While Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brought carnage and destruction to the cities of Kyiv, Mariupol, and Bucha, to name but three, in Lviv, Western Ukraine’s largest city, a fragile normalcy presides. Sirens warning of a Russian air raid or rocket strike have become part of the background noise of the city. Most locals no longer head directly for the nearest shelter as soon as they hear the sirens’ wail.
Yet this city of 700,000 has changed as a result of Russia’s military incursion, which began on Feb. 24. Within the first four weeks of the invasion, more than 60,000 people a day in flight from Russian aggression passed through Lviv, stopping only long enough to catch a train out of the country. Some 200,000 refugees from cities and towns that are now war zones remain in Lviv. Despite the influx of the displaced, Lviv hums with the bustle of city life. The renowned Lviv opera and some theaters have reopened. Downtown cafés and restaurants brim with customers, and after six weeks of a ban on the sale of alcohol, bar taps flow again. Much like the nightly 10 p.m. curfew, which remains in force, the alcohol ban was tactical, aimed at ensuring peaceful nights.
On the streets of Lviv, one sees adults going to work and children heading to school. Pensioners read newspapers in the park. The young read the latest news from the war’s latest fronts on mobile phones. Empty seats on local trams and yellow buses are scarce. The same is true of available hotel rooms and other forms of rented lodging. Thousands unable to find or afford a place to stay sleep in improvised refugee centers.
Lviv, the home of Eastern Europe’s biggest jazz festival, is a stoic and resilient city. The war seems only to have brought out its essence. Yellow and blue national iconography, political graffiti, and patriotic slogans have replaced advertising and public art on city streets.
If a sense of calm during a time of war prevails in Lviv, it is the result of careful planning. Six months before the Russian offensive, local authorities proved wise enough to secure additional supplies of water, blankets, tents, diesel generators, medicine, and blood.
What is distinctly different about Lviv these days, however, is the presence of Ukraine’s own military. The army is mobilizing the troops needed for the war in the east. The impending showdown feels both inevitable and crucial for Ukraine’s future. The Russian withdrawal from Kyiv and northern Ukraine is seen as the first great military victory of this war — cause for celebration even as local boys and men are interred in the Lviv cemetery every day, fallen in the line of duty somewhere across the land. The mobilization efforts are in full swing.
Boštjan Videmšek is an award-winning journalist, war correspondent, and playwright, and the author of six books. Jure Eržen is an award-winning photographer for the Slovenian newspaper DELO. His work has been published all over the world. Follow him on Instagram @jure.erzen.