Ukraine wrap-up, May 2016

Cousins at Bander Shtab café, Lviv ("Хутін - Пуйло")I have 15 second cousins who live in Lviv region of Ukraine — even more cousins that are by one generation removed. A small delegation met me in Lviv in the old city for a get-together in a café. One of my second cousins is serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. His mother is grateful that he is not at the front lines of the Russian invasion of Europe, which now stretch across parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. His older brother fought the Russians in Donbas in the winter of 2014-15, and was medically discharged from the army after suffering severe pneumonia — gained from months of living in trenches. It’s trench warfare and 1914-18 all over again in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The café we ate in is called Bander Shtab, with the tag line Hutin Puilyo. This is a play on the very rude, very crude Putin Huilyo — and the kindest translation of that would be “Putin is a dickhead.” The owner is a hard-core militant and supporter of Maidan and of the volunteer battalions fighting the Russian invasion. He had very angry words for the military and political leaders of Ukraine, who he says betrayed the soldiers and the people. Ukraine could have defeated Russia in 2014, he says, but failed to do so because of leaders who were not merely incompetent but traitorous. Given the Ukrainian navy admirals who allowed Ukraine’s fleet to be captured by Russia, and the Ukrainian army generals who allowed the “cauldrons” of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve to turn into major defeats to Russia, it is difficult not to agree with this militant café owner.

Music and clothing shop on Brativ Rohatyntsiv Street, LvivThis is a small music and clothing shop in old Lviv. The flag is of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the armed wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which fought Nazi Germans and Soviet Russians for an independent Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s. The legacy of the UPA, the OUN, and of the Ukrainian republics which preceded them at the end of the First World War, is being reclaimed by the Ukrainian people. In many ways, the people are in advance of the political elites. Certainly, they are ahead of the corrupt, post-Soviet oligarchy. The 25 lost years from Ukraine’s independence to Maidan are being made up for, and made up for quickly. There is unremitting animosity towards Putin and the Russian people for invading Ukraine. There is great scepticism about when Crimea and Donbas will be recovered, but no doubt at all that they are Ukraine. The illegal Russian occupation will not stand. But most of the energy is directed towards backsliding political elites. Piecemeal lustration, such as the abolition of the militsya and the introduction of civilian patrol police, is not enough. The judges and the prosecutors are still wholly corrupt, and until they are all fired and replaced there can be no rule of law in Ukraine. Until the Soviet-trained and pro-Russian generals and admirals are court-martialled, there can be no liberation of the occupied territories. Until the oligarchs and their pocket-MPs are swept out of parliament, there can be no government of the people, by the people, for the people in Ukraine.

Free Savchenko at Kyiv Boryspil AirportThis is a photo I took at Boryspil, Kyiv’s airport. The banner is an appeal for the release of Nadiya Savchenko. Today, May 25, she was released. Nadiya Savchenko was serving in the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Luhansk region when she was captured by Russian terrorists. She was handed over to Russian military intelligence officers acting illegally in Ukraine, and kidnapped and spirited away across the border into Russia. There, she was held hostage by the Putin regime for almost two years. She was also put before a show trial, accused of the murder of two journalists who were killed by mortar fire sometime after she was captured. Savchenko was also charged, ludicrously, of illegally entering Russia. Nadiya Savchenko’s courageous words, her defiance of the little man Putin, and her dangerous hunger strikes, made her an inspiration to Ukrainians. Free, she is now a potent symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion of Europe in Ukraine. As a member of parliament (elected, in absentia, while she was a hostage) she is also, instantly, the most trusted and respected politician in Ukraine.

Commemorations in Lviv

Choir in traditional Hutsul costumeA city in the heart of Europe like Lviv has a rich history, with a lot to celebrate and a lot to mourn. This is the 760th anniversary of Lviv: in 1256, Prince Danylo founded the city and named it after his son, Lev. That’s why the lion figures so prominently in Lviv iconography, including its Latin name: Leopolis. In Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) a temporary stage was set up for performances. This choir, in traditional Hutsul dress, was singing songs of Zakarpatya (Transcarpathia) when I was there.

Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in UkraineMay 8 is Victory in Europe Day, commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. In the Soviet Union this day devolved into a display of militarism and chauvinism, and continues that way in Russia now. But in Ukraine it has become a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. There were a lot of “sides” in Ukraine in World War II: allies and enemies, victors and the vanquished. A day to solemly remember all of those fallen in war unites the nation. This is the spectacular Lviv Opera House, bedecked with special banners for the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.

It’s Happening in Lviv

Vyshyvanka of GaliciaLviv is more vibrant and youthful than I have ever seen it. I’ve visited Lviv several times: in the doldrums after Russian occupation, in its Orange Revolution nervousness, and now exuding a post-EuroMaidan confidence. The streets of the old town around the Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) are bustling with locals and tourists, almost all young people. I am convinced Lviv will become the next “in” destination for Europeans looking for a weekend get-away. The photo is from a poster display of Ukraine’s traditional and beautiful embroidered shirts, called vyshyvanky. This example is from Galicia, Lviv’s region.

Lviv Handmade Chocolate, Serbska StreetSeveral of the buildings in the old town have put up amusing displays of kinetic art around the windows facing the street. This one is between what was the Jewish ghetto and the Ploshcha Rynok. The whole area abounds in curiosities, little shops, artist co-ops, cafes, wine bars, restaurants and lots and lots of people. Lviv is finally living up to its tourist slogan: Open to the World.

Two Galician castles

Olesko CastleThe faded grandeur of Galicia is being rediscoved in Lviv region of western Ukraine. Dotting the landscape are castles founded in the times of Kyivan Rus’, made modern fortifications in the Polish period, reaching a height of noble elegance under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and declining into ruin under Russian occupation in the 20th century. Olesko Castle first appears in historical records in 1327. The claim to fame of Olesko is that it was where Jan III Sobieski was born. He was the great Polish king who defeated the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and saved Europe. Polish tourist buses at Olesko Castle showed that Poles are eagerly rediscovering the history of their country outside its current borders.

Pidhirtsi CastleNearby, Pidhirtsi Castle is less of a fortification and more of a palace. It was built in 1640 for Hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski, in the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The castle is in a poor state of repair, and it was not possible to go inside. After looting by Russian soldiers in the First World War and in the Polish-Soviet War, and a fire in 1956, nothing is left of Pidhirtsi Castle’s once fabulously rich interior. Today, it has been placed under the jurisdiction of the Lviv National Art Gallery.

Lviv, provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Coffee in LvivThe look-and-feel of Lviv these days is that of Lemburg, the name the city had when it was a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Pre-First World War times were relatively good times for Lemburg, under its German name, and these are rising times for Lviv, under its Ukrainian name. I can savour a cappuccino in a cafe, and think myself to be in Little Vienna.

Wet Festival in LvivThe strangest tradition is observed in Lviv on Easter Monday: a Wet Festival is held. Boys chase girls with bottles of water, to splash them, as a way of flirting. In the cobblestoned streets of the old town, bemused pedestrians would jump out of the way as screaming girls ran along, pursued by determined boys. There was a real danger to innocent bystanders of collateral damage of wet clothing. Even the city council got into the wild spirit, and set up a water fight in front of the old town hall.