26th Sep 2023

Lviv, an architectural jewel, braces for Russian bombs

  • Fountain with statue of Neptune in Lviv old town (Photo: Andrew Rettman)
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Every now and again you catch a faint smell of coffee in the air as you wander round the Unesco-designated old town in Lviv, western Ukraine. Things look normal. Many shops are open. People are out with children. And church bells ring the hours.

But the normality is an illusion.

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  • The 17th century Boim Chapel (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

Armed guards check your ID if you enter one of its historic coffee houses due to fears that Russian saboteurs might plant bombs. Shops selling guns and ammunition are running out of stock.

The children are out because their schools have been turned into refugee shelters.

There is a nightly curfew and air-raid sirens have been going off amid warnings that warplanes were coming from Belarus to bomb the city.

The air raids didn't happen — yet. But that's why the statues around the town hall are now being wrapped in padding, the windows in the 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral have been boarded up, and stone carvings on the adjacent Boim Chapel, a 17th century monument, are being covered in scaffolding.

"This scares me a bit, but it's better to be prepared than to wait for Russian aggression," said Artem Myszczyński, an aviation technician from Lviv, looking at the work being done to try to protect the buildings.

"If these things are destroyed, it won't just be a loss for Ukraine or for Europe, it'll be a loss for the whole world," said Andriy Saliuk, whose Lviv-based Heritage Protection Society undertook the initiative to save the city's art treasures.

"Lviv is a place where East meets West. It's unique. Tell me, do you have an Armenian cathedral in Brussels built by German architects? Do you have an Orthodox cathedral, with cupolas like those in Renaissance Italy? You can lose yourself for hours looking at the different elements on the Boim Chapel façade," said Saliuk.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Paris-based Unesco, a UN body, created a blue-and-white shield logo, which was designed to be hung on places of outstanding cultural importance across the world in times of conflict, so that military commanders avoided shelling them by accident.

But when Saliuk spoke with the Unesco director, Audrey Azoulay, by phone on Monday, they agreed not to hang up the shield banners in Lviv because they feared that Russian forces would use them to target its architectural jewels — on purpose.

"The Muscovite soldiers are bringing the Russkiy Mir," said Saliuk, referring to what translates as the Russian World, a Kremlin propaganda concept of Russian identity extending to Russians at home and to the diaspora. "They want to destroy our culture and replace it with their own. That's what they did in 1914, in 1939, in 1944 — they deliberately tried to destroy or steal our heritage."

"We have to protect this for future generations of Ukrainians so that they know who they are," Saliuk said.

Further east, damage is already being done.

Russian forces have wrecked the centre of Kharkiv, shattering the windows of its art gallery and leaving masterpieces, such as Elias Repin's painting — Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan — exposed to wintry weather.

(Repin, a renowned Realist painter of the 1870s and 1890s, was born in Chuguyev in what is now Ukraine but was then part of the Russian empire.)

"I can't even imagine what they've done to the museums in Mariupol and Kherson [in south-east Ukraine], which are now under Russian occupation," said Olha Sahaidak, the manager of the Kyiv-based group, the Coalition for Culture.

And even though the top priority is saving lives amid mounting reports of Russian war crimes, Saliuk and Sahaidak are not alone in trying to also save Ukrainian art.

"Most gallery staff in Ukraine are older women, because it's low-paid work," said Sahaidak. "But in Kharkiv, instead of running away, these old ladies have stayed behind and they are trying to move some very heavy pieces into basements."

When Dzvenyslava Novakivska, a communications consultant from Hostomel, near Kyiv, ran out of her house earlier this week in freezing weather to flee for safety, she forgot her coat, but she did not neglect to take two paintings by her grandfather, the early 20th century Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Novakivsky.

"That's why I'm wearing my husband's coat today," she said in a café in Lviv on Thursday. "If we don't save our culture, then what will we have to live for after this war ends?"

For some, no matter what chapels or paintings Russia destroys, Ukraine's national identity will survive in an intangible way.

"Our identity is here," said Nikta Zubov, a businessman from Kyiv now helping refugees in Lviv, clenching his fist and holding it against his heart.

But for Saliuk, the conservation specialist, physical monuments as well as Ukraine's inner spirit matter amid the most brutal of conflicts.

"Let me tell you a story," Saliuk said.

"One day, I took my little daughter, Marychka, to an old royal palace. She was bored and looking at her shoes. But when we were walking up some steps, she asked me: 'Daddy, why are these called the royal steps?'

'Because, in olden times, Ukrainian kings, princes, and princesses used to walk here,' I answered.

'Real princesses?' she asked. And when I told her 'Yes,' her shoulders straightened, her head went up and she became fascinated by the place. Today, she's a specialist in art restoration. She studied in Florence," Saliuk said, his blue eyes beaming with pride.

"It doesn't have the same effect if you tell children: 'There used to be a palace here'," said Saliuk.

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