ANNE APPLEBAUM IN LVIV, UKRAINE

Wall Street Journal on June 5, 2015, published an article by Anne Appblebaum, who had been in Lviv for a media forum. Excerpts below:

[In the view of the Kremlin] Lviv should be even worse off than the rest of the country. Lviv is in Galicia, the western slice of Ukraine that belonged to Poland until World War II and to Austro-Hungary before that. Since the 19th century, it has been an important center of Ukrainian nationalism and patriotism.

Perhaps because they had to compete with the Poles and the Jews who dominated the city before the war, Lviv’s Ukrainians once built dozens of cultural and political societies, self-help groups and clubs. One of the most prominent buildings in the city center, just off the old market square, is a fine example of turn-of-the-century Vienna Secession architecture, but with Ukrainian folk motifs. Among other things, it contains what used to be a gymnasium, built to strengthen Ukrainian youth.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, the strongest push for Ukrainian independence came from Lviv. Kiev’s Lenin statute lasted until 2013; Lviv pulled its own Lenin monument back down in 1990. On my first trip there in that same year, little knots of people would gather on the city’s central plaza every evening to argue with one another and sometimes to shout. Blue and yellow flags were already ubiquitous, even though independence had not yet arrived.

On the plaza where the little knots of people used to argue, the city has now built a statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet. On the day I was in town, boys and girls, both in embroidered peasant blouses, were posing in front of the statue. They were taking selfies and commemorating the last day of school.

By themselves, the statue and the blue and yellow flowers at Shevchenko’s feet wouldn’t mean much. But the patriotic renewal that they signify has played a role in the city’s economic fortunes too.

All of these things are in turn now linked to Andriy Sadovyi, Lviv’s current mayor. Over coffee one morning, Mr. Sadovyi told me that he believes himself to be the first Lviv-born, Ukrainian-speaker ever to run the city. In the past there were Poles or Germans or simply people who came from somewhere else: “But I know every stone, every building…” Mr. Sadovyi’s political party, Samopomich—the name means “self-reliance”—is modeled very consciously on prewar Ukrainian civic groups, and he himself is firmly anchored in Ukraine’s long tradition of civic activism, having run a Lviv city development fund before going into politics.

Mr. Sadovyi was elected in 2006, and his term in office has coincided with a visible change in the city’s fortunes. During this time, Ukrainians finally began to invest in hotels, restaurants and other small businesses. Many of them had been working abroad, and their shop windows often point to their former homes, advertising “products of Turkey” or “clothes made in Poland.” These small entrepreneurs had Mr. Sadovyi’s blessing: “Ten percent of the world economy is connected to tourism and travel. Why shouldn’t some of that business come to Lviv?”

But to everyone’s surprise, most of the tourists are not foreigners but Ukrainians—and no wonder. Lviv has the ambience of Prague or Krakow, but without the prices or the crowds. Ukrainians can’t go to Crimea anymore, and visas are tough. But in Lviv, you can eat a good meal for a few euros, go to the opera or just sit in the parks and watch people for free.

Mr. Sadovyi is doing his best to reshape what he calls the “Byzantine” politics of the Ukrainian capital. His party won a surprising 10% of the national vote in the 2014 elections and now controls 33 of the 450 seats in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis is deepening, and there may come a time when Ukrainians haven’t got the money to travel, even to stay in a two-star hotel in Lviv. But for the moment, it feels like a city in which things are happening. On one night last week, the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine was presiding over a jazz concert, while the Opera House was putting on a one-man play by Bernard Henri-Levy.

I was in town for the Lviv Media Forum, a combination conference and training session that now takes place in the city every year. There were 600 journalists in attendance, from all over the country, the vast majority under 30. All of those I met were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of Ukraine, despite the overwhelming obstacles. Perhaps theirs is the generation that will finally overcome them.

Ms. Applebaum is a historian, journalist and the director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute in London.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: