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History is playing a role in many crucial aspects of the Ukrainian crisis: it is as much of a factor in shaping people’s engagement with the state, with Russia or with the EU as current issues in internal politics and economics. Diána Vonnák explores what history and identity mean for the Euromaidan in Lviv….

If we want to understand such a complex situation we must go beyond the often schematic distinctions of the ‘pro-European West’ and the ‘pro-Russian East’ and explore how political formations and ethnicities of the past still have some hidden effect on Ukraine. The Kievan Rus, the Cossack Republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ethnic minorities like Poles and Jews and the relatively recent Soviet presence all left their traces on this huge, diverse country.

Not only are historical ties a powerful example of how utterly different ethnic and religious groups can set out to form a nation state and achieve a more homogenous identity. They also help to paint the portrait of the Euromaidan beyond the Independence Square itself.

The story of the Maidan is not just a day-to-day account of the five months of protests.

The story of the Maidan is not just a day-to-day account of the five months of protests, but an Eastern European tale of a city’s history of abrupt changes. A tale of standing buildings and falling empires. This is an illustration of how the the past is embodied in the very fabric of the city: the buildings, which stand there, expressing something that cannot be ignored when groups step out to call for political action.

Photo: I_am_sonicsonia, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr) | Euromaidan protestors in Lviv

Fragmented history

Lviv is much like a dancer passed hand to hand by the surrounding partners in a millennium-long waltz. The scope of free will was often limited to her expressing which neighbouring power she would prefer to join for the next dance, whether it was Poland, Lithuania or Austria-Hungary. When the Nazis and the Soviets came, not even that choice was left.

Lviv’s uneasy affair with Russia started in 1914, when it was captured by the Russian army.

The city called Lvov first emerged as part of the Kievan Rus. It was invaded by the Tatars in 1261, then occupied by the Kingdom of Poland for four hundred years. Renamed as Lwów, the new governance of the city attracted Armenians and Poles as well as Jews from Byzantium, Khazaria and beyond. Catholicisation gained momentum among the majority population.

In 1772 it was annexed by the Habsburgs under the name of Lemberg. This switch brought German and Czech bureaucrats, Polish academic centres and cobblestone Vienna-style boulevards, together with an ever more conscious attempts to create a national Ukrainian literature. Until the storms of the 20th century reached the city, it continued to be a main gate of Europe to Ottoman Turkey, the Crimea and the Caucasus, a trading centre and a multilingual, multinational cultural centre.

Lviv’s uneasy affair with Russia started in 1914, when it was briefly captured by the Russian army, before being reclaimed by Austria-Hungary the following year and later annexed by Poland with the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire. The Soviets came back in 1939 and deportations of Armenians, Poles and Ukrainians started almost immediately, only to give place to the Nazi’s Operation Barbarossa invasion in 1941. Over the following two years, deportations wiped out most of the Lvivian Jewry.

Photo: Irene Mai, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr) | A view over the historical city of Lviv.

Then the Soviets came back again, and this time they stayed for fifty long years. Lviv was placed in the Western periphery of the USSR, with the historic city occupying an odd position as a living testimonial of a starkly different past. Eastern Ukrainians and Russians were moved in, the remaining Polish population moved out. Yet Lviv remained full of ‘suspicious’ intellectuals, potentially dangerous personnel of the ‘bourgeoisie’ type.

The Iron Curtain fell, roads were closed and (Central) Europe largely forgot about Lviv. Soviet integration was not entirely successful and, regardless of the radical changes in the composition of the city’s population, Lviv became one of the most important centres for anti-communist opposition, everyday resistance and later the Ukrainian independence movement against Moscow. Singers refused to sing in Russian in the Opera and many people kept going to Uniate Churches, which follow the Vatican. Lviv elected the first non-communist city council in 1990, a year before independence.

Despite this turbulent history, Lviv has much more continuity in its rich architecture than ancestries and political alliances. Indeed, locals commonly adopt a distinctive historic twist to their Ukrainian identity in a way that is really different from other Ukrainian cities: when it comes to current activities Lvivians tend to step back and only then jump forward, conscious of having the historic city’s age- city’s familiar, eclectic monuments as a backdrop to their every move. And this is how they set out to participate in the current protests as well.

Euromaidan: European dreams or more?

‘Europe – where we were’ goes the saying in Lviv, now lying only a few hours drive away from the Polish and the Hungarian borders, symbolically where Europe ends in the East. No wonder that when the ex-president Yanukovych backed out from the Vilnius agreement, students were immediately out in the streets.

Illustration: Laura Hempel

‘My friends and I were shocked. It became clear that instead of the promised EU standards Ukrainians would get a USSR 2.0 version. We had a feeling that we, Ukrainian students, had been suddenly deprived of a decent future’ wrote a Lvivian student, Pavlo Ostrovs’kyj. This is more than a Europhile West versus a Russophile East: though Ukraine does have its bipolarity, depicting it as a new version of East and West Germany or (still worse) the Koreas is an immense simplification.

Lviv’s pride in taking part in the Euromaidan is performed with not only a prototypical (if there is such a thing) ‘Western Ukrainian’ attitude, but with an especially strong sense of belonging to the city. Even after the 30th November violence from Berkut, Lviv Today explained student participation as just another chapter in the city’s centuries long tradition of student movements and humanitarian awareness.

Lviv Today explained student participation as just another chapter in the city’s centuries long tradition.

Mid-19th century protests against the enforcement of the use of German language by Habsburg officials are seen as a predecessor of current rallies. T ultimately “for the average student, it’s just another day in the life of being a Leopolitan student – an ancient rite of passage to tie them together with their nationalist and pro-European student forebearers”.

Photo: I_am_sonicsonia, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr) | Protestors in Lviv.

Here the past remains. It is revoked and used as a mirror of the present in a country with such an extraordinary struggle to find and express its own identity separately from its Soviet past, against the widespread public opinion that sees it as ‘Little Russia’. As the conflict grew more and more complex in terms of internal politics, drifting away from the original either/or dynamics between the EU and Russia, it became a struggle to decide what can and cannot be allowed to happen in the country. Saying no to human rights abuses, attacks against journalists or most recently responding to Russian tank in Crimea with a form of passive resistance has become ‘what it means to be Ukrainian’.

A form of passive resistance has become ‘what it means to be Ukrainian’.

Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to receive the Nobel Prize in 1933, once said ‘Little Russia has no history […] it has only songs, legends; it is somehow outside of time’. Lviv seems to have a firm answer for this: when faced with claims and understanding what it means that you have to form your own identity in constant opposition to them,  it becomes easy to understand why long gone student protests matter as a reference point to ‘Leopolitan’ students. When the narrative of the ‘newborn nation’ becomes omnipresent, Lviv grabs its history and throws it at the face of these commentators. It shows that toppling a Lenin statue here means something else than in Kharkiv.

This strong local attachment is something that underpins Lvivian opinions about Ukraine, Europe and anything else. After the news of the first deaths in Kiev, protesters forced the Yanukovych-appointed local administrator Oleh Salo to step down. The police and the majority of council personnel cooperate with the opposition, which was made overwhelmingly visible in the 19th February declaration of independence from the government by the People’s Rada. This was a symbolic message not only as an opposition to the central power, but as a claim of regional willingness to determine attitudes, identities and belongings.

At time of publication it is unclear where the Ukrainian crisis will lead the country. But the reminiscences of the past will resonate throughout the nation, shaping regional attitudes in ways infinitely more complex than the bipolar picture we usually see in the media. Lviv sent its message that there is still a Galicia in Ukraine, that those borders are not forgotten, and when it comes to decision-making they will play a part in shaping the future of Ukraine. Stepping back into Galicia, jumping forward to the future, ‘Leopolitan’ style, the Euromaidan is as much about a lost, forgotten Europe as about the current European Union.

Cover Photo: I_am_sonicsonia, CC BY-NC 2.0 (Flickr)

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    Diána Vonnák is an anthropology PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute and lives in Leipzig. She is originally from Budapest. She is currently working on cultural heritage in Lviv, Ukraine. When not obsessing about the built environment and Eastern Europe she is a managing editor at E&M and tries to be on the road as much as she can. She also reviews translated Hungarian literature regularly.

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