Lviv, Ukraine – As one looks at a map of Europe from before the dawn of the Great War, one notices comfortably familiar political geography west of the Rhine. France, Spain and Italy all resemble their modern shapes.
East of the river, in contrast, exotic globular shapes mark the boundaries of forgotten empires. An enormous blob of Austro-Hungarian Empire meets a titanic swath of Russian Empire somewhere around where Ukraine is curiously absent.
Carved up like a Kiev cake
After two global conflicts, many of these regions were carved up like a Kiev cake at Christmas. Stalin served Lviv, a battleground between Poland and Ukraine during the First World War, to Ukraine. The Polish majority was largely “resettled” to the so-called Reclaimed Territories of eastern Poland.
During the Habsburg Empire, the city of Lviv (Lwów in Polish) was renowned as a cultural melting pot. It was an important cultural center for Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian populations. After the postwar lines were drawn, Lviv was, and still is, within 50 kilometers of Poland. Despite this, to this day, the city accommodates an eerie absence of Poles, who make up less than 1% of the population.
The self-proclaimed coffee capital of Eastern Europe
Over 70 years have passed, and many of the wounds of this tragic time in world history have healed. Lviv boasts budding tourism, textile, and IT industries, and is the self-proclaimed coffee capital of Eastern Europe. This correspondent can indeed confirm that the city has incredible coffee.
As a tourist and self-proclaimed layperson, I visited Lviv in hopes of soaking up the soak-up-able and drinking whatever local beverages were to be found. I confess a love for cities with tumultuous histories and have been recently drawn to a number of former Soviet satellites. These areas lure me with rock-bottom prices and little explored and underappreciated nooks and crannies.
I visited in the days before the 2019 election, and booths manned by young go-getters with clipboards lined the main drags of the city. I took no formal survey, but posters with the Yulia Tymoshenko outnumbered the eventual winner of the election by about a million to some. Interestingly, Petro Poroshenko, the runner up, achieved victory in only Lviv and the surrounding districts (most of which were once Polish territory) in the final round of voting.
Just Lviv It!
The city today very little Polish population to speak of, but the architectural influence is undeniable. The UNESCO World Heritage old town is now lined with enough microbreweries and coffee shops to make a hipster blush. Ironically, the emerging gentrification makes the resemblance to Warsaw more uncanny than the grand historical buildings and rumbling tramlines could achieve alone.
The pop-up outdoor markets, full of Soviet-era stamps, and military memorabilia occupy many of the open spaces. Bookselling babushkas haggle in the shadow of a baroque-style cathedral, and a statue of Ivan Fyodorov – the father of Eastern Slavic printing. We bought a book of recipes from each of the Soviet states for 50 hryvnia, ($1.89) and had a coffee at a nearby disused tram emblazoned with the slogan “Just Lviv It!”
The demographics of Lviv may have digressed from their historical roots, but the political identity remains distinct from the greater Ukraine. It may be of interest to the politically minded that Poland was the first to recognize and congratulate Volodymyr Zelensky, the pro-NATO, pro-EU comedian, after his election win. While Zelensky did not carry Lviv, many of the bonds between the countries remain in tact.
By Andrew Hall