Good and Evil in Lviv, part I

March 26, 2008

Multiple Pages
Good and Evil in Lviv, part I

The second part of this essay can be found here.

With memories still slick from the worst blood-letting in history, followed by the less dramatic horrors of the Soviet “peace,” the modern-day evil I witnessed wasn’t the worst thing ever to have happened in the city of Lviv, western Ukraine. But it surely was the offspring of the grossly satanic events of the preceding century.

The spectacle took place a brisk five-minute walk from the NKVD prison where the Soviets wreaked a frenzied slaughter before the German advance in ’41, murdering so many “dissidents” that the building became a charnel house with a mass grave in the courtyard. Victims included prominent Greek Catholic priests, martyred for the Faith and beatified by Pope John Paul II: for example, Blessed Fr. Zynovii Kovalyk, crucified against a wall; or Blessed Fr. Severian Baranyk, a cross carved into his chest.

Following the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty, the Soviets devoured this part of western Ukraine (then eastern Poland). Love they did not engender, and so the Germans were welcomed as liberators. The Nazis among them, however, would prove equally evil. The old NKVD prison, slated to become a museum, is a pistol shot from the muddy park where a memorial marks the site of a synagogue blown up by the Nazis. The Jews comprised a third of Lviv’s pre-war population. The Nazis murdered all of those whom their righteous gentile neighbors could not manage to hide. One beneficiary of Christian love, the young Simon Wiesenthal, was rescued by a Ukrainian policeman.

In this neighborhood marred by old evils, a stodgy woman fumbling up the street precipitated a new nightmare.

Heavily bundled on a mild Sunday afternoon, she leaned against poles and storefronts for support. A clear liquid leaked from her cloth bag. As she approached the wide entrances to the open-air market, which offered no means of support, it didn’t take Nostradamus to predict that, whatever happened, it would be bad. And this is a country where extremes are often the norm.

Releasing her grip from the last pole before the entrance, she took a few faltering steps and collapsed among the bustling crowd on the busiest market day of the week. Despite a few pedestrians who glanced at the human pile, the crowd parted around her as disinterestedly as a river around a rock. As I watched this spectacle, holding a piece of pizza for which I no longer had an appetite, I felt sick. Wouldn’t anybody help? Call the police? What could I do, practically ignorant of the language?


A little black and white dog sauntered over and licked her face. After a minute, but probably less, she sat up. Then a man approached her familiarly, bent over, and took her by the arm. Thank God somebody was helping this sick woman.

Then he began shaking her with reproaches, picked up the leaky bag, whipped it around his body, and bashed her in the head. This was her man, it seemed: a tall bony bastard and no model of sobriety himself. He continued admonishing her in a loud but controlled manner, and then swung the bag again, this time smacking her in the face. What was going on? People walked by, pretending not to notice, except for the crone wearing a babushka who watched in silent concern about three yards away.

The brute finally gave her a farewell blow, leaving her slumped over with her red-knitted hat in her hands. He quickly returned to retrieve her bag after dumping its contents, a broken vodka bottle, on to the sidewalk.

Finally she half walked, half crawled to a ledge in front of a food stand and sat down. I turned and began walking away, feeling ill at the sight of a human reduced to less than an animal; the measured brutality of that man; and the indifference of the crowd. Then I stopped. “What would Jesus do?” I asked myself. (Yes, it sounds trite and reminds me of those cheesy “WWJD?” wristbands popular among Evangelical teenyboppers, but it is a basic question that Christians often forgot.) I didn’t precisely know, but He certainly wouldn’t walk away. So I bought her a piece of pizza.

“Please,” I said in Ukrainian, offering her the food. She stared up from a confused, miserable countenance: bloated face, lips blistered with sores, several broken teeth. She accepted the pizza placed in jaundiced hands and muttered a few words which I didn’t understand. I left her, but glanced back several times. She kept looking at me, still holding the pizza. The crowd carried on.

*****

In spite of this street theater from Hell, the day’s events portended blessings which would blossom throughout the following weeks. In fact, this day (Sunday, February 24) marked the halfway point in my tour-of-duty volunteering at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. At the invitation of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, headquartered in my native Chicago, I came impelled by the desire to learn and report about a unique and powerful apostolate on the Catholic Church’s Eastern Front. UCU is the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the former Soviet Union, fighting for the Faith in a culture corrupted by communism and prone to the more insidious depredations of Western secularism.

The first month began hopefully but haltingly, like the transmissions of the buses (called mashrutkas) that race about Lviv. It was beset with the introductory surprises and difficulties encountered by any foreigner in a new but, in this case, rather familiar European culture. Except for the communist legacy and an alphabet that supposedly was a blessing from Sts. Cyril and Methodius, but seems more like a curse to ward off Westerners, it reminded me of ethnic enclaves in Chicago had the Mayors Daley governed them with a steel grip in a one-party state. (Bad analogy, perhaps.) But the half-way mark was auspicious.

First, the weather was the foretaste of spring that happens in late February before winter makes her last stand. The warmth and sunshine of the third Sunday in Lent made even the Soviet-era prison of high-rises in which I reside—the epitome of what Russell Kirk called the “architecture of servitude and boredom”—seem a tad less conducive to suicide and alcohol abuse. “Without God, anything is possible,” said Alexandr Solzenhitsyn. With God, however, such dispiriting architecture certainly would not be possible.

A five-mile walk from this purgatory on the city’s outskirts took me through a Mordor of crumbling factories and commercial outlets; past the rambling forested bluffs of Striskiy Park, opposite the Ukrainian Military Academy and hulking Soviet war memorial, despised by patriotic Ukrainians, some of whom fought the Soviets occupation into the 1950s; down straight Austro-Hungarian streets constructed in the nineteenth century when the city, then called Lemberg, was the capital of Galicia; and finally into the charming medieval heart of Lviv, erected by the Poles who called it Lwow (pronounced “La-voov,” there being no letter “V” in Polish).

The further I walked from the present, the better. A city’s soul is evident in its architecture, and the pre-communist era evinces a confident civilization deeply rooted in faith and the love of spiritual values. Churches, churches everywhere. Statues of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary are omnipresent: some new, some desecrated or intact from communist days, a few of the pedestals standing bare. The earth-bound, unloving, and easily disposable environment of the totalitarian twentieth century looks like a filthy child as compared to the venerability and faith and hope eminent in Christian Europe.


The morning walk ended at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption. The devotion of the worshipers and the wooden kneelers—abjured by some for the marble floor, perhaps because the kneelers are positioned at a sloping angle that makes kneeling straight difficult—emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Mass to an almost masochistic degree. But thankfully the sacrifice wasn’t too painful this day: Sometimes the holy water freezes in the unheated church.

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the only Roman Catholic church to have remained open in Lviv during the entire Soviet occupation. A priest remained in residence at all times, concerned that if the church were ever left empty, the commies would have had the pretext to lock the door and put up a sign reading “Closed for renovations.” And, of course, the communists could have cared less about renovating a church.

The Greek Catholic Church, however, was completely banned in Ukraine.

Native to this land, the Greek Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Rite in communion with Rome, acknowledging papal authority while retaining the Byzantine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In 1946, Stalin convened a sham ecclesiastical council that merged it with the Russian Orthodox Church, which assumed control of all its assets. Conveniently, no Greek Catholic prelates were present at the so-called “Council of Lviv” to give their assent, having already been executed or exiled to Siberia. Forced to function as an underground Church until 1989, today the Greek Catholic faithful are enjoying a renaissance. The Ukrainian Catholic University is their flagship institution of learning. But more about this later.

From the outside, the Roman Catholic cathedral has an Italianate appearance, with bright yellow stucco walls. Inside, it’s an ethereal montage of centuries of art and architectural styles, from gothic bordering on the gloomy to the merry lightness of the baroque paintings which adorn the ceilings. The effigies of recumbent knights on the walls of their tombs are especially moving, if that’s the right word. It is also the seat of the oldest active cardinal in the Catholic Church, Marian Jaworski, who won from Pope John Paul II his mitre, though perhaps at the expense of his right hand. The story behind the black glove covering Cardinal Jaworski’s prosthetic hand—indirectly the fault of his fellow young priest, Karol Wojtyla—is worth Googling.

The cathedral is the spiritual home of Lviv’s remaining Poles, most of whom the Soviets evicted into present-day Poland after World War II. The Roman Catholic religious orders, predominately Polish, followed the exodus. These included the Franciscans. Their most famous member from old Lwow was St. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered up his life for a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz.

Indeed, the city holds a prominent place in Polish sacred history. Following a miraculous victory over the militantly Protestant Swedes, King Jan Kazimierz crowned Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen and Protector of Poland in this cathedral in 1656. A tapestry commemorating the event hangs in the Polish chapel in Washington, D.C.’s Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I often prayed in that chapel. Being able to pray at the site of the actual coronation, however, has been one of life’s unexpected joys.

But the Poles are mainly history. Though it’s said that some continue to hold keys to homes that the Reds chopped up into apartments in the style of Doctor Zhivago, their world is gone but in memory. In turn, the Soviets restocked the city with additional Ukrainians from the country roundabout, as well as Russian imports. The Reds also imported the scourge of vodka into a beer culture.

Walking into the refreshing late morning air, buoyed with the blessings of the Faith, the day promised more goodness: namely, the twin delights of art and human beauty. In the evening I would meet a pretty young woman from UCU to enjoy Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the opera house, one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s finest and the centerpiece of Lviv’s main square. Like the rest of the city, the 1901 building escaped World War II unscathed, at least architecturally. And good seats cost four dollars.


Spring and high culture were in the air, and Nataliya was on her way. Sunday indeed seemed propitious of many more good tidings for the remainder of my stay. And propitious the ensuing weeks have largely proved, but for the black mark that would blight that very afternoon.

Arriving at our opera rendezvous a bit early and very hungry, I walked two blocks to the open-air market to buy a slice of Ukrainian-style pizza, which is more like a hot open-faced pastry. (Another market is two blocks in another direction, but it specializes in folk art; small artifacts left behind by the fleeing Poles; and Soviet and Nazi kitsch. The irony of a period ashtray depicting Hitler made it an irresistible purchase. That anti-smoking zealot would be so proud of his successors’ recent successes. Or maybe he is lighting up in Hell nowadays?) And then the stodgy woman fumbled up the street.

*****

It is no revelation that communism assaulted the civic spirit, so this most shocking of spectacles was, in a way, unsurprising. It was hard to be a comrade when one’s neighbor or spouse could be a KGB informant, so one tended to look out for number one. Indeed, there’s a spirit here of public diffidence—in contrast with the private warmth and conviviality—that makes the Manhattan subway seem like a Des Moines church bake sale. Wishing strangers on the street a good day sometimes elicits a strange look, like telling somebody that their grandmother sews smelly socks. Irene Danysh, a Ukrainian-American who works at UCU, summed up the problem with an apt anecdote. Her first Ukrainian landlady, after taking it upon herself to tell Irene that she did not search her bags when she was out, told her: “I myself trust no one.”

The wicked pre-opera feature and the audience non-response were stark reminders that Ukraine’s resurgent Christianity confronts post-communist hangovers.

Religion is literally in the public square: a life-sized crèche in front of Town Hall; brimming churches on Sunday (according to a survey, some 60% of Lviv residents are weekly church-goers and 90% say they believe in God); several statues of Mary down from the opera house that always seem to have worshipers gazing up in silent prayer. But it needs to be taken to heart as well. And the secularism which Pope Benedict XVI recently called a greater threat than communism … well, that makes the work of the Church here all the more dire.


If the preceding analysis seems serious, it is. And two days after the sick, plastered woman was publicly assaulted with nary a glance, I had tears welling up in my eyes again: not of impotent frustration and anger but pure bliss. For I was in the presence of Divine Love, manifested in human kindness.

Sister Lukia Murashko was making her rounds to her ministry’s workshops for Lviv’s mentally handicapped. These people used to remain locked up at home, shunned by society; or worse, incarcerated in Soviet mental asylums with personnel who must have made Nurse Ratched look like Mother Teresa.

A Basilian nun, Sister Lukia resembles Maid Marion as played by Olivia d’Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood. And her little ministry, run from an office in UCU’s basement, is one of several corporal counterparts to the intellectually spiritual work occurring in the classrooms upstairs. This university and her people are doing the Lord’s work in a culture perhaps more needy of redemption than most, and understandably so. And doing it very well, indeed, as the next installment will relate.

Matthew Rarey is an independent journalist, and can be reached at MatthewRarey00@yahoo.com.

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