Flying the Flag for Independence
In 1991 Ukraine was one of 15 constituent Soviet republics to gain independence amid the stunning collapse of the Soviet Empire. Each individual republic experienced its own wave of national independence protests in the lead-up to the collapse, with Lviv playing a key role in the Ukrainian movement which resulted in the eventual August 1991 declaration of independence. This is hardly surprising given the long history Lviv has as a focus of Ukrainian patriotic sentiment and the experience of successive generations of Lviv patriots who have laid down their lives in the fight for a free Ukraine.
For centuries Lviv has been a bastion of Ukrainian national culture and ideals, something which its role as a regional capital within the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire did much to facilitate. Whereas most of modern-day Ukraine fell under increasingly authoritarian rule from Moscow from the eighteenth century onwards, Lviv avoided the worst of the Tsarist regime’s excesses thanks to rule from Vienna. As a result Lviv activists and intellectuals managed to develop a modern Ukrainian nationalist movement beyond the grasp of the Kremlin that would sow the seeds of later efforts to create an independent Ukrainian nation.
The notorious Ems Ukaz, a ruling by Tsar Alexander II propagated in 1876, banned the use of the Ukrainian language as a published language throughout the Russian Empire, but in Lviv the Ukrainian language was allowed to flourish by a Viennese ruling class that was painfully aware of the fragile nature of their multi-ethnic empire. Pamphlets and newspapers in the Ukrainian language flourished throughout the Habsburg era, while Ukrainian deputies gained valuable experience of government thanks to their election to regional legislatures within the Habsburg domains. As a result, Lviv was the centre of the first attempts in the 20th century to establish an independent Ukrainian state, with the declaration of a West Ukrainian nation based around Lviv coming in the chaotic aftermath of the Russian Tsarist collapse during World War I. This fledgling Ukrainian state was later crushed by Polish forces. a similar attempt to build a Ukrainian state around Kyiv, which was to be briefly unified with the Lviv state in early 1919, was eventually suppressed by the victorious Bolshevik forces of Lenin and Stalin. Ukraine found itself in the early 1920s divided between the new Soviet regime and the reformed Polish Republic, with appeals at the Treaty of Versailles falling on deaf ears. Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, international diplomats and politicians chose to ignore the overwhelming moral argument in favour of an independent Ukraine and opted for political expediency instead.
The next great push for an independent Ukrainian nation came during World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv once again used the backdrop of a world in the throes of apocalyptic conflict to try and forge an independent Ukrainian nation-state. West Ukraine’s first involvement in Hitler’s war came in 1939 when the region was annexed by the Soviet Red Army as part of Hitler’s pact of friendship with Stalin, which allowed the Soviet dictator to claim huge swathes of Eastern Europe in return for giving the German Fuhrer a free hand in Poland. The invading Red Army were following by battalions of dreaded NKVD secret police troops who set about eradicating the existing Ukrainian intelligentsia and crushing any sign of resistance to Soviet rule. As a result of the atrocities committed by the Soviet regime many West Ukrainian initially welcomed the German invaders who broke across the border in June 1941, hailing them as European saviours come to liberate the Ukrainian people from the yoke of Moscow rule. Many nationalists rushed to collaborate with the Germans and set up auxiliary formations to support the German invasion forces. However, the brutality of the German occupation soon became apparent, with Ukrainian nationalist leaders arrested and sent to concentration camps in the Reich, forcing the nationalist movement to resort to a secret war of insurgency against both Nazi and Soviet forces that was to rumble on until the early 1950s. Survivors of this Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA as the nationalist partisans were known, were vilified by the Soviet regime as fascist collaborators but in Lviv itself and throughout their West Ukrainian heartlands UPA fighters have always been revered as legends of the long struggle for Ukrainian independence. Since 1991 they have enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in the public eye and can often be seen participating in parades and celebrations. A monument to their leader, Stepan Bandera, was finally erected last year on the Lviv street which bears his name. However, the issue of UPa remains a political hot potato that many of the country’s Orange politicians, notably PM Yulia Tymoshenko, are wary of identifying with too closely for fear of alienating those who remain adherents to the Soviet version of events. For many Ukrainians UPA’s struggle was not the central theme of WWII, which remains the apocalyptic fight against the destructive forces of Nazi Germany, and the issue remains one of much controversy and strong opinions.
Following the ultimate suppression of UPA resistance in West Ukraine the soviet regime managed to bring many non-Ukrainians into the region, a policy which had earlier paid dividends throughout Ukraine in the wake of the Holodomor terror famine of the 1930s. However, forty-five years of Soviet rule failed to dampen the appetite of the Lviv population for Ukrainian independence, and as Mihail Gorbachev’s Glastnost policies introduced a new openness into Soviet society in the second half of the 1980s, the independence movement re-emerged from the doldrums across West Ukraine. Lviv acts as the focus of patriotic protests and Lviv activists played a lead role in organising protests against Soviet rule both in Lviv and Kyiv. In January 1990 hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians formed a human chain linking Lviv with Kyiv in commemoration of the brief unification of the two independent Ukrainian republics of 1991, and by the summer of 1990 Lviv public buildings were among the first in the Soviet Union to begin flying the Ukrainian national flag, which for decades had been illegal. This helped give the independence movement the confidence it needed to persuade deputies of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet to declare independence in Kyiv on August 24, 1991.