by Maria Milekhina
Lychakiv Cemetery is to be the last stop on our bus tour of Lviv, a city of major cultural significance for we Ukrainians. (Watch the frequently aired commercials for Lvivske beer, featuring Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, performing in the 175 year old Ukrainian city, in front of a crowd of presumably drunk, but happy Ukrainians, and you’ll get it). We climb out of the air conditioned bus and instantly feel the sweltering 32 degree celsius heat hit us. We have already stopped at two other attractions before this, one of which involved a 175 stair climb to see what remained of an old castle; just the ruins of half a wall if you were wondering. Our tour guide did hold up a laminated computer-generated graphic of what the castle would have looked like, but I don’t remember what exactly that was. Upon ascending that same hill some more we got a birds eye view of Lviv, and oh my, even better: a place to take pictures with the family alongside a stickered-up flagpole and other selfie-taking tourists, mostly Ukrainians. There were two girls from Africa there, and I got to flaunt some of my fluent English in a place where none was to be heard.
Safe to say, our feet are swollen and abuzz from walking, and generally functioning in the heat, and my hands are sore from the weight of my 28-300mm Nikon lens and D500. But this is it, the last stop on our tour, the final destination. We approach the gates. Our ears perk up to hear the tour guide tell us about this cemetery, this site of great significance to Lviv, and Ukraine overall. Lychakiv is Ukraine’s Arlington, where national heroes are buried and not just of the military sort.
Yes ladies and gentleman, look to your left as we walk past it: this is where soldiers who died protecting the Ukrainian nation and it’s people are remembered. This is also where those who serve today and continue to die everyday in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine are commemorated. Fresh flowers garnish the black marble. Something inside of me churns, and I want to look down at my sneakers as they stand on the brick layered ground.
We continue our tour and head towards the old gravestones that mark deaths of the 19th and 20th century. It’s a hauntingly beautiful sight when taking note of the artistic craftsmanship in each piece of stone, bronze and marble that stands to commemorate a person and the life they lived. Lychakiv is expansive, and what you see on the tour today is simply the tip of the iceberg… Amongst the many who rest here are Poles, Germans, Armenians, Russians as well as Ukrainians, because Lviv was a diverse city and Ukraine was possessed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union throughout its history.
We approach the grave for Ivan-Franko. The tour guide is silent for some time as we all arrange ourselves strategically around the memorial. We all want to see this, we all want hear about this because this is for Ivan-Franko: the man after whom an entire region of the country, a national university and countless other locations, institutions and establishments are named. I take in the grave through the lens of my camera. I capture the sun gleaming off the bronze relief sculpture depicting Franko. The sculpture is attached to a hunk of rock that curves around Franko. The poet, journalist, political activist and Ukrainian-nationalist is depicted as very muscular, dynamically wielding a sledgehammer behind himself. He is a stone cutter, a Kamyanar. This grave is memorializing one of Franko’s revolutionary allegorical poems (“Kamyanari”, “Stone Cutters”) about the dual liberation of Ukrainians from oppression, and the laying down of a foundation and road for future generations. The years of Franko’s life are engraved at the base of the statue in gold: 1856-1916. The overall monument is impressive, appropriate and fitting for our national hero.
But we are told this grave was not built or upheld by the Ukrainian government… rather it was the Polish government that decided to do so. We bask in the irony of this fact, yet we are not surprised. We have only been independent for 25 years, and we again face attack on our sovereignty in Crimea and the Donbas. We are still an incompetent country, corrupted to our very core by greed and self-interest, unable to dedicate and commemorate and respect. This is a fitting end to the tour of one of our oldest cities, because just like Ivan Franko, we must become Kamyanari: we must fight for true liberation and work to make a future for Ukraine. We question whether this can really happen. And while guns continue to be fired in the east, I board my plane and leave for America where I join my mother, wondering if I can make a change and help the people, the motherland I leave behind.