“You from here, then? Only you seem to know what’s what.”
I laughed and shook my head at the English couple, fresh off the Stansted flight, and explained, pointing to the large ‘5.00 UAH’ written below the airport bus timetable. “The fare’s written here, look,” I said.
I was curious to know why they’d chosen to come to Lviv in December. It turns out they’d planned to go to France, but had been tempted by the ridiculously cheap flights to a place called Lviv that sounded interesting.
“I came here once before. I’ve come back to ride the trams.”
After my visit in the summer, I’d decided the best way to see the city would be through the grimy windows of the old Czech trams that creak, thud and clang their way around the city.
Clutching a handful of tram tickets bought from a kiosk, I boarded the number 7 to Lviv’s famous Lychakiv Cemetery, a 42 hectare historical monument that’s like an open-air museum. Partly overgrown, there are elaborate sculptures and mausoleums commemorating individuals and families dating back from when Lviv was part of Austria-Hungary.
Mostly I was alone, although laughter from a group of gravediggers followed me down the hill to the military cemeteries, to the simple crosses of the Polish Eaglets – teenage ‘defenders of Lvow’ who died during the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918 – 1919. Right next door are the Ukrainians they fought, towered over by the Archangel Michael. Another section commemorated those connected with the OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) and the related partisan/insurgent army, the UPA, who fought the Poles, the Nazis and the Soviets in turn.
Interested in knowing more about the partisans, I took a tram to a large turreted villa that’s now a museum to Ukraine’s liberation struggle. Staff seemed suspicious and kept an eye on me as I examined wall after wall of those who fought for Ukraine’s independence, walking through a mock-up of their forest camps. The unnerving eyes of Stepan Bandera, a leader of the OUN, followed me around too; his bust had been sculpted with an expression that’s either passionate or fanatical, depending on whether you see him as a hero or not. Bandera led the less moderate of the two Insurgent Army factions, the OUN-B. These ‘Banderivtsi’ are known to have massacred thousands of Poles during the German retreat (although Bandera himself was in prison at the time).
Bandera tends to polarise the Ukrainians. Here in Lviv and western Ukraine, the OUN is glorified as heroic freedom fighters and martyrs. The atrocities are viewed in the context of a fight for independence, rather than Nazi collaboration. Further east (and in Poland) people generally find it hard to accept their collaboration with Nazi Germany and the atrocities committed against Poles and Jews. But it’s complex.
“To us here in the west, he’s a hero,” a young student told me. “People who dismiss him as a Nazi collaborator ignore the complexity of the situation; back then the Soviets were the main oppressors. Bandera helped us get our independence.” As Timothy Snyder says, the OUN saw a German invasion of the east as the only way to end the occupation of both the Poles and the Soviets. Only then could Ukrainian statebuilding begin.
And the current threat from Russia in the east just adds to the complexity, giving even more reason to idolise these old Ukrainian freedom fighters, I guess.
I continued to ride on the theme towards an underground bar dedicated to Bandera’s insurgent army, where entry is by password. After rapping on an unmarked door in a dark passageway, I faced a man wearing an embroidered shepherd’s waistcoat over an army uniform, who shouted the initial code phrase at me. I’d memorised the password, having written it on a tram ticket, and was beckoned down the stairs, where the waitress kept up the password game with me and every other arrival.
The bar is clearly popular with tourists but I was told that it began in all seriousness, to commemorate the Insurgent Army and show people how it had been in the forest bunkers. Presumably the rifles and revolvers carried by the staff are fake, although the walls are draped with genuine scenes from those days in the forests. But now you exit through the gift shop, past icons of nationalism printed onto t-shirts and mugs, some bearing those eyes that were becoming familiar to me. There was even a blue Superman-style t-shirt, but with the ‘S’ for Stepan.
Blinking as I emerged into daylight, I leaped onto a tram without bothering to check where it was going, thinking I’d just stay on it for a while. It clanked ominously as it followed the curves up an unfamiliar street. I listened to the stop announcements, guessing that it was the number 9 heading up towards the monumental railway station. I shifted to let a homeless man, his coat spotted with bird droppings, sit next to me. Next stop Bandera Street. Then the tram came to an unexpected halt as a lot of shouting emerged from behind the driver’s screen, and like dominoes the passengers got off, muttering and shrugging.
We’d stopped at Kropyvnyts’kyi Square, opposite a huge monument that I’d never seen before; a kind of post-modern triumphal arch standing 28.5 metres high. I walked over, curious about the figure standing in front, his long coat covering a suit and tie. He wore a more thoughtful expression than the fervent one depicted in the museum. As the day died, the gold lettering of Bandera’s name and the Ukrainian trident symbol were perfectly positioned to catch the last rays of the sun.
I walked back down past another, less controversial, statue that was casting a protective shadow over St George’s Cathedral. Archbishop Sheptytsky, former head of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) church, was born a Pole but nevertheless supported Ukrainian independence. He also famously stood up to the Nazis.
Back in the cobbled Rynok Square, it began to snow. I walked past the skaters and headed for the warmth of another quirky Lviv establishment: the Coffee Mine. Here visitors can don a helmet and go down the cellars to join in the fantasy that coffee is mined beneath the café. Daft themes aside, the range of coffees is excellent, whether you drink it in the glass-covered conservatory or in the dim section looking out onto the tramlines.
That night I chose the conservatory and ran my finger down the menu; coconut liquer coffee, perhaps, or cinnamon-spiced? But there was one coffee name I hadn’t noticed before. A Banderivska.
Bandera’s legacy is linked with some unacceptable ideals and actions, and a selective memory is surely required to idolise him today. The controversial decision to award him the title of Hero of Ukraine was condemned by the European Parliament as well as the Polish government. And yet, in the face of the current threat from the east, it seems understandable that the most important legacy for many is his unwavering support for an independent Ukraine. So I decided to drink to that.
The Banderivska came served black, too hot to handle, in a tin mug with a jug of condensed milk; just like the partisans would have drunk it in the forest.