Through a Terminal Darkly—Lviv’s Uncertain Destination

Tristan Kenderdine


Lviv’s Uncertain Destination: A City and Its Train Terminal from Franz Joseph I to Brezhnev, Andriy Zayarnyuk. University of Toronto Press, Toronto (2020). 389 pages US$88.00 hardcover, e-book


Infrastructure is not a materiality removed from human experience. Built environment is, rather, interwoven with human geography, locked in an inter-relationality where one shapes the other. Zayarnyuk here has written a history of a railway station, in a city, in a place in time, but the approach is one of gateways, of terminals, windows, boulevards and arcades, where the Lviv railway terminal is a two-way mirror, a proxy for urbanity, industrial history, built-space geography and historical political geography which both shaped and was shaped by Lviv city.


Zayarnyuk uses Henri Lefebvre’s concept of ‘social space’ and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspiration with nods to Edward de Soja and David Harvey, suggesting a very well-defined theoretical understanding of space and social life within historical capital frictions. This promising use of theory results in a modern historiography merged with urban political geography, exploring both modernity and capitalism through built environment. This is a new type of history, a modern, thoughtful use of theory, strong commitment to primary sources, but not overwritten and not too dense in detail to alienate the prospective reader. Framing the everyday experiences of people through an historical materiality is a good approach to this type of historiography. Zayarnyuk animates the particularities of everyday life, fixing on the materialities through which actual people lived, worked, and undertook both banalities and urbanities. This is a history not of wars and big social movements but of infinitesimally small experiences locked in pieces of time, compiled and iterated, only rarely punctuated by large historically significant events. Through the history, geography, architecture, and materiality of everyday life, Zayarnyuk pulls together sources from very different fields to form a holistic picture of a city.


Zayarnyuk’s history of the everyday does though exist against a backdrop of immense historical proportions. The necessary scramble for the railway as a new technology was a social process which would define the wider course of mercantile, Communist, capitalist and now functionalist Europe, and wholly defined smaller political entities of Central European and Carpathian cities through the political realities of connectivity and trade. His prism of the railway station is not arbitrary, the historical fortunes of regions, states, peoples, ideas, and all manner of social structures from renting classes, labor unions, mercantile guilds and Communist bureaus developed in the lea of Lviv’s railway station. Seeing historical geography jumping off points where Lviv could have been a Vienna or a Berlin, a New York or a Philadelphia, Zayarnyuk examines the materiality and capitalist urbanism of a city which stands now more a relic of the 20th Century within the stasis of 19thCentury potential. Throughout the book an analytical form emerges of history and people examined through architectural objects: there is a transmutational force between built-environment and the social, one defining the form of the other. In 20th Century Lviv, the rail terminal institutionally overtook the Church as the primary source of social transmutation, yet while the new built materiality of the terminal became more socially transformative, it occupied a similar architectural materiality as the abundance of churches extant in the city.


The idea of multicultural Lviv’s rising and falling fortunes as a city connected to continental and global systems yet shaped by various nationalisms is well also explored. Zayarnyuk makes the point that Lviv is not simply a crossroads of continental geography and history, but also of historiography – that few study this messy period of interwar Poland or Soviet Ukraine, much less the older histories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or Austro-Hungarian Galicia or any 20th Century ideas of an independent Western Ukrainian state. With the physical industrial infrastructure of the railway comes the default bordered economy of economic nationalism: the otherwise socially constructed political unit of Galicia emerges with the railway into an economic entity in earnest, and is immediately confronted with under-industrialization and underdevelopment. Zayarnyuk describes the class, demographics of living districts, and the political economy of the city through the prism of the rail terminal as a single manifestation of built environment, capturing the forces of reflexive inversion, of an inter-relationality between decay and renewal and between the human and material.


Zayarnyuk is clearly intimately familiar with Lviv as a local, but he avoids the trap of autoethnography aside from a few poignant personal stories. Wary of the traps of anthropology, he remains disciplined throughout the book, faithful to both theory and sources, and yet wields an ultimate ace, this is his city, and his terminal and his everyday life is intersected with this historical space and the materiality it imbues the city of his youth. Zayarnyuk’s English voice is strong and sources in Ukrainian, Polish and German are a testament to the learnedness underlying the work. University of Toronto Press has also done a good job here, this is not a cheap book, but it is of high quality. The lists of archive details and the acronym list including details on rail departments and contemporary political parties are both great resources. A highlight is the excellent maps and figures throughout, including the use of color. The book is filled with handsome monochromes, color reproductions of old maps, reproductions of color postcards from a private collector, and photographs of the city architecture and the terminal. The rich use of these visual sources add much to the narrative which explores the materiality of space: to take visual space seriously, leaving the prose narrative behind and looking at postcards, architecture, and cartography adds layers of depth and breadth to the historiographical argument and allows the reader to explore not only the core spatial argument of the text but to also build up an imaginary of layered spatial analyses. The index is good and is comforting in the bibliography to see faithful pointers to actual archive pages rather than to have them hidden for the sake of simplicity. Bibliographers and publishers though need to learn to represent IPv6 html addresses in human language rather than printing the mess of hexadecimal conversion that forms the computer language hyperlink.


The window of the built environment to the ephemeral is a prescient closing, arriving to the Lviv terminal in 2021, the same goddess of commerce still looks out over a city with 19th century architecture, 20th century transport and 21st century commerce. The people who live and work in Lviv mirror the social framework from when the terminal was built, still reflecting the human built environment inter-relationality of labor, commerce, transport, and an essentially European urbanism. From the terminal, straight tram lines extend in a boulevard transmitting and transmuting people to the city, carrying them directly into a complex urban environment defined by layers of historical geography. An overlay of fragile borderlands, being written and rewritten into constructed historical time, Lviv and its rail terminal are the outcome of an iterated historical palimpsest, time living manifested in a material building. Where often anthropologies center on the interplay between natural and human environment, this history uses theoretical geography to agent the railway station as an institutional prism through which the history of people occurs. Capturing the reflexivity of the human-built environment of Lviv’s terminal, Zayarnyuk’s history is looking into urban history as if through a terminal darkly, that through the dim mirror of this human-built environment a series of historical images may be illuminated.


Tristan Kenderdine is Executive Editor at Hansa Press and Research Director at Future Risk

Originally published in Journal of Historical Geography




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