Family HIstory

The Old Country: Lviv

  • October 1, 2017

Monument to Taras Shevchenko, Lviv.


Having survived the first two days of my insane itinerary, my guide Diana Borysenko had scheduled us for two relatively relaxing days in Lviv consisting of various historical, museum and church tours, a vist to several unique cafes for coffee and confections, the sampling of local cuisine, and an evening at the Opera House to attend a “gala” presentation of the inaugural season of the LvivMozArt Festival.

LVIV [Лвів].

Well for starters how about a capsulized history of “Leo’s Town”. Lviv is the major city and cultural center in Western Ukraine, located a mere 70 kilometers from the Polish border with a current population approaching 800 thousand. Archaeologists claim to have evidence that the area was initially settled in the 5th Century, and by the early 13th Century after the dissolution of the Kievan Rus, the city itself was founded by Danylo Romanovych (Halytskyi), also known as Daniel of Galicia – crowned as the “First King of Ruthenia” – who then made it his capitol and named the city after his son, Lev (Leo). Over the following centuries, Lviv – which is known by five names (and probably a few more in the vernacular): Leopolis (Latin), Lviv (Ukrainian), Lvov (Russian), Lwow (Polish), and Lemberg (Austrian) – plus most of what is now Western Ukraine was conquered or ruled in succession by the Tatars (The Golden Horde), the Poles, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Austrians, the Russians, the Poles again, the Germans, the Soviet Union, and finally became a part of independent Ukraine in 1991 after the USSR collapsed. The history of Ukraine — “The Frontier” — is a controversial one, with dark and complicated alliances and conflicted national characters as we shall briefly explore below.

For those that only read or hear the propaganda dished out by the corporate-owned Western MSM, you should understand – if you don’t already – that as of this writing, Ukraine is at war (again) along its Eastern borders with its historical adversary Russia and when I say “historical” I mean “for centuries”; almost as long as Rome was at war with the Persians. For hundreds of years both the area including its indigenous Slavic people that comprises much of what is now modern Ukraine was referred to as “Little Russia” [Мала Рус]; a term still used today by Russian nationalists who deny that Ukraine and Ukrainians are distinct from Russia and Russians. Remember the toponym “ukraine” transliterates to “frontier” or “borderland” thus a “ukrainian” might for some likewise transliterate to “country bumpkin” or even “dumb illiterate”. Today many Ukrainian nationalists consider the term to be an insult, indicative of imperial Russian (and Soviet) historical suppression of the Ukrainian national ethos.

Memorials and Monuments

Lychakiv Cemetery

So I am taking a bit of “poetic license” here in starting the narrative of our visit to Lviv with monuments and memorials beginning in a cemetery. The Lychakiv Cemetery, officially called the State History and Culture Museum-Preserve, has been the primary necropolis of Lviv’s intelligentsia and upper classes since the 18th Century so it contains memorial areas dedicated to historical families and figures both Ukrainian and Polish such as writers, poets, teachers, performers and political leaders including, poet Ivan Franko, graphic artist Leopold Levitskiy, composer Volodymyr Ivasyuk, and opera diva Solomiya Krushelnytska, to name a few.

Right now there is a war happening in the East and as a result people are dying, the evidence being fresh graves at a recently dedicated memorial site containing the remains of local soldiers located in an addition to Lychakiv Cemetery that was recently created to honor the dead. Approaching the memorial on foot Diana and I walked past several mourners, including a man standing alone with tears streaming down his face. And as I passed him I got the feeling that I was an intruder, disrupting not only his private grieving but also that of an entire nation, internally locked in an interminable war with itself — this Forever War being waged between the socio-economic classes, a battle that seemingly impacts only those that fight it while those that perpetuate it reap the profits. Momentarily overcome by despair, I muttered to myself: “The clock is ticking, world. The clock is ticking”.

There are also military memorials and monuments dedicated even to Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Nazis; also the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów dedicated to Poles who fought in the post WW I wars of 1919-1921 against both Ukrainian Nationalists and the Soviets; and amazingly a Ukrainian National Army Memorial that includes tombs of soldiers of the SS-Division – Galicia (prior to 1944 titled the 14th SS-Volunteer Division “Galicia” [14а Добровільна Дивізія СС “Галичина”]; and a monument to the unknown soldiers who died fighting the Soviets in 1944. But you get the idea; the Russians are not well thought of in Galicia.


Monument to Taras Shevchenko

Dedicated on the first anniversary of Ukrainian independence, the Monument to Taras Shevchenko features a statue of the poet fronting a massive 12 meter pylon called The Wave of the Ukrainian Revival which is itself adorned with numerous allegorical bas-reliefs on both sides depicting the history of Ukraine from the Kievan Rus era to the present [see feature image above].

Monument to Stepan Bandera.

Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian political activist and a leader of the nationalist and independence movement of Ukraine including the OUN [see image] and the UPA.

In the early months of World War II he cooperated with Nazi Germany, but after Ukrainians declared an independent Ukrainian state (30 Jun 1941), the Gestapo arrested him on 15 September 1941 and he became a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1944, with Germany rapidly losing ground in the war in the face of the advancing Allied armies, Bandera was released, in the hope that he could deter the advancing Soviet forces. Fourteen years after the end of the war, in 1959, the KGB had Bandera assassinated in Munich, Germany.

—- Wiki

This monument, dedicated in 2007, has prompted much critical debate throughout the country concerning the role played by Bandera and both the OUN and the UPA both during and post WW II, applauded by Ukrainian Nationalists and decried by Russian Nationalists and others. In fact recent surveys have disclosed that the further East one travels in Ukraine itself, the less positive are citizen attitudes towards Bandera; the highest being in Galicia; the lowest in Crimea and oblasts on the country’s Eastern borders.

The reason for this of course is the role that the Ukrainian nationalist movements personified by the OUN and UPA have played in the struggle for independence; from the fight by Ruthenians for a free state, to the Sich Riflemen Brigades of WW I, to the SS Galicia Division of WW II, all have had one common enemy – Russia in all of its incarnations. And in that struggle partisans have had to make controversial alliances; with the Poles; with the Austrians; and the most heinous being with the Nazis. A contemporary example of this “frenemy” policy would be the United States aligning with the Wahhabist Saudis (whose citizens were responsible for the 9/11 attacks), Zionist Israel, and Shia dominated Iraq to fight other Shia majority countries like Syria, Yemen, and Iran.

The truth is the world needs more activists. If current events are any indication, it seems that on the one hand nationalism, often conflated with xenophobia and even fascism, aims to protect cultural heritage and the status quo but is stuck in reverse with old ideas and failed policies. While on the other, globalism – proposed by neo-liberal capitalists as a market-based solution for re-distributing wealth and eternal economic growth – has in point-of-fact resulted in a race to the bottom for all but the elite class; both ideologies being sides of the same coin only The Few get to spend. We live in a world beset by challenging environmental and economic problems exacerbated by a seemingly perpetual state of war (The Forever War). Attempting to solve any of these issues will require a combination of partisanship, activism and diplomacy rather than armed conflict. Just ask yourself “who benefits and who doesn’t?”

Okay, I’ll get off my “soap box” now. Back to Diana:


Pigs In A Blanket

There comes a time in during any travelogue when you have to eat. In fact one could make the case that a major reason for traveling at all is to sample the host country’s cuisine. Well, grab your napkins and gather around the table. As a kid I remember Grandma Anna toiling away in her kitchen preparing delicious batches of “pedaheh” (pirogi) and holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls) – better known to me as “pigs in a blanket” — with most of the ingredients harvested locally right from her own garden (well the “pigs” didn’t grow there of course). I still have a mental image of her out in the Sun among the cabbages, her babushka wrapped about her head, filling her bushel basket with vegetables. I just have to say, it’s not the same image I get as the one of pushing a cart up aisle four at the Piggly Wiggly.

Anyway, Diana promised me a sumptuous lunch at one of Lviv’s must-eat restaurants known as the 7 Piggies. I was really looking forward to this place and it didn’t disappoint. First we had the borsch soup, followed by a sampling of varenyky (dumplings), and finally the holubtsi — their version being prepared with a tasty tomato cream sauce — all of it washed down with a wonderful mixed fruit drink I could not get enough of. Yum! Ok. Now I was definitely ready for more sites of interest including one of the most unique museums in the country.

Shevchenskivskiy (Shevchenko) Park.

Next we visited the Shevchenskivskiy Hai. Better known as the “Open-air Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life“, this ethnographic park is dedicated to the conservation of the rural architecture, every-day utensils, the folk art, and the preservation of the cultural practices and skills from the Past.

Every area consists of historically-accurate buildings, complete with the practical tools and manufactory implements from last three centuries and is one of the largest open-air museums in Europe. Every installation consists of authentic interiors presenting the image of the daily life, work and leisure of the typical Western Ukrainian village. On weekends, the park also includes events such as masterclasses and demonstrations of traditional crafts, such as baking, pottery, doll making, wood carving, Pysanka painting, bee keeping, etc. Here’s one — the village blacksmith.


We also stopped to view the work of one of Diana’s aquaintances Halyna Syrotyuk [see photo], an artist and member of the Ukrainian National Union of Folk Art Masters who practices the art of “pysankarstvo / писанкарство”, delicately “writing” by hand these intricately-decorated pysanky or Ukrainian Easter eggs. The process is amazing; taking a “real” chicken, goose, or ostrich egg (where to you get ostrich eggs in Ukraine?); drawing or etching either a traditional or unique design on it using a pysaltse (or pysachok) pen. The pen consists of a small metal reservoir with a fine tip/opening on a wooden or plastic handle. Wax is scooped into the reservoir, heated, and then the stylus is used to write with wax on an egg’s shell.

All of this is done by hand, mind you; somehow draining the yoke and the white from its interior; carefully cracking the egg open at the middle and inserting papier mache within the two halves of the shell; glueing it all back together again, and finally finishing the art work on the exterior of egg shell. I’m told each pysanka takes the better part of a day to complete. I wound up buying a bunch of them for my nieces (whom I love to pieces).

While we were visiting with Halyna, several other guests arrived including two orthodox priests from Munich. While Diana struck up a conversation with them, I signed the guest book and when I handed it back to the male attendant, he took note of our surname, commenting to me in English: “Do you know that your surname Бабій comes from the Ukrainian term “babiy” which means “womanizer” or “ladies man”?

“I seem to recall reading or hearing that somewhere”, I replied. Hmmm. No wonder the spelling was changed to ”Babij”.

Cathedrals, Churches, and Chapels

According to the Wiki, there are three major cathedrals in Lviv: the Armenian Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary which has origins dating back to the mid-14th Century and serves as the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church; the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption or simply The Latin Cathedral which dates from the 15th Century; and Saint George’s Cathedral [see photo] dating from the 13th Century which is the mother church of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite) church situated on Saint George Hill.

At one time — before the Communist Era — there were more than 60 major places of worship in Lviv, including the Golden Rose Synagogue, considered to be the oldest in Ukraine now a ruin having been almost completely demolished by the invading Nazi’s in 1941. Dedicated as a World Heritage Site in 1998, oft-delayed plans are in the works to preserve the Golden Rose Synagogue as a memorial site.

Apparently the only cathedral to survive the Communist Era relatively unscathed was the Latin Cathedral, since most if not all churches and synagogues were either demolished, shuttered, used as depositories for weaponry, converted to military barracks, or used to store books as was Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church and even up until 2011 it was home to more than 2 million volumes.

We visited several churches and chapels including the Garrison Church AKA Jesuit Church; the 18th Century Baroque revival Dominican Church; the glorious neo-Gothic Church of Saints Olga and Elizabeth; and the magnificently ornate Boim Chapel situated next to the Latin Cathedral, with a statue of the thinking man’s Jesus perched atop its cupola. We’ve put together a mini-tour for you here:

Chocolatiers and Chimneysweeps

Okay! Who’s ready for some chocolate! Well I don’t know about you, but I was. Maybe it had something to do with what I ruminated about in the first post of this series: religious convictions vs pagan confections? Anyway, Diana navigated us to the place where they make some of the best chocolate West of Switzerland – Lvivska Matusternya Shokoladu or the Lviv Handmade Chocolate factory. It was a busy place so we had to queue up which was a good thing because we had time to choose among the myriad of chocolate delights before us, finally setting on an assortment of truffles that we spirited off to enjoy at a nearby coffee shop.

Afterwards we stopped at another chocolatier’s shop near Rynok Square where the delicacies were fashioned into tools, toy cars, animals, and even replicas of Nikon cameras. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture….I think it’s a Nikon F2.

Around the corner we stopped on by another unique shop, the multi-storied House Of Legends restaurant fronted by the image of a fire-breathing dragon. Each of its floors mounted by creaky wooden stairs, contains a tiny space dedicated to one sort of uniquely Lviv urban oeuvre or another; books, the weather, time, and the perfect cobblestone. On the roof is a cafe festooned with an actual car with oars sticking out of its sides, where one can sit suspended over the side of the building. And in the background perched on a chimney is the icon of a chimneysweep holding a bucket. “Legend” has it that if you can pitch a coin successfully into the bucket you will be blessed with good luck (or maybe one of those chocolate cameras).


Wolfgang, Franz and Company.

So what could possibly top off a tour like this? What attraction or monument or event could be a perfect capstone to an amazing five day excursion into both the past and present of this “Old Country”? How about some great old music: arias from some of the classic Mozart operas (Wolfgang and Franz) performed by the Academic Symphony Orchestra led by Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv and featuring eight singers from Ukraine, Germany, Lithuania, and Romania for the inaugural season of the LvivMozArt Festival at the grand old Opera House? Well, Diana got us seats right up front, practically in the laps of the string section itself. Here’s how the evening ended:



The events of the four previous days of my visit especially the time spent in Ternopil oblast, when coupled with the morning in the Lychakiv Cemetery — witnessing the fresh graves of the newly fallen and a man publicly sharing his grief over a lost loved one in a senseless war (and as a veteran I can make a strong case that all wars are self-perpetuating exercises in cultural hegemony) — emotionally caught me up, binding me to our family heritage as both humans and Ukrainians, so much so that on the ensuing evening prior to my taking leave of this war-ravaged country from the point-of-view of this narrative, I spent a sleepless night weeping on my pillow, as much for those lost lives and for those to come, as for the kindnesses of strangers, their selfless commitment to the service of others, and the open-hearted passion for creating harmony and sharing that I will now carry with me to the End of Days. Thank you Ukrainians, thank you Oksana Romanivna Savchyn , and thank you Diana Borysenko.

In case you missed it you can read our other posts in this continuing series on The Old Country; The Old Country – Ternopil Oblast, recently updated with hot information; the second installment: The Old Country – Ivano Frankivsk Oblast to find out about Babij Mountain; our fourth post entitled The Old Country – Salt of The Earth where we explore our Ukrainian heritage in Galicia; our fifth installment “The Old Country — In Nomine Patris” in which we trace our extended family first and surnames, parse them and speculate as to possible ancestral connections between the families; and our from our most recent visit to Galicia “The Old Country — Between The Forceps And The Stone” in which we delve into the limits of our own mortality and expand upon more ancestral links with actual living relatives. You will seriously not want to miss this one.

And don’t miss all of the videos on our trips to Ukraine featuring our indispensable guide, translator, driver and coordinator Diana Borysenko, including two shorts exploring Pysanky Masterclasses on the art and craft of writing pysanky under the tutelage of Folk Art Master Halyna Syrotyuk; plus two travelogues, The Old Country – Galicia and “The Old Country – Echoes In Time“, documenting our journeys to the oblasts that made up historic Eastern Galicia, where we explore the sights, sounds and the undiscovered past of our paternal heritage —- and heard some great jazz!

And if all of this doesn’t whet your whistle for a visit to our ancestral homeland, check out Diana Borysenko‘s website for links to all of the tours, masterclasses, activities, and ancestral heritage services she provides.

до побачення.

© Kazkar Babiy ™ MMXVII.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License


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