Lemberg retro: Batyars back in fashion
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.
Events on Rynok Square
All are welcome.
Please dress in your
rakish Habsburg best!
For more information please call