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Lviv, Europe’s Geopolitical Playball

Location of Lviv in Ukraine, picture by Yarn via Wikimedia Commons

Many European cities brand themselves with their rich, dynamic history. However, few cities can say about themselves that they have such a dynamic history as Lviv. For starters, this Ukrainian city has been in five other countries over the past century before becoming part of Ukraine in 1991. All these border changes over the years have naturally affected the city’s identity. High time for an eventful journey through the tragic history of this forgotten geopolitical plaything of the European powers. In case you lose the thread while reading: the table below summarises the steps of the time journey.

NameStatePeriod
LembergAustria-Hungary1772-1918
LvivWest Ukrainian People’s Republic1918-1919
LwówPoland1920-1939
LembergNazi-Germany1939-1945
LvovSoviet Union1945-1991
LvivUkraine1991-today

It is June 1915, in the middle of the First World War. The prince of Austria-Hungary breathes a sigh of relief: the kingdom’s third-largest city has been recaptured from the Russian army.  Ever since the Polish partitions in the 18th century, Lemberg has been in the Austrian crown country of Galicia. Originally Polish, the foundation of a university and its strategic location allowed it to develop into a multicultural and dynamic city where Poles, Germans, Jews, Armenians and Ukrainians lived peacefully side by side.  However, the authority of the Austrians did not last for much longer.

On November 11th, 1918, World War I ended. From the ruins created by the war, a number of new states were able to develop. People belittled for centuries by the great powers were now redeveloping their own states. One of those states was Poland. Lemberg was initially the capital of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic. However, this state proved unable to withstand Polish supremacy, and so Poland annexed the city and surrounding areas in 1919. Lemberg became Lwów and until September 1939, Lwów remained a centre of Polish and Jewish culture. The Germans? They moved away to their homelands, Austria and Germany, respectively, because of the negative economic conditions for them.

Lwów’s heyday came to an end when in 1939 Poland was claimed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany through the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty. Lwów was annexed by the Soviet Union, but when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the town’s Ukrainian residents were only too happy to see an end to this occupation. However, the Germans, as elsewhere in Europe, kept a firm grip and deported Lviv’s entire Jewish population to extermination camps. An entire culture, all its citizens included, was wiped out in just three years.

After defeating Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union saw its chance: what they had been deprived of after WWI, they could now take back to themselves. After all, Poland had been completely destroyed during the war, and the Germans had to pay the price for losing the war. Poland tried in vain several times to retake Lwów but to no avail. In 1945, Lwów became Lvov, and the city henceforth fell under the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. However, the many Poles still living in Lvov were a thorn in the Soviets’ side. Coincidentally, the renewed state of Poland had a similar problem: in the parts Poland was allowed to annex from defeated Germany, many Germans still lived. They were expelled from the country without pardon. Their empty houses could be filled straight away with Poles from Lvov: the Soviets thought it would be an interesting idea to deport the ‘surplus’ citizens to their ‘motherland’, and so Lvov could, in turn, be filled with citizens from the rest of the Soviet empire. The hitherto largest population group was, again, in just a few years, completely obliterated. Lvov had become a Ukrainian-Russian city in a Polish-Austrian shell. No one by now knew of the multicultural, Central European glory that characterised Lvov until deep into the 20th century. The city had become part of the periphery of the Soviet Union and had no ties to its past in anything. Until 1991.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and, at the same time, the creation of independent Ukraine, Lvov had a key role. Through migration from the rest of western Ukraine, the city became a hotbed of Ukrainian national culture, which sought to turn its gaze back to its old brethren in central Europe. In 1991, Lviv became the city’s official name, and since then, attempts have been made to connect with Europe with varying degrees of success. One of the best opportunities the city has had for this was the organisation of the European Football Championship in 2012, in which Lviv was a playing city. High efforts were made to improve the tourist infrastructure, but large tourist flows failed to materialise. Has the border of the old Soviet empire now penetrated too far into the minds of Europeans?

Expressions of Ukrainian nationalism after the 2014 revolution, picture by Dion Glastra (2014)
Expressions of Ukrainian nationalism after the 2014 revolution, picture by Dion Glastra (2014)

By 2016, when I first visited this city and a hundred years after the starting point of our time travel through the geopolitical history of the already 25-year-old Ukrainian Lviv, the two main population groups living there at the time had been exterminated or taken away. The city has been part of as many as six countries. Of course, the story does not end here; quite the contrary. During the Ukrainian protests of the past two years, Lviv, even more than other parts of Ukraine, sought rapprochement with the EU. In late 2013, the Lviv region’s administration even briefly declared independence from the central authority in Kyiv before pro-Europeans won there too.

 The story of this forgotten city illustrates how big an impact political decisions can have on the identity of cities. Whereas 100 years ago, Lviv was a multicultural, dynamic city in the heart of Europe, today, Lviv is a city mentally on the periphery of our continent and has to make extreme efforts to have any image at all in the minds of Europeans. Will Lviv succeed in its ambition to one day return to the heart of Europe?

Tip: despite the huge demographic tragedy that has plagued Lviv, the city itself is wonderfully well preserved and, therefore, well worth a visit. Unfortunately, it appears to be a very bumpy road for Lviv to become the new city trip hype of Europe. Since February 2022, the right of Ukraine to be a nation has been contested once again. Russian attacks have hit the country and made many people flee. Although Lviv itself has not been on the front line, the city’s social fabric has been severely affected by the influx of refugees. But let’s hope that the war is over soon so that we can support the Ukrainian people by visiting this beautiful city and its kind people!

Finally, an overview of Lviv’s demographic changes between 1900 and 2001.

Population19001931195919892001
Poles49%50%4%1%1%
Jews27%32%6%2%0%
Ukrainians20%16%60%79%88%
Russians0%0%27%16%9%
Others4%2%3%2%2%
The population composition of Lviv between 1900 and 2001. ‘Other’ includes Germans, Armenians and Belarusians.

This article was published in Dutch in 2016 and has been translated and updated by the original author. Visit the original here.

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