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Defining Ukraine

text and photos by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In a grand, neo-classical gallery in Moscow’s Kremlin, I stood gaping at be-jeweled icons, chalices, crosses and other liturgical objects. “All of these were ours,” murmured Sophia, our Ukrainian-American guide. “Ukrainians created them – Russians stole them.”

Like many sons and daughters of immigrants, Sophia is devoted to her roots – and biased. Her remark denied Russia as a legitimate creator and keeper of the spiritual works of art that hung in the Kremlin’s Armory.

Throughout my January trip to Poland, Ukraine and Russia, I encountered many human beings whose pride shaded truth; whose opinions sharply divided brother from brother. Unlike many western tourists to these countries, I was aware that a fine line separated fact from myth. My Ukrainian encounters bolstered my belief that history, more than any other discipline, reflects the opinions and personalities of those who create it.

Ukraine is a fascinating country that, like the United States, is in a period of process – the process of definition. Like Italy, Ukraine is a geographical expression – literally, hinterland. This territory was the hinterland of the Scandinavian, Slav, Byzantine, Mongol, Polish, German and Russian empires. Unlike her powerful sister Russia, which yearns to rediscover a past that may or may not have existed, Ukraine aspires for a sense of self – a culture and people independent of Russia and the West.

The heart of these Ukrainian aspirations is Lviv, a city of 800,000 people in western Ukraine. Since its founding in 1256, Lviv has been called: Lvov (Russian), when the Soviets absorbed it in 1946; Lwow, when this city was a part of Poland; and Lemberg (German), when the city was a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The center of Lviv is dominated, not by a medieval fortress with castle and cathedral, but a large tree-lined square anchored by an opera house. Lviv’s cobblestone streets are lined with excellent examples of Renaissance, Baroque, neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture, and its squares are governed by 19th century statues.

However these signs of sophisticated affluence are deceiving. Scaffolds flank the facades of many buildings – to protect pedestrians from falling debris. Most of the city’s architectural monuments are in dire need of repair. And once a visitor passes through the thresholds, he enters a destitute world – the legacy of Lviv’s communist past.

On a mild day in mid-January, I went from one store to another, eager to mingle with the locals (my clothes gave me away instantly), searching in vain for a traditional hand-embroidered linen towel. Instead I found empty shelves, filthy walls and dim lights. Outside old women peddled dried mushrooms, fried dough and even used domestic items not available in the stores.

Altogether it was most depressing – the exuberant architecture that surrounded us oppressed us. Lviv’s prosperity was peeling away, exposing the failures of the Marxist ideal.

It was with relief that we left Lviv one afternoon for the village of Hrushiv, the site of a purported Marian apparition. At first I declined, but a drive in the country and an opportunity to meet “real” people seemed promising. So I went.

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Tags: Ukraine Cultural Identity Art Architecture