Ukraine: A Journey Through History

The central square of the city of Lviv Market
The central square of the city of Lviv Market, Lviv, Ukraine

Visiting Free Ukraine: A Journey Through the Shadows of History

An outdoor bookmarket in Lviv, Ukraine beneath a monument to Ivan Fedorov, the city's first printer
An outdoor book market in Lviv beneath a monument to Ivan Fedorov, the city’s first printer – photos by Roman Skaskiw

By Roman Skaskiw

“There is a parable of Western Ukraine about a man who was born in Austria, educated in Poland, who went to war in Ukraine, fled to Germany and was executed in the Soviet Union, and he did it all without ever leaving his village.”

It’s difficult to write about Ukraine without writing about history, and it’s difficult to write about Ukrainian history and still leave room for anything else. I want to write a travel essay.

My parents were encouraged to visit Ukraine in the 1970s after a friend of theirs did so and suffered only a long interrogation by Soviet agents. The lady happened to run a hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and her interrogators revealed their knowledge even of the price of pierogies at her hotel’s restaurant.

My parents speculated that she aroused more suspicion than they would because her late husband had been a star on the famous Dynamo Kyiv soccer team which refused to lose to the Germans, and one of the few athletes on the team who escaped execution. That made him a symbol of Ukrainian identity and an enemy to the Soviets.

When my parents visited Ukraine on their honeymoon in 1974, the trip was closely monitored. Hotels were chosen by Intourist, the Soviet Union’s secret-police-run travel agency. Monitors watched the corridors.

My mother arranged a clandestine meeting with relatives well ahead of their trip. She explained in a letter her intention to pray at Saint George’s Cathedral on a particular day, and, in a separate letter, mentioned that she likes to sit in back at church.

When my parents wanted fruit, rather than admit none was available in the workers’ paradise, the Intourist tour guide, a young woman, provided them convoluted directions to a fruit stand which, in fact, didn’t exist.

She fascinates me. The vast engines of Soviet oppression relied on people like her. I imagine her mind several ways: nobly defending the Soviet system against a perception of western capitalist propaganda, indifferent to anything beyond her paycheck, or inwardly conflicted but scared to speak out.

Perhaps this last guess reflects my idealism. The administration of government power through individual cruelty, large or small, doesn’t seem to be much of an obstacle in human history.

Architecture in Lviv, Ukraine.
Architecture in Lviv

My father arranged a car to the village of his youth. He ran up a hill for a long look at the place he’d left three decades earlier, then hurried back to the hotel.

Deviations from the official itinerary were forbidden, though not unheard of, which makes me guess the young Intourist lady was collecting a paycheck and not much else.

At the cathedral, my mother’s family camouflaged her obviously western appearance with a baggy old coat and kerchief. Contact with foreigners was discouraged, and her family didn’t want to arouse suspicion.

So for me, and perhaps for other children of refugees who squeezed themselves through the narrowing cracks of the descending Iron Curtain, who were filled with inherited longing for a country consumed by history, a country which (and this is a concept largely foreign to the west) ceased even to exist, whose language was forbidden, whose patriots were forgotten, whose history was Russified, whose culture and traditions seemed preserved only in Saint George’s Ukrainian Saturday school in New York City’s East Village where teachers constantly scolded us to speak Ukrainian, visiting Ukraine cast my childhood and family history in an entirely new light.

Perhaps my revelation is past its time. Ukraine has been independent for almost two decades now. I should have gotten around to visiting earlier.

Upon hearing the language commonly spoken and seeing our flag, I felt strangely relieved. Part of me didn’t believe the place actually existed. Perhaps I felt relief from the burden of preserving all things Ukrainian by myself, as the attitude at Ukrainian Saturday school seemed to suggest.

In Lviv's Arsenal Museum,a depiction of Orthodox forces defeating crusaders
In Lviv’s Arsenal Museum,a depiction of Orthodox forces defeating crusaders

But looking more closely certainly does not lend clarity to the twists and shadows of history. There is a parable of Western Ukraine about a man who was born in Austria, educated in Poland, who went to war in Ukraine, fled to Germany and was executed in the Soviet Union, and he did it all without ever leaving his village.

Much like looking into a cherry blossom or into the face of a sunflower, things only get more complicated the closer you look. What’s this tension between Greek-Catholics and Orthodox faiths? Between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox faiths?

Why do the Russians also claim the legacy of “our” Kozaks? What’s this Polish claim to Lviv? Who collaborated with Nazis? Who were the Soviets? What brought so much of the Russian language into Kyiv? Who massacred whom? Which massacre was the worst? Which statues should be destroyed? Which ones erected?

Even America’s refugee community represents only a fragment of Ukraine. In the aftermath of WWII, all displaced Ukrainians who were not from the west (the portion of Ukraine which had been under Poland when the war began) were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union, meaning executed or deported to Siberia — by the hundreds of thousands.

I was shocked to learn about the United States’ role in forced repatriation: Operation Keelhaul, aptly named for the medieval practice of tethering a sailor and dragging him beneath the keel of a ship.

"Liberty has no price," inscribed on a plaque remembering a prison break by Ukrainian Nationalists.
“Liberty has no price,” inscribed on a plaque remembering a prison break by Ukrainian Nationalists.

The Hideout

I want to describe a bar in Lviv, but this too must begin with a history lesson.

During World War II, many Ukrainians fought with the Soviets, many fought with the Nazis, and many fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought both the Soviets and the Nazis, and resisted the Soviet Union into the mid-1950s.

The partisans often operated from underground hideouts. Today, scouting organizations still make field trips to search for old hideouts in the woods.

A childhood friend of mine who now reports for an English-language newspaper in Ukraine took me to a bar in Lviv called “Kraeevka” or The Hideout.

There is no sign. The bouncer wore what looked like a model MP 40 submachine gun slug from his neck. “Are the Muscovites with you?” he asked.

“No, we’re Americans,” my friend told him.

“Glory to Ukraine!” the bouncer said.

A sculpture commemorating a prison break by Ukrainian Nationalists
A sculpture commemorating the same prison break

“Glory to the heroes!” my friend replied.

During off-peak hours you might at this point in the ritual receive a free shot of honey vodka in a tin shot glass.

The bouncer pulled one side of a bookshelf and opened it like a door, revealing stairs to the basement bar.

Camouflage netting hung from the ceiling. The tables and benches were hammered together from roughly cut logs, old photos of armed partisans, alone or in small formations, hung everywhere, and Ukrainian rock music blared.

The young servers wore Army-green shirts with a blue-yellow patch, the Ukrainian flag, and a black-red one, an old Kozak flag which had been adopted by the Insurgent Army and, more broadly, by Ukrainian nationalists.

We ordered vodka and a beer called “1715,” named for the opening year of Lviv’s first brewery, and bread, and, on the insistence of my friend, salo, or pig fat, a Ukrainian special and rumored cure-all. Think of the strips of fat on the edge of your bacon and imagine them alone.

A young artist sitting at our table sketched first my friend, then me. Another local pointed to Eurovision 2009 which played on a small television.

The Ukrainian star sang while men in ridiculous Spartan armor carried her around the stage. He told me Ukraine has had a shameful showing since Verka, a transvestite comedian/pop-star, won second place in 2007.

A statue in Lviv
A statue in Lviv

The bar and its dining area were crowded and full of lively conversations. At some point, a fiddler, an accordion player, and a small, excitable man with a tambourine cut through the crowd.

They asked permission, then began playing folk songs which echoed in my memory back to Saint George’s Ukrainian School in the East Village. Everybody sang.

There was a man in a suit from the adjacent table who grabbed the fiddler’s elbow and spoke into her ear between songs.

His eyes looked glazed from drinking, but besides that, he seemed to hold his alcohol well. She nodded and he began a ballad in a loud, droning voice. The musicians found his tune. He sang about betrayal and dead Ukrainian patriots.


The Germans call it Lemberg, the Russians Lvov, the Poles Lwow, and the Ukrainians Lviv.

Lviv is gorgeous. Every step of the way, you find breathtaking architecture – statues built into buildings whose balconies rest on their shoulders, opulent renaissance works, remnants of Medieval fortifications, monuments, churches of various eras, and denominations, cobbled streets.

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