From Post-Soviet to New Europe
From Post-Soviet to New Europe
Lviv Leads Ukraine’s Historic Transition
Twenty-two years ago this month, I received a letter that changed my life. The news it conveyed was at once exhilarating and intimidating – a job offer with the British Council in western Ukraine. At the time, I was a history student in my final year at Liverpool University with vague notions of a future career in international relations. The opportunity seemed too good to be true, despite the fact that I knew little about Ukraine and had never even heard of Lviv. The few cultural reference points available to me were all rooted in Cold War stereotypes of totalitarian terror, drab conformity and bread queue misery. Needless to say, I was in for quite a surprise.
When I duly arrived in Lviv four months later, I was staggered by the fairytale beauty of the city and fascinated by the turbulence of an entire society undergoing fundamental change. Back then, Lviv was a somewhat dark and brooding place that often felt as if it had leapt straight from the pages of a Gothic novel. It was impossible not to be enchanted, but there was also a strong sense of a lost city in search of itself.
This coming month, I have the pleasure of welcoming some of my old Liverpool University friends to Lviv. The city they will encounter is a very different place to the 1990s vintage I first discovered. It is still as elegant and aristocratic as ever, but today’s Lviv also boasts a sparkling vibrancy that was altogether absent during those early post-Soviet years of economic gloom and identity crisis. Once a forgotten backwater on the fringes of an extinct authoritarian empire, the city has become the swaggering standard-bearer of Ukraine’s European integration ambitions. The Russocentric clichés of old are long gone, replaced by a quintessentially Mitteleuropa vibe that underpins one of the most exciting tourism industries in the entire region.
Evidence of this historic transformation is everywhere. Lviv’s once ramshackle city airport is now among the fastest-growing air hubs in Eastern Europe. Dining out is no longer a matter of choosing between the same handful of semi-plausible restaurants. Instead, the Leopolitan gastronomic scene is expanding at such a blistering pace that it is literally impossible to keep up. Meanwhile, foreign faces have lost their novelty value. Back in the 1990s, Lviv’s expat community was small enough to fit into a single bar (and often did so). Today, the city boasts one of Ukraine’s largest international business communities. This cosmopolitan collection of investors, IT innovators, executives and entrepreneurs rubs shoulders with flocks of tourists from across the EU and beyond. Contemporary Lviv is both emphatically foreigner-friendly and strikingly self-confident.
These changes are not merely skin-deep. They reflect a city coming of age in a country that is finally emerging from the Soviet shadows and finding its voice on the international stage. The challenge now is to maintain this momentum. Ukraine’s integration into the European community of nations is still very much a work in progress that will continue for generations to come. As Ukrainians seek to reconnect with the wider world, they need look no further for inspiration than Lviv.