The mission was enormous, the resources negligible, which is often the way of the world.
With the end of the Cold War, I was entrusted, as the head of a small UNESCO NGO, to bring together the cultural activities of East and West in Europe, so that, instead of staring at each other across an ideological divide, we would recognise that we belonged to one civilization. We shared many values, a troubled history and parallel narratives; but we needed to know each other better. That was my first task, but it lasted for two decades.
Ukraine: the centre of Europe
Ukraine was one challenge. By acreage, it is the second-largest nation in Europe, after Russia, with a population of about 45 million, two-thirds of the size of ours in Britain. I was invited to join the jury for the Golden Lion Theatre Festival, visit the Soloway choir festival and advise the city of Lviv on the restoration of Pidhirtci Castle.
It was my crash course in modern European history. I had just landed at Lviv airport, and passed through the customs checks, when I committed the first of several gaffes. I referred to Ukraine as part of Eastern Europe, whereas, of course, it is Central Europe. It is central to the time-honoured Europe that extended from the Urals to the Atlantic – de Gaulle’s Europe – and Lviv is at the centre of the centre, the very heart.
My interpreter Anna, who came from Siberia, politely corrected me. But I made matters worse by saying how happy I was to be in Lwow, the old Polish name for Lviv! Its German name used to be Lemberg. Lviv has been the regional capital of several empires – Polish, Hapsburg, Ottoman and Soviet – which left their architectural mark on its palaces. Its university has been a centre of learning since 1664. It still is.
Patriotism in Ukraine
The name was changed from Lwow to Lviv in 1991, when, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, which it later left. Its aim was to assert its independence, which is why the names of places were changed to impose a patriotic stamp upon its multi-imperial heritage.
Ukrainian nationalism always angered the occupying powers. Poles tried to suppress the language, Ruthenian. They failed. The Soviets collectivised its farms. It caused trouble. In revenge, the Bolsheviks exported the grain from the country that was once called the granary of Europe; and left behind a population, in which four million died of hunger.
Beneath whatever administration happened to be in power at the time, the patriotic movements gained strength. They sang rebel songs in the centre of Lviv on Saturday nights. They led the protests against the disputed election of 2004, known as the Orange Revolution, in which a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovic, was elected as prime minister.
In 2013, they brought the country to the brink of civil war, when they drove him out of office. They formed a chain of insurrections that stretched from Lviv in the south-west to Kyiv in the north-east, the Euromaidan revolution, in which groups of different ethnicities joined together to proclaim their common identity. Russia retaliated by invading Crimea.
Pidhirtci Castle: a thriving cultural scene and glorious artistic heritage
Some 50 miles east of Lviv, stands the remote and lonely Pidhirtci Castle (formerly Podhorce), on a hill overlooking the Styr river. It is in a desolate state, always in need of funds for restoration and repair, but it encapsulates the lost glories of central Europe. It is a UN World Heritage site. It out-Disneys Disney.
It was built in the 1640s, to repel the raids from the east by the Cossacks and Tartars, but it became the home of Jacob Ludwig, son of King Jan Sobieski III, and of the Sobieska family. It was here that they celebrated victory in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when they led the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire to defeat the Ottomans, bringing to an end a long-lasting war that threatened the very survival of Christianity in Europe.
Under Prince Jacob, the Pidhirtci palace was known as ‘the most beautiful in Poland and in any other country would be considered unique’. It was built by a similar team of Italian architects and French builders who were responsible for the Palace of Versailles, which it pre-dates by some 40 years.
It had seven layers of terraced gardens and a sumptuous chapel. Its rooms were richly furnished with family portraits and gifts from across Europe, Asia and Africa. Three vast wall tapestries commemorated its battles, including that of Vienna.
Preserving Ukraine’s priceless cultural heritage
But it could not survive the 20th century. It was used as a military headquarters by the invading German forces in WW1 and WW2, and by the Soviets, as a hospital for tuberculosis patients. The palace was plundered, but not all of its treasures were lost.
A village patriot, Boris Vosnitsky, took on the task single-handedly of removing the portraits and whatever else he could save, and carried them, sometimes in dogcarts, to a nearby convent, where they were hidden and stacked in the vaults.
He took me to see them. It was an amazing sight. The caverns were filled with every kind of historical artefact, neatly labelled, temperature-checked, to be taken back into public display, when the political situation allowed. This priceless collection, with Pidhirtci Castle itself, is now under the stewardship of the Lviv National Gallery of Art.
Vosnitsky has since died, but he inspired an army of volunteers in Lviv, who fight to preserve Ukraine’s history and to restore its place within Europe’s civilizations. They do not expect to be treated as a provincial outpost. The name of the university was changed to honour the 19th-century poet, Ivan Franko, who restored the Ukrainian language.
Respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty
A tide of patriotism runs across Ukraine. It is a factor that both Russia and the West must take into account. It was an insult, and keenly felt, for the Americans and Russians to discuss the future of Ukraine in Geneva, without a representative from its government being present. It led to a rebuke from the Ukrainian president, Volodmyr Zelensky, who urged both sides to calm down.
Currently, Ukraine’s military forces amount to 215,000 personnel, but it has reserves of 250,000 trained volunteers. Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, it has introduced conscription. It was once dependent upon Russian hardware, outdated and in poor repair, but now it receives what the Americans call ‘lethal aid’ from the West.
The massive build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian Eastern border may or may not lead to an invasion. It may or may not be a warning to the West not to intrude too far into what the Russians regard as their sphere of influence.
A Ukrainian friend calls them ‘Laurel and Hardy’. Ukraine is not a defenceless strip of land. He reminds me that, until 30 years ago, Ukraine carried nuclear weapons. An ancient nuclear power station in Chernobyl, built by the Russians, went into meltdown in 1986 and caused the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.
Since then, much has changed. The Russians no longer provide them with SS20s and an independent Ukraine has voluntarily given up its nuclear arms. And yet it is just possible, although by no means likely, that some fragment of past weaponry might have been hidden in a sacred vault, to wreak Armageddon upon those who infringe upon its sovereignty.