The more you know, the less certainty there is

Gregg Brekke reports from Lviv, the crossroads of Ukraine.

A soldier waits to board the train from Mukachevo, Ukraine, to Lviv after saying goodbye to his family on the platform. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

This article is the third in a series of dispatches from Ukraine. Follow Presbyterian Outlook or sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a story.

Boarding a Sunday afternoon train in Mukachevo headed toward Lviv, signs of the war – previously unseen in this western area of Ukraine – are evident as many uniformed soldiers and what appears to be large parcels of supplies wait on the platform with us. The soldiers have come home for leave and are returning to the east where fighting continues daily.

The four-hour train ride allows us to see more of the landscape of Ukraine: small towns and the occasional industrial area are overwhelmed by expanses of farmland. It’s no wonder Ukraine is considered the “breadbasket” of Europe and, although the towns have a distinct Soviet-era look to them, the countryside resembles what Americans might see riding through rural sections of Indiana or Ohio.

Ukrainian Army trainees muster on the streets of Lviv, Ukraine. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

We arrive in Lviv and are pleased to hear the train station broadcast its announcements in English and Ukrainian. I’m starting to pick up on pronouncing Cyrillic letters within the words I see, but that’s little help if you don’t know what the words mean. There are cognates of course (Xaos -> chaos), and many Latin roots in Ukrainian, yet, because we won’t have a full-time translator in Lviv, we’re winging it.

Lviv sits at the crossroads of Ukraine. It was once part of Poland and very much feels like a European city. Before the war, it was known as a tourist destination for Ukrainians and foreigners alike. Walking the cobbled streets to our hotel – in a pedestrian-only section of town called Market Square — we see hundreds of people out on this crisp Sunday evening. There’s a Christmas market feeling to the scene. We learn Ukrainians keep holiday decorations up until late in February. There’s light snow falling, and the shops and restaurants are all open.

A man with an electric guitar and microphone sings in the main square as dozens of young people join him in song. We later find out these are old folk songs extolling the glory of Ukraine, resembling “This Land is Your Land” or “America the Beautiful” in their sentiment.

A young man sings patriotic folk songs as dozens of people sing along in Lviv’s main square. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The only physical signs of the war we see this first night are the generators lining the sidewalks: small portable ones for the shops and large fixed commercial units for the hotels. Rolling electrical outages are a way of life in Ukraine and although we experience a few power blips at our hotel, the lights stay on and most of the shops stay open.

On our second day in Lviv, we interview internally displaced people (IDPs) housed at a Sisters of St. Basil (Basilian) convent. 19 people live there currently, including women with young children and a few older men, and a mother and four children will soon join the group, swelling the number to 24.

Most striking is the interview with an older couple who lived most of their working lives under Soviet rule, which ended in 1991. Displaced from the far eastern part of Ukraine, they speak Russian as their primary language, have a lingering fear the secret police are watching them and are not entirely convinced an independent Ukraine is best for everyone. They say some of their neighbors would welcome a return of Russian control even after Russian troops destroyed their homes in the recent invasion.

As with most narratives, the more you know, the less certainty there is. While we’ve experienced overwhelming support from Ukrainians for an independent and free Ukraine, this couple has given us a sense of the mixed feelings on how much the country should sacrifice to gain that independence.

Basilian sister Anna Andrusiv in Lviv, Ukraine, in the convent basement where she, her fellow sisters and 40 people fleeing the fighting last spring slept and stayed during air raid warnings. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Sister Anna Andrusiv is a great help in coordinating our Lviv visits and translating during the interviews. She lived and studied in Chicago over a decade ago and joined the Basilian order after working in hotels for many years.

On her recommendation, we seek out the bar Kryivka (bunker) for dinner. Following directions, we make our way to an unlit alleyway, unmarked and unnumbered, before seeing some people enter a heavy wooden door at the end of it. Not entirely sure this is our destination, I knock on the door and it opens a crack. The man behind the door says, “slava Ukraine,” and I reply, “Amerikanski” (Americans), and the door swings open. (I now know the proper passcode response was to repeat “slava Ukraine” — “glory to Ukraine.”)

Wielding a mock Kalashnikov rifle, the man greets us and pulls a lever that releases a weight that opens a door hidden in a bookcase and we descend into the bunker. We’ve arrived at the center of Ukrainian nationalism — a patriotic pub without rivals. The walls and ceilings are lined with images of the Ukrainian military and political victories. There’s even a punching bag with a stenciled outline of Vladimir Putin on it.

Kryivka is expansive. From the main room, the bunker veers left into several cavernous rooms, all similarly appointed as the main room. The place is packed, and the food is good. As a bonus, it serves as a bomb shelter when the air raid sirens sound.

The main hall of Kryivka (bunker), a nationalist patriotic pub in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

For Americans, the pub is a bit of a novelty, complete with military-themed menu items. But to sister Anna, the nun who suggested we eat here, it is an example of what she feels is the spirit of young people in Ukraine. Defiant, united, determined, fiercely Ukrainian.

Subsequent interviews in Lviv reveal more of the war’s complexities. While the Greek Catholic church has a large display outside extolling the virtues of military heroism and assigning saints to various military roles, we speak with a Roman Catholic priest who laments over the two funerals he’s performed for parishioners – young men – who’ve died in the war.

The more you know, the less certainty there is.

We’ll make our way to Kyiv tonight (February 7) on the overnight train. Although Russian troops are no longer near the country’s capital, we plan to see the places and meet people affected during last year’s invasion.

Responsive prayer

At the crossroads

Between peace and war

between plenty and scarcity

between joy and grief

reside God’s people of Lviv.

Restorer of hope, we pray for those whose lives have been torn apart by war and ceaseless conflict, for those displaced, for those grieving their dead, for those finding respite in bunkers. Pour out your spirit of grace and protection on these, your people, Holy God, and lead us all down the path of peace. Amen.

Prayer by Outlook Editor Teri McDowell Ott