Part Two: A City Bursts With Life in Times of War
You can eat at a posh pizza restaurant and head for cover during an air raid siren all in the same afternoon.
LVIV, UA — Nick drops the Citroen into second gear and floors it.
The tires judder on cobblestone streets, shaking our tiny French car to what feels like some sort of breaking point. But he keeps his foot firmly on the gas pedal, winding up a hill held together with soggy asphalt and good intentions.
“C’mon car, let’s go,” says Nick, an interpreter and former engineer in the Ukrainian army. “This way to city centre is shorter but these streets are shit.”
The commute to downtown Lviv is exhilarating. It begins on a dirt road where chickens graze in backyards and concrete statues of the Virgin Mary peer out at passing cars. It ends in the frenzy of downtown traffic; Italian sedans jostling for position with Soviet-era Szhegolis whose drivers are fearless. It isn’t uncommon to see one cut off a tram and nearly get railroaded into the afterlife.
Before the city, we slowly zigzag through a checkpoint manned by conscripts in the civilian defense militia. Their position is reinforced with concrete dividers, tires piled six feet high, tank traps and men with rifles that date back to the time of Konstantin Chernenko.
The guards are authorized to check passports, search cars and remove contraband. Transporting alcohol, for instance, isn’t permitted under martial law so a checkpoint usually has at least a few bottles of vodka kicking around.
When they give us the green light, Nick pops the car back into gear and drives up another hill into the high rise apartments and back towards downtown. Even in wartime, it is a city bursting with life, where old, new, east and west are enmeshed in something uniquely Ukrainian.
Nick steps out of the car and lights a cigarette, tossing it after a few drags. Next he’s darting across the street just fast enough to dodge an oncoming tram. I try to keep up.
“Maybe we will go see the refugee centre, yeah?” he says.
We walk around three city guards carrying AK-47s on shoulder straps. A line of people wait to exchange currency before heading for the border with Poland. Whereas everything in the western half of the continent is standardized, the east still has vestiges of old Europe. Six of the eight European countries that don’t use the Euro are in the east.
Ukrainians in Lviv trade their hryvnias for Polish złoty while, in the south, they exchange them for Romanian Ieu or Hungarian forint. The process involves an ungodly amount of long division.
The hryvania (Ukrainian, try to keep up) hit a seven-year low at the outset of the war when there was a run on banks. In the west, media reports played on the old trope of Slavic peasants trading a wagon full of useless cash for a loaf of bread, ignoring the region’s adaptability. Whatever crash was meant to happen didn’t materialize.
People turned to cryptocurrency and stocked up on US dollars as a precaution. The government, meanwhile, sold war bonds and non-fungible tokens to shore up the economy.
I probably shouldn’t write this but I’ve been walking around the city with thousands in American greenbacks taped to my leg. It’s surprisingly painful after a day of trudging around the city in combat boots and I doubt whoever might be tempted to rob me reads this newsletter. But I’d rather not roll the dice on that.
Martial law has made wire transfers and automatic banking a bit tricky so we trade dollars for hryvnia in a booth outside the market square. A woman with her kids and luggage in tow asks if they still have złoty. They do. She smiles.
“What are the most common exchanges these days?” I ask via Nick.
“Euro and złoty,” the man says, handing over a wad of hundreds.
We leave, stop for coffee and Nick takes two drags of a cigarette. TV reporters document life at the refugee centre, doing live hits in Italian, Spanish, English, French and an assortment of Slavic languages.
Two men sit in a yellow jalopy eating warm buckwheat out of styrofoam bowls.
Vadim and Andriy have been shuttling back and forth from Kyiv every day, taking kids out of danger and bringing back supplies for those still holding down the capital. With Putin’s forces shelling the city non stop, they’ve made it into the northern suburbs and to cities a short drive southwest of Kyiv.
The only way in or out is through a narrowing corridor south but even that isn’t safe. I’ve spoken to at least a dozen refugees who say they’ve come under fire while escaping Kyiv and its suburbs.
“For now we don’t want our soldiers to worry about their kids, we need them to fight the enemy,” Andriy says. “We never really left Kiev because we will keep going back to support the cause.”
The men, brothers, describe heavy traffic leaving the city and a series of checkpoints on the long road to Lviv. Some chose to leave at night and drive through country roads with their headlights turned off. It can take 24 hours to drive the 540 kilometre trek. I ask how they explain this war to children. Do they just tell them they’re going on an adventure?
“We tell them the truth,” Adriy says. “They deserve to know why they’re leaving. They understand, they’re kind of like ‘great, let’s do what we have to do.’ They understand it’s dangerous.
“It’s very sad. This is our country and we just want to live in it.”
Our boots clack against the old city’s roads, echoing against cathedrals and brick buildings covered in plaster and gold ornamentation. The city’s architecture blends Gothic styles of the late 14th century with late-renaissance churches, baroque government buildings and the concrete brutalist surfaces typical of the Soviet Union.
When the war broke out, local officials did their best to safeguard the city’s architectural heritage: boarding up stained glass windows and wrapping statues in protective sheeting.
Vladimir Putin started this war by claiming Ukraine isn’t a real country and doesn’t have a distinct culture. A quick stroll through the city proves this is utter nonsense. The people we now know as Ukrainians have existed here for over 1,000 years, negotiating a complex series of alliances and betrayals with the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania, the Russian Tsars and Party Chairmen who treated their Slavic cousins as a lesser people.
And yet, their language and culture are as vibrant as ever — shining through in music, poetry and a pitch black sense of humour. I consider myself something of a fatalist and none of my jokes land here.
Nick is a shining example of Ukraine’s persistence amid so many competing interests. His name is actually Mykola, the Ukrainian equivalent of Nicholas, because he was born on St. Nicholas day. He speaks English, Ukrainian, Russian and Polish. He is an interpreter, an amateur car mechanic, an engineer who disarmed a 45 kg mine at the outset of the Crimean fighting in 2014.
But it takes me hours and a dozen or so cigarettes to get this information out of him. Nick takes two drags and we hop onto an old yellow bus. People scroll on their phones and go about their work but the specter of war is never far away. Tears stream down a woman’s face as she squeezes her husband’s hand. We pass families dragging their luggage as it bounces along the spaces between cobblestones.
Wartime propaganda is all over the city too. A digital sign that reads “Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself” glows outside a liquor and tobacco shop. The vulgar slogan became a rallying cry against Russian aggression. The phrase is based on reports and leaked audio of Ukrainian soldiers on the Black Sea who told the invaders to fuck off when the commander of a warship asked them to surrender.
They were hit with a barrage of gunfire from the ship and there have since been competing reports about whether they died or were taken prisoner. Sometimes, the truth becomes a casualty in the war over hearts and minds.
“Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself” can be seen on government billboards over the highway and memes shared by Ukrainian celebrities on social media. One Ukrainian told me that the nation’s older, more observant Christian population isn’t thrilled with the “foul language” but he quite likes it.
Also jarring, the sound of an air raid siren pierces through downtown on occasion, snapping everyone back to reality.
Near the train station where refugees arrive from the front, women sell Icons of Christ next to a newsstand outside the Church of Saints Olga and Elizabeth.
An elderly man peddles books from his collection across from the Gothic church. He needs some cash to get through another month of belt tightening. Serhii was born in 1945, when Ukraine was only recovering from a war that killed an estimated 7 million of their people. He still remembers the day they announced Josef Stalin’s death.
“Our schoolteacher cried when she told us the news,” Serhii said. “We didn’t know about the atrocities. They kept them from us. It was a time of national mourning. Only years later, when Kruschev released the real documents, Soviet leaders allowed the real history to be told. We did not know how brutal he was to us.”
Under Soviet rule, the Russians excluded most Ukrainians from the professional class and communist party leadership, keeping the best jobs for loyalists from other parts of the empire. But Ukraine was the industrial engine of the USSR and though its people played a huge role in defeating the Nazis, they were brushed aside and kept in menial labour once the war was over.
“What would you want an outsider to know about Lviv?” I ask.
“In times of war or peace, in times of famine or prosperity, Lviv is always interesting,” he says. “It may be hard sometimes but there’s always life here.”
When I ask to take his picture, he pulls down his mask to reveal a thin moustache and goatee. Even after a lifetime of hardship, he cuts a handsome figure.
Serhii says he wants reconciliation with his Russian neighbours and a better future for the children of Ukraine. Only about 30 of his 77 years have been spent in a democratic country. And, too often, that democracy existed at the edge of Putin’s knife. Russian interference in the 2004 and 2014 elections as well as the ensuing Ukrainian resistance were precursors to last month’s invasion.
“We will hope for the best, we are neighbours but this war will not end well for Russia,” he said. “Most of our people will never forget it.”
We arrive at the train station as thousands more refugees pour into the city from the east. Others line up for hundreds of meters to board a westbound train. Keeping them warm and fed is an enterprise that combines hundreds of volunteers and government officials stationed in tents across the square.
“We go to Platform 2, take this,” a towering Polish man says, dropping an enormous bag at our feet.
Nick and I each grab a side, pull the heavy bag and we follow the man, two women and six children through a sea of people. The oldest boy is maybe seven years old, holding his baby brother and beckoning the others to hurry. They climb into a diesel train with wooden seats and smoke billowing from its engine.
There are only three adults catching their breath as the kids run roughshod over the old Russian passenger car. This isn’t as crowded because, unlike most of the trains, this one is staying in Ukraine, bound for a village near the Carpathian mountains. The Polish man grabs my phone and punches his number into WhatsApp. In his profile picture, he’s sipping a cocktail through a straw and winking at the camera.
“Now we are friends!” he says.
It’s easy to mistake the blunt speak of some Slavs as rudeness but my experience has been that they’re incredibly warm and generous people. They simply do not have time for the pretend niceties that are the de facto code of conduct in the west.
After a day of hustling across the city, Nick takes me for pizza in a posh restaurant a few blocks from the building the international media centre — a base of operation for foreign correspondents. The country is at war but in the western part of Ukraine, you can still buy a large Hawaiian pie and wash it down with a bottle of Pepsi. Provided you pay in cash, of course.
Soldiers eat among paramedics and civilians while staff hurry to keep thing moving. Only after hours of working together does Nick tell me about his time in the Ukrainian armed forces.
“I didn’t really like shooting things,” he said. “De-mining was my specialty. It was like solving a puzzle, it was a problem that needed solving. I liked that. You can’t be stressed when you’re disarming a 45 kg explosive. It doesn’t help.”
When Russian-backed militias took Crimea in 2014, they prepared for a Ukrainian counterattack by laying down thousands of mines. In the ensuing eight years, the explosives caused over 2,000 casualties — including a family of four that died after their car rolled over an anti-vehicle mine last year.
That’s according to HALO Trust, an NGO dedicated to ending the use of landmines.
“It could take 15 to 20 years to de-mine the region,” Nick said. “Technically what they’re doing isn’t a violation of mine treaties because the territories aren’t under the authority of any legally-recognized government. But they know what they’re doing.”
We pay the bill and Nick takes me back to my hotel, driving at the breakneck speeds that make life in Lviv so intoxicating. He tells me about meeting his wife at a club, about how the war interrupted their plans to have a child and build a house, about the tension between his sense of duty to his country and the desire to make a life for his family.
“We had a modest wedding, only 35 people but I did this with no financial assistance from my parents,” Nick says. “Maybe when our child is born, we’ll live somewhere else. We’re educated, we speak many languages and we want our children to know a better life than we did.”
It occurs to me, as we speed past trams of every size and description— just as handling money in Lviv is an operation that exists outside the standardization of European currency — not much else in the city is regimented the way it is in our square, Anglo-Saxon world.
Some cops carry weapons built in Soviet times while others have modern-looking M4s favoured by American tactical officers. A few police officers drive beat up Szhegolis while city guards might ride around in sleek German cars. A Scandinavian-looking café shares a block with an aluminum shack built during Gorbachev’s time as the final head of Russia’s communist party.
Snow falls gently on the checkpoint as we drive through one last time. Nick walks up to the barrel fire and tries to get the guards to agree to an interview but they’re cold and grumpy.
I would have liked to spend more time with Nick, who wound up getting one or two of my jokes by day’s end. But in addition to his other jobs, he’s also a volunteer in the militia.
“You have my number if you need anything” he says, as we say our goodbyes outside Hotel Kopa.
He lights a cigarette, takes two drags and tosses it.
Merci Tito Curtis. Superbe peinture des lieux.