Kiev, Lviv: Cities on opposite ends of country highlight Ukraine's diversity

14.06.2011, 11:27
Caught between East and West, Ukraine is a study of contrasts, a fact represented in two of its main cities. Graceful Lviv, located near the Polish border, feels like Vienna’s long-lost cousin. Farther east, big, bustling Kiev has cultural ties closer to Moscow and a distinct Soviet flair.

Caught between East and West, is a study of contrasts, a fact represented in two of its main cities. Graceful Lviv, located near the Polish border, feels like Vienna’s long-lost cousin. Farther east, big, bustling Kiev has cultural ties closer to Moscow and a distinct Soviet flair.

Both cities offer adventure and insight you just can’t find in more familiar Western Europe.

Clayton M. McCleskey is a contributing writer for The Dallas Morning News based in Washington.

As a border city, Lviv reflects a variety of influences

LVIV, Ukraine — A knock on a weatherworn wooden door, and a small window slides open to reveal a bearded man in a World War II-era partisan uniform. He barks: “Slava Ukraini!” or “Glory to Ukraine!”

Goaded by a Ukrainian friend, I repeat the passwords, albeit with a Texas twang, “Heroiam slava!” or “Glory to its heroes!”

The door opens and the soldier offers us all a shot of vodka, reveals a hidden staircase and points us downstairs to a restaurant. No sooner do we take our seats than the lights go out and gunshots resound against the vaulted, dungeonlike ceilings. Waiters dressed as soldiers are conducting a mock execution of a diner, deemed to be a Russian.

Once rid of Soviet scum, the place roars back to life as diners enjoy yummy, lard-laden local cuisine and honey vodka while a band plays Ukrainian folk songs.

Located in a basement just off Lviv’s market square, the Kryivka restaurant makes for a fun — if politically incorrect — night out in a town with a quirky and vibrant bar scene.

But the partisan-themed restaurant is also a reminder that Ukraine stands in the middle of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands” of Europe, where Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the Soviet juggernaut collided. Kryivka hearkens back to the days when nationalistic Ukrainian partisans fought the Soviets around Lviv. (The partisans also engaged in ethnic cleansing during the war that left tens of thousands of Poles and Jews dead.)

A true borderland city, Lviv (say luh-VEEVE) changed hands as boundaries shifted and empires rose and fell. The result is a tantalizing architectural salad, mixing baroque, art deco, Renaissance and fin de siècle buildings.

“This city is unique and has its own atmosphere, its own soul,” explains Orest Furhala, a Ukrainian friend who works as a city tour guide. “It is unique because it has belonged to Poland, Austria, Russia and many other cultures that have all brought something to the development of Lviv. So, the people here are open-minded, friendly and are really eager to share a piece of the city with visitors.”

Lviv was not severely damaged during World War II and was thus spared the ugly Soviet architecture forced upon other Eastern European cities after the war. The entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the city’s pride and joy is its gilded opera house, a relic of Lviv’s golden age under the Habsburg Empire.

In Between East and West , Anne Applebaum describes the ornate opera hall as ruling “over the city like a dowager who has lived in a grander era and tolerates — but just barely — the indignities of the present.”

Likewise, as the official Cultural Capital of Ukraine, Lviv’s enchanting European elegance gives residents cause to turn up their noses at cities in eastern Ukraine, where Russian — as opposed to Western European — cultural and linguistic ties dominate.

As a result of new borders drawn after World War II, Lviv is home to a solidly Ukrainian population. But before the war, Lviv was called Lwów, and the city was unmistakably Polish. Reflecting its diverse history, the city still boasts an Armenian quarter, a Polish church, a Greek Catholic cathedral and plenty of tasty reminders that Vienna once ruled Lviv, or Lemberg in German. Lviv is particularly proud of its coffee culture, and the Lviv Chocolate Workshop whips up a mean hot chocolate.

But it isn’t the grand buildings that give Lviv its character. In contrast to some European cities that are so manicured they look as though they belong at Epcot, Lviv’s pothole-riddled streets, gracefully aging buildings and creaky staircases give the city a laid-back charm.

Having survived centuries of war and occupation, Lviv is enjoying a well-earned rest.

Kiev’s Soviet influences evident throughout the city

KIEV, Ukraine — With its car-clogged streets, socialist architecture and nearly 3 million residents, sprawling Kiev stands in marked contrast to cobblestoned Lviv. It’s not just a drab Eastern European city, though. The famed golden domes of the city’s cathedrals loom over side streets alongside once-ornate, now run-down buildings, while bombastic Soviet-era structures line Khreschatyk Street, the city’s grand boulevard.

The heart of Kiev beats at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. It was here that Ukrainians took to the street in 2004 in the Orange Revolution, and it remains the city’s gathering place of choice. A steady stream of young professionals, babushkas, prowling teenagers and the occasional tourist stroll past the imposing mix of socialist and neoclassical buildings that line the square.

People-watching provides limitless entertainment in Kiev, home to Ukraine’s richest oligarchs. You’ll see big, blond hair that rivals even stereotypical Dallas. Women wearing leopard print browse designer shops off Khreschatyk Street. Pimped-out SUVs blatantly ignore traffic and parking laws.

A few subway stops away on the banks of the Dnieper River is the most recognizable, yet locally loathed, landmark in Kiev: the giant Motherland statue. The 200-foot-tall matriarch of the Soviet Ukrainian state brandishes a sword and a shield that bears the Soviet Union’s coat of arms. Under the statue, the National Museum of History of the Great Patriotic War tells of Ukraine’s military struggle in World War II. While signage is not in English, the exhibit’s visual displays vividly convey just how bloody the war was. The Ukrainians had the misfortune of being occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets. The Soviets, of course, preferred to think of it as a liberation.

Farther up the river, white angels guard the Memorial in Commemoration of Famine Victims in Ukraine, or “Candle of Memory,” to the 3 million Ukrainians who died of starvation during the Soviet famine between 1932 and 1933. Inside, videos depict the horror of the Soviet Union’s brutal policies toward Ukraine, showing children wandering the street in search of food.

A gold flame climbs out of the memorial’s top, which the memorial says symbolizes “the rebirth of the nation, eternal life and the firmness of the Ukrainian people.”


14 June 2011 Dallas News