In Dubno, town in Western Ukraine, in the middle of the hot summer day, walking between the walls of the huge defensive castle, I was suddenly hit with that tangible, nearly physical feeling of nostalgia.
I suppose this is what many people from Poland experience coming to Lviv. As the heart of the province of Eastern Galicia, Lviv has seen over seven centuries of history come and pass. It was founded as a city in 13th century; in 15th century became a part of the Polish Kingdom, later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, until as a result of its partitions at the end of 18th century getting under influence of the Habsburg Empire. I will get a bit historical now, for a couple of paragraphs, because I think a note like that is crucial to understanding the wider context of the Ukrainian/Polish borderland. The history of territories in Western Ukraine is a difficult one. Full of shadows of the past.
In 19th century, according to wikipedia, “Lviv became one of the most important Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish cultural centers. The city (…) served as a meeting place of Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish and German cultures (…) The province of Galicia became the only part of the former Polish state with some cultural and political freedom, and the city then served as a major Polish political and cultural center. Similarly, the city also served as an important center of the Ukrainian patriotic movement and culture, unlike other parts of Ukraine under Russian rule. Lviv was also a major center of Jewish culture, in particular as a center of the Yiddish language.”
After WW1 the history of the city became ever more complicated. The new reality had to be forged after empires broke apart. In 1920 and 1921, after the peace of Riga, the city (known as Lwów) became Polish again, third in size after Warsaw and Kraków. In that time, it grew to be a center of science, sports and culture of Poland. Poles constituted a majority, Jews formed more than a one-fourth of population. Ukrainian minority in the city itself was sizeable. The countryside around the city was predominantly Ukrainian. There were also other minorities, including Germans, Armenians, Karaims and Georgians.
After WW2, according to Stalin’s decision, the city remained as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Many of the remaining Poles were expelled to the territories that used to be German, granted to Poland after the war – specifically to Wroclaw. Jewish population perished in Holocaust, Polish & German minority murdered and/or expelled. Ukrainians migrated into the city in huge numbers – all of it resulted in the alteration of the traditional ethnic composition of the city.
I came to Lviv fully prepared for that tangible feeling of nostalgia. I like visiting borderlands. I believe that in cracks forming between one history and the other, one ethnic or national mythology and the other, a lot gets revealed about human nature. Those places are ever changing, fascinating and rich in layers of history, if extremely difficult and divisive.
I half-expected to melt into the charm of old Lviv. I was ready for experiencing a piece of Polish pre-war identity, drowned in the peacefulness of golden sun, dripping slowly onto red petunia petals in windows of countless cafes, to the scratchy gramophone sound of old records. I expected to see the time hanging on a thread, like a sand in an hourglass, where it refuses to trickle down; Polish Galicia of imagination and dreams.
However, none of these impressions were present. I walked around, looked at the beauty of that crumbling city. I took a lot of atmospheric photos, searching for a shadow of that expected charm. To no avail: Lviv and I do not speak the same language. Somewhat forgotten, with little streets full of potholes and young, Ukrainian vibrant energy – the city was beautiful, but removed, empty. The charm of old Lviv sold in grams and cups, in touristy cafes around the market square…
I respect its history and its stories, yet it hasn’t captured my imagination.
Dubno however is another matter.
As usual with the most interesting discoveries on our travel paths, Dubno was a pure coincidence. We were trying to get to Rivne on that particular day, taking a marshrutka ride first thing in the morning from Tarnopol, a city that was the second stop on our travel through Ukraine in June 2016. Long story short, we arrived at the bus station in Tarnopol just in time, but marshurtka to Rivne was standing there fully packed and no amount of being “naive foreigner” would make it stretch, so marshrutka went away and we were left standing behind.
We jumped on the second one that day, going in the general vague direction of where we were going, but we randomly got off the bus in a tiny town of Dubno. I believe our decision making process went a bit like “Where are we?” “I do not know, I think we passed a sign with a name Dubno on it” “What is in Dubno?” “I have no idea, want to find out?” 🙂
Travel, you beautiful whimsical creature of freedom, you.
After getting out of the bus we decided to acquire a bit more local knowledge, seeing a tourist agency on our way (booking tours of Italy for Ukrainians from Dubno) and hoping to be furnished with a local map. We stepped in there and met probably the most enthusiastic CouchSurfer in the tiny town of Dubno (population: 38 thousand people) – or most likely the only one.
We spent a good hour chatting to “Andrew Raven” as he proudly translated his name to English, about anything and everything, starting from the current Ukrainian situation and going back in time. From conversations about our travel plans, dreams and families back to the story of 1928, with my grandma as a four year old girl running away from their home with her family. They were afraid of mounting aggression from their Ukrainian neighbors, so they decided to leave the house and extensive lands near Lviv behind and run. She lost a younger sister in the process, with the child falling ill and dying; that story was never mentioned to me until she passed away. Too much trauma. Then he shared the story of his grandparents, Ukrainians, fleeing Zamosc (city in the East of Poland), afraid of their Polish neighbors.. Pages of Polish-Ukrainian history books are never easy, but I valued the possibility to talk about it to the locals of Volhynia.. This was but an opening of this difficult topic.
And as usual in travel, the most interesting meetings happen when you least expect it…
After about an hour, we continued on our way, furnished with a map showing the huge defensive fortress built in 14th century, that gave the beginning to the town around it. The fortress/castle was our first stop and literally from the moment we turned the corner it blew our minds. Even the main entrance was huge, and the moat really deep, though it did not look as good on pictures as it did in real life. It wasn’t just some small castle-like house or a pile of rocks that used to be a castle long ago. It was properly preserved: tall defensive walls, towers, long dark tunnels underneath, cellars, huge courtyard, a palace (in renovation, with parts of it crumbling inside, ceilings and floors removed, an open gushing wound), gardens and even a peacock-pheasant reserve among the rose bushes and artillery.
Here, between the four walls of a closed-off courtyard of an old castle, which used to belong to a Ruthenian aristocratic Ostrogsky family, later on sold to the Polish Lubomirsky family (which furnished the tower with a big, white palace inside the courtyard), I was hit right in my gut with a huge bucket of nostalgia – in a moment I least expected it. I stopped, looked around and marveled at what this place must have been in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Paradise lost – was my first very persistent reaction that did not leave my imagination for the whole time being there. The space around me looked more like the mythical Arcadia than anything I ever imagined, or ever experienced. As I walked around the courtyard, literally swimming in the hot sun, all I could think about was this myth of Arcadia as presented in the literature of Renaissance. Arcadia. Paradise lost. A little pocket of time long gone. Idyllic space of natural beauty, and child-like simplicity. Golden. Quiet. With air so sweet from the scent of pear and apple trees, light buzzing with bumblebee sound and pastoral harmony, not corrupted by any conflict; between those stone walls in those forgotten gardens. Logically speaking, I knew this was not the case here, like everywhere in those lands the scene in front of my eyes was more than likely a backstage to the repeated stagings of horrors. Somehow though there was no trace of it left in the gentle harmony of the afternoon sun, touching the stones surrounding the courtyard..
And in the middle of that lost paradise, I could almost see shadows of its previous inhabitants, moving in between the walls of the fortress as if they have always belonged there and would never leave. Some of them walking in and out of the white palace, through the imposing doors. Young women,in rustling dresses, running down the steps towards the ornamental carriage parked in the middle of the driveway, expectant as if ready to harness horses on moment’s notice and bring them to a lively ball nearby. Men inspecting the armory and the contents of the long, tunnel-like cellars underneath the defensive walls of the outer fortress.
As I walked around, touching the walls, listening to deep wells, poking and prodding around the cellars in darkness, smelling the flowers and tracing the wheels of the carriage with my fingers, I could imagine this life that was long gone.. More a dream than a memory now. I could sense it more in this tiny pocket of the lost paradise than in any other corner of what used to be the state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with its privileges, rights and Golden Liberty granted to the nobility of all nations that constituted that country, in its very rudimentary form of the Nobles’ Democracy.
I realize that my experience is very difficult to relay to anyone that did not grow up in Poland, maybe specifically in Poland of my 1980s generation, still removed and backwards, full of shadows of the Soviet reality but slowly claiming back its identity. Freedom, pride and honor are the building blocks of the Polish soul. They had to sustain my country for a long time. Polish culture had to withstand 123 years of partitions and a complete disappearance from the map, an active politics of Germanization and Rusification, two world wars and 50 years of Soviet domination. This love of freedom that we trace back to the Golden Age in Polish history and the nihil novi idea – that nothing can be decided about us behind our backs – this has sustained us, supported us and brought us back.
I am European and an expat, yet I am Polish at heart, that feeling confirmed throughout the years of living abroad. I can’t shake this identity anymore than I can shake my adult expat one. And probably these values that we ascribe to that Golden Age world, which is gone, but here in Dubno, ever present and near, was the reason for nostalgia hitting me right in the gut in that moment and that place. However, an age of gold and light to some would be the age of darkness and shadow to others.. And this should be remembered. Such is and has been the European history for ages.
This tangible feeling of nostalgia that I experienced in Dubno surprised me. I have never been sympathetic to those ideas of “getting Lviv back”, even if due to the family history alone I could have been stuck in that sentiment. Lviv is what it is, the city at the heart of Galicia, city that lost one identity – and you can still see the scars – but gained another one. Today it is an Ukrainian city with a multicultural past and a long history. Same as Wroclaw in Poland. In times of peace, we can all enjoy these places together. I can speak Polish in the West of Ukraine and be understood, and understand answers coming to me in Ukrainian that sounds so similar to my mother tongue that you immediately see and understand the sister-like nature of both languages.
Borderlands have always been spheres of conflict, but also, spheres of fusion. Why not appreciate the closeness of our cultures, instead of stressing that which brings us apart? Why instigate or add up to the existing conflicts that do not benefit any of the directly involved sides?
This very strong feeling of nostalgia raised some important questions about the national memory in my mind. In some way, whichever way you look at it, the majority of the towns of Western Ukraine are dotted with Ruthenian/ Polish/ Lithuanian nobility castles, just like the one in Dubno. To me Eastern Galicia and Volhynia are provinces of incredible vibrancy yet with dark shadows on every corner. It is a very difficult land to travel to for a Pole, mentally and emotionally, difficult and yet at the same time so satisfyingly beautiful, almost like a sweet, light, nearly forgotten dream. That beauty and harmony that I experienced in Dubno, this peacefulness is worth remembering, sustaining and preserving.
We took a very long time leaving that castle. We even enjoyed an excellent barbecue there (my boyfriend firmly believes now that bbq Ukrainian sausage is the best in all of Europe and I must say I can see why… Germany, the Wurstland, you have nothing on Ukraine…).
Later we walked through the town of Dubno and saw scenes of everyday life against the backdrop of destruction. We saw monasteries with golden cupolas and old gates from 15th century, and a ruined synagogue from 17th century, the memory of millions of Jews that used to live in the Pale of Settlement. Dubno was a town with thriving Jewish population before WW2, over 50 percent of inhabitants, all perished, the building itself broken, burnt down and in the state of decay now..
A sad picture of Anatevka in my mind.
Paradise lost. The land of shadows, moving in and out of existence through the golden afternoon sun, in and out of my daydreams. No matter how difficult the travel through light and shadow, all I know is: I will be back.
Then, we made our way to the Tunnel of Love, to walk towards an oncoming train, with our heads and hearts still full of Arcadia.