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A CURIOUS MONUMENT WITH NO EPITAPH

by Patrick Cockburn
The Independent
United Kingdom, July 2, 2001

LVIV is a beautiful city full of evil memories. I have always liked cosmopolitan places and, at first site, the bland of Italian, Austrian and slavic architecture in the heart of the unofficial capital of westrn Ukraine gives a pleasin sense of national diversity.
That is a deeply misleading impression. Lviv owes its architectural riches to its position on one of the main political, ethnic and religious fault lines of Europe, where cultures met and clashed over hundreds of years. Once a largely Polish and Jewish city, it is now wholly Ukrainian. In its placid way, the city is a monument to ethnic cleansing and the destructive power of nationalism.
People in Lviv have understandably cultivated a certain amnesia towards the past. Stalin transferred many Poles living in Lviv and western Ukraine to the parts of eastern Germany he added to Poland at the end of the war.
That is not the only reason the Poles left. Over the past year, Poland's National Remembrance Institute has been investigating the massacre of 35,000 Polish villagers by west Ukrainian nationalists in 1943.
It is a delicate subject. The Ukrainians I questioned said they had never heard of it. When I asked Wincenty Debicki, an official at the Polish consulate in Lviv, about the killings and the impact of the investigation on Ukrainian-Polish relations, he did not reply directly but, instead, gave a piece of personal biography.
reply directly but, instead, gave a piece of personal biography.

"I myself was born in Lviv," he said. "I remember as a small boy we had to hide from Ukrainian nationalist groups with my father in 1944 because we were Poles."


The Ukrainian woman translating his Polish interjected to ask in surprise: "But surely you were frightened of the Germans and Soviets as well?" After a slight hesitation, Mr Debicki agreed to this more politically correct explanation.


There are other signs that historic rivalries have not ended. Traditionally, the Polish gentry were the landowners and the Ukrainians the peasantry in west Ukraine. After years of Austro-Hungarian rule, the region became part of Poland after the First World War. But the cemetery at Lychakiv, below a wooded hill on the outskirts of Lviv, where Polish and Ukrainian soldiers killed in 1918-19 are buried, has a curious monument that illustrates the longevity of national sensitivities.


The monument is a piece of rock with nothing written on it. It was originally intended to be the tomb of the Unknown Polish Soldier. An appropriate epitaph was written. It said the Polish soldier had died "in defence of Lviv". The Ukrainians objected strongly. They said this implied Lviv should be Polish. The Poles amended the wording to read that the soldier had died for an independent Poland. Again, the Ukrainians said that, since the Polish soldiers had died on Ukrainian soil, they could not accept this. In the end, the tomb was left without an epitaph.


These differences were put to one side last week when Pope John Paul II visited Ukraine. It was a strange visit.


In Kiev, President Leonid Kuchma, who had invited the Pope, was desperate to milk the visit for all the legitimacy it could give to his notorious corrupt administration. His police were almost ludicrously determined that nothing should go wrong. People were told not to wave from balconies, throw flowers or even wear raincoats, apart from clear plastic ones, in case they should be concealing weapons.


The furious reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church at finding the Pope on its territory shows a battle for influence between Russia and its western neighbours is under way. The Russian ambassador did not turn up to greet the Pope at Kiev airport. Russian journalists chortled at the low turn- out of the followers in the Ukrainian capital. One of them suggested that many of the faithful had only come to eat the shish kebab available after prayers and added, with ponderous humour, that "the tantalising aroma of barbecued meat was much stronger than that of incense".


But in Lviv there were signs that the old Ukrainian-Polish rivalry, which has shaped the history of much of this part of Europe, is coming to an end.


Not only did people wait for five or six hours in the rain for a Polish Pope. There is also a new player on the stage, in the form of the Greek Catholic Church, the strange hybrid, which follows Orthodox rituals and whose priests are allowed to marry, but also recognises the Pope as supreme leader.


In a country where every political institution is discredited, the Greek Catholic Church, with five million members, has emerged alone with credit from the Soviet era. It survived almost half a century of persecution under the Soviet Union. The Pope beatified its martyrs this week. Its priests are young and its seminaries are over-subscribed.


"The government in Ukraine exists quite independently of the people," Vladimir Khrushchak, of the local newspaper Express told me. "It is as if they lived on two different planets." He says Ukrainians are politically passive because they are wholly alienated from the state. This gives the church great influence. For the first time in its history, west Ukraine is close to being ethnically and religiously united.

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P.S.
The stumbling point was the inscription on the tomb of the Unknown Polish Soldier. Finally, a compromise was found.

The word POLAND was replaced by the word FATHERLAND

A CURIOUS MONUMENT WITH NO EPITAPH

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July 2, 2008

 
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