Lviv (Lvov)

Lviv (Львів) has the reputation of being the most "European" of Ukraine's major cities. Like the rest of Ukraine, Lviv served for centuries under various foreign masters but, unlike eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Lviv managed to avoid Russian/Soviet domination until the aftermath of World War II. Thus, the development of the city and its historic architecture owes more to Polish and Austro- Hungarian influences than to Russian.

The historical center of Lviv has earned a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of only three in Ukraine) as "an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany."

Less than a century after the founding of the city in 1256, Lviv fell into the hands of invading Poles in 1340. The Turks captured the city in 1672, then the Swedes in 1704. In 1772, control of Lviv passed to Austria (which called the city Lemberg) and it became the capital of the region known as Galicia. Until World War I, Lviv (Lemberg) remained part of Austria and the succeeding Austria-Hungary empire. Much of the grand architecture in Lviv's central historical district was built during the Austro-Hungarian period and reflects the ornate Baroque and neo-Renaissance style of the empire.

In religion too, Lviv and western Ukraine charted a course that deviated from the Russian-influenced regions. Although Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches are represented, Lviv is more predominantly home to Catholicism, particularly the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which observes eastern rites but is in full communion with the Vatican and thus is something of a cross between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Until 2005, when headquarters were moved to Kyiv (Kiev), Lviv's magnificent St. George's Cathedral served for two centuries as the mother church of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Lviv has also traditionally been a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism. With the end of the Hapsburg empire after World War I, Lviv was the capital of a short-lived independent nation named the West Ukrainian Democratic Republic. In 1919, however, Poland asserted authority over the area and Lviv passed the inter-war years as the second largest "Polish" city. In 1939, the Soviet Union declared Lviv (and western Ukraine) to be part of the Ukrainian SSR, one of the Soviet "republics". Until late in World War II, however, Soviet influence was minimal as German troops held the region (with horrific consequences for the many Jews that had previously lived in Lviv). It was not until 1945 that the Soviet shadow finally fell over Lviv (known as Lvov (Львов) in Russian). More than eastern Ukraine and Crimea, – which had been part of the Russian empire for centuries before the rise of the Soviet Union – Lviv chafed under Soviet attempts to "Russify" western Ukraine by suppressing traditional Ukrainian language and culture.

As the Soviet Union began to dissolve in 1991, the people of Lviv and the surrounding area played a critical role in leading Ukraine to declare itself to be an independent nation, as opposed to becoming part of Russia, as many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea would have preferred. Remnants of Soviet domination – such as statues of Lenin or plazas named "Red Square" – were quickly expunged. In 2004, Lviv rose again to inspire the "Orange Revolution" resulting in enormous street demonstrations that eventually overturned a fraudulent election engineered by supporters of pro-Russia Victor Yanukovich and brought western-leaning Victor Yushchenko to office as president.

I was in Lviv for little more than a day in February 2006. It was cold (around 10° F; -12° C), but it was sunny with little wind. The locals, used to Ukrainian winters, were out in force, strolling or sledding in the park, meeting near the opera house to discuss the issues of the day, selling products on the street, and generally going about their Sunday routines.