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Dispatches from the present


Away From the Front Lines


The first impression, arriving in Lviv, is that the war is much less present here than in Kyiv. In the capital, crucial parts of the city are sealed off, which makes traffic even more dense and transportation time-consuming. Heavily armed soldiers are present everywhere, and all over town you see wounded veterans, missing a leg or an arm. Air-raid alarms and the deafening noise of the Patriot air-defense missiles—much louder than the incoming—mark the soundscape. 

Meanwhile, in Kharkiv, where Russian forces have been advancing, life has even moved underground. School classes are taught in the subway and symphony orchestras perform in cellars. Death and danger and Russian missiles await around the corner: at a playground, where teenagers play football, or at the Home Depot. 

None of this is manifest in Lviv—except the air-raid alarms, of course, which are then mostly relativized by a check in one of the Telegram channels keeping track of what kind of murderous weapons the Russians have launched this time. Usually, they are bound for other regions. 

But that’s just on the surface. At second or third glance you notice the signs. You see how, every morning, a convoy of ambulances leaves the regional military hospital, heading for the railway station to pick up wounded and dead from the so-called evacuation trains arriving from the east. 

On nearby Pekarska Street, the blue-and-yellow flags might seem like the usual national symbols you see all over Ukraine, signaling the patriotism of the greengrocers, tech vendors or baristas in the shops and cafés lined along the road. But if you look closer you notice the black ribbons tied around each flagpole. Pekarska Street leads up to Lychakiv Cemetery, where the Lvivian soldiers killed at the front lines in the east and south are buried—and, as of recently, they also come from the north, the third front. 

Through this street—between apartment buildings and kebab joints, with a hotel named after Sherlock Holmes on one side and the university of veterinary medicine and biotechnology on the other—the funeral processions pass every day, often several times, from morning to afternoon. Pedestrians stop and kneel on the pavement, bow their heads, paying respect to those who sacrificed their lives defending the freedom of all Ukrainians, in the east as well as here, in the west. 

The flags, with their black mourning bands, are usually taken down at night, but are put up again almost every morning. The war doesn’t pause, and the trains from the east keep coming. 

I go to Lychakiv Cemetery to leave my red-ink editor’s pen at the grave of Victoria Amelina, a novelist, poet and war-crime researcher, who was killed last year in Kramatorsk as a Russian Iskander missile hit the pizzeria where she was having dinner. 

Just after the Russian invasion, Amelina wrote an essay warning that the Ukrainian cultural community now risked the same fate as the “Executed Renaissance” in the 1930s. Back then, the Soviet Russian regime murdered almost all Ukrainian writers and intellectuals in a campaign aimed at exterminating Ukrainian culture per se. Now it might happen to another generation—“this time by missiles and bombs,” she wrote. A year ago, she herself fell victim to that renewed Russian attack on Ukrainian culture and identity. And she is not alone; the list of cultural figures killed by Russian fire gets longer by the day. Many writers and artists have long been fighting at the front lines. Last week, after years fundraising for the military, Kharkiv-based writer, rock star and activist Serhiy Zhadan joined the Khartia battalion of the National Guard. 

In May, the Kharkiv printing house Factor Druk, one of Europe’s largest printing plants and an absolutely essential hub of Ukrainian culture, was hit by Russian precision-guided missiles. Kharkiv is a city of printers—or at least it was, before the Russian invasion. Several facilities have closed down, but Factor Druk reopened last year, even though many of its four hundred employees had joined the Ukrainian armed forces and were fighting on the front lines. The recent Russian attack killed seven workers and injured many more, and over fifty thousand books were burned out. Where now can all the children’s literature, history books, newspapers, magazines and novels that came out of Factor Druk’s presses be printed? 

“Manuscripts don’t burn,” says the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Amelina added: “Russian manuscripts don’t burn; that might be true. But Ukrainians can only laugh bitterly. It’s imperial manuscripts that don’t burn; ours do.” 

Vika, as she was known among her friends, rests in the cemetery proper, immediately to the right of the main entrance. The soldiers who are now brought up Pekarska Street end up in the Field of Mars, a newly prepared burial ground just outside the walls, to the north. It’s hard to take in: many hundreds or more of crosses and flags and photos, in row after row after row. 

Lvivians meet at the cemetery; people come and go all the time. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children, wives and boyfriends gather around the remains of a loved one, buried a week ago, or sometime last year. Some just standing at the grave in silence, others rearranging the flowers or talking loudly to a boon companion who was torn away too early and can’t answer any longer. A young man is sitting on a little bench next to one of the graves. He has brought two paper cups of hot coffee, one for himself and one for the dead he has come to visit. A fellow soldier on leave from the front lines? A schoolmate? 

When I return later that day, I get caught up in one of the funerals. Two young men were killed on the same day I arrived in Lviv. Freshly dug holes wait for them at the very end of the field, at the edge of the forest; the gravediggers stand around, at least eight men in blue overalls, ready to fill them again. 

When the first fallen soldiers were buried here about a year ago, the distance from the monument, where the dead rest in open caskets, to the actual graves was short. Since then, it has grown. And grown. After screwing the lids shut—the shrieking sound is as penetrating as the Kalashnikov salute accompanying the ceremony—the fallen soldiers’ comrades have to carry the coffins some 280 meters, uphill. Already halfway, the heavy burden makes their legs shake. Finally, the crunching sound of marching boots against the neat and tidy gravel stops. Up here, around the most recent graves, the dirt lay bare. No gravel, not yet. 

Next to this field another one is being prepared, twice as big. Soon the distance that the soldiers carrying the coffins have to cover will be shorter again. At least for a while. New holes are dug. And filled. 

That first thought of mine, as I arrived in Lviv, misses something. Naturally, the experience of war is different here in Lviv than in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia or Vovchansk. There is, in Ukraine, an ongoing, very painful debate about this—among friends, inside families and in the public sphere. Between those who stayed and those who fled. About who is facing the war and in what way. Every day, that debate threatens to tear the country apart, and those differences will continue to haunt Ukraine long after the war has ended. But for someone just visiting, someone who can leave at any time, for someone like me, categories such as “less” or “more” don’t make any sense. 

Photo credit: CHeFred