(AFP) – Mar 29, 2009
LVIV, Ukraine (AFP) — The popular Kryivka (secret place) cafe in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv celebrates the deeds of a wartime anti-Soviet guerrilla group.
"Are there Russians or Communists amongst you?" barked the grey bearded man at the entrance, clutching an old sub-machine gun.
The man, dressed as a soldier, offers visitors a glass of honey vodka -- "poison for the Moskals", he cackles -- before leading them to the cafe which seeks to imitate a Ukrainian nationalist hideout.
The controversial Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) are still revered as heroes in western Ukraine for fighting Soviet forces up to the early 1950s in the hope of creating an independent Ukrainian state.
But their detractors accuse them of collaborating with the Nazis and taking part in deadly ethnic cleansing operations against local Polish citizens.
Almost everything in the cafe is a reference to the UPA: the waiters are dressed in khaki, the crockery is metal and wartime weapons and photos adorn the walls.
You can even fire a plastic bullet into the portrait of Soviet wartime leader Joseph Stalin, something Ukraine's First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko lost no time in doing when she visited.
"Before, we had a plaster head of Lenin to fire at. But it was completely destroyed in about two weeks of shooting and we still haven't purchased a new one," said senior waitress Anna Garbar.
The existence of such a restaurant would be unimaginable in the east of Ukraine, where daily life is conducted mostly in Russian rather than Ukrainian and memories of the Soviet Union are fonder.
For centuries part of the Polish Kingdom and then an important town of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the beauty of Lviv's UNESCO-listed mediaeval centre is in stark contrast to the urban landscapes of most ex-Soviet cities.
The city of Lviv and its region were only annexed into the Soviet Union during World War II and the city has grown into a Ukrainian nationalist stronghold since the country won independence.
After the hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution that ousted a corrupt old regime from power, political unity remains elusive in Ukraine partly because of the country's linguistic and cultural division.
The divisions show no sign of becoming smaller. This month, the Freedom movement of Oleh Tyahnybok, known for his populist Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric, won a shock victory in local elections in a region neighbouring Lviv.
"Some Russian speakers are scared of coming in, while others try and speak as little as possible," laughs Garbar, who has worked as a waitress at the Kryivka since its opening in August 2007. "But once they see that no-one means them harm they relax," she said.
For the cafe's founder and co-owner Yurko Nazaruk the aim is to "tell the true history about the UPA, which fought for the independence of western Ukraine."
But he emphasises that this is done with a sense of humour and a light touch. "We wanted to stick the myth about our city -- that we kill Russians, that it's illegal to speak Russian in a street -- on its head."
The UPA remains deeply controversial today and not just amongst historians.
Moves by Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to rehabilitate its leaders have caused consternation in Moscow, which sees such groups as enemies in the fight against Fascism.
In 2007, Yushchenko bestowed the title of Hero of Ukraine on the group's overall leader Roman Shukhevych, who was killed in 1950 in a shoot-out with Soviet security forces.
Western Ukraine had again been part of Poland in the inter-war period, until Soviet troops ousted Polish forces in 1939. Nazi forces then took over the region two years later.
Formed in 1942, the UPA initially welcomed the arrival of German troops as liberators from Communist oppression although Ukrainian historians insist the group then declared war on the Nazis.
The group fought Soviet forces from its foundation up to the 1950s and is also blamed for killing thousands of Polish civilians in its conflict with the Armia Krajowa (Home Army, AK) non-Communist Polish resistance.
The UPA's hatred of Communism is reflected in the cafe's menu, which includes delicacies like a "grilled KGB agent" or a fish speciality called "drunken Russian".
"We are trying to show history as it is, and in no way do propaganda for Nazism," said the co-owner Nazaruk.
And for most of the satisfied clientele, the cafe's references are more of a joke than anything else. For Vitali Tolstoy, one of the few native Russian speakers in Lviv, it is precisely the place where old enemies should meet.
"We need to sit down at table so that this war finally finishes after so long," said the retired doctor over dinner.
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