Iryna Starovoyt







Motto: I will speak on the power of family history and on making sense of the experience of time.



On the Hidden Europe/ Про приховану Європу



I’m thirty but it feels like three hundred…

Maxim Amelin



My place belongs to the territory of borders moving in time and space.


History was never reliable here.


Memory was too private, too exclusive.


Our grandmas and grandpas always guarded certain details and took some of them to their graves.



My grandpa. He had inherited his father’s instant sense of right and wrong as uncompromising as two traffic lights; though the mental frame of the time didn’t support it. When he was born, during the Great War, the slogan was “Grandmother Austria is no more”. When he graduated from the college and got married “There was no more Poland”. When he became the grandpa “It was not the same Lviv”. Grandpa Slavko has witnessed how the Wall was erected. He has not lived a couple of months up to its fall.


The boundary between past and present was not stable in my family. Adults didn’t talk too much to the children, especially parents. They were escaping from the past; they were comfortable with not knowing. The recent history didn’t look good for them. But untold recent pasts jumped upon the present through the family albums, through the highest shelves with old books printed in Berlin and Vienna, in Budapest and Cracow, through the letters with big picaresque stamps regularly coming from far away, through the whispered names of the dead,  through the family graves and through the absence of some, through the small flower garden, which flourished mostly in memoriam, through the words of German or Jidische origins which were so familiar and transparent in my family vocabulary and then meant almost nothing for my schoolmates coming from other regions of Ukraine, through the slightest Galician accent, through the family recipes and cooking tips and unimportant old  items of household which where cherished as they were made of pure gold by the great artist.


My city, the city of Lviv (formely Lemberg, Lwow, Lvov), the most Western point of the former USSR, was the mise-en-scene of the present pasts in itself. Orally they were silenced here, but visually one has been exposed to them every day. Memory and forgetting as I have been exploring them first where grounded in the small family history, they where not regular, they where ‘not right’. It was much later that I have discovered my own case in larger scale as belonging to thousands and thousands.


Writing from Naples and about Naples in the year 1924, Walter Benjamin testified about its space: he called it a porous city, incompletet city, where unfinished houses are standing wall to wall with destroyed ones, where the mood of improvisation dominates, where the place is all at once the chance, where “Buidings are used as a popular stage. They are divided into innumerable simultaneously animated theaters. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stage and boxes”[1].


Writing from Lviv and about Lviv in the year 1924, Joseph Roth testified about its time, he told that “every one [city] has more time than a reporter, a human being, a group, a nation. The cities survive the peoples, to whom they owe their existence and the languages in which their builders spoke”[2].


The idea of the urban is very inhomogeneous. In modernism “the city” and “the urban” are not so much the objects of artistic representation, as the time-defying situation of life and writing. From the end of the XIX century there was practically no literature in Europe which wouldn’t have been city’s one, which would have been embodied outside of the urban discourse. Literature can dispense with a lot of conventionalities; however, it should be developed in the city to be identified just as literature. Modernity firmly consolidates such a directive. Political struggle for national states is being transformed into symbolical contest not only for national cultural capitals but also for “other” cities and towns. In this sense modernism is something more than a style; it becomes a creative equivalent of modernity, a discursive cultural tempest, which obtrudes new (moving) connections of transitive social time and porous social space. The new art should have been able to eternalize vanishing moment, to settle “here and now” in such a time niche, access to which will be possible for the future generations.


The idea of Europe is also not simple. To trace properly its realization, I could say, that everything written below was written from a myopic perspective of the “European Middle East”[3] – from the point of view of cities and towns of so called Central-Eastern revision, which pulsates among civilization types and between empires, belonging neither to West, nor to East to the end. On the verge of XIX and XX centuries their difference from imaginary modern Europe was so obvious, that it generated appeals for modernization and   europeisation and persevering local attempts to adopt those social standards and private experiences reflected in media that they found to be European. Moreover in the most radical cases one strived to do this at any price, even at the cost of loss of ones own authenticity, ones own color locale.


Historically the idea of European city as a topos overlived several important stages: open ancient polis with agora – wed-like medieval burg or  town-fortress – renaissance one, cut with equal square and crowned with round domes of a perfect city – smoky and peopled early modern city-factory,   industrial and political capital – and, finally, multi-storeyed vigilant modern mega- and metropolis.


The new discourse of the citymodernity, touched by growing accumulation of space and compression of time, absorbed several earlier discourse city models at once: a self-referential city-archive or a city-museum (including necropolis); classical European city-genre, so to say, a novel; the city where all dreams come true – a competitive narrative, that challenges other city (other cities); Paris vs London,  London vs New York, New York vs  the rest of the world, Florence vs Rome, Prague vs Wien; ideal city (Heavenly Jerusalem,  a City of God, garden city) and phantom anticity (Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, technopolises and antiutopias of Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell). Starting with Daniel Defoe European novel looses a sense of allegory between human city and the city of God, and often beams futuristic optimism towards city’s space as a monument of human genius, built over the nature and in defiance of the nature.


To understand the changes and the scope of a modern city, one should imagine its space not only psychologically but also physically. Till the end of the XIX century medieval model of town living together was hampered in most of European capitals: in narrow blocks, and, possibly, antihygienic conditions, and still inveterate in community and compressed in space with unclear division on public and private. The new urban planning – cities of wide avenues and boulevards, after a model of Paris reconstructed by baron Hausman, with fast transport, gorgeous facades, banks, expensive stores, elegant residential areas, passages, well-kept parks, hotels and restaurants – laid completely visible boundaries, divided them into civilized inner cities of rich and remoted districts of poor, where respectable city dwellers shouldn’t nuzzle (and vice verse). This changed urban morphology one can trace already in Gogol’s “Greatcoat”: the furtherer Akakiy Akakievych goes from the center, the less illuminated and peopled streets become, on the square near Aleksander’s column the police protects only preferred persons, that’s why thieves safely rob Bashmachkin under nose of police station, finally, embarrassed and broken-hearted Akakiy Akakievych finds himself in an unfamiliar suburb – Petersburg grew, rebuilt, became unknown, strange and threatening.


In the second half of the XIX century average European city looks not so much the place of modernity as its very process, it overgrows expansive epoch of geographic discoveries outside the Old World, initiating discrete modernity of unknown city-islands inside the new times Europe, of cities, that form and at the same time deform, disproving Enlightment vision of the city as the integral for the social. However only in utopia/antiutopia this idea could be inscripted without any historical context and emotionally attached topography.


One of the determinative elements of the urban life was its break with the stable sign: symbolized space of moving senses is unstable, dynamic, overdeterminative. Caught sense becomes obsolete as quickly as yesterday news. Private practical question: “How one could find one’s own place in the city?” turned to be equaled to epistemological one: “How one can make any sense of this city?” However, this question can’t be answered ones and for all, its essence is changeable, it conveys in mercurial transfer of rational and irrational, agglutination and repeated dispersion of objective and subjective and in spatial structures, and in corporal practices of rendering habitable by living and appropriation of the city.


Thus, many of us shared memories and identities that had been erased, over-emphasized, co-opted, and shifted. “Official” historical accounts had supplanted actual events.  Newcomers and different regimes had taken history as their own.  In addition, the cities of moving borders all shared unhealed scars and traumas of war, loss, and political oppression that for decades had simmered below the surface of everyday life, but since independence from the Soviet Union, were being examined in a new freedom.


“From within the experience of a given urban environment, as within of experience of a particular language, it is difficult to see what is peculiar, what is unsaid, what is excluded without the shifting points of vantage offered by different cities or languages”[4].


At the same time Western urban experiences (e.g., multiculturalism) didn’t work for Eastern European cities, which have undergone dramatic ideological and population shifts, destroyed archives, selective memory regarding histories and place names, forced labor, economic and political migrations, and shifting borders, to name just a few. In addition, cities in the post-Soviet space have become genealogical destinations, as people return in greater numbers to search for their roots and cultural histories.


What have they found here? Was the past absent? No way. But was it present? Not enough and not exactly. It looks like we, the writers and public intellectuals, are to take care about all this. We have ethical responsibilities to expose and renegotiate those hidden and/or selective parts of a city’s history, memory and identity. And to give a hint how to avoid exaggeration of nostalgia and of romantic love story with the past not taking sides in the battle.


After longer amnesia, there’s a local phenomenon which attempts to be uncovered through the metaphor of explosion of memory coined in 2002 by Andreas Huyssen. Though this explosion which presupposes some uttered counteract, some rebel at the established memory practices becomes the u-turn from the trauma of history toward its false consciousness and mistaken representation.


Contemporary cultural industry in Lviv has produced a number of places (cafes, pubs and clubs) where time has stopped right at the edge of the XX c.

This bizarre time twist supported even Ji magazine, a sophisticated literary and cultural studies journal, by publishing a separate bi-lingual issues (# 9, 1997) with the literary icons of the epoch:  Stefan Zweig, Paul Celan, Robert Musil, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, and Otto von Habsburg. On the top of that on August 18, 2000, a seminar was held in Lviv featuring the “scholarly, political, intellectual and artistic elite of the city,” during which a petition was signed urging the state administration of the region, the city’s mayor, and the city’s community "to support our initiative and to honor the Emperor in an adequate way," – namely, by erecting a monument to Franz Joseph I.


Recent literary production in Galicia, works of the most celebrated and widely-translated writers who actually embody s.c. exported Ukrainian literature, like Yuri Andrukhovych, Taras Prokhasko and his brother Yuri, Tymophij Havryliv, Halyna Petrosaniak, Izdryk and others fully fits into this nostalgic trend.    


What does it really mean? In the era of ever more awareness of the distorting and destroying influence of any imperialism, the cultural elite of a newly-independent state expose its Europeanness giving respectful attention back to a time “when they were nothing but a remote outpost on the imperial periphery” (I.Junyk)? Sedimentation of history in human dimension and moving borders produced a literary trend of nostalgia and longing for Europe as a mythical mental space, an idea supported by repertoire of things remained and built environment inherited. 


Mobilization of nostalgia for the Dual Monarchy is like a safe lift back through the windy XX c. history of the city. That is symbolical return to the ‘normality’ of everyday life. It’s easy to identify with the chic of the past; to feed imagination of alternative futures.  Much worth is to discover its threat.


My contemporaries in Lviv are mostly detached from the fact that within city borders is a cemetery, which is the site of the former Janowska concentration camp. There lie the remains of approx. 200,000 people of mostly Jewish origin, massacred just prior to arrival of Soviet troops. As one walks through Lviv there are few historic signs indicating the existence of former blown up synagogues. There is no marker at the market, which was built on the destroyed medieval Jewish cemetery. If you explore the History Museum you can see various exhibits on WWII, but nothing on the Holocaust and Lviv.


Holodomor and Holocaust – the two mass atrocities in Ukraine’s recent history – have caused tremendous suffering and loss and there is a renewed interest in giving a voice to what has been silenced. That’s we, the writers, who are responsible for the missing narratives to be restored and for the unwritten books to be written. That’s we, who should cogently remind that traumas of history should not be pitted against each other.


All that give another meaning to the present. The past is not fixed in its pastness. The past is always a one man drama club. And literature can make the return of the repressed more possible and to make sense of the history which is alive. Still is alive here.


A Western friend of mine coming to Lviv first in his life was positively shocked. “It’s a hidden Europe!” – he exclaimed. “I have a feeling that something very important has been secreted from me, something I never hold in my hands has been stolen from me before I knew”. In a way cities like Lviv are the hidden Europe. And more then that: as long as they will hide from their own pasts they are to remain hided from the rest of Europe behind the unseen wall.




1 Benjamin, Walter. Naples // Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. P. 167.


2 Roth, Joseph. Lemberg, die Stadt // Roth, Joseph. Werke. Vol. 2: Das Journalistische Werk, 1924-1928. Cologne: Klaus Westermann comp., 1992, 285 f.


3 This metaphor belongs to Walter Kolarz and traces back to the first half of the ХХ ст. (Kolarz, Walter. Myths and Realities in Eastern Europe. London, 1946. P. 8.) I have no access to the original at the moment and reffer here to its recent recall in John Czaplichka’s introduction to the volume Lviv: A City on the Crosscurrents of Culture, Harvard University Press and HURI, 2005, P.11.


4 Caygill, Howard.  Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience. London: Routledge, 1998. P. 119.











Iryna Starovoyt (1975) is Associate Professor at the National University of Lviv Ivan Franko, Division of Theory of Literature and Comparative Studies. She teaches modern history of European literature, autobiographical writing of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe and Introduction to Literary Anthropology. The beginning of his academic research focuses on the academic study of postmodernism Ukraine, on which she has also supported a PhD in 2001. His extensive research focus on recent history of the family and transcultural and transgenerational memories of the twentieth century, through the autobiographical writings.

She was visiting professor at the Institut Pierre Werner, Luxembourg, 2005, University of Nis, Serbia, 2005; College of Eastern European Studies in Przemysl, Poland, 2007-09, Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald, Germany, 2010 .

Iryna Starovyt is likewise the author of a book of poetry. She did translations from English and Polish.

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