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The Bodies Keep the Score
Lviv in western Ukraine has been spared much of the punishment meted out by the Russians to towns and cities further east. Nevertheless the sons of the city are fighting and increasingly dying. In a corner of Lviv’s pre-eminent cemetery, where the earth is still fresh, I found mothers and sisters mourning the loss of those they loved.
At the Lychakiv cemetery in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv the bodies keep the score.
Within its confines the more than 300,000 graves offer a tangled insight into the labyrinthine history of this eastern European city that even now goes by four different names.
There are Polish generals, mathematicians and philosophers; Ukrainian composers, theologians and playwrights; and Soviet and Russian aviators, inventors and academics.
Most of the city’s Jews – in what was one of Jewry’s most important cities in eastern Europe – are buried in a different graveyard, but there are smattering of their number, as well as German and Czech notables.
Then there are the military graves: a whole section at the top of the hill is devoted to Poles who died fighting Ukrainian nationalists between 1918 and 1920, and another is set aside for those who fought against them.
It has become a truism to say that Lviv is the beating heart of Ukrainian national identity.
But an afternoon walk through this graveyard, surely one of the loveliest in this part of the world with its terraced views over the flatlands below, unveils a history as complex as that of any city in eastern Europe.
The Lychakiv graveyard was founded in 1787, 15 years after Lviv was incorporated into the Hapsburg empire and rechristened Lemberg – a name it is still known by today by Germans, Austrians, Jews and Hungarians.
Later, still under the Austro-Hungarians, it became the capital of eastern Galicia growing rapidly until, on the eve of the First World War, it was a city of more than 200,000, made up mostly of Poles, with a substantial Jewish minority and smaller numbers of Ukrainians and Germans.
After the First World War Lviv was briefly the capital of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, a short-lived statelet carved out by Ukrainian nationalists. Then it was retaken by the Poles - and once again became Lwow.
Then, after World War Two, the city was swallowed up by the Soviet Union and called by its Russian name Lvov. Many of its Poles were pushed out. Whole families trudged west to begin life again in Wroclaw, formerly the German city of Breslau, handed to Poland by the victorious Allies.
In their place Ukrainians, some fleeing the new Poland, moved into Lviv, often bringing with them a sense of persecution and a strong rural identity, which, despite Stalin’s effort to crush Ukrainian national sentiment, was nursed around the kitchen table.
Lviv remained yoked to Moscow until Ukraine gained independence in 1991, and Ukrainian national identity once again began to flourish in Lviv.
Today the city’s uneven architecture and open squares are a charming clutter of Hapsburg-era neo-renaissance buildings and medieval stone buildings that date back to the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before that.
But on its streets the mood is solidly Ukrainian and patriotic.
Whereas many in eastern Ukraine have Russian as their mother tongue, and most of the rest of the country speaks the language well, here trying to get by in Russian, a tongue that is as different from Ukrainian as English is from Dutch, is difficult, and efforts made in that direction often unwelcome.
I watched two young men play 68-string banduras, traditional Ukrainian instruments that were banned under Communism. Many of the city’s residents had national colours incorporated into their dress.
Liviv’s charm and relative safety – it has only been lightly targeted by Moscow’s missiles - means that of all the cities in Ukraine today it is perhaps the only one to still have a tourism industry, even if it is a pale shadow of what it once was.
Indeed if it weren’t for the unusual number of men in uniform, some of them freshly returned from the front seven hundred miles to the east, or recruitment posters urging patriots to join up ahead of an expected counter-offensive in the coming months, it might even have been possible to forget that this was a country at war.
But in the Lychakiv cemetery there was no forgetting the war.
Past the graves of the eminent I found a small corner where those who have died fighting the Russians in the current war are buried. The headstones are not as ornate as those of their predecessors, but each is adorned with a photo.
Most of the dead are in their twenties and thirties. One young man, Yuriy Golub, was a military radio operator. He was 23 when he was killed, but didn’t look a day over 15.
Ukrainian national flags were fluttering overhead – both the yellow and blue national flag and the black and red flag that represents the blood and unsown arable fields of war.
In some places the black earth on the graves was still fresh. At one a young woman and a middle-aged woman donned plastic gloves and tamped the earth down carefully. They were preparing to cover it with bedding made of small white stones.
At another, that of Ivan, 28, angel wings and the face of a child had been rendered above the photograph of the dead man. The wings reached down from the child and curled around the man’s head, as if to protect him in the afterlife. By the foot of the grave there was a cuddly toy – a polar bear holding a cub.
In a third grave Volodymyr, a 31-year-old, was buried. His photo showed dark brown eyes and a distinct Adam’s apple. He had on the blue beret of a paratrooper. Yellow and purple tulips were in a vase nearby.
There were only a few dozen bodies here – a tiny subset of the estimated 100,000 Ukrainians killed and injured in a year of war against Putin’s armies.
But it was, perhaps understandably, the busiest part of the graveyard. Some mourners – and they were almost all women – had brought chairs so they could while away the hours with those they had recently lost.
Among the dead there was the occasional older man. A woman – whose husband had probably been in his sixties – fondly stroked a photograph of him with the back of her hand. He had been a lean man with a buzz cut.
Besides the grave of another young man stood a single woman. Her white hair was neatly arranged. She was wearing a shiny black jacket and her boots were polished. I approached and together we looked at the grave.
The dead man had been killed on the third day of the war, in Kherson in south eastern Ukraine. I was going to ask the usual questions: how it happened, what he was like, what she thought of the war.
In my years as a reporter I have asked those questions hundreds of times of grieving mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and almost invariably found them willing, even keen, to talk about their loved one. But now we stared at the grave together silently.
“My son,” she said simply.
And those two words, somehow, were enough.
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NEWS & UPCOMING
+ In the last several days I have travelled to Odesa on the Black Sea, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city up by the Russian border, and Kupiansk, a town close to the frontline that has been much damaged and where artillery salvos are still frequent. Most of the travel has been on Ukraine’s night trains in a sleeper, which I can’t recommend highly enough. I am now back in Kyiv.
+ Coming soon will be a dispatch on the language wars in Odesa were vigilantes are making sure that staff in cafes, restaurants and shops offer their services in Ukrainian. Some locals see their efforts as necessary for a country struggling to emerge from the shadow of the Russian and Soviet empires, others as less than welcome in a city where Russian is still the mother tongue of the majority.