Lemberg retro: Batyars back in fashion

  • Yuliya Omelchenko, Volodymyr Cisar 
and Igor Batyuchok (OK’S Model Agency)
Photography: Katya Milk, Make-up: Emiliya Khuda, Stylist: Ivan Kurtyak
Historical costumes kindly presented 
by “Travel to Medieval Times” agency 
Issue 34, April 2011.

This month’s nostalgic city holiday seeks to celebrate the rakish rogues of Lviv’s imperial heyday

First recorded in the early years of the 20th century,  the  linguistic  origins  of  the West Ukrainian  slang  term  “Batyar”  remain  a subject of some debate. Some argue that it comes from the Hungarian term ‘betyor’ (a vagabond, unemployed lad, ruffian). Others propose  the  Turkish  ‘bekir’  (wifeless),  the Persian  ‘bekir’,(unemployed),  Bulgaria’s ‘bekjor’  (bachelor,  poor  landless  peasant), the Czech  term  ‘bet’ar’  (wanderer,  ruffian), or  the  Polish  ‘batiar’  (juvenile  boy,  vagabond). But while the origins of the term may be ambiguous, the meaning conjured up by references to Batyar culture are immediately understandable  for  all  present-day  Leopolitans. Batyar culture - especially the bawdy songs  associated with  the  genre  - was  a dominant feature of the Lviv scene amongst Ukrainians and Poles from around the turn of the century until the outbreak of WWII in 1939. Lviv’s Batyars were streetwise rogues
who  prided  themselves  on  their  code  of conduct and had an entire slang vocabulary of their own. Being a member of the city’s Batyar classes was not dependent on ethnic, religious or political affiliations – on the contrary, in multicultural Lemberg such notions were not a factor for the dominant subculture of the early 20th century. For many of  today’s Leopolitans, a Batyar  remains a romantic and persuasive character who embodies both a sense of freedom and a wittily informed perspective on current affairs. You will  still  sometimes  here  Leopolitans  refer
to somebody admiringly as  ‘a  true Batyar’ while  the  concept  of  ‘Batyarstvo’  (an  idle and debauched  lifestyle)  is worshipped by many as an ideal perfectly suited to the lazy and poetic pace of Lviv life. True Batyars are never in a hurry – their favourite Lviv monuments are the seated Statue of Liberty above Shevchenko Square and the Boim Chapel’s somewhat ponderous, seated Christ. Batyar culture was overwhelmingly a lower middle  class  phenomenon  and  first  took root  in  the suburbs of  fine de siecle Lemberg. Today’s  West  Ukrainian  capital  city was growing rapidly in the late 19th century as the eastern capital of the Habsburg Empire,  and  the  expanding middle  classes  in the city produced generations of ambitious and competitive young men eager to socialize and get ahead in the thriving metropolis. Batyars would  traditionally gather  in  small pubs known as ‘Gardens’, where they would generally favour beer and vodka over wines. This preference  for vodka played a  role  in
the location of Lviv’s most popular ‘Gardens’ – the Lychakiv region, close to Lviv’s major vodka distilleries. Some slang terms which first  achieved  fame  among  Lviv’s  Batyar classes went on to enter the lexicon of the entire Soviet Union. The practice of referring to policemen as ‘menti’, a linguistic practice which  is  still  commonly  used  throughout the former Soviet Union today, actually has its roots  in Lviv’s Batyar culture. The word is  originally  of  Yiddish  origin  and  literally means an armed man, but  it  first became commonly  used  for  policemen  in  early 20th  century  Lviv. Much  of  Lviv’s  Batyar terminology  began  to  spread  across  the Soviet Union  in  the  immediate  post-WWII period  as  criminal  elements  and  political
prisoners from the recently occupied West Ukrainian  regions  were  incorporated  into the  USSR’s  system.  However,  while  Lviv provided more gulag prisoners than almost any other Soviet city for much of the 1950s and 1960s, the city’s reign as a great centre of criminality had already long since passed. Lviv’s criminal apex came amid  the chaos of WWI  and  the  regional  conflicts  which followed. As a key citadel on the fluctuating eastern  front of  the world war, Lviv was a hive  of  contraband,  profiteering  and  other profitable mayhem which proved irresistible to  the Batyar  classes. The  collapse of  the Tsarist  regime,  the Russian  Civil War  and the  muddled  fighting  involving  Ukrainian nationalist  forces,  Polish  armies  and  the
Bolshevik regime which  followed saw Lviv at the epicenter of the storm and awash in illegality, with crooks and thugs from across the region attracted to the city.   As well  as  this  dubious  association with the Lviv underworld, Batyar culture  is also famed for its practical jokes. Young Batyars used to constantly work on new gags  in a bid  for bragging  rights. Early 20th century
literature  mentions  practical  jokes  including urinating into the top pockets of wealthy cinema  goers  from  the  cheap  seats  and tricking store owners into purchasing large quantities of superfluous produce by getting gangs of Batyars  to create  the  impression of  huge  consumer  demand.  This  might seem tame by today’s happy-slapping Dirty Sanchez standards, but nevertheless it is a window onto the humour of the age. Today, the Batyar  era  is  enjoying  something of  a renaissance among Leopolitans as it offers the perfect antidote to the prolonged effects of the post-Soviet hangover and harks back to a more agreeable period of imperial rule. A number of  themed restaurants and bars have popped up in recent years playing on the Lemberg theme – notably Kumpel – and we can expect to see more in this direction as Leopolitans rediscover the cultish appeal of innocent Batyar charm.    

Batyar Day
1-2 May
Events on Rynok Square
All are welcome.
Please dress in your
rakish Habsburg best!
For more information please call