My Journey into Ukraine’s Democratic Revolution – Lviv: Enjoying Life with the Apocalypse

By Doniphan Blair

This is a continuation of our week-long feature on Ukraine to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. You can read Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.

COMEDY was still thriving in Lviv, despite the impending doom around us.

The city’s fourth comedy club just reopened, according to the Ukrainian-American usher who moved back after the war started.

“What can I say? Ukrainians love comedy,” she explained. “People under threat of death need humor?” I offered, ” Perhaps the gallows humor thing,” and, “Or they’re honoring Zelenskyy,” which finally got a laugh.

In fact, Zelenskyy did do standup around Kyiv, Ukraine and Russia, where he also acted in a number of films, including playing Napoleon in the Russian comedy feature “Rzhevsky Versus Napoleon” (2012).

Although poorly reviewed and a box office flop, the film’s kooky plot or mere existence suggests that conquering Ukraine was not foremost on most Russians’ minds at that time. Meanwhile, Zelenskyy’s experience in Russia, from being a comic on the road to a more respected actor or his one meeting with Putin, provided him invaluable insight.

“We know for sure that we don’t need the war,” Zelenskyy pleaded with Russian listeners, during his February 23rd, eve-of-destruction broadcast. “Not a Cold War, not a hot war. Not a hybrid one. But if we’ll be attacked… if they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.”

Across from Microbrew Bratyska (pub), in one of Kryva Lypa’s access tunnels, is one of its lesser lights: Dizzy Coffee, a tiny shop with two tables and a small upstairs loft but a powerful interior design using Piet Mondrian’s coloured squares.

After my late-night return from Kyiv, I dropped by Dizzy for a quick cappuccino but got into an in-depth discussion with the barista, Andrii.

Thin, dark haired and 23 years old, with a sweet face beneath a light beard, Andrii has a degree in economics and a penchant for machine-gun-fire speech and wild gesticulation.

As I learned over the next few days, Andrii is the elder in a crew of voracious-reading, pop-culture-consuming and debate-loving kids, who also listened to their grandparents. It was Andrii, in fact, who informed me of the Holodomor’s three rounds—1932-3, ’45 and ’46-7—hands flying around the espresso machine for emphasis but not spilling a drop.

“My grandmother worked in bakery,” Andrii said, during our first chat, which went high speed between coffee customers for over an hour. “Soldiers came every day and took 90 percent of bread. It’s a problematic. It goes for few years after war.”

The Soviets also murdered almost 300 Ukrainian writers in the 1930s—”They are called ‘executed renaissance,’” he told me—and kept killing intellectuals into the ‘70s.

“She was Jew, Holocaust survivor from Warsaw,” Andrii added about his mother’s mother.

“Her name was Mandelbaum, popular Jewish name,” although his family didn’t find that out until perusing her papers after she died. As it happened, her husband was a member of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who had been arrested and did time in Siberia before they met.

“Did they know each other’s stories?” I asked. “They must have,” Andrii said, “They lived together for many years.”

Somewhere around then, into Dizzy’s cramped confines strode Andrii’s best friend, Vasyl, 22, all boots, skinny jeans and unkempt, curly black hair. A programmer for a German company, who does comparatively well, I learned when he told me about his life two weeks later, Vasyl grew up poor in one of the Soviet-style apartment blocks that speckle the suburbs of eastern bloc cities.

When he was sixteen, he worked in a factory for eight months, learned not to romanticize proletariat life, and bought his first computer. He also plays classical piano, loves heavy metal and punk, often reads or listens to books on tape, and writes poetry. Andrii writes prose. Vasyl also told me about his grandparents, speaking almost as fast as Andrii but with less gesticulation.

“He was very, very against war,” Vasyl said about his grandfather, Mykhailo (Michael in Ukrainian).

“He was born few years before the Great War and saw many terrible, terrible things as a kid: dead people, dead animals, bombed buildings, bombed streets, bombed whole cities, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”—Vasyl’s trademark expression in English. Andrii’s is “problematic,” used as a noun.

“He wrote it all in his memoir, which I read, which was hard to read, because it is written by hand and had many strong statements. Some too strong for publication,” although that could be cleaned up by his daughter, Vasyl’s mother, a book editor. “He died last week,” Vasyl added, to which I offered condolences. “He had good life. He was 85. We will have cemetery thing on Sunday.”

Vasyl’s parents are religious, which is how many older Ukrainians addressed the terrible trauma of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism and genocide, although his mother is Jehovah’s Witness.

“It was her way of rebelling against grandfather, who was Orthodox,” Vasyl explained. Somewhere in there, he noted that, “She and I are the only ones in our family to graduate from university,” although Mykhailo was a renown building crane operator.

“When the war started, Grandfather thought we should surrender, surrender right now, surrender as soon as possible,” Vasyl said, getting excited. “‘We are going to lose anyway,’ he kept saying, ‘And that will stop killing.’ But after a week, Grandfather changed his mind. ‘We have to fight,’ he said, ‘To stop killing in the future.’”

Andrii tried to enlist in the Ukrainian Army but was rejected and did extensive volunteer work near Kyiv. Vasyl didn’t bother, since he’s been plagued with health problems since childhood and figures he can contribute more in other ways.

What he calls his “homemade NGO” recently bought a car, 70 pairs of socks and some shoulder bags for rocket-propelled grenades, which a friend drove across Ukraine to “their unit.”

For the next three weeks almost daily, Andrii, Vasyl and I embarked on a broken-field run across Western civilization, from “The Bible” and Plato to Poe and Crowley, the filmmakers Lynch and Tarantino, or the philosophers beloved by twenty-somethings worldwide: the Slovenian leftist Slavoj Žižek and the innovative evolutionary psychologist but also rightwinger from Canada, Jordan Peterson, both of whom Andrii and Vasyl find interesting but too extreme.

We lingered over Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”. His satire is so dry, according to Andrii and Vasyl, critics are still arguing whether Bulgakov was sending up or supporting Stalin.

“Satire doesn’t work with conspiracy theorists, because they take it literally,” I pointed out.

“We don’t worry about such bullshit!” interjected Andrii. “We have too many conspiracy problematics from Russia.”

At any moment, of course, we would switch to breaking news or reports from the front, which I was now getting from an American with a literary bent and checkered past who was fighting with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion near Kherson.

Paid the same as Ukrainians, foreigners can reject orders or quit fighting. Over hours-long phone calls—one of which Vasyl listened in on—or text dialogues, Terry, 53, from upstate New York, regaled me with pithy stories about firefights or his international comrades: the short, gorgeous Norwegian of tribal Sana heritage, who was tough as nails and drove a Porsche, the Jewish woman medic from Texas, who hauled a wounded man almost twice her size to safety, or his close friend Paul Kim, 1997-2022, whose death devastated him.

A Korean-American from Oklahoma, Kim was a dedicated democrat, an up-for-anything warrior, and perhaps the first ex-US military officer to die in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

After beers at Bratyska one night, we retired to my meagre quarters, and Vasyl delivered a dissertation on Ukraine’s neo-Nazi punks: how they emerged from the punks of Russia, a society defined by its anti-Nazism, which makes those symbols an easy way to rebel; how a popular Russian punk musician moved to Kyiv and developed a following; how they want to destroy the state, like anarchists, not strengthen it, like actual National Socialists; and how it was better to keep talking to them rather than letting them stew in alienation.

Stepping into Dizzy once, I found it empty except for Andrii and Vasyl arguing loud and fast and gesturing wildly.

“What are you debating?” I finally interrupted. “Equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome,” Vasyl said. “Which side are you on?” “Equality of opportunity.” “So Andrii is still a leftist?” “Sort of.” “Does Dizzy’s owner ever worry you’re driving away customers?” “No. He sits right there,” said Andrii, pointing to where I had seen a quiet, amiable fellow, by the name of Volodya, Vasyl told me. “I buy a coffee or two a day,” he added, “As do all our friends, which keeps Volodya in business.”

Indeed, Dizzy was often half full of their friends, working on laptops, chatting quietly, debating loudly or getting caffeinated. They were mostly young women like Maria, a sweet, smart and hardworking translator, to whom Vasyl would call out mid-sentence for help with a word in English, Anya, the elegantly-dressed, redheaded photographer, who did their photo shoots, or Zosia, an artist, graphic designer and adventurous spirit as well as Dizzy’s weekend barista, who once told me, “Lviv is all hippies.”

Some of them were helping Andrii and Vasyl on their new magazine, Фрайдей найт. Pronounced “fraydey nayt” and meaning Friday night, it references an older magazine, Четвер (“chetver” meaning Thursday), edited by a popular modernist writer from the Carpathians, Yuriy Izdryk. Friday Night’s logo—a slab of meat taped to a Ukrainian embroidery, a la Maurizio Cattelan’s “Banana” (Art Basel Miami, 2019)—was designed by Andrii’s girlfriend, Stasia (short for Anastasia), who is talented, bright-eyed, beautiful and, it so happens, blonde, and may be all of 20.

“Andrii will do more editing and content creation,” Vasyl said, “And I will do tech and funding. We will focus more on ideas, poetry and philosophy, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, since war is already discussed everywhere.” The first issue will probably be printed in February, they told me, and be accompanied by a social media presence.

Some of Dizzy’s denizens were only 16, I was surprised to learn, and still in high school, where they’d read but didn’t quite get Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, one admitted to me. A few joined the debate club Andrii and Vasyl attended and toured with around Ukraine. They invited me to the club once, which met weekly at a youth center across Old Town, and debated in English, so I could participate.

Watching Evelina, a tall, innocence-exuding, almost albino-blonde 16 year old defend the proposition “Is nostalgia beneficial?” in high-speed English—on top of hanging around Andrii, both her parents are lawyers—I thought, “My god, the kids of Maidan are getting younger, fiercer and more articulate!” No wonder Putin is petrified.

The next day, September 26th, was Rosh Hashana, the beginning of Judaism’s high holy days.

Although Lviv has one synagogue left, the Beis Aharon V’Israel, near the train station, which has been run for the last three decades by a lovely New York Hasidic rabbi and his wife, I decided to tour the city’s synagogue ruins, of which there are many. After searching online and extensively on the ground, I found the weathered plaque marking the largest, the Great Synagogue, now an empty lot with a small playground but a majestic colonnade of trees. I also found the Tempel Synagogue, no sign but again an empty lot, which suggests some respect for the half millennium when Lviv was almost one third Jewish.

Then I headed to my favorite, the Golden Rose Synagogue in Old Town, a wonder of medieval architecture from 1582 until August 1942, when the Nazis destroyed it, except for the floor and back wall. Aside from the memorial for the Jewish ghetto, which has a nice park on a main avenue with a menorah and large sculpture, the Golden Rose is Lviv’s only Jewish memorial.

It features extensive explanatory signage, in Ukrainian and English, and a modest row of waist-high black stones engraved with photos and quotes. One stone has a famous 17th century rabbi, Joel Sirkis, declaring, “[Lviv is] a grand and glorious city, full of scholars, writers and teachers… the source of wisdom and foundation of prudence.”

In addition, for the last 30 years at least, the Golden Rose has been a hangout for teenagers, perhaps because there’s no one to chase them away. In all kinds of weather or times of day, up to a hundred kids of Lviv are at the Golden Rose, playing music, goofing around, flirting and drinking, sometimes to excess, sometimes relieving themselves in the destroyed sanctuary, since no toilet is readily available.

They breathe life into old stones, I find, which is why I had already visited the Golden Rose three or four times. And why I spent a few hours there the afternoon of Rosh Hashana, gazing into its grassy remains, reading about the Jews of Lviv and their annihilation, and thinking about my own mistakes and trespasses during the last year, which is the spiritual assignment of the last day of the ten-day holiday, Yom Kippur. “Were there any major errors I was missing?” I wondered.

The kids didn’t pay me much mind, despite my being over three times their age, until I felt a presence behind me: a short, stocky young man. Speaking decent English, Valter, 23, a soldier on leave from fighting near Kharkiv, invited me to drink with his buddies. I begged off, explaining I’d rather not since it was a Jewish holiday, but he kept repeating his invitation and, somewhere in there, noted his grandfather was a Nazi.

“A Nazi from Germany?” I asked, incredulous. “Yes,” Valter said. “Was he an OK person?” “Yes.” “Did he give you candy as a kid?” “Yes.” “Did he treat your mother well?” “Yes,” he said and added, tentatively, “It is weird. My grandfather fought the Russians. Now I am fighting the Russians.”

I looked into Valter’s unassuming gaze. Facing physical death or the moral dilemma of dehumanizing the enemy is not a walk in the park at any age. Indeed, my Foreign Legion contact, Terry, tough as he claimed to be and over twice Valter’s age, mentioned both of those difficulties.

Valter’s friends were Oras, six-foot-seven, about 20 and with an excellent command of English; Adriana-Maria, younger and blonde, who poured me a paper cup with some hard alcohol and an energy drink, which I held but didn’t sip, and two 14 year olds, Ruslan and Nazar, who attended high school nearby.

The nattily-dressed and dark, shoulder-length haired Ruslan didn’t speak a word of English, but the skinny, scruffy and nerdy Nazar did, expressively if haltingly. Ruslan and Nazar seemed to be enjoying Lviv’s dreamy, vibrant youth scene, even in the middle of a deadly, disastrous war, which Valter must have had told them about, and to which they may have to eventually go.

Indeed, beyond the Golden Rose Synagogue, a brutal geopolitics was unravelling with alarming alacrity.

Featured Image: Author

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