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War in Ukraine: Lviv uses humor, grief to face Russian invasion

Helen Petryakova and Kate Pavlenko eat ribs at Rebernia in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 17.

Helen Petryakova and Kate Pavlenko eat ribs at Rebernia in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 17. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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LVIV, Ukraine — On the outskirts of the historic Lychakiv cemetery, the final resting place of famous Ukrainian poets, composers and activists, Lviv buries its dead.

The graves of 125 men killed in the war sit on a grassy, sloped hill, adorned with Ukrainian flags, flowers and pictures of the dead. Some were career soldiers, their military headshot pinned to the wooden cross marking the grave. But most were businessmen, students, farmers, tradesmen or activists.

"My father went to the army as a volunteer, but he was no soldier," said Anna Khmelnytska, who spent a rainy Sunday morning at his gravesite. With his childhood best friend, she wiped mud from the grave, placed new flowers on the headstone and prayed for her father, who suffered a head injury from shrapnel this spring and died after falling into a coma for three months.

"It's the best people of Ukraine, patriotic people who have finished university, careers, people from businesses. It's not society's worst, it's the best," she said.

The cemetery is a grim reminder that even Lviv, a city in far west Ukraine hundreds of miles from the front line, cannot escape the war.

Graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed during the war with Russia are decorated with flowers, flags and photos in an overflow area just outside the fence of the historic Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18.
Graves of Ukrainian soldiers killed during the war with Russia are decorated with flowers, flags and photos in an overflow area just outside the fence of the historic Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Sandbags are stacked in front of the courthouse a short walk away. Plywood covers the windows of the Ukraine Polygraphic University. Hedgehogs — steel I-beams welded together like oversized children's jacks to block tanks and other armored vehicles — line the sidewalks in front of City Hall, all under the watchful eyes of soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles slung across their backs.

Ukraine's 'quiet' city

Lviv is known throughout Ukraine as a relatively safe and quiet city, home to over 200,000 of the country's 7 million internally displaced people. It's a hub for diplomats, foreign media and humanitarian workers bringing in supplies from Poland. It's even a tourist hotspot for Ukrainian families unable to leave the country because of the government's conscription of men under 60 years old.

Sometimes, though, the war comes to Lviv's doorstep.

Since the invasion in late February, the city has been targeted several times, the most recent a missile strike in November that left much of the city without power. That follows a strike in October, and one in April that killed seven and injured 11, including a child.

Power outages are common, with blackouts pausing life across the city, sometimes just for minutes, other times for hours.

But life carries on, and Lviv is not just a functioning city, it's a lively one. Locals say its vigor comes from an effort to stay sane while defying Russia's attempt to rob them of happiness.

The Lviv Coffee Mine, a famous cafe, sells mugs and T-shirts honoring "the Ghost of Kyiv," an urban legend that sprung up in the early days of the war referring to a fighter pilot who singlehandedly shot down 40 Russian planes. Outside, part of an actual Russian plane leans up against a war memorial, next to it a piece of paper tallying the current bodycount of Russian soldiers and their vehicles.

Plastered throughout the city are billboards that read "thanks to our heroes," "join the Ukrainian resistance," "defend independence, victory is near," and "free the Mariupol defenders." The occasional air raid siren still rings though the Lviv, though it's far less common now and often shrugged off.

A woman walks past barricaded windows and a statue that has been wrapped in a protective cage outside of the Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18.
A woman walks past barricaded windows and a statue that has been wrapped in a protective cage outside of the Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

'We should continue to live'

At 11 p.m., curfew takes effect as police flash their lights and sirens, blocking off busy walkways as restaurants and bars close up.

The crowds take time to fizzle out, a sign of a changing attitude toward the war. Some people run home, hoping to avoid a fine — others mingle, smoking cigarettes outside bars as young couples kiss in the street.

"Lviv used to have a nightlife, now it has an evening-life," one college student said.

Dark humor abounds, often at the expense of Russian President Vladimir Putin who now has several beers named after him in Lviv's many breweries — none are flattering, let alone fit for print.

One shop sells toilet paper bearing his face. Images of the Russian strongman line the urinals of several restaurants. And at night, near the city's main square, Nazar Sus sets up shop with a paper target of Putin and a BB gun.

"The main goal is to make five bullet holes on his face," says Sus, a railway engineer by day, activist by night. Anyone can stop by the stand, make a donation and riddle Putin's picture with pellets. "Then I give them the portrait of Putin so they can clean their toilets."

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Sometimes Sus donates the funds to specific battalions within the Ukrainian army, who then respond with pictures of the equipment purchased. Or he buys the supplies himself, most recently a drone he thinks will be used to surveil Russian positions.

"The main goal of this is to have fun," he said, referring back to a conversation he had with a soldier several days earlier. "He said, 'We are staying on the front lines so you can have fun and be free. We protect your safety, so you should make sure to have fun with it.'"

It's a common sentiment in the many restaurants, bars, coffee shops, churches and museums of Lviv, summed up best by a mother and her son, in town from Kyiv for a medical procedure: "We have to stay happy to win the war."

"We should continue to live," said Vova Bilyk, a forestry student in Lviv. "People are feeling good now, they're walking at night, they're celebrating birthdays, it's almost like normal life. You can't compare it to before, but for now, it's good."

As Bilyk spoke, a crowd of about 100 gathered near a street performer in the city square outside the Lviv Opera Theater. He grabbed his girlfriend's hand, zipped his jacket up to his chin on a chilly Sunday night, and watched the guitarist play a rendition from the late Andriy Kuzmenko, a famous Ukrainian singer. Students, families and soldiers sang along as the fountain behind them turned purple.

An hour later, curfew hit and the street was empty.

A piece of a plane is on display with a QR code soliciting donations for new fighter jets in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18.
A piece of a plane is on display with a QR code soliciting donations for new fighter jets in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sept. 18. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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Kyle Dunphey
Kyle Dunphey is a reporter on the Utah InDepth team, covering a mix of topics including politics, the environment and breaking news. A Vermont native, he studied communications at the University of Utah and graduated in 2020. Whether on his skis or his bike, you can find Kyle year-round exploring Utah’s mountains.

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