Cosmopolitan gateway or nationalist bastion?
Ukraine’s Premier League is riding relatively high these days, thanks in no small part to Shakhtar Donetsk’s 2009 UEFA Cup heroics which have helped to push the Ukrainian top flight into seventh place in this season’s overall European rankings. However, this impressive showing disguises the many ailments of a league which, despite a glittering array of international talent and everimproving stadium facilities, is still plagued by shockingly poor attendances and lingering fears about the impartiality of the country’s football authorities.
Many Ukrainian football fans complain that matches are all too often played out at half-speed against an eerie backdrop of empty seats and deserted stadiums, while others moan about the poor promotion of matches and the failure to capitalize on what is surely a sizable domestic TV market effectively. In this often lackluster footballing environment the relative passion and intensity of Lviv’s fan base is to be both welcomed and applauded.
However, as if often the case in modern Lviv, there are times when the local pride of Lviv’s fans can take an ugly and damaging turn. Rightly or wrongly, in recent years the Karpaty Lviv fan base has earned itself a reputation for harbouring elements of the Lviv far right within its ranks, making the club’s hardcore followers synonymous
with the fascist tendencies often attributed to West Ukraine’s most bombastic nationalistic movements. Karpaty Lviv’s fans have earned this unfortunate r eputation in part thanks to their enthusiasm for skinhead fashions but also as a result of their taste for historically provocative banners and chants alluding to the controversial Ukrainian nationalist heroes of the WWII period. Many of the figures regularly praised and honoured on the terraces by Lviv’s fans are regarded elsewhere in Ukraine as Nazi collaborators, creating the unhelpful and inaccurate impression that Lviv is a hotbed of fascist tendencies and Far Right thinking. In reality Lviv’s Far Right fringe remains a vocal minority which is tolerated largely out of local respect for the sacrifices made to end Soviet rule and a desire to do justice to a version of history which was suppressed for many decades.
However, while academics might enjoy debating the details of Lviv’s complex relationship with Ukraine’s national memory, it remains highly likely the if Karpaty’s fans take this historical baggage on the road with them during next season’s possible Europa Cup campaign, they risk doing considerable damage to Lviv’s international reputation. Few European observers will be interested in exploring the intricacies of Lviv’s troubled history or arguing about the possible role of Ukrainian forces in Nazi atrocities and ethnic cleansing operations. Instead, they will simply see Nazi-style symbols on display and assume that the shaven-headed people parading with this paraphernalia are in fact neo-nazis of one kind or another. This would be a shame for a city which is so relatively starved of international attention and yet so seemingly wellplaced to regain its status as one of the key trading centres astride the gateway to Eurasia.
Lviv desperately needs to be portraying itself as a modern, progressive city where a diverse mosaic of cultures can co-exist. Instead, the danger is that little things like skinhead fans could help to reinforce negative ssumptions about the social backwardness of the former Soviet Union. It is one of the great ironies of modern Ukraine that a city as historically multicultural as Lviv should have come to be seen as a bastion of narrowminded nationalism. Until 60 years ago Lviv remained a city with a hugely diverse ethnic make-up and it was this osmopolitan character which helped Lviv become a regional leader in commerce, education and even chitecture. The cataclysms of WWII and the Soviet seizure eventually shattered the multicultural composition of the Lviv community, but even the ravages of the 20th century’s two most bloody dictators have not managed to eradicate the many traces of cosmopolitan Lviv. Sadly, the most damage being done today to the city’s international reputation comes thanks to the unwelcome media attention which Lviv’s nationalist groups continue to attract.
Nor can Lviv’s patriots expect to receive a more sympathetic hearing from international audiences. The recent scandal over a national award for insurgent leader Stepan Bandera offers an insight into international attitudes towards Ukraine’s memory wars – the international community was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the award and is likely to be just as dismissive with any further claims made by Ukrainian patriots who seek to rehabilitate auxiliaries of the Nazi war machine. In other words, while Leopolitans may take enormous pride in their self-proclaimed status as the standard bearers of the Ukrainian national struggle, they should also take into account the negative impact that much of the city’s nationalist rabble rousing has on Lviv’s prospects as an international business hub. If Karpaty Lviv do qualify for the Europa Cup next season, if would be nice to think that they would bare this in mind when designing their latest banners.
About the author: Peter Dickinson is a British journalist who has been based in Ukraine since the late 1990s. He is publisher and editor of Lviv Today and Business Ukraine magazines.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org