The city of Lviv is often described as the historical “cradle” of Ukrainian nationalism, and while this is probably true, it may be more accurate to describe it as the oldest center of Ukrainian national culture. Those of us who have traveled widely in Europe will recognize Lviv’s uniqueness after being there only a few days. Although its population is perhaps just under a million (maybe more after the influx of refugees from Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine), Lviv does feel like the “center” of something. It is a stunning looking place, and a photographer’s dream.
In 1256, King Daniel of Galicia (or Danylo of Halych) founded Lviv, naming the city after his son, Lev. Soon thereafter it was invaded and conquered by the Mongols, and in the 14th century was absorbed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Kingdom of Poland. The Poles initiated an intensive policy of Catholicization and Polonization, and called the city Lwów. In the 17th century, the Ukrainian Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky – an Orthodox Christian who resented Polish rule over Ukraine – led an alliance of Cossacks and Crimean Tatars against the Polish Crown. Khmelnytsky would have sacked the city on his way to the Polish city of Kraków, but he was bribed to bypass Lwów, and went north to Zamość instead. Lwów and its architecture were thus largely saved from destruction, and the city continued to grow as a center of culture, learning and Catholicism.
In 1772, as a consequence of the first partition of Poland, Lwów was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became known as Lemberg. It remained under the dominion of Austria-Hungary until the end of World War I, when it became part of the short-lived independent Ukraine that lasted from 1917-21. The Soviet regime under Lenin seized the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in 1921, but Lviv became part of the Republic of Poland until the Soviet regime annexed the region in 1939 under the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The Russians referred to Lviv as “Lvov” (and still do), and Soviet rule lasted for about fifty years until Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Lviv is, among other features, a center of Ukrainian Catholicism – in particular the Greek Catholic Church, which recognizes the supremacy of the Vatican but uses Orthodox Christian liturgy in its services.
The city’s Counter-Reformation architecture makes it in some ways reminiscent of old Polish cities that managed (at least partially) to survive the devastation of WWII. But Lviv is more eclectic, and thus more unusual. The diverse range of church spires serves as an ancient testament to a city that has been absorbed by different empires and creeds over nearly eight centuries. The dilapidation and neglect that are the familiar hallmarks of Soviet power (and its subsequent collapse) are still much in evidence, but so is an indelible charm, augmented by a wide range of quiet cafes and restaurants designed along different themes. It feels like a city that has yet to reach its full potential due to enduring poverty and isolation, but which has a kind of cozy calm suggesting that – when Ukraine achieves lasting peace and good neighborly relations with Russia – Lviv will attract more visitors from other parts of Europe and the wider world. On the positive side, the fact that it receives fewer international tourists every year than, say, Prague means it remains relatively peaceful and unsullied by the culture (or lack thereof) of the EU/global tourism industry. Overhearing western Europeans or Americans on the street is still a rarity. It is a highly recommended destination for anyone curious about this quiet, ancient corner of Ukraine.
This album is only a snapshot of Lviv. Since it was taken over a period of about two and a half days, it only covers a fraction of what the city has to offer, even at 117 photos. Furthermore, I included a disproportionate number of photos taken in the Lychakiv Cemetery (founded in 1787 as the Łyczakowski Cemetery), a vast, crowded territory that hosts the burial sites of people from all classes nationalities – including Ukrainians, Poles and Russians – as well as both Christians and Jews. Many of the soldiers buried there fought on different sides in various conflicts: Poles who fought against both the Soviets and the Ukrainians, Ukrainians who fought against both Nazi German and Soviet occupation, and veterans of the Soviet Red Army. It is an astounding place, largely overgrown, with many areas in disrepair. Yet the ornateness and creativity on display are impressive. I hope viewers will forgive this album’s focus on the tombs and graves in the Lychakiv Cemetery, which make up over a quarter of the total shots. I realize they have been photographed by many others and are visible at different places on the Internet. But they struck me as worth capturing to the best of my ability in the time available.
The full album can be viewed here: Flickr