Lviv,  Ukraine

Speaking Russian in Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv, Ukraine
Victoria Gazda
Ukrainian Barszcz

The Place: Lviv, Ukraine

“…the atmosphere in Lviv stood in stark contrast to the silence that befell my last stop in Poland once snow dusted the cityscape. Women emerged from their homes dressed to the nines in fur coats, men added a foot to their height in the form of soviet-era ‘cossack hats’ that inexplicably left their ears exposed, and street-sellers continued to go about their business with a few extra layers than normal in a city that wasn’t about to let ‘a little cold’ ruin it’s day.”

Read About Lviv

How many times can I write the words ‘brazen germanic architecture’ before they lose meaning? Summing up different cities of Eastern Europe without sounding repetitive is difficult, especially when so many of them are packed with architecture that is both brazen and Germanic. Ever since reaching Nowa Sól, it seemed the countless towns and cities I rolled lazily through retained and displayed their cultural connections to the west with an aesthetic that can only be describe as Eastern Europe-lite. After cycling through so many of them, each one started to resemble a bigger, busier, smaller or quieter version than the one before. In Lviv, if it wasn’t for the language, the clashing corn-yellow and sky-blue colours of the Ukrainian flag fluttering above, and some slightly more chaotic driving, I could be fooled into thinking I was still in Poland.

When I arrived in Ukraine’s westernmost city, I found myself caught in the frigid depths of winter. The temperature had plummeted to a biting -15°C, and locals donned their winter clothes so they could venture out into the polar conditions. The only other place I’d experienced wintery weather on the Arctic to Asia cycle tour so far was Przemyśl, but the atmosphere in Lviv stood in stark contrast to the silence that befell my last stop in Poland once snow dusted the cityscape. Women emerged from their homes dressed to the nines in fur coats, men added a foot to their height in the form of soviet-era ‘cossack hats’ that inexplicably left their ears exposed, and street-sellers continued to go about their business with a few extra layers than normal in a city that wasn’t about to let ‘a little cold’ ruin it’s day.

After hearing people call it the ‘Paris of the East’ and the ‘cultural capital of Ukraine’ (or Poland depending on who you ask), it took me two weeks to pull myself away from the allure of it’s quirks. Stumble into one particular backyard, for instance, and you’ll find the ‘Alley of Lost Toys’, where the gaze of hundreds of eyes peer back at you from a patchwork of snow and synthetic fur and children’s forgotten companions wait day and night for someone to claim them. Go for a coffee near the main square and you might find yourself descending into a “coffee mine”, or explore one of the endless rows of restaurants where WWI soldiers, Soviet generals and medieval executioners stand side-by-side, each offering you a different themed dining experience. Lviv is a cool city, and it knows it; no wonder empires have fought to control it, and more than one country, at least according to Kajtek in Wrocław, still believes it is rightfully theirs.


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

*In this interview, you will notice references to ‘Maidan’, a term for the 2014 protests and subsequent Ukrainian revolution. It is not talked about in detail in this interview, but will be in future ones*

The Person: Victoria Gazda, 28, Quality Assurance Engineer

I studied Japanese language, but I don’t know Japanese at all. I’m not fluent, I don’t even know it at an intermediate level! …When I applied to university, I thought that if you study Japanese you have a lot of job prospects… when I graduated, I realised it’s useless here!”

See Victoria's Full Background

I grew up here; I am a citizen of Lviv. My surname comes from Poland and it means ‘host’. So I have Polish roots which is where my second name came from. Part of my family is from there and another part is originally from somewhere near Chechnya. In my childhood I was a tennis player, and then a dancer, and now I like ultimate frizbee!My friend took me to the first training session at university, and then I got into it. I’ve been playing it for about 9 years already. Next year I’m going to join our national team and play in tournaments. It’s made up by people from all over the country. We gather in Kiev, the capital. 

 

I studied Japanese language at university, but I don’t know Japanese at all. I’m not fluent, I don’t even know it at an intermediate level! It was really hard to study because we had no communication practice. Only one person from the class across two years had the chance to go to Japan. When I applied to university, I thought that if you study Japanese you have a lot of job prospects; I could use it to earn a lot of money. But when I graduated, I realised it’s useless here! We have no Japanese people here. We have more Chinese people than Japanese, but we don’t have Chinese education here. I never wanted to work in Japan, especially after I got acquainted with my teacher… my sensei – we called every teacher that taught us Japanese, ‘Sensei’; it’s like a tradition. When he arrived at the university, I was in the second year. He knew how to speak English, but didn’t show it. So when he explained grammatical rules and stuff to us, he explained them with diagrams! He didn’t speak Ukrainian at the time either, though now he does. But yeah, he was very strange.  The course was five years, so I definitely had thought about changing the subject, but I couldn’t because they only offered Ukrainian or Japanese. Not even Russian! Or English!

What is special about Lviv?

“There is also one tradition that we only celebrate in Western Ukraine… The first Monday after Easter, we have a big water fight! It’s said that this water is sacred. It’s really crazy… people were throwing water on everybody. It didn’t matter; old people, young, men, women.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Traditions; we have very nice Christmas traditions where families gather together and sing carols and stuff like that. There is a group of people who dress in different costumes and go from home-to-home earning money for singing carols. Traditionally, this was done on the 7th of January, but now we have another holiday, so we have two Christmases! And of course we celebrate both. One is Catholic and one is Orthodox. We are Orthodox. We only began to have the Catholic Christmas last year.

 

There is also one tradition that we only celebrate in Western Ukraine; in other parts they don’t know about it. The first Monday after Easter, we have a big water fight! It’s said that this water is sacred. It’s really crazy, and for the last few years, the government gives us a place to have a water fight, because a before then it got too crazy, and people were throwing water on everybody. It didn’t matter; old people, young, men, women. But this holiday does not happen in other parts of Ukraine.

It’s a very open-minded city; it’s really friendly to foreigners. There is very beautiful architecture, even compared to Europe. Many people don’t know that Lviv is a very ‘European’ city because it was built by the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s very similar to Vienna, or Kraków. For several years Lviv was Polish, and Poland made our city more beautiful. I think it’s the most beautiful city in Ukraine!

Why do people call this part of Ukraine ‘real Ukraine’?

“When we separated from Russia, many people who lived closer to the Eastern border were Russian, and they have a different mentality. But here we were more similar to Polish, and that’s a different mentality, too.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Western Ukraine was managed by Russians because some time ago Ukraine was USSR. It was one huge country. When we separated from Russia, many people who lived closer to the Eastern border were Russian, and they have a different mentality. But here we were more similar to Polish, and that’s a different mentality, too. Most of the people here speak Ukrainian, although they also speak Russian. Me personally, I was studying in a Russian school.

Does the war in Eastern Ukraine affect people’s attitudes to speaking Russian here?

I have an acquaintance who was speaking Russian all the time since his childhood. When Maidan began, he stopped speaking Russian at all. He changed his language and made his wife change, too.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Definitely. I have an acquaintance who was speaking Russian all the time since his childhood. When Maidan began, he stopped speaking Russian at all. He changed his language and made his wife change, too. And he taught his child to speak Ukrainian. He went crazy about it. I didn’t think that was normal.

Where’s your favourite place outside of Ukraine?

“…one year ago I made my dream come true and I went to Paris, and I really fell in love with it. It’s a really nice city. It has different areas, and each of these areas is like a ‘Lviv’.”

See Victoria'sFull Answer

One of my favourite cities is Paris. It’s a common dream of a young girl to go there. So one year ago I made my dream come true and I went to Paris, and I really fell in love with it. It’s a really nice city. It has different areas, and each of these areas is like a ‘Lviv’. But my other favourite city is Berlin. It’s a very free city; you can go wherever you want, you can do whatever you want. There are a lot of opportunities there. The country is very strict, and the people are different; everything differs from our country. But if I had to choose between Paris and Berlin, I would definitely choose Berlin.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Lviv or Ukraine?

“The political situation with Maidan in 2014, when all the people gathered together to protest. It was a protest against the government, a huge one. It was so bad that there were a lot of people, we call them ‘Titushky’, who the government paid to go against the protestors to support the government at that time. The whole western part of Ukraine, especially Lviv, was the most excited about that situation.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Maybe it was during the political situation with Maidan in 2014, when all the people gathered together to protest. It was a protest against the government, a huge one. It was so bad that there were a lot of people, we call them ‘Titushky’, who the government paid to go against the protestors to support the government at that time. The whole western part of Ukraine, especially Lviv, was the most excited about that situation. As we said, Western Ukraine is ‘more Ukrainian’ than the East, so maybe I’m proud of that. The war with Russia happened immediately after it.

 

You know, I’m proud of the whole of Ukraine each time someone wins a sport, like the Klitschko brothers. They are boxers, and were world champions a few times and they won a lot of belts. One of them is now the mayor of Kiev. 

What is your main concern or worry about Lviv and Ukraine?

“…a lot of people here don’t like Russian speakers… nationalists don’t like it… We bumped into a group of girls who were nationalists; 25 people or something. When they heard that we were speaking Russian, they began to surround us… they started shouting at us. One girl I was with was beaten.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

As I was saying, I was studying in a Russian school. Lviv is the most nationalistic city; a lot of people here don’t like Russian speakers. When I finished school and entered university, I had many arguments with people who speak Ukrainian, and it was very hard to live through because I speak Russian with my mum and my friends. But nationalists don’t like it. I had one not good situation in one of our parks. We bumped into a group of girls who were nationalists; 25 people or something. When they heard that we were speaking Russian, they began to surround us. They wanted to do something bad to us, but they didn’t know how to start it. So they started shouting at us. One girl I was with was beaten. I ran away. It is sad; every place and every country has its own foolish people. This was before the situation escalated with Russia. Now we have a lot of nationalists, but now they’re not as angry. The situation is a bit more free.

 

For the whole of Ukraine; we are not united. Eastern Ukraine is not united with the Western part. That’s why they are separating and want to be with Russia. It’s Crimea and two other regions; Donetsk and Luhansk. They had another mentality and other opinions, even about language. People there don’t want to speak Ukrainian. It’s not the whole Eastern part; there’s also Kharkiv, but I don’t know why they have stayed as normal. Many people who live in other parts don’t want to speak Ukrainian, too, like Odessa. Odessa is really Russian, and is a Russian-speaking city.

Has the war in the East affected you?

For me personally, I haven’t been affected that much by it. Most of our teachers in Russian schools are… pro-Russian, especially the ones teaching Russian language.”

See Victoria'sFull Answer

I know some people who have different opinions to me and others in Western Ukraine, but they still live here; I don’t know why. They are more pro-Russia. They are sitting here quietly and don’t talk much about it. For me personally, I haven’t been affected that much by it. Most of our teachers in Russian schools are pro-Russian, especially the ones teaching Russian language. My aunt is a teacher of Russian language and literature, though she has the ‘Western opinion’. But each school has someone who is pro-Russian.

What was the reaction to the introduction of martial law two days ago?

“…this situation with martial law a few days ago appeared out of nowhere… It was very quick. For most of us, especially people I work with, think it will blow over. But if you ask someone who worked for the government… they are much more nervous.”

See Victoria's Full Answer

You know, this situation with martial law a few days ago appeared out of nowhere. I was watching the TV, and I was watching the news and saw that some ships in the sea of Asov were surrounded. It was very quick. For most of us, especially people I work with, think it will blow over. But if you ask someone who worked for the government, or something like that, I think they are much more nervous. I don’t know the mood everywhere else, but I have friends in Odessa and they aren’t very nervous. They said ‘we will live as we used to, and we don’t care about this martial law.’

What are your thoughts on Stereotypes of people from Lviv?

Russian people think that we eat children for breakfast! …It was on the Russian news, and they really think that we eat Russian children. That’s why they don’t come here. It was Russian propaganda was after the Maidan protests…”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Russian people think that we eat children for breakfast! Yeah, really! It was on the Russian news, and they really think that we eat Russian children. That’s why they don’t come here. It was Russian propaganda after the Maidan protests, and people truly believe that we’re very angry and can kill or do serious harm to someone who speaks Russian. They get really surprised when they listen to my Russian and they’re like “why do you speak Russian? You live in Lviv, it’s very nationalist and dangerous!”

 

Ukrainians, and even Russians, when they go on vacation somewhere, they behave like crazy people. They eat all the food off the table. Our mentality differs from people from other countries. Even me, I don’t know if my mentality is the same as other Ukrainians, but I behave another way in those situations; I think I took a lot from Europe, like ‘Hygge’ from Denmark. I haven’t been there but I know about it. The other thing is our people can be kind of rude, especially on our little autobuses; which we call ‘marshruta’. People will step on your foot and not apologise, for example. I don’t like our mentality. Maybe it’s because I travelled to other countries and saw how they lived there. Most people don’t get to travel, because our salaries are not high. They can’t travel outside the country; they need to feed family, to raise children and give them education and other things. That’s why for these kind of people it’s hard. The minimum wage is 3,500 hyrvnias ($140)/month, and the minimum pension is $50/month. It’s not liveable in Ukraine. We need other ways to earn money on top of that, which is why a lot of people go across the borders and buy something to bring back and sell, and things like that. It’s especially hard in winter, because our prices for gas and electricity are very high. For example, last year, my friends bill was 3,200 hyrvnias ($121)/month. So how do you think our people with a minimum salary in our country can live.

What is the best thing to ever come out of Lviv?

BDSM! The person who ‘invented’ it, he was from Lviv! We even have a café that is BDSM themed. The waitresses can hit you!”

See Victoria's Full Answer

Masachism! BDSM! The person who ‘invented’ it, he was from Lviv! We even have a café that is BDSM themed. The waitresses can hit you! It’s not the only one thing we have, but I can’t think of anything else right now.

 

Lviv is the city in Europe where the amount of restaurants is the highest per capita. They are all themed, especially around Ukrainian themes; there is one themed around Bandera, a national hero.

What do you eat during the Holidays here?

Kutia, which is not a salad but it’s like a bowl of poppy seeds, honey, nuts and some other ingredients… It’s the most traditional dish all over Ukraine. We have it on Orthdox Christmas; the 7th of January.”

See Victoria'sFull Answer

Varenyky! It’s like pierogi in Poland. Ukraine of course came up with the idea! And Kutia, which is not a salad but it’s like a bowl of poppy seeds, honey, nuts and some other ingredients. It’s really traditional, but I don’t really like it because it’s too sweet. It’s the most traditional dish all over Ukraine. We have it on Orthdox Christmas; the 7th of January. For this Christmas, there should be 12 dishes on the table, but they should all be without meat. We have salads, holluptsi, which is cabbage leaves with rice and some meat inside. We also have hollodetz which is a jelly with meat in it; we eat meat after we pray. It’s delicious. We have barszcz as well; it’s soup with beetroot, potato cabbage, beans, meat and cream.

Reccomendation:

“…if you want to taste Ukraine, you can taste a really nice Barszcz. You should choose Barszcz instead of Salo. It’s a very different Barszcz to the one in Poland.”

See Victoria's Full Reccomendation

Salo; it’s like bacon without the meat. It’s just the fat, without the meat. You should eat it with salt. We have such a weird thing here; Salo with chocolate. But actually if you want to taste Ukraine, you can taste a really nice Barszcz. You should choose Barszcz instead of Salo. It’s a very different Barszcz to the one in Poland.

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The Plate: Ukrainian Barszcz

“Where the Polish one is light, it’s Ukrainian counterpart is heavy. Where it’s clear and watery, Ukraine’s version is creamy and filled with chunks of beetroot, potato, beans and sometimes meat. Ukrainian barszcz is like the bigger, scarier cousin from out of town.”

Read About Ukrainian Barszcz

I’ve already introduced you to Barszcz once before, so I won’t bore you again with the same details. Having tasted it in Poland, I expected the version next door would be pretty much the same, or at least bear some clear semblance to one another. But Ukrainian and Polish barszcz (the word still makes me fumble with my keyboard) stand so far apart from one another that I struggled to see the connections, other than the obvious fact that both are made with beetroot. Where the Polish one is light, it’s Ukrainian counterpart is heavy. Where it’s clear and watery, Ukraine’s version is creamy and filled with chunks of beetroot, potato, beans and sometimes meat. Ukrainian barszcz is like the bigger, scarier adolescent cousin from out of town and, I have to admit, it’s much more satisfying than it’s Western neighbour. Packing more of a punch, it actually feels like a meal rather than a drink, and is more fitting as a main course than an appetiser. The texture is varied depending on whether you strike potato, meat or one of the other components beneath the globules of oil clumping together on a pink-purple surface so it doesn’t get tedious, and I happily returned for seconds and thirds. I feel guilty saying it after cycling through Poland for so long but, for me, it seems the Polish version is destined to live in the shadow of it’s more boisterous competitor.


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3 Thoughts on Speaking Russian in Lviv, Ukraine
    Hilda
    16 Mar 2019
    3:10pm

    Very sad to see Ukraine so split. I like the image you have built of Lviv, and I am learning more and more about Europe from your travels. Traditional Jewish borscht is a cross between the Polish and the Ukraine varieties!!!!!

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