Life and Death on the Borderland

The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv is a superb study of the transformations that multiethnic Lviv (also known as Lwów and Lemberg) went through during and after the Second World War. Based on solid research in Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Russian sources, Amar does not deny the persistence of pre-Soviet modes in the city, but he makes a convincing case for the crucial importance of Soviet policy in making Lviv Ukrainian.

The author sees the city’s initial Sovietization of 1939-1941 (“The First Soviet Lviv”) as being about more than conquering space. He frames it as a mental exercise, a battle over expectations, and claims about the meaning of progress and historical possibility. To rule over Lviv was to rule over Poles and Ukrainians—for both of these groups, Lviv was a national symbol—as well as Jews. The Soviets demoted the Poles, but they did not get rid of them. On the other hand, new professional opportunities became available for local Ukrainians, but they were expected to show total commitment to the model of a Soviet Ukraine. (Some refused.) Jews, too, had to abide by a “Soviet Jewish” template. (Soviet authorities preferred “progressive” Yiddish to the “reactionary” Hebrew).

The Soviet “liberation” of Western Ukraine quickly became the stuff of celebratory articles, fiery speeches, and films. Like the Habsburgs, the “Bolshevik enlighteners,” offers Amar, “imagined Lviv as both marginal and central, backward and crucial: a potential proving ground for their cutting-edge modernity.” (62) The upshot, for this book, is that it offers neither the story of a capital (centralized power), nor the history of a backwater. Instead, it is the story of something suspended in between: a city on the edge, existing between physical cleansing and memory clearing.

Amar delivers striking details to illustrate the mechanics of Soviet power: Moscow’ Bezbozhnik journal writing about the “talmudists” of Lviv’s Golden Rose Synagogue as “overgrown with moss” like the building they congregated in (64), for instance, or the discussion of how Soviet authorities tried to lay claim to Mickiewicz, the great Polish icon (a “metaphorical and physical conquest,” 72). As with every instance of occupation, encounters are at the heart of the story; we get brilliant glimpses of personal contacts and conflicts between Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Some Ukrainians had dreamt of a united Ukraine, only to be disappointed by Soviet rule. Others believed in the promise of Soviet modernity. Soviet power, in other words, also drove differences among Ukrainians, including between eastern and western Ukrainians.

The Germans occupied Lviv/Lemberg shortly after launching their operation to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941. Much of the existing literature on wartime Eastern Europe is preoccupied with the similarities and differences between Soviet and German rule. And sure enough, the city’s inhabitants had to contend with these comparisons on a daily basis. But Amar is also concerned with what overlapped between occupations. The description of the 1941 pogrom is devastating. A Soviet-German continuity, he writes, was the propaganda warning non-Jewish inhabitants not to become Jew-like (“getting rich at others’ expense”) even as Jews were forced to sell their valuables to try and stay alive (106). Ghettoization followed, and then the shipments to the death camps. The book traces the looting of Jewish property, as well as the myriad of indirect ways of involvement in the mass persecution of Jews, as well as efforts to save them.

“More than two hundred thousands Jews from the former eastern Galicia were deported to death camps and murdered out of sight,” writes Amar, but some (between thirty and forty thousand) were murdered in the city’s outskirts. By the end of 1943, Lviv/Lemberg had undergone a profound transformation: “a historic metropole of Jewish culture was now reduced to the nightmare utopia of European anti-Semitism” (115). As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the arrival of the Germans excited native nationalists who nurtured visions of ethnic statehood. There has never been a shortage of opportunists in wartime, and Amar captures a variety of motivations among an admittedly broad and complex array of actors.

Why did some Ukrainians support the Germans? And does it make sense to look for only one reason? (This is not history driven by a single operative force.) Did Ukrainian patriotism and pragmatism necessarily conflict with German aims and brutal measures? (Amar argues that they did not.) How can we make sense of motivations that were not clearly spelled out in writing or in speech? And if they were, should we take them at face value?

Once the Jews were purged, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles made plans to remake the city—again. But when the Soviets returned, in July 1944, fortunes reversed once more. Since then, Lviv’s Polish population has gone from an absolute majority (in 1944) to less than 1 percent in the early 2000s. The expulsion of the Poles in the 1940s completed the “clearing” of the city’s population. Polish signs (street names, buildings, but also books) disappeared. This was yet another continuity across the typically sharp line drawn in 1944.

For decades after the war, Lviv turned into a center of conflict between western and eastern Ukrainian elites. Importantly, the city received an infusion of “outsiders” (Ukrainians, Russians, Soviet Jews). This new elite included government officials, party members, administrators, and technical staff. New terms emerged to describe this new reality (“locals,” “arrivals from the east”). This was in addition to the now consolidated Soviet jargon that marked individuals based on party affiliation, class, and behavior.

But despite the displacement and the sheer will of Soviet power, the old historic Lwów did not disappear completely; the very fact that “locals” were distinguished from “easterners,” argues Amar, meant that a sense of the old city survived. Under the guise of Soviet power and in light of the historic defeat of the Nazi war machine, a united Ukraine contained within it Lviv’s alienated Western Ukrainians.

After 1944, “the easterners” found themselves in a position of ideological authority. It was the “locals” who had to “catch up” with the Soviet east. Effectively, notes Amar, being “a local” after the war meant not being Jewish or Polish (182). Industry was at the core of the Soviet civilization, but so were collectivization and ideological work, which meant a battle against Ukrainian nationalists. Officials projected the idea of backwardness onto past Habsburg and Polish rule, just as the Ottoman Empire became a stand-in for backwardness in the post-World War II Balkans. The Western parts of Ukraine became “a test and triumph of the Soviet achievement” (186).

The idea of this local inadequacy vis-à-vis the Soviet civilization is picked up again in Chapter 6 (“Local Minds”), which shows how Lviv’s old intelligentsia became an instrument of this once-more Sovietization. The Ukrainians who stayed in Lviv in the interwar period, notes Amar, “missed out” on the Soviet project, and were thus urged to see themselves as “contaminated and underdeveloped, having missed out on the “‘great school of Socialism building’ of the interwar Soviet Union.” This accounts for Lviv’s paradox: the Soviet “liberation” of Western Ukraine, instead of erasing it, contributed to its persistence.

What about the city itself? Amar frames the story around the problem of urban administration, which explains the book’s sharp focus on schools, administrators, municipal politics, literary circles, and the Komsomol (youth organization). We get glimpses of the informal ground level forces unleashed by occupation and chaos (for example, in Chapter 3, on the removal of Polish traces, and the architectural aspect of postwar campaigns). The photographs, too, are helpful in giving the reader a sense of place amidst constant upheaval. Still, one reads hoping that Amar might go deeper into the history of Lviv’s urban planning. (The book’s splendid cover invites it.)

The author is razor-sharp in outlining Soviet shortcomings, especially with post-1944 labor mobilization, to the point that one wonders how the authorities got anything done at all. But more than that: how to analyze reported Soviet plan shortcomings in a system where shortcomings were necessary, indeed, a structural need?

The need to “catch up” in the 1940s and 1950s, finally, was neither limited to Lviv, nor to Soviet Ukraine. From the Balkans to East Asia, industry and cities became showcases of a backbreaking battle to overcome poverty by way of central planning. Given the complexity of Lviv’s history, perhaps it would be unfair to fault Amar for keeping the frame local. Clearly, there are advantages in doing so. This raises the question, however: To what extent is an understanding of post-Second World War Stalinism in Lviv dependent on what was happening to the world beyond Lviv?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *