In the face of energy instability and missile strikes on critical facilities, Lviv, western Ukraine's largest city, has dimmed its street lights. But cafes, bars, shops and restaurants continue to buzz as life shines through the smog of war.
However, Lviv’s current state is a far cry from the turmoil one year ago when Russia launched its full-scale invasion, forcing an exodus of Ukrainians to flee to the EU via the western city. Andrii, a local lawyer for an IT company, recalls the chaos one year ago when crowds of people flooded the city, packing out trains to nearby Poland.
“The first few days were a mess,” he said.
Bewildered volunteers from different organisations, religious groups and communities gathered together to help the refugees. Although Russia had fired missiles at Lviv, troops hadn’t laid foot in the city, unlike towns in Central, Eastern and Southern Ukrainian, and Lviv became a crucial refuge.
The city went into shutdown as residents who chose to remain did what they could; hosting, feeding and evacuating displaced peoples from all over Ukraine. Others snapped into action and prepared barricades and Molotov cocktails, ready for a Russian invasion. Sandbags and covers were placed on important buildings and monuments, protecting Lviv’s UNESCO-listed town centre. All the while, the threat of Russia penetrating further West hung over Andrii’s head as he sat in Lviv’s last open cafe.
“I drank a coffee and I felt it was going to be my last,” he said.
But after 10 days, Andrii said the chaos subsided as the organisation improved. And by April he felt life return to a sense of normality as the flow of refugees decreased and supplies of gasoline and salt returned. Walking through the city now, with residents enjoying the plentiful cafes and bars, it’s hard to picture the manic desperation of last February.
As such, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) now call Lviv home, with Andrii claiming one in six residents are refugees. By March last year, it is estimated that 200,000 IDPs were living in the city, which had a pre-war population of 717,000. Morally dubious opportunists have capitalised on the influx, raising rents to unaffordable rates in some cases. Although the government cracked down on some of the more obscene prices, Andrii says rent prices are still nearly double in parts of the city centre.
On the flip side, many businesses have relocated to Lviv, particularly in the IT sector, and job opportunities have increased. Cafes and co-working spaces hosting IT hubs from Kharkiv and Kyiv have popped up in the city, as it is seen as a more reliable and safe location. At the same time, some countries have moved embassies to Lviv, giving it the moniker “the Ukrainian capital in exile”.
Yet whilst Lviv has fared better than other major Ukrainian cities, it is by no means immune to war. Although Andrii says it is safer than other parts of Ukraine, Russia continues to target the city and the Lviv region with missile strikes on critical infrastructure. One attack in late December left 90% of residents without electricity and many are speculating that Moscow is gearing up for a violent commemoration of the one-year anniversary on February 24.
Already this month Lviv has suffered attacks but citizens have adapted to the precarious energy situation. Since October, generators powering shops and businesses can be seen everywhere, including in Andrii’s office, which has allowed him to continue work with few problems during blackouts. On other occasions, he visits co-working spaces and cafes with generators which have become more common throughout the city.
Although the threat of missiles is still very real, Lviv’s residents, like nearly all Ukrainians, are taking it in their stride. During an afternoon air raid siren, people carried on about their day, with noisy road workers filling in a pothole and an army of kindergarteners merrily marching down the street.
“My life is almost the same as before the war,” Andrii said. “Only my attitude has changed, as I realised that nothing is stable.”
“I realised that the most valuable things aren’t material things, but relationships and emotions,” he added.