Back to the Future in Soviet Lviv

  • Library and corpus building ensemble at the Lvivska  Polytechnyka National University
Issue 18, November 2009.

Seventy years ago this autumn the Soviet Union’s Red Army marched into West Ukraine and seized the then-Polish administered regional capital city Lviv. This annexation, which was part of the secret clauses in Stalin’s euphemistically named August 1939 non-agression pact with Adolf Hitler, marked the beginning of a fifty- year Soviet reign that, although interrupted by the cataclysms of WWII and the West Ukrainian nationalist insurgency which would smoulder on until the 1950s, was to have a massive impact on the face of Lviv and change the way the city grew and developed forever.
For all its ancient heritage and Central European pedigree, early 21st century Lviv remains very much a post-Soviet city full of relics to the ideas and impulses of the recent totalitarian past, and yet despite its unbiquitous nature this Soviet legacy is often overlooked by tourists engaged in the stampede to eulogize over the beauty and importance of Lviv’s more aesthetically pleasing architectural and cultural treasures. But while Soviet-era Lviv has not been the subject of guidebooks and has instead been largely left to rot away since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the capital of West Ukraine remains the home to some fascinating examples of ideologically inspired Soviet architecture which offer a unique window into the city’s 20th century experience.

Soviet simplicity and snobbism

The tendency to overlook Lviv’s Soviet inheritance is partly due to the strong nationalist sentiment which continues to hold sway throughout much of the city and which depicts the Soviet era as a time of foreign oppression and cultural barbarism.
Many since 1991 have argued that Lviv was never really a Soviet city but was always simply under Soviet occupation, while others in Lviv have been openly contemptuous of what they often label as the crude and primitive Soviet efforts to add to the millennial architectural and cultural pastiche of what is one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities. Lviv has always been a beautiful city whose citizens pride themselves on the aesthetic quality of their surroundings, so it comes as little surprise to find that a certain amount of snobbism has long mingled in with patriotic sentiment to produce a sense of scourn throughout much of Lviv society for the functional and naïve proletarian architectural ambitions of the Soviet authorities.
Part of the problem was that the Soviet government was desperate to appear modern and contemporary, a desire which in practice often meant that buildings would be constructed in styles that had not been allowed to naturally mature and which risked becoming dated as quickly as the latest high street fashions. The post-war years were also a time of great deficits in construction materials as the towns and cities of the USSR rebuilt following 4 years of devastating war and Nazi occupation. It is likely that the ruling Soviets were only too aware of the perception problems and snobbism that confronted their efforts in historic Lviv, and this is probably why the city was the site chosen for some of the USSR’s most ambitious futuristic architectural projects.

Shabby workmanship damaging legacy

In a bid to win the argument over the soul of the city, the soviet authorities attempted to pamper the Lviv proletariat with palaces and dazzle the intransigent intelligentia with their dizzying vision of a fully functional future worker’s paradise.
However, as we approach 2010 there is little remaining that would inspire any would be communist to believe that the Soviet authorities were ever close to creating a better society. Today many of Lviv’s finest Soviet buildings have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair which has exposed the often shoddy workmanship and materials employed in the original construction work itself. This has come as no surprise to anyone in particular – a survey carried out in Lviv Oblast in 2008 found that the most roadworthy bridges and transport links in the region were those dating back to the Habsburg era, with Polish buildings in second place and the more recently constructed Soviet additions languishing in a distant third place. This damning endictment of the Soviet Union’s notorious “you pretend to pay us, we pretend to work” ethos of institutionalised incompetence can be witnessed in the shabby concrete office blocks and administrative buildings which can be found throughout the city beyond the inner ring of historical attractions, but it does not represent all that Soviet Lviv has to offer. Hidden among the rows of decaying Soviet cement dinosaurs are rare pearls of socialist futurist construction that even today maintain their heady aura of a brighter, better tomorrow, while in this westernmost point in the Soviet empire you can still find bombastic examples of Stalinist post-war triumphalism.
Perhaps the most quintessentially Soviet building project was the construction of proletarian palaces dedicated to everyone from miners and metalworkers to farmers, youth groups and army veterans. Designed to take the emphasis in society away from organised religion with its churches and traditions, these self-consciously futuristic communist houses of worship often featured such religious mainstays as stained glass windows and scripture like inscriptions professing the glory and righteousness of the communist ideal. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union the vast majority of these often hulking buildings were quietly converted into offices, cinemas or factories, their ideological antecedents quickly forgotten as an embarrassing reminder of the social engineering exploits of an Orwellian communist past. However, some of these Soviet era relics have been maintained in something approaching their original form and offer a fascinating glimpse upon the political architecture of the Soviet ideologues. Lviv’s finest remaining palace is the city’s Pioneer Palace, which is located close to Lycharkiv Cemetery and which is featured on this month’s cover page. This positively funky 1970s ode to futurism still projects an air of space age excitement and its repetitive box window  design and moon base layout have already passed through the entire retro faze and have now emerged on the fashionable conveyor belt as cutting edge once more. A gem of the late Brezhnev era futurist craze, this palace is worth preserving so that future generations can get a sense of the kind of society which the Soviet government thought would be the right choice for Ukraine.

A much-copied concrete classic

Closer to the city centre but also looking like it was taken straight from a 1950s Soviet novel about the socialist future, the science corpus at Lviv Polytechnic (pictured) is a classic of its kind, exemplifying the Soviet notion of beauty through simplicity and the enthusiastic use of cement. This urban futurism was actually the one element of Soviet socialist architectural design which actually did make to much of the West, with many Western European and North American cities still bearing the architectural scars of these 1960s and 1970s flirtations with a concrete socialist heaven. The Soviet Union had a lot more success exporting arms and ideology than it did at exporting its design blueprints, but the inner city functional architecture school on show at Lviv’s Polytechnial Insitute has echoes throughout the developed world. Other examples of this urban planning style so beloved by socialist town councils throughout 1960s and 1970s Cold War Europe can be found elsewhere in Lviv in surviving Soviet structures including the city’s Forestry Institute. Set alongside the measured elegance of the city’s Habsburg townhouses and wedding cake facades, these Soviet giants offered suffered via comparison and quickly became eyesores once the freshly painted concrete had faded
and begun to crack up. Nevertheless, this style was of major global importance and in Lviv we see its legacy in the many fundtional buildings from the Soviet era which remain in use as shopping centres, business parks, night clubs and TV studios.

Stalin’s triumphant new airport

The favourite single piece of Soviet architecture in Lviv remains the city’s post-war airport main terminal building.
Constructed in the victorious aftermath of WWII as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to incorporate the newly conquered Western Ukrainian heartlands into the mainstream of Soviet society, Lviv’s airport building is a staggering monument to the neo-baroque style known generally as Stalinist triumphalism. The use of imperial columns at the airport entrance is typical of the overall genre, while the stunning proletarian portraits of workers and toilers which decorate the sadly unlit inner dome of the main foray area remain one of the city’s most overlooked cultural treasures. Plans are currently at an advanced stage for the constructure of a new state-of-theart Lviv Airport terminal building that will leave the current Stalin-era creation looking very much like the provincial air port that it has always essentially been, but fans of Soviet architecture will be pleased to learn that the new airport plans do include a role for this most symbolic of Stalinist creations – in future today’s terminal building will be used by VIPs, many of whom no doubt will be unaware of the potent symbolism of this temple to proletarian progress built in the newly reclaimed lands on the western fringes of empire.
Like all totalitarian regimes, the Soviets were obsessed with modernity and passionate about the benefits of mass public transport, so it should come as no surprise that another spot in today’s Lviv which offers a tantalizing glimpse of the futuristic ambitions of the Soviet past also has an air travel association. The city’ main air ticket office, located just off Prospect Svoboda, still displays the huge city-by-city 3-D maps of the Soviet Union which it first erected in the 1970s. Laid out before the weary traveller’s eyes on these giant maps is a dazzling array of exotic place names ranging the frozen north and the wilds of Siberia to the deserts of Central Asia and the tribal passions of the Caucasus. Each city is represented by a crest or a symbol – often of an animal or other aspect of local wildlife – emphasizing the enormous scale of the Soviet empire and making a mockery of the widely held notion of a population to whom travel was severely limited. Lviv’s air ticket office is also decorated by a sensational set of fluted glass chandeliers in distinctively phallic form, offering a fascinating glimpse of the Soviet flirtation with pagan fertility imagery. As the communist authorities looked to replace the popular dependence on Christianity with something that would not yield spiritual control of the population to a rival institution, ideas tied to the Slavic world’s deeply-felt ties to the pagan past
were often explored and actively promoted. Here in the Lviv air ticket office you can witness this state-sanctioned homage to pagan erotica alongside a celebration of rampant air travel modernity, making.

Syhiv: the ultimate Soviet sleeping city

These kitsch individual examples of Soviet futurist style and architectural great leaps forward are a fun way to explore Lviv’s communist past, but if you want to live the Soviet dream in today’s city the only place to start is the huge showpiece residential district of Syhiv. This massive purposebuild region of residential buildings is a classic example of Soviet size obsession and boasts a population larger than many medium-sized towns and cities throughout Eastern Europe. Consturction work began on the Syhiv project in the final days of the Brezhnev era in 1979 at a time when the Soviet Union awash with petro dollars and embarking on what was to be the last big building boom of the doomed communist experiment. Syhiv is a city in itself that stands on the horizon like a medieval citadel and which encapsulates the Soviet ethos of functional housing and no frills lifestyles better than just about any other identikit sleeping region in the country. Isolated geographically from the rest of the city and culturally distinct from the cosmopolitan heritage of old Lviv, Syhiv has none of the city centre’s old world ambience but it remains an intriguing example of the huge scale on which Soviet planners tended to operate.