Dispatch

Lviv Becomes the Center of Ukraine’s Resistance

With the east in flames, the western Ukrainian city houses refugees, aid workers, and diplomats seeking to turn the tide of war.

Street musicians in Lviv, Ukraine
Street musicians in Lviv, Ukraine
Street musicians perform in the city of Lviv, Ukraine, on March 17. Stefanie Glinski photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

Putin’s War

LVIV, Ukraine—Here in western Ukraine’s main city, one can still—or, rather, one can again—sit down for a meal at a restaurant, browse booksellers, or stroll through the historic downtown. Other than the armed soldiers roaming the streets, the windows barricaded with sandbags, and the ancient monuments wrapped in fireproof foil, little in Lviv—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—looks out of the ordinary. Even the frequent air raid sirens get drowned out by street musicians who are again proliferating.

“People are adjusting to this new reality, because they have realized this might not be a short war,” said Lviv’s Deputy Mayor Andriy Moskalenko. He said that Russia wasn’t just waging war against the Ukrainian people but also against the country’s economy. “We have to fight the Russians, but we also have to make sure our economy keeps working. That’s why we’ve asked businesses to open up again. Today, we’re back to running at an 80 percent capacity,” he said, adding that he’d been meeting with mayors from across Europe to set up new trade relations and score fresh investments.

Lviv is Ukraine’s cultural capital and usually a popular tourist destination. These days, it’s crowded with aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and displaced people fleeing Russia’s brutal invasion. While the semblance of normality in Lviv might make the city seem disconnected from much of the rest of the country, where Russia is raining death and destructions on civilians and indiscriminately bombing schools, hospitals, and homes, it’s anything but. Given its relatively safe location in western Ukraine, Lviv has become a lifeline and a safe haven for the rest of the country. Millions of refugees have used the city as a transit hub, usually staying for a few days before heading on to European Union countries. Those not ready to leave have set up semi-permanent bases. Embassies and humanitarian agencies have relocated here from Kyiv, as have plenty of businesses that were previously based in the capital or the heavily bombarded eastern city of Kharkiv. 

Street musicians perform throughout the city of Lviv

Street musicians perform in the city of Lviv, Ukraine, on March 17. Stefanie Glinski photos for Foreign Policy

LVIV, Ukraine—Here in western Ukraine’s main city, one can still—or, rather, one can again—sit down for a meal at a restaurant, browse booksellers, or stroll through the historic downtown. Other than the armed soldiers roaming the streets, the windows barricaded with sandbags, and the ancient monuments wrapped in fireproof foil, little in Lviv—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—looks out of the ordinary. Even the frequent air raid sirens get drowned out by street musicians who are again proliferating.

“People are adjusting to this new reality, because they have realized this might not be a short war,” said Lviv’s Deputy Mayor Andriy Moskalenko. He said that Russia wasn’t just waging war against the Ukrainian people but also against the country’s economy. “We have to fight the Russians, but we also have to make sure our economy keeps working. That’s why we’ve asked businesses to open up again. Today, we’re back to running at an 80 percent capacity,” he said, adding that he’d been meeting with mayors from across Europe to set up new trade relations and score fresh investments.

Church windows have been sealed and statues wrapped in fireproof foil

Church windows have been sealed and statues wrapped in fireproof foil to protect from possible Russian bombardments in Lviv on March 17.

Lviv is Ukraine’s cultural capital and usually a popular tourist destination. These days, it’s crowded with aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and displaced people fleeing Russia’s brutal invasion. While the semblance of normality in Lviv might make the city seem disconnected from much of the rest of the country, where Russia is raining death and destructions on civilians and indiscriminately bombing schools, hospitals, and homes, it’s anything but. Given its relatively safe location in western Ukraine, Lviv has become a lifeline and a safe haven for the rest of the country. Millions of refugees have used the city as a transit hub, usually staying for a few days before heading on to European Union countries. Those not ready to leave have set up semi-permanent bases. Embassies and humanitarian agencies have relocated here from Kyiv, as have plenty of businesses that were previously based in the capital or the heavily bombarded eastern city of Kharkiv. 

The city’s population, usually about 700,000 people, has swelled during the war that began last month, which has already caused around 10 million internal displacements and sent at least 3 million Ukrainians out of the country, according to the United Nations. Moskalenko said that 200,000 internally displaced people are now in the city and that 10,000 to 30,000 new arrivals come daily. The city has set up more than 500 shelters to accommodate people. “Some of them are housed in churches, others at university campuses. Anywhere really,” he said.

Ludmilla Marchuk escaped her hometown Zhytomyr with her nine-year-old daughter Maria and son Nazar, 18. The family has been sleeping in a 14-bed hostel room in Lviv that turned into a shelter for displaced people, shown on March 17.

Ludmilla Marchuk escaped her hometown, Zhytomyr, with her 9-year-old daughter, Maria, and son, Nazar, 18. The family has been sleeping in a 14-bed hostel room in Lviv that turned into a shelter for displaced people, shown on March 17.

Ludmilla Marchuk escaped her hometown of Zhytomyr with her 18-year-old son, Nazar, and 9-year-old daughter, Maria. For the past few weeks, the family has been sleeping in a stuffy 14-bed hostel room that previously housed backpackers touring Ukraine but that has since turned into an improvised shelter for displaced people. There’s little privacy, the 44-year-old said, but it was still better than her hometown. 

“Our neighborhood has been bombed,” she said. “We had a comfortable life and a nice apartment. My children were going to school.” Tears filled her eyes. She’s unsure of what’s next. She stays in sweatpants and in bed these days. Settling outside Ukraine is out of the question, at least for now. Marchuk explained that she was a native Russian speaker and would struggle navigating a foreign country. “I just want to go home,” she said, then asked me: “Do you think the war will end soon?”

Nikita Ilich (left, with guitar), a street musician from Kharkiv

Nikita Ilich (left, with guitar), a street musician from Kharkiv, plays in Lviv on March 17.

Nikita Ilich, a 24-year-old street musician from Kharkiv, doesn’t think so. He escaped heavy bombardments in his hometown and said he wants to settle in Lviv for now. “People from all over Ukraine are uniting here, it’s a microcosm of the whole country,” he said. “Even if this war continues, we need to live, not just survive. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Even so, the war is creeping closer to Lviv. In the past two weeks, two major Russian attacks have killed dozens of people. On Friday, two missiles destroyed a factory and damaged a garage near the city’s airport; the Ukrainian army said that four further missiles targeting the same facility had been shot down. On March 13, at least 35 people were killed and over 100 injured after more than 30 cruise missiles hit a military training base located outside Lviv. The Kremlin has threatened to attack supply lines and military shipments arriving from Ukraine’s allies, and many of those routes inevitably pass through Lviv.

“Compared to other parts of the country, we have a relatively peaceful sky, but this can change, and we’re ready to defend our city,” Moskalenko said. Each Ukrainian man arriving in Lviv has to register with the army within 24 hours, he added. Not all do; the city has become a sort of hiding place for many seeking to avoid military service, like Dimitri, a 24-year-old originally from Crimea who had most recently been living in Kyiv. “I can’t hold a gun, and I’m not made for the army,” he said from yet another busy hostel in the city where he’d been hiding. He did not offer his last name, fearing conscription.

As foreign aid workers are flooding into Lviv, Ukrainians here have set up their own aid networks. Vladislav Yaremchuk, 25, usually works in Kyiv as a booking manager putting together Ukraine’s biggest music festival; he relocated to Lviv just a week ago. Since then, he said he has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars putting together a charity music album and has used his music industry contacts to provide other aid.

Vladislav Yaremchuk and some friends relocated from Kyiv to Lviv, Ukraine to help raise money for the army and aid.

Vladislav Yaremchuk eats on March 17 with some friends who also relocated from Kyiv to Lviv to help raise money for the army and aid.

“We’ve helped resettle refugees across Europe, rented apartments for them, sourced funds for the armed forces, brought in food and medical supplies,” Yaremchuk said. The war isn’t just about Ukraine, he believes. “The world isn’t a safe place if Russia can still just invade one of Europe’s biggest countries,” he said.

But the cooperation he’s seen has made him hopeful nonetheless. 

“We now have a network spanning from Lviv to the rest of the world, and that’s the real force fighting the Russians: a united Europe gearing up.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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