LVIV, Ukraine — City workers were wrapping statues in protective blankets and mounting stained glass windows in the many churches that fill this historic European city in western Ukraine as people prepare for war.
The city of Lviv, located less than 80 kilometers from the border with Poland, has so far been spared any direct attack during the first 10 days of the Russian invasion. But it quickly became an important rear base, moving supplies and men to the frontline towns and supporting hundreds of thousands fleeing the other direction.
This genteel town of cobblestone streets and Austro-Hungarian architecture – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has already become home to foreign embassies and government services outsourced from the capital, Kyiv, and is the main route of delivery of drugs, equipment and personnel. According to Western intelligence analysts, weapons supplied from abroad are also brought through this region across the land border with Poland.
“The Lviv region is a living corridor,” said Oksana Yarynets, 44, an economics professor and former lawmaker who organized supplies and medical training for volunteers at a center for veterans in the city.
The region has five border crossing points to neighboring Poland, Slovakia and Romania, and one through the Carpathian Mountains, she said. “It is the only supply point and also the means of evacuation for the refugees.”
Lviv station is crowded with thousands of people waiting for the four daily trains that still travel the route to Poland, and carriages full of families are backing up nearly 10 miles at the main Medyka land crossing.
Officials were bracing for the arrival of tens of thousands more refugees expected on Friday from a mass exodus from the capital, Kyiv, amid what refugee officials say is already the biggest refugee movement in Europe since the Second World War.
“We will have a humanitarian crisis in Lviv tonight,” warned Viktoria Khrystenko, a city councilwoman who helps lead refugee support efforts. “We had 30,000 people arrive last night,” she said. “Tonight we will have 100,000.” There are not enough places to sleep, food to distribute and shelter for the crowds, she said.
Yet, as people flee, others return and regroup. Volunteers loaded boxes of supplies onto a train returning east to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which came under heavy Russian bombardment for days. Groups of men wearing stocking caps and winter jackets also boarded the train. They had left jobs in Europe to return to engage in the struggle, from Prague, Berlin and Warsaw, it was said.
“We are at war and someone has to defend the country,” said Artem Sypii, 41, a welder who had returned from Poland and was returning home to eastern Ukraine.
Lviv has so far escaped attack as Russian forces are focusing their attention for now on the largest and most strategic cities, including the capital, Kiev. But Western and Ukrainian officials say the Russians tried in the early hours of the invasion to drop paratroopers in the woods outside the town. A shootout ensued which foiled the attempt, the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, said in an interview.
The deployment of paratroopers is a recognition of the importance of Lviv not only as a supply route and rear base, but as a cultural and spiritual center of the Ukrainian resistance, especially if the capital, Kiev, is surrounded and isolated. .
“Kiev is the heart of Ukraine, Lviv is its soul,” the mayor said, using a phrase many locals repeat.
“We are the diplomatic capital of Ukraine right now,” he said. “And a lot of government agencies are headquartered here right now because they moved here to have adequate housing, and so all the government systems are working despite the bombing.”
Lviv has its own unique history that separates it from the rest of Ukraine and inspires the nation. It is in a largely agricultural region where people are more conservative, close to nature and, according to Soviet stereotypes, considered less sophisticated than those in the more industrialized eastern part of the country, said Bohdan Shumylovych, a professor of studies cultural. at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv.
For 200 years of its recent history until 1939, Lviv was a separate state from the rest of the country, first as part of the Habsburg Monarchy and later as part of Poland, Oleksandr Zaitsev, professor of history contemporary of Ukraine in the same institution , wrote in an e-mail message.
“In addition, Lviv was the center of the Greek Catholic Church, founded in the late 16th century, when most Ukrainians living in the Russian Empire were Orthodox.”
And because Lviv and western Ukraine only came under Moscow rule after World War II, they spent less time under Russian and Soviet influence. Ukrainian is spoken much more in western regions than elsewhere, and Lviv has often been at the forefront of the Ukrainian national movement, including during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Even in the 1970s and 1980s there was strong anti-Soviet sentiment in Lviv,” Zaitsev wrote. “That is why, in 1990-1991, the people of Lviv were among the strongest supporters of the separation of Ukraine from the USSR”
This spirit of resistance is now everywhere in Ukraine, and although Kyiv is now the center of resistance, historians and politicians have said, the people of Lviv remain proud of their reputation as nationalist leaders.
Former militia members, who organized security and medical evacuations when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, were reorganizing this week at a private school in the city. Their motto, “Slaves are not taken to heaven”, was that of a legendary Cossack leader.
Their guards were out on the first night of the war to help defend the airport, said Ivan Sprynskyi, a lawyer who heads the organization. “Now we organize people from abroad and bring those who want to get closer to the front.”
Ukraine’s army is better trained and equipped than when fighting broke out seven years ago, but its members were supporting it, a veteran of the group said.
“We are here but many of our brothers are all over Ukraine,” he said, giving only his first name and military nickname, Ihor “Sava”.
A former Cleveland military engineer, Ihor Koval, said he once set up a website to help raise funds and bring in non-lethal gear to help outfit new recruits. Two women inside the office were helping with the logistics for the overseas volunteers.
Across town, men lined up outside a hunting store to buy guns. And, at a military school, hundreds of men were registering to join the homeland defense force on Friday morning. As an air raid siren sounded, army NCOs led groups of recruits into the basement to demonstrate how to disassemble and operate a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Artists, designers and software developers were among those who signed up.
“I think we have to, for us to be one people,” said Demyan Voytovych, 42, a designer. “They are already fighting in Kyiv and Kharkiv, so this will show our unity and strength to the world.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting.