A River to its People
Lviv’s Prospect Svobody is a grand boulevard in the Austro-Hungarian style – think Budapest or Prague. Elegantly wide and broad, trees and benches lining the central pedestrian way, Svobody fills with and drains of people, day and night, the way a highway does cars, the way a river does vessels. The movement of people strolling, rushing, resting, elbowing through is constant, and hydraulic.
Our first afternoon in Lviv, a cold Sunday in October, we patrol the side sections of Svobody a step apart from the familiar crowds – old men in black berets disputing politics, families watching children careering electric go-carts, young people trying out the rental Segways, women tottering in sky-high heels. Today the inner street is lined with human statues: The Dying Gladiator, Marie Antoinette, The Statue of Liberty, Good Soldier Svejk, Michael Jackson. This European tourist gimmick depends on an international language of makeup and costume and kitsch and fascinating muscle control. And epidermal resilience. How do the actors not get sick from that oppressive bodypaint? Today we see more than two dozen statues on the street, each setting up alternate nodes and eddies in the human stream of Prospect Svobody. It’s a good week to be in town. It’s the start of “American Week.”
The American ambassador and his retinue will be decamping from Kyiv starting tomorrow for what will turn out to be a series of tense and stultifying audiences. It’s also the start of the college semester and the students we pass on the way to dinner remind me that this place, like Oxford, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts is charming and brimming with young talent.
At the Armenian restaurant off Armenia street we meet our dear friend, Marjana Savka. A poet, an actress and the founder of Old Lion Publishing House, her book, Boston Jazz about her year at U. Mass. was translated by novelist Askold Melnyczuk. Marjana is off to the Frankfort Book Fair tomorrow, so she introduces us to friends in town who will look out for us. Brilliant Ulyana Hnidets, director of the Ukrainian Research Center for Children’s and Youth Literature. Andrii Voronov, actor and student director at the Les Kurbas experimental theater (tonight he is doing a performance in Ukrainian of “Manna Hatta (Divineland)” from the radio play “The Good God of Manhattan” by Ingeborg Bachmann. And poet Mary Shun, a recent immigrant to New York whose newest book Un has just been published in Ukraine.
Mary is preparing for a demonstration to free the Poltva River.
Where’s the river? Where are the chains?
Lviv once had a river run through it. It was a literal, if little, river which, in a moment of Hapsburg hubris and corruption, was funneled underground through subterranean cloacae. This freed up space that the medieval town plan could not accommodate, and it promoted good health by suppressing the swampy conditions of the polluted river. Not so bad. But not so good. They engineered the river and the sewer system together. Which decision has created a variety of problems including seriously unpleasant floods in town, poisoned water downstream, and the beautiful irony of the street’s current name: Freedom Prospect.
At breakfast our friend A, a hearty, practical historian, scoffs at this demonstration. “I’m an old Marxist” he says, sarcastically, “I know that demonstrations are the opiate of the masses. With all our problems now,” he asks, “what does the Poltva have to do with real politics?”
The Ukrainian elections for local positions are coming up and the mood here in the west of the country is palpably different from a year ago when President Viktor Yushchenko—too timid, and Yulia Tymoshenko (you know her, the “slut” in the white dress and blond braids wrapped around her head) were in contention. Both were sent packing in the recent disappointing national elections. The winner, Viktor Yanukovych – Moscow-philic, to say the least, has taken all the steam out of cosmopolitan, Ukrainian-nationalist, EU-focused, liberal Lviv’s optimism. No one is eager to talk about the situation. It’s too depressing, too predictable.
Monday, as the sun sets over the Shevchenko Monument, Alexander Dzyndra is busy. Artist and curator, Oles has run his gallery and cultural center The Museum of Ideas in the basement of the Bernadine Monastery on Valova Street (Wall Street) for a decade. Among the recent initiatives of this provocateur-general is his ecologically oriented “Leo Poltvis” whose name plays with the ancient name for Lviv –Leopolis, City of Lions – and the name of its now-buried river. Dzyndra assembles the materials of the day’s event – microphone and bullhorn, mustachioed professors from Ivan Franko University dressed as 17th century hetman, art students dressed as construction workers and others carrying bright signs to “Free The Polva.” Their posters seem simple and friendly, maybe humorous. I can’t detect anger or urgency. I can’t detect irony either. This demonstration is – at least – two things at once. It’s an environmental action, as sweet as those early American “Earth Day” educational episodes I remember from forty years ago. And it’s a piece of performance art.
There aren’t many people paying attention when the demonstration starts, and there are fewer when it ends. In between, we hear poems and declarations and a self conscious public conversation. It’s strangely attenuated. And strangely flat, a kind of dead-letter analog-lecture in a city where all the young people are wired, where everyone carries a dongle and is tech savvy. The organizers will call this a “mournful gathering,” but it seems the worst possible situation – a private conversation in public, a turning in, to prove to themselves that this matters. While the activists perform, the perennial old men in black berets continue their contentions with their backs to us.
After the speeches our small group marches the length of Svobody – north to the Opera House and back south, past the grand fountain, past Shevchenko and the sweeping relief of Ukrainian history, down to the Mickiewicz Monument marking the great Polish romantic poet. We are on our way to screen documentaries about the situation of the river. Along the way someone introduces me to poet, philosopher and anthropologist Roman Kis. A true Ukrainian legend, Kis has just published his seventh book, what he calls his hermit-on-the-mountain-meditations. He’s not part of this action, but joining in so he can present the book – Quadrica – to Mary. Roman can’t resist conversation and we stop here and there as the main group pushes ahead. Kis scrambles to catch up, pauses for further fluent English conversation with me, and finally peels off to return to his office at the National Academy of Sciences in the Ethnography Museum across the prospect.
An hour later, at the outdoor screening in the Bernadine monastery courtyard (no one mentioned we would be outdoors!) it’s very dark and I’ve got a chill that the tea and vodka Mary dispenses doesn’t
begin to dissipate. Speeches are wafting over me and I’m thinking of Kis’s story of his grandfather’s migration from Galicia to a burial in a Long Island Cemetery. His seventh book is in my hands. He has
signed it to Mary and I must give it to her. But I’ve got to learn the details of his story—the years in Soviet prison notwithstanding, his family story is my family story. Galicians between cultures and between nations, between languages and continents. Everywhere and nowhere in history. No Galician has ever stepped into the same river twice. Some have never been in once.