Waldemar Januszczak expected shabby desolation when he accompanied his mother back to Ukraine; instead he found a new Prague.
When Lviv is spoilt, when this beautiful and almost untouched architectural gem of a city has completed its metamorphosis into the new Prague, there will, I predict, be Sacher Masoch bars everywhere. There will be whip emporiums, kinky cellars, domination dens, the works. That most enterprising organization, the Ukrainian mafia, will have set up a network of special S&M pain-parlors to cater for visiting Germans and the like. The rest of us will be able to tour the house in which Leopold von Sacher Masoch was actually born, in 1836, and go on Venus in Fur rides through his gorgeous old town. This is not, however, what I fear most.
I have read Sacher Masoch. The great pervert of Lviv is, after all, for better or worse, Ukraine’s most internationally famous writer. In Ukraine itself they prefer to worship Taras Shevchenko, their 19th-century national poet, after whom half the country’s squares have been renamed, and who has replaced Lenin on most Ukrainian pedestals. But I could not find an English translation of Shevchenko’s work.
No such problems exist with Sacher Masoch, who has been translated as enthusiastically as he himself wanted, I read, to be trodden on and whipped. The world’s first official masochist believed that decadence was not as destructive as reason. He feared sensible thoughts, not kinky ones. How entirely right he was to do so. It will not be fur-clad Venuses with whips that bring down old Lviv, but level-headed chaps with clipboards. One day in Lviv there will be road-markings, sodium lighting, designated parking spaces, traffic signals, official places to cross the street, and Tarmac. The ubiquitous cobbles that wreck the suspensions of the mafia’s fine fleet of Mercedes saloons will have been buried, and the slow, clattering trams used by everyone else will have made way for fast, smooth ones. In the shops, old women who can count unbelievably quickly on abacuses will be replaced by young women taking their time on state-of-the-art computers. Urban reason will have triumphed. And the Lviv I find myself besotted with will have gone. None of this has happened yet.
I ought to loathe Ukraine. My people, the Poles, have had the sort of bitter and deadly relationship with Ukrainians that only Slavs can enjoy with other Slavs. My father had been a policeman in Lviv before the war, a rounder-up of communists who ended up being rounded-up himself, sitting in his own prison. For four centuries Lviv had been a Polish town, and was given no choice in the matter. My mother was born an hour’s drive south in a village with a church and a school and not much else. Two years ago, I decided to take her back so that she could touch something real again in her own childhood (and perhaps finally stop talking about it as if it were yesterday). Every single Pole we spoke to warned us against going.
Mickey Finns will be slipped into your tea on trains, they insisted. The mafia runs all the hotels. The roads are patrolled by bandits. The fields are full of Chernobyl radiation. The towns are full of purse-gatherers. Perhaps they were all out there somewhere. Ukraine is, after all, the biggest country in Europe. But we encountered none of them. We had a wonderful time in rural Ukraine, my mother and I, although if you had come across us squeezed into tiny kitchen parlors barely large enough for one plump babushka , let alone five of them, plus one babushka ‘s sizable foreign son, drinking ourselves into red-eyed, head-clutching existentialism, sobbing to the saddest songs I had ever heard, night after night, you may not have recognized the state we were in as intense, unforced, Slavic happiness.
We also spent several days in Lviv, Lwow to my mother. We stayed in the best hotel, the Grand, which I unhesitatingly recommend, even though (or perhaps because) most mornings a chap with a Travolta ponytail accompanied by a 300lb gorilla with a broken nose would arrive to collect the takings. To my astonishment, I found the city to be an unspoilt architectural paradise about which I had never read a word of informed praise. I had come here expecting to be moved by my mother’s story, and was. But the discovery that, underneath the accumulated grey gunk of 50 years of communism, a city as architecturally complex as Lviv had been preserved almost intact was a revelation.
What today’s Lviv needs is not Tarmac and yellow lines but a guidebook that recognizes outstanding architecture when it encounters it. The one I had (Bradt’s Hiking Guide to Poland & Ukraine; it was all I could find) had led me to the church of the Bernardines on the edge of Sacher Masoch’s old town, but it had not prepared me for the spectacular beauty of the early gold. They have always loved gold. The teeth of the babushkas selling sour cream for pouring on dumplings in the lively outdoor market opposite the Bernardine church are made mostly of gold.
In Kiev, in one of the most spectacular small museums I have ever visited, there is a hoard of Scythian gold from the 4th century BC that is so unmistakably, gloriously desirable, so beautifully worked, so obviously a monument to a peaking civilization, that it is patrolled at all times by two soldiers with machine guns. My guidebook finds this disturbing. I love it. To be in the presence of this much gold is an experience of ecstatic pleasure that the presence of gun-waving guards can only heighten.
We in the West, who have seen the coming and going of Ratners, have lost much more than we have gained by the democratisation of gold. We have betrayed our primal relationship with the stuff. The Ukrainians still enjoy it properly, in the Scythian manner. Particularly Ukraine’s lucky orthodox monks. Most of the many churches in the walled compound of Kiev’s exquisite Caves Monastery have domes of floating gold. In the art nouveau interior of the church of St Anthony, constellations of gold polka dots pick out the light and complete a set of sumptuous Klimt-like effects that spill into the adjacent refectory. St Anthony’s has a glorious dome of gold striped with green. This is as extravagantly eastern as western architecture gets.
Back in Lviv, in the church of the Bernardines, an exterior that appears sensible enough is followed by an interior that has succumbed entirely to Aladdinesque gold fever. Every column, every altar, every stuccoed picture frame – of which there are hundreds – every lamp, every candlestick is either made of gold itself or of substances that behave like gold in the candlelight. This used to be a Roman Catholic Church, an early example of Ukrainian baroque. Since independence it has been claimed by the endemic and mildly cranky Ukrainian Catholic church. Its Catholicism has been heightened with a sense of ornament that strikes me as noticeably ancient, or biblical.
Visit the church when there is a service tak-ing place, when the Ukrainian passion for glitter is coupled with the wondrous national talent for multipart harmonies, and you will experience, for free, sensuous pleasures of an intensity that Sacher Masoch himself would surely have wished to register. That, at least, is what happened to me.
Ukraine means “borderland”. This is one of those nations that has no natural outline. The train journey from Lviv to Kiev lasts 11 hours, yet only takes you halfway across the country. Two years after my first visit with my mother, I went back, and my fellow passenger on the night-train – a doctor whose offers of tea I had been carefully refusing all evening – tried to make me understand Ukraine by throwing a matchbox onto a table.
Imagine this is us, he said. To the west is the whole of Europe. To the east is all of Asia. To the north is the Baltic. To the south is the Black Sea. Imagine you are an army from the east that wants to go west. You have to pass through Ukraine. And if you are an army from the west invading the east, you must pass through Ukraine again. Or from the south to the north. And vice versa.
So, Ukraine is a welcoming country, which is its great misfortune. Ostrogoths, Huns, Slavs, Khazars and Mongols have all raped and pillaged here. Poles, Russians, Germans have invaded, and stayed. In this Piccadilly Circus of a nation, Tartars have fought Cossacks, Scythians have fought Greeks, Turks have fought everyone, including, curiously, Swedes. Since Ukraine has also welcomed all the important religions of the world – so that holy wars could pour spiritual petrol on nationalistic ones – this huge, sprawling state of mind has never had an opportunity to settle down and become a country. Until now.
I looked down on the small matchbox attempting to represent all this and, yes, I felt I had understood something. Small wonder that every Sunday evening in Lviv, in the square outside the Grand Hotel, underneath the Shevchenko statue, bands of old men and women would emerge from the murk and begin spontaneously singing. As the night wore on, their songs became sadder. I had not known this was about to happen. A country without natural outlines was defining itself with a sad coastline of broken-hearted tunes.
All these interesting lurches backwards and forwards across the snakes-and-ladders board of Europe, all of Ukraine’s complex religious shifts, have left it with an architectural legacy of spectacular intricacy. A Ukrainian Renaissance facade will never feature one carving where five might fit. Of the many invaders who came to Lviv, the only ones who seem to have left no real trace of themselves are the Nazis. Unusually for them, they blew up nothing. Apparently, they cut down all the trees in the parks so they could not be sniped at, but these have regrown. From Cossack carvers to masters of the Italian baroque, from Renaissance Hungarians to Viennese Secessionists, all the others have come and built. Their work still stands.
My mother grew up in one of the few Polish households in her village. God only knows what actually went on when the Russians arrived and “liberated” her Polish Ukraine. Having heard both sides of the story, I suspect it is best not to know the truth. There were terrible betrayals, of course. It was an entirely scary world that she was born into, and its darkness has eclipsed her entire life, as it has eclipsed the lives of everyone who was there. At the age of 14 she was herded onto a cattle truck, separated from her family, and dispatched to Siberia, where she chopped wood until the Russians changed sides. But she lived.
In her village, however, is a field in which the village’s Jews are said to have been buried. There are no monuments to them, no stones, just an empty field that people point at. The wooden church in which she was christened is still standing, no longer used as a church. The Russians bricked up one end and turned it into a barn. Someone is now storing oil drums in it. It is the only barn I have seen with a beautiful wooden steeple made entirely in the Cossack manner with intricate, overlapping dovetailed joints.
Rural Ukraine is still filled with this triumphant wooden architecture that defies common sense, a Ukrainian speciality. Reaching it, however, is a twisted migration that involves much waving of dollars and arguing with strangers in cars. Lviv’s open-air museum of popular architecture, on the other hand, takes you out into the countryside without taking you out into the countryside. Six thousand acres of pine forest have been mixed with a hundred authentic samples of old Ukraine. There are wooden churches here with the domes and dimensions of an ambitious cathedral. Ancient pieces of pine have been carved into shapes originally invented for Greek marble.
To reach it, you take a tram from the city center and clench your teeth so that no unexpected jolt will smash them. Everyone on the tram will know immediately that you are a foreigner. This leads inevitably to vigorous international conversation. I do not know whether to believe the old boy who insisted that the reason the cobbles were being taken up on this part of the route and replaced by – yes – Tarmac was because the government had sold them for $200 a square yard to a Scandinavian pedestrianized zone. It sounded true enough.
Even the Soviets have given Lviv buildings to be proud of. Its airport is an entirely impractical point of aerial embarkation. It looks like a bank. It has doric columns on the outside, and is painted the same powdery baroque yellow as the palaces of the Potockis. The inside has a grand waiting hall on whose roof and walls are gathered heroes of the revolution, muscular boys and girls who cheer you on to an exciting flight by waving their sickles at you. This is not an airport that can ever have expected to have many people passing through it. Its point is not to provide efficient passage through customs, but to endow the act of travel with a rousing sense of event.
Kiev railway station is even more spectacularly pompous. Intourist, the reliable local travel service that brought me here, ought to run all-day excursions to Kiev station. The Soviet murals in the main passenger hall have been painted out. But it would take a complete rebuild to remove all the offending hammers and sickles molded into the surrounding stucco. I sat beneath it for several hours waiting for my Lviv train, and the entire post-Soviet world appeared to hurry past. Five-star generals squeezed in next to me to eat their sandwiches. Men with moustaches like elk antlers argued with heavy Venuses in furs. (Is there any substance known to man redder than a Russian woman’s lipstick?) Turbanned smuggler-types from Turkmenistan set about trying to obtain Moscow visas. Gypsies begged from Mongolians.
Kiev is a different kind of city altogether to Lviv. Having always been more Russian, it is now more aggressively capitalist. It has a gilded youth to go with the brass chandeliers dangling above its railway station. The Nazis did make their mark on Kiev by destroying two-thirds of it. It has since been roomily rebuilt with grim, all-purpose Soviet modernism, which chooses not to differentiate between a luxury hotel and the annexe of a polytechnic.
Lviv feels older, lower, narrower. It is a city of palaces and churches. The churches are self-evident enough, but the palaces have generally been converted to other uses. You can rarely tell from the outside of a building to what use its interior has been put. Shops selling Calor Gas appliances are housed in grand 19th-century mansions with huge and naked Greek heroes holding the roof. Every doorway has something curious carved above it. Thus you can walk beneath a glittering secessionist frieze in the Egyptian style and find yourself in a queue for agricultural insurance. This palatial urban secrecy has the effect of making the whole town appear more harmonious than perhaps it is.