboring lands used Lviv as a crossroad for trade bringing both material goods and political strife. Influenced by years wavering between war and peace, the Lviv populace’s diverse heritage influenced them to become a passionate community of underdogs, and the world will continue to watch as they fight to maintain their autonomy and define their city on their own terms.

Lviv endured a rocky path to become a free nation. In the 13th century, Lviv was known as “Galencia,” an epitomized territory now divided between Poland and Ukraine. In 1256, the people of Ukraine established and renamed Lviv after a royal heir. Until the 17th century, Poland, Hungary, Cossacks, and Swedes swapped control in a possessive game of tug of war. After the rule of Austro-Hungary in 1918, and a struggle with power-hungry Russia on the East, the city proclaimed themselves the short-lived title of “Western Ukrainian People’s Republic.” To their great disappointment, the Poles conquered again until 1939. A downward spiral began when the city joined the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This led to German occupation of Ukraine and eventual annexation by the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the country finally climbed out of their quagmire of suppression and death, declaring independence in 1991.

Demographically, a major displacement of ethnicities took place. Ukranians made up 19.9% of Lviv’s population. Polish citizens made up 26.5%, while Jews’ numbers won out at 49.4%. No Russians lived in Lviv at the time. 100 years later, Ukrainians now dominate with 88.1% of the populous. Russians, living mainly in the regional center, claim only 8.9% as Poles, Jews and other minor nationalities make up less than 1%. All have increased or decreased respectively with exception of the Russians whose presence peaked in the 1950’s at 30%.  Germans and Armenians also contributed to Lviv’s population and culture. After World War II, Poles, Jews, and Germans got sent away or killed by authorities. This transfer of peoples created turmoil and territorial questioning that has lasted into current times.

Geographically, Lviv and Ukraine sit in a tough spot. Dictatorship lingers heavy in the air. However, since liberation, many in the government continue to strive for a fully functional democracy with elected officials, including a President and a Prime Minister. Lviv’s legal framework revolves around the ideals of a democratic nation. Citizens of Lviv enjoy the rights of freedom of speech, press, and religion. These rights, effectively exercised in 2004, gave citizens the freedom to protest after the presidential election. Many believed that votes in the election had been rigged. Demonstrators peacefully and successfully united to obtain a true result to the election. This event became known as the “Orange Revolution.” Hence, although the political progress in Lviv started off shaky, one can understand given its infancy.

Lviv residents cooling off in front of the opera house.

Lviv residents cooling off in front of the opera house

After its war-stricken eras ended, Lviv and Ukraine’s valuable qualities helped raise them up the global economic ladder. Lviv lies on the border of Poland and close to the Carpathian Mountains. Striking nature views draw a constant stream of revenue from tourism. The ordinary climate includes plentiful rainfall for significant farms (68% agricultural use). The Main European Watershed flows through the territory, yielding natural and mineral resources including oil, gas, and coal. A great deal of potential for prosperity comes straight from the land.

Combining ancient traditions with an organized infrastructure led to a large, sustainable market for Lviv. The city’s more aggressive and perceptive companies successfully market to consumers in Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and Asia. Indeed, highly educated people and innovative businesses come out of this favorable environment. 46 higher education institutions function throughout the city, including several IT programs, which are actually an inherited product of the USSR. The Lviv marketplace offers one of the best new centers of information-age business for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The crossroad city once again provides for and connects the European Union with the East.

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The Church of Transfiguration

The people living in Lviv display a passion for religion. The city contains over 100 Catholic churches alone.  Of the 729,842 occupants, 62% are Catholic, 32% are Orthodox and 6% are  Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church Archdiocese resides in Lviv, and Lviv has the largest Greek Catholic Church Community in the world.  Even the USSR held religious guilds here. The remarkable steeples and the colorful domed churches all create a saintly atmosphere. Relics of Saints, including Jesus Christ, safely rest here. The picture of religion that Lviv paints greatly differed 50 years ago. Judaism flourished with over 45 synagogues and prayer houses. However, after Nazi Germany ousted the Jews and sent them to concentration camps, their numbers never rebounded. Despite this dark blot in Lviv’s history, faith contributes to the major strengths of Lviv society.

Since Ukraine’s Independence in 1991, Lviv’s patriotism his proven inspirational to many throughout the world despite the city’s uncertain future. I found a video asking young adults native to Lviv about their country. All participants expressed their love and loyalty to the nation. The interviewer begins by asking pressing questions about the current conflict in Ukraine. The smiles fade as they slip back into the newer reality. They admit the problems, including a need for change. They unanimously advocate for an adjustment of peoples’ mentalities with a proactive concern for brotherhood. They finish by asking for “a lot” of prayers.

 

Even with freedom, unrest continues. Ten years later, the loser of the 2004 election, Viktor Yanukovych, took the presidency, and once again, the government drew attention for suspicious actions. Yanukovych decided on his own terms to decline affairs with the European Union (EU) and to partner with Russia. Many Ukrainians desire to enter into the EU. They want to avoid associations with a country that still reminds them too much of the former Soviet Union. Citizens, nervous about the state’s future, showcased outrage by massive protests in city squares. They were a diverse group ranging from college students to Orange Revolution veterans. In response, the president fled the country for refuge. Unfortunately, the government sent riot police, and the violence escalated. Several protesters were killed while attempting to preserve their country’s national identity.

With a changing landscape, this exquisite city’s tourism and quality of life might decline. The news broadcast below shows Lviv, the heartland of Ukraine, burning down and trashed. This means that economically, Lviv and Ukraine could suffer extended hardship and possibly lose their spot as one of the largest markets in Europe.

Past conflicts have come back to haunt this place. The same culture that built the city serves to tear it down. It seems that hatred spawned from religious and ethnic strife has developed a war monster. Maybe the youth in the video speak true; maybe their people really do need a lot of prayers, but it will take more than that to solve some of these inherent problems.

One can almost imagine Lviv being cursed yet, at the same time, being guarded by an invisible protective shield. Through all this strife, the city remains an important center of Ukrainian culture. The synergy that comes from Lviv’s working with others has served as a great asset, allowing growth while maintaining a grand heritage. Though the melting pot of ethnicities and religions may contribute to today’s struggles, Lviv still represents a bastion of national pride for the Ukraine. In the last decade, it remained dedicated to Ukraine as its trademark city. Granted, some key architecture may not survive this conflict as well as it had in the past. However, the survival of Lviv’s heritage and the renewal of its legacy remains most important.

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A quiet evening in Lviv