When I mentioned this title as a concept to Vera, one of my new hostel-mate friends from OZ, she scoffed at the oversimplification! The region Kievan Rus in the 10th Century was all things in these parts and eventually the power ended up in Kiev! See any similarities with the names? Yeah, I did too. I can’t beat “my personal favorite” Wikipedia on ancient Eastern European history, so here it is straight from the oracle itself…
“Kievan Rus’ begins with the rule (882–912) of Prince Oleg, who extended his control from Novgorod south along the Dnieper river valley in order to protect trade from Khazar incursions from the east and moved his capital to the more strategic Kiev. Sviatoslav I (died 972) achieved the first major expansion of Kievan Rus’ territorial control. Vladimir the Great (980–1015) introduced Christianity with his own baptism and, by decree, that of all the inhabitants of Kiev and beyond. Kievan Rus’ reached its greatest extent under Yaroslav I (1019–1054); his sons assembled and issued its first written legal code, the Rus’ Justice, shortly after his death. Of course, all this predates the end of the Holy Roman Empire in Constantinople just to the south by several centuries.”
Lviv or Lvov in Russian was itself founded in 1256 by King Danylo of Galicia. The city’s been controlled by many rulers including Sweden, Poland, the Austrian Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and then the Soviet Union due to a nasty little secret pact between Hitler and Stalin just before things completely fell apart in the War. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of Aug 23, 1939 gave Lviv to the Soviets even after the Nazis were completely defeated. Of course those Nazis never really owned Poland to give away in the first place. But that’s a moot point. The USSR enforced that pact with complete impunity after the war as well as through a number of Polish Ukrainian uprisings that left the city in the hands of the Soviets and then the Ukrainians after Independence in 1991. Phew and that’s just the last 75 years or so!
Now I’ll tell you that Poland and Russia/the Soviet Union had been at each other for centuries. Most famously in recent history in 1968. During the time of the Renaissance and the Baroque periods, the Polish Empire stretched from the “Baltic to the Black Sea” during the time of Kings in Poland. Lviv was built as a Polish City State and power center full of opera houses, theaters, churches, synagogues, palaces, boulevards, parks, fountains…and so it was all the way up through WWII. Then of course everything changed. Lviv is a wonderful combination of international influences. Polish and Russian and Ukrainian cultures all mix together to form an interesting labyrinth of buildings, art, monuments, styles, tastes and customs.
The further east you go, the less English is spoken, the harder the travel, the more “busted up” the cities and towns become. Lviv is beautiful and raw architecture. Some in untouched condition, the plazas are all essentially original from before the 2nd World War era. The buildings, sidewalks, streets, trolley cars, alleys all in “original” condition are mainly not in that wonderful Polish “pristine” condition. The Soviets and in turn the Ukrainians had no money to spend on such aesthetics. The streets and city plan abound with the boulevards and plazas of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the statues perfectly placed, the fountains in strategic locations through out the city center. Small alleyways create alcoves for cafes and shops. People are walking, sitting, drinking, shopping, eating everywhere! The same things you’d see in the Polish cities and towns, albeit in rougher settings. The same mainly Christian churches and cathedrals, the same plazas and cafes.
But it’s still a Ukrainian town with largely Ukrainian people, customs, language, food and of course attitude! Yes, it might be like traveling to New York City and not speaking any English. I’ve of course been instantly transformed into a complete blithering illiterate once I crossed into Russian speaking Ukraine. Oh yes, and that alphabet! Oh yeah! This comes from a website called the Face of Russia…”The Cyrillic Alphabet was named for St. Cyril. Cyril was a Greek monk who, with Methodius, brought written language to Christian converts in the mid-9th century (c.860) in what is now Russia. The Cyrillic alphabet is closely based on the Greek alphabet, with about a dozen additional letters invented to represent Slavic sounds not found in Greek.”
I can neither speak nor read Russian or it’s sister language Ukrainian. So doing everything from getting a bus to ordering a coffee is a real challenge. Better hope you don’t get lost or make a mistake as you’re on your own, unlike the cities of Prague and Krakow where people love to help you in English of course!
Hell, I can’t even make out the alphabet! a C is an S, a 3 is a Z, and this thing that looks like an X and a K mating Ж is the sound your Mother would make to tell you to be quiet “ZH”! Yeah, you’ve seen this stuff on the walls of Dos Bog Coffee! It’s nice art but when it’s thrown into long long words with multiple parts, it’s a crap shoot! “ZH”!
But beyond the few “sour pusses” my friend Sharon likes to call the waning number of ol’ farts still left over from the communist days, the place is a wonderful and beautiful trip into original architecture, town planning and culture! Starting with the 13th century, this early frontier village of Eastern Europe with it’s feudal systems and buildings, transformed into a powerful 19th Century city state with wonderful medieval walls and fortresses, Renaissance courts, palaces and town halls, Baroque churches and cathedrals!
Lviv is the heart of what the rest of the Ukraine calls “Western Ukraine”, meaning all things independent and autonomous. They are not coddling to Russia, not to Poland, not to the rest of the Ukraine. They are truly on their own. And of course across the boarder a short distance to the west, the Poles say…”just wait, it’ll be ours again some day very soon”. The rifts and influences continue to drive deep between the politics, the culture, the architecture and the people. “We’ll see!” Another favorite Ukrainian saying.
Onto Kherson, the ancient feudal capital along the Black Sea!