The Construction of Progress
von Sägesser Peter | Nov 11, 2009

If you want to travel into the Ukraine by train, you need patience. The gauge of the railway track is different to that of its Western neighbours. At the border the bogies are uncoupled from the coaches, raised using lifting jacks and rolled away. During this process, the entire train dangles two metres above the ground. Once the Ukrainian bogies are placed underneath the coaches, they are lowered back down again. The process takes about an hour all in all.

Lemberg (Lviv in Ukrainian) lies eighty kilometres beyond the Polish border and it seems like a thousand kilometres from Kiev. While in the nouveau riche Ukrainian capital the streets and squares in the city centre are packed with big, expensive cars, gigantic advertising placards hang from façades and socialist classicism dominates, in Lemberg, one senses a completely different atmosphere. For the most part, the old town of Lemberg - a UNESCO world heritage site - is traffic-free, life seems somewhat quieter and the people more relaxed. To West Ukrainians, Lemberg, the commercial, cultural and political centre of the old region of Galicia, is the de facto capital of the Ukraine.

A big square, the Rynok, forms the centre of the old town. Around it stand grand town houses, some of which have been lavishly renovated. However, almost as soon as you step out of the square into the surrounding alleyways, it feels like you have travelled back in time through the decades. You get a sense of the history of the town, which is marked predominantly by the Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Armenians and the Jews. These days the town is mainly populated by Ukrainians. On some of the house fronts of old business premises, you'll find faded inscriptions in German and Yiddish. Markets regularly take place on various squares in the old town. There you'll find Polish jazz records from the seventies as well as Soviet Kitsch and Ukrainian crafts.

The George Hotel on Prospect Svobody is a bijou from a bygone era. Set foot in the foyer, you feel like you have been transported back in time to the era of the imperial and royal Austro-Hungarian monarchy. A wide staircase leads to the bedrooms. Art nouveau elements adorn the stairwell. The rooms, some with balconies, are enormous. A large fridge rattles quite loudly but since it's empty you can switch it off with confidence, that is unless you decide to buy the Ukrainian speciality Salo from the market. It's said that Ukrainian men would rather go without sex than Salo. Salo is bacon pickled in herbs and salt and fine slices of it taste wonderful on fresh bread. Apparently the hotel has been sold, is due to be renovated and converted to a five-star hotel. Hopefully its historic charm won't be lost in the process.

From Lemberg it's a nineteen-hour train journey to Kharkiv (Kharkov in Russian) at the eastern end of the Ukraine. In the station hall you're greeted by a gigantic samovar. Drinking tea, travellers look at the pictures on the ceiling, which show scenes from everyday Soviet life - steel workers, working heroes and combine harvester drivers.

At the lower end of the wide station square, you instantly notice a white building with a tower and large, finely divided window panes. The Post House was designed by Arkadi Mordvinov in 1928. The building is more reminiscent, in its functionalist design, of a factory than a public building. Depending on the light, the building seems to dissolve into ceilings and columns.

On Europe's biggest square, between socialistic-realistic style buildings, stands the house of state industry. In fact the complex, built by architects Serafimov, Felger and Kawez from 1925 to 1928, consists of several office towers linked by bridges. Here too the architects have dissolved the volume in the building elements, pillars, ceilings and beams. The building looks considerably more modern than the neighbouring buildings from the Stalin era, built 25 years later. After Stalin's death in 1953, architecture turned away from the socialist-realist style. The underground railway in Kharkiv is evidence of the belief in progress, which prevailed in the town at the time.

More information on the architecture of Lviv and Kharkiv:

Hotel George in Lemberg
Ruin of a departement store in Lemberg
Lightings in the underground railway in Charkiv
Post office of Charkiv
House of national industrie in Charkiv
Lytschakiwski n Lemberg
Old town of Lemberg; All photos: Peter Sägesser
Salo bacon in a beer garden in Lemberg
ceiling picture of the station in Charkiv
Cirkus in Lemberg
House of national industrie in Charkiv
Metschnikowa Street in Lemberg