David A. Mittell Jr., of Boston, has visited Lviv 22 times, some of them while he was on the editorial board of the Providence Journal, where I first met him. He now writes independently, after a stint as editor of the Duxbury (Mass.) Clipper. He is back in Boston, home from reporting on the war with Russia and on the nation’s bitter politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In land, Ukraine is now the largest nation in Europe. Mittell has, it seems, a second family of friends in Lviv, to which he returns as if to a lover.
Mittell’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He says he will send me some his own photographs of Lviv. I will devote a separate post to them. Here is his recent column on Lviv, published on January 22:
Why I love Lviv
by David A. Mittell Jr.
Lviv in Ukraine is the least-known most beautiful city in Europe, maybe in the world. Built over eight centuries it was never seriously bombed. It is forgotten today because it fell almost exactly on the Curzon Line – British Foreign Secretary George Curzon’s 1919 attempt to create a Polish-Russian border far enough from Moscow to be stable, and also to allow a Polish-German border far enough from Berlin to be stable. In its last throes British imperialism had its good intentions.
Lviv was taken by Stalin in 1939 and bandied at Yalta before being assigned to the Soviet Union in 1945 as a sign of Anglo-American good will, in the hope of Stalin’s reciprocation in Poland. Ha!
When the Soviets moved in for good Lviv disappeared as a known city. Its row houses of Austrian, Polish, Armenian, Jewish and Ukrainian construction were occupied but not cared for by Soviet officialdom. By 1991, when communism abruptly ended, water had worked its way into the elegant masonry of every style of folk and bourgeois genius.
The city’s treasures today are divided into a sort of tryka – three horses – forming a continuum. In the lead are structures that have been restored so well that one needs a blueprint or a chisel to be sure one is not being taken in by new construction.
In second place are buildings that have been partially repaired – for example, their essential downspouts replaced; or their being given new sash with the sturdy mullions typical of Lviv’s most common traditions; or perhaps their being restored at the first-floor retail level but not above.
Third are dwellings suffering a further quarter century of neglect. In my 22 visits to Lviv each arrival has swelled the first and second orders and reduced the third, which is most pronounced outside of Lviv, in the countryside.
Lviv is a city of steep hills around the valley of the now mostly unseen Poltva River. Highest is Visoky Zamok (“High Castle) – so exactly pyramidal that I suspect the mound-building Scythians shaped it in prehistoric times. (All history isn’t known; that one is for the future to go figure on.)
Near Svobody (“Freedom”) Boulevard – a great mall predating the Champs Elysees and Commonwealth Avenue in Boston – the city’s buildings seem distinctly Elizabethan. Their arched gateways cut under second stories into courtyards with open balconies of two or three stories, behind which families lived. One pictures children, laundry, cooking above, and horses and ordure below – except on afternoons when one can vividly imagine Shakespeare being performed in his lifetime.
Today, some of these courtyards remain as they were built. Others now open onto back streets, restaurants, shops and a number of new hotels.
The Austrian era, which ended with World War I, comprised many styles. They marked themselves to the untrained eye with elaborate stone or masonry balconies, and faux stone façades over bricken bases – the last, unfortunately, visible after 75 years of water working in.
Under Austrian rule Lviv was Lemberg, and Poland served as a sort of political proconsul, to the displeasure of the rural Ukrainian majority. In the interwar period Poland ruled outright. Lviv was Lwoow.
Architecturally, Polish rule produced a treasure trove of Art Deco buildings – thousands of them. Today, these closely resemble the older Austrian buildings in that their state of repair ranges from exquisitely restored to decrepit. Contemporary architects show Art Deco’s influence, especially in reviving the look of the curved metal railings enclosing nearly all Art Deco balconies.
For the tram lover Lviv is heaven-sent. Trams run on straight or winding cobblestone streets, they join with each other and separate, and they cross each other at right angles. The effect is like being on the set of Dr. Zhivago or a Sherlock-Holmes remake putting the imagination into lost London. I am a well-known poet, but with an overcoat, a briefcase and a black homberg hat I am anonymous! People share their small talk in Ukrainian, nominally, but really in the language of our common humanity.
I love it here.