We arrive in Lviv, Ukraine aboard another sleeper train. As we drive to our hotel I'm attracted by these old 17th and 18th Century buildings and churches that remain untouched by the Soviet occupation. The city has a long history of occupation and conquest by the Tatars, Turks, Poles, Hapsburgs, and others, but the people have not lost their spirit, and they finally have the independence they have craved for so long.
We take a walking tour of Lviv and I can't help but think that Lviv must look much like Prague did before its extensive post-Cold War renovations and reconstuction projects. In many respects, time seems to have stood still here. Lviv is in Western Ukraine, and it's here that the Orange Revolution began...where the first Ukrainian flag was raised as the Soviet Union dissolved. And yet, as I talk to students here in a local Catholic university, it's clear that the people of Ukraine are still fighting for their own identity. The regional divisions between eastern and western Ukraine, as pronounced as they may be, seem to only scratch the surface of this identity crisis. "We are searching...competing," one third year university student tells me. "We are asking what our relations are with Russia...what our relationship should be to Europe."
When asked what it means to be Ukrainian, the first caveat I hear is that this is a complex question. "Oh! This is complicated!" says one faculty member of the university. There seems to be an initial reluctance to even discuss the issue, but eventually the flood walls are breached and a sophisticated, nuanced discussion ensues.
Religious differences are immediately downplayed--there are several Catholic churches and cathedrals here and in at least one cathedral downtown where the masses are still said in Polish. There is some religious politics between the Independent Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, but "there are not so many religious differences," says the president of the university's student union. "To be Ukrainian," a young lady and 2nd year student beside me says, "is to be tolerant. We all have different associations, different languages and different backgrounds and ethnicities." One young man quickly agrees: "My parents and grandparents are Russian, Jewish, and Polish, but I'm Ukrainian. I feel at home here!"
Politics is viewed with disillusionment and disdain by these students. I'm taken a bit by surprise, because at least half of them are political science majors. "The easiest way to division," a student explains, "is through politics." I ask a young political science student if she would consider entering into politics at some point. She shakes her head slowly, "I don't think so. To be in politics, you must be corrupt. If you are not corrupt, you must deal with the corrupt. That is not something that appeals to me." This worries me, because disillusionment is the enemy of good government.
But on a positive note, it's also clear that the disillusionment these students may feel hasn't (yet) led to complacency. When asked about the current constitutional crisis in Kyiv, a young man exclaims, "It is very superficial what Yuschenko and Yanukovych are doing right now." When I ask what would make the situation better, the answers come in rapid fire succession: "We need help on how to make policies," says one. "We need the political will to do changes," says another. Perhaps the most incisive comment I hear comes from the president of the student union: "Everyone is taking from Ukraine, but no one gives back," he says in flawless English. "Honesty is needed. Inside this nation, we are not honest with ourselves."
A hotbutton issue among the Lviv college students is language. Here the divisions of the country are more apparent, and controversial. The national language in Ukraine is Ukrainian; but from Kiev eastward, the spoken language is Russian. With Ukraine's assimilation into the Soviet Union, an entire generation, I'm told, does not speak Ukrainian. "The Ukrainian government doesn't have the political courage to make Ukrainian the required language...the dominant language," a student tells me. "Just as the Baltic countries made language a requirement for citizenship, Ukraine should do the same." The scale of the issue isn't entirely clear to me until I'm told that Russian is spoken by 70% of the population--as their primary language! How did this happen, I wonder? "Over time, it became fashionable to speak Russian," a faculty member from Lviv informs us. "It's prestigious because learning Russian requires education. It's not that Ukrainians in the east can't speak Ukrainian," she says. "Some East Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian better than I can!" Some students are clearly angered at the emerging (if not already present) dominance of the Russian language in Ukraine. Says one woman: "Some of our vice ministers can't speak two sentences in Ukrainian without horrible mistakes...just to demonstrate how difficult it is. It's disrespectful, and it removes any stimulus to learn Ukrainian. There are not enough Ukrainian language schools in east Ukraine."
In an effort to more fully understand their identity crisis, we ask: Do Ukrainians feel more European or more Russian? After just a little prodding, girl beside me answers cogently, "I feel more European than Russian. But I don't like it that Europe or Russia must decide that they have a choice of accepting Ukraine or not. We have a long, rich history, and we must be Europeans in our thinking." Another faculty member from the University clearly resents Russia's aura of superiority when it comes to its relationship with Ukraine: "The Russians look at us and say 'Oh the Ukrainians, they are good at baking bread. And we Russians...we're good at conquering the world.'"
At sunrise this morning, I go for a jog around this fascinating city. I'm alarmed at the state of disrepair of the city's old buildings. The brick and stucco is crumbling and graffiti mars the facades. I see little-to-no renovation, but when I ask a senior city official about the problem and about what it means for UNESCO recertification in the future, he recognizes it as an issue but boasts at how during a recent visit UNESCO representatives were impressed that the renovations conducted have not interfered or marred the original achitectural design. And yet, as I jog along the polished cobblestone streets, I don't see any visible signs of renovation. I also hear a comment from our interpreter that an international donor has provided $800,000 to renovate a street across from city hall. In the grand scheme of things, that's really not much...but it's a start. For this quaint and beautiful city of Lviv, that's what is so desperately needed: Faith.
Faith in Lviv, at home and abroad....