Digital Summer School: Lviv Interactive

“The history of Lviv Interactive itself is a fairly relevant case study for exploring the relatively early days of digital history projects in Ukraine and Eastern Europe,” notes Taras Nazaruk, head of Digital History projects at the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine. Entering its adolescence, Lviv Interactive turned fifteen this year. The project has not only dealt with the usual difficulties afflicting the digital humanities, but also the unusual—a military conflict with Russia. Nazaruk sat down with The Metropole by email to discuss the history of Lviv Interactive, how it got here, and the challenge of maintaining a digital archive in the face of war.

When and how did Lviv Interactive come into being?

Begun in 2007, Lviv Interactive is one of the first projects launched by the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine. Being an independent institution that works at the intersection of academic research, digital humanities, and public history, while also exploring the possibilities and limitations of digital technologies in historical scholarship, was and remains among the main focuses of the Center’s existence. In addition to digitizing historical sources presented in the Urban Media Archive, through the Lviv Interactive project we have experimented  with several formats, including digital encyclopedia, storytelling, and mapping, in order to explore the history of the city of Lviv in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

There is a small core team working on the project in cooperation with a broader range of invited authors from various disciplines such as urban history, history of architecture, history of art, sociology, and literary studies, among others. We have published over 1,200 stories on places, people, events, and institutions, while also highlighting the historical relations among them. 

Being a part of a comparatively less established field of digital history, and adjusting to the constantly changing nature of digital technology, the project underwent several iterations and modifications in both the concept and the format of the map. In that sense, the history of Lviv Interactive itself is a fairly relevant case study for exploring the relatively early days of digital history projects in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Following the Center’s aims, the project tries to convey the discoveries made in academic research to the general public. We try to be active and engaged in the life of the local community, as much as we can, and contribute to public debate.

Lviv Interactive combines digital mapping and multimedia storytelling with historical narratives about the city.

I have to say Lviv Interactive, which reminds me of “memory maps” I’ve seen of New York City and elsewhere, is quite impressive with the sort of stories it tells, the various mediums it deploys (long essays, short essays, walking tours), and the sources it utilizes from the Lviv Center Library (judicial records, municipal records, oral histories, literary sources, and the list goes on). How did you determine which narratives to highlight? How did you manage to wrangle such a diverse array of sources in their telling?

Over the last two hundred years, Lviv/Lwów/ לעמבערג‎‎/Львів, a city of Polish, Jewish, and Ukrainian cultures, was a place of numerous political, social, and cultural transformations. It was a regional center of modernization in the Habsburg Empire and Interwar Poland and the location of Soviet industrialization and planned urbanity projects. It is also a place that has been repeatedly contested—occupations by foreign powers and empires, the tragedy of the Holocaust, mass deportations and violence under totalitarian regimes, and post-Soviet transformation processes serve as just a few examples. The city lost most of its pre-war population during the Second World War. At the same time, its rich architectural heritage and urban fabric remained intact.

Lviv Interactive uses urban phenomena as a framework to explore the trajectories of social and cultural transformation and their entanglement with physical space. Mapping this history reveals the interconnected history of the city’s people, networks, and activities. Combining urban and spatial perspectives with microhistory case studies enables us to present the history of Lviv as both multidimensional and grounded in a specific context.

In many senses, this approach resonates with the concept of deep mapping. With Lviv Interactive we do not just map the city’s physical structure but try to intertwine GIS data with other historical data layers to present the multiplicity of broader contexts through the specificity of one place. And vice versa—to have a sense of a place while exploring a particular narrative. It is also inspired by Bruno Latour’s project Paris: Invisible City. In a similar fashion, we try to examine interactions between larger spaces (like the Pidzamche neighborhood or Bohomoltsia Street) and individual case studies (for instance, Opera House), which helps to explore the social structures and cultural landscapes of a city.

This project is open-ended and flexible by design. We use a trial-and-error approach when considering the very nature of digital projects as a means to work with a city’s complexity and multidimensional structure. We first began with the architectural layer by mapping the buildings, streets, and squares. Then we started to historically “inhabit” places by mapping individual stories, institutional structures, social networks and milieus, and events pertaining to those buildings. Ultimately, it is an opportunity to develop a multidimensional and non-linear narrative that explores the possibilities of going beyond existing narrative hierarchies on the history of Lviv.

In practical terms, it means you take a new path or scenario each time you open the Lviv Interactive map by choosing your own place to start from. You can just stroll through the city like a digital flaneur. One entry point delivers you so several others, as you navigate links and related materials. You never know where you will end up or what story you will discover from the interconnection of these narratives. For example, this interview has framed the path of this discussion by the questions you’ve asked. If someone else asked or answered these questions, different examples would be used here, probably leading us into another, different discussion. And that is the beauty of such a non-linear approach to the project.

In one of the map’s entries, Beyond Virmenka: Lviv Artistic Milieu Sites, the project expresses a cautious view of nostalgia: “The challenge arises from the fact that human memory may sometimes take us astray, and combine the things we have experienced, heard, or seen with the things we have imagined.” It’s a great point, yet in building a site like this there is a tension between nostalgia, the faultiness of memory, and conveying the reality of actual events. How did you reconcile these tensions, especially in a public history project?

We should probably start by bringing up the context of that story regarding artistic milieus. It was created as a part of the oral history workshop. Collecting and archiving testimonies as a historical source is an important part of the Center’s activities—not only in the time of peace but also during the current war. Interviews with local artists were the main source for this particular entry—testimonies on places of their interaction and common artistic practices in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The workshop tried to explore this social imaginary that derives from discursive memories by walking through the relevant spaces and places in the city. You juxtapose one’s recollection with your own sense of a place and certain historical background. The result of this experiment was transformed afterwards into a virtual digital walk representing a particular cultural landscape as a specific group of people perceived it.

There is another sub-project within Lviv Interactive called An Imaginary Map of Literary Lviv in +/- 1939. We used a similar approach in this instance by exploring memoirs that document the experiences of Lviv during one of the most transformative moments of Lviv’s twentieth-century history—the beginning of WWII, when the Soviet Union occupied the city in the fall of 1939. At that moment Lviv became a place where various literary groups met and interacted. Writers from Warsaw were escaping the Nazi occupation and seeking refuge in Lviv. Writers from Moscow and Kyiv were sent to Lviv to politically and culturally integrate annexed regions into the Soviet Union. Together with local literary groups, they all experienced this moment from their own perspective. We tried to map interconnections between the experiences, places, and institutions that emerged in literary memoirs of that particular moment in the city’s history. One of the tropes that appeared as a nexus through sources was the anxiety experienced at that moment. It was articulated by various people from their own perspectives and background. Anxiety was not a historical fact that took place, but it was commonly experienced. 

Do we need to consider such an imaginary landscape false because it derives from one’s memories? How do we incorporate an individual subjective perspective into a narrative, so it does not negate the objectivity of a historical fact but brings another facet of how it was experienced, perceived and captured? A private or collective memory by a certain actor or group of actors inevitably illuminates the public debate. Therefore, it shapes our understanding of the past and is worth being studied.

The signage of the historic Jewish quarter and the reconstruction of a square were prepared together with a virtual walk on Lviv Interactive.

Like a lot of folks my age, I’ve read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is this almost transcendental story of Ukraine told by an American returning to the country to find a woman who had saved his family from the Holocaust as it overtook the country. I’ve noticed that you have several entries highlighting the city’s Jewish history, as well as those acknowledging Nazi occupation. Anti-semitism is hardly unique to Ukraine, it exists all over Europe and in the United States as well, but to what extent will these entries challenge Ukrainian public perceptions regarding Lviv’s, and perhaps the country’s, Jewish history?

Urban history could be a framework that offers an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the past beyond national or ethnic paradigms, which is not about denying them but about surveying new points of connection. The history of Lviv is not only a story of Ukrainian, Polish, or Jewish citizens. It is also about neighbors, work colleagues, society companions, school friends, business rivals, and so on. Producing and sharing the same spaces, places in which they live, utilize the same buildings, walk the same parks, and take the same trams, is a more diverse and more nuanced story than a story of a city with contested and often exclusive national narratives. It is difficult to find meaningful points of connection in such a story.

In that sense, our project tries to emphasize an urban angle to the Jewish history in Lviv. It elaborates on an inclusive paradigm of a common legacy, therefore common responsibility for its commemoration as both Jewish and Lvivian. On the one hand, it means launching locally-driven initiatives such as the Space of Synagogues memorial site or marking the Historical Jewish Quarter (such projects always combine both on-site and online activities). It is a way of building a sense of community for contemporary Lvivians by acknowledging the Jewish legacy. It is also a point of connection with global Lvivians, whose trajectories once made them leave the city. But it doesn’t mean there are no returns practically and symbolically.

On the other hand, it is also about a local discussion dealing with more dramatic and difficult topics from World War II, like collaboration or violence against Jewish Lvivians (for instance, Lviv Pogrom or Ukrainian Auxiliary Police during the Nazi occupation). What is important for us is to contribute to this discussion in a balanced manner. It is equally important to keep a sense of empathy by acknowledging the crimes, condemning the perpetrators, praising the saviors, and commemorating the victims. Producing a publication about Lviv Pogrom, for instance, and putting it in a spatial urban context serves as a comprehensive source that one can refer to in a discussion to reduce misrepresentation and establish an accurate historical narrative.

We believe this kind of historical discussion about antisemitism or Nazi collaboration makes internal public debate stronger, rather than weaker. As the recent developments of the Russian invasion have shown, manipulation of controversial topics from the history of World War II, the Holocaust, or Polish-Ukrainian relations could be used as a weapon to justify another war. It is for future historians to study it from a distance, but, at least from here and now, it seems that Kremlin attempts have not proven to be as successful in Ukrainian society as expected. Russian propaganda didn’t manage to successfully exploit these sensitive topics as destructive triggers. Hardly anyone here accepted Russia’s narrative on the denazification of Ukraine. Because it is a discussion that has been present in Ukrainian society for many years has hopefully made it more resilient to such manipulations. This demonstrates how the historical process in which we’ve invested in has proven its worth. Although there is still work to be done in this regard, and it is always a process—it is only possible if constantly practiced.

Lviv Interactive editors Roksolyana Holovata and Olha Zarechnyuk conduct city walks based on the project publications.

You’ve combined both essays and city-walks in some of your entries. Women in Interwar Lviv and Life, Dreams, Fears: Literary Trip Along Pidzamche are just two examples. What criteria did you use for determining which entries warranted the various formats utilized in the map?

As with any digital project of this kind, it is a collective endeavor. So it very much depends on the authors, and the scholarship on the subject, and the sources available. It is in this cooperation among disciplines where the narrative to tell and the format to use for a particular story emerges.

What we tried to do was develop a toolkit of storytelling formats and source representations that allows authors to tell their story about Lviv during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—from historical maps and network graphs to virtual storywalks, where the spatial narrative and urban angle is key. It is indeed an eclectic mix of formats. But this makes the project flexible for telling a variety of stories.

On the other side of this process, there is an audience. Lviv Interactive tries to build a connection between academic and public history, making the scholarly discussion on the city visible to a broader audience beyond academia.

Those two stories you have mentioned were actual city walks prepared and conducted for the general public by students of Jewish Summer School in 2016. We decided afterwards to make an online publication out of it. Now it is accessible to a broader audience beyond that event.

Apart from city walks, there are other types of entries in Lviv Interactive. Actually, the vast majority of entries are encyclopedia descriptions of buildings, people, or institutions. This is another way for our audience to use the project—as a point of reference for basic historical knowledge about places in Lviv. The audience is as diverse in terms of geography and intentions as the variety of formats we use. Local residents are interested in learning about the buildings where they live or work. Even some basic encyclopedia information supports a sense of attachment to a place while also acknowledging its legacy. There is also a diaspora of former Lvivians who would like to learn about their roots. We receive many requests from people worldwide researching their family history connected to Lviv. While not doing genealogical research, with encyclopedia entries and virtual story walks we can provide some basic information on the buildings and/or a historical context of their ancestors’ hometown.

Therefore, the combination of the formats and cooperation with authors in this project allows us to communicate with various audiences.

Lviv Interactive editors Roksolyana Holovata and Olha Zarechnyuk conduct city walks based on the project publications.

One has to ask the obvious—how do you see the current conflict with Russia affecting not only your ability to build the map, but the map itself?

The answer would also be rather obvious—it greatly affects us. In the first weeks of the invasion, it was impossible to work on the map. We were trying to take care of humanitarian aid rather than professional work. Shocked by what happened, we didn’t have the psychological capacity to work on the map. Mapping the history of Lviv seemed out of place back then. So, there was a question in the air—what would be a meaningful thing to do regarding Lviv Interactive?

Since the first shock has passed and a sense of relative secureness has been reestablished, we have gradually started talking with colleagues and external authors. Sometimes talking about the war is the way to cope with the experience of the conflict. So we were thinking to put a historical perspective on that and see how it resonates with our current experiences. Some have found the war-related historical topic they would like to explore and publish. Others prefer a continuation of peace-time topics. Being actively engaged in a professional interest is also another way to get through this crisis. In this way, we have renewed cooperation with authors using the project for their current research. One of the recent results is a publication on private and public space from a female perspective in Lviv at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But obviously, many plans for new projects were put on hold.

Another example of a challenge to our work is that just before the war, we finished a project on the history of Stalag 328, a camp in Lviv for Soviet prisoners of war from 1941 to 1944. It was located on a hill almost in the center of the city. Thousands of war prisoners passed through it; many died there from infection, disease, malnutrition, and poor conditions. Soviet soldiers of Jewish origin were executed. The topic remains relatively understudied and nearly invisible at the site of the former camp. By mapping the history of Stalag 328 we wanted to join the public discussion on this place contemporaneously and historically. We have also created a database with the names of more than a thousand POWs who were imprisoned there. We planned to disseminate the publication and conduct city walks in the former camp area to elaborate on the historical context. However, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, talking about such experiences and prisoners of war has became even more sensitive and difficult—there are prisoners of war on both sides in the contemporary war. Finding a proper language to talk about that is another challenge we have faced in the context of the Russian invasion.

Apart from utilizing historical narratives as a weapon in the current war, Lviv also serves as a resource.

From developments in the war I’ve also realized that I can relate to the experience of Lvivians in September 1939 with fresh eyes. Obviously, they are not identical. Nonetheless, now we do not only geographically share the city in which we lived/live, but we also share the feeling of war’s imminence. This kind of feeling is really difficult, if even possible, to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the war. But it becomes much clearer what it looks like once you have your own experience with it. This connection with former Lvivians from before 1939 makes it even more precious.

It also allows you to build another perspective on what diversity means and how it is changing. Today, there is probably no one in Lviv whose native language is Yiddish. Before the Second World War it was a spoken language for approximately a third of the city’s inhabitants. One-third of Lvivians were Jewish. More than half were Polish. Ukrainians were actually a minority, the third largest population in the city. Due to the outcomes of World War II the structure of the social and cultural life of the city changed dramatically. Finding a contemporary Lvivian whose family lived in the city before World War II might be challenging. Most came to live and work here from the surrounding towns and villages, under various circumstances, after the war.

Over the past four months the city’s population has increased by 200,000, mostly people displaced because of this war (in quantitative terms, it is even more than the Jewish population in Lviv before World War II). Some of them consider the move temporary, some are fully transient, but many will become new Lvivians. And they come from culturally and socially diverse regions and backgrounds. It will change the city. Our ability to talk about change and embrace such diversity will be an opportunity to think together about a future Lviv. This is a challenge but at the same time a resource for the discussion about diversity in historical and contemporary contexts. History might not have answers for those challenges. But it certainly helps to ask the right questions.

One of the project’s aims is to bring a point of reference to a discussion on such complicated topics as the role of the local residents in the Anti-Jewish violence during the Nazi occupation of the city.

The Digital Humanities have entered its adolescence. Based on your experience with the Lviv project, how far has this movement come, and where does it need to go next?

From the Lviv Interactive experience I truly believe that interdisciplinarity is a key approach for Digital Humanities as a field. And I think this movement should be multidirectional. It seems to me that the discussion about Digital Humanities is somehow imbalanced. Perhaps it should expand beyond how digital technologies are applied to humanities research. This discussion has been happening for a while. A great deal of uncertainty remains though, which is perhaps typical for adolescence. Now more interesting to explore for me are the implications of humanities expertise on the notion of digital. Not only what humanities mean from a digital perspective, but what digital means from a humanities perspective.

It is possible to elaborate considerably more on what history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, literature, and arts have to say about current and future technology. I think this is a much more productive discussion at the moment—how history allows us to build digital source criticism approaches, what tools anthropology gives us to explore digital practices, what sociology brings to the study of platform economy inequalities, etc. As any kind of technology is a culturally and socially biased phenomenon, who else can contribute with more expertise to the discussion on social, ethical, and cultural implications of technology than those whose main expertise lies in humanities and social sciences. I also try to follow developments and discussions in more experimental efforts, for instance a critical approach to the concept of data (discussing ‘capta’ as an alternative), network cultures critique, or such conceptual frameworks as digital humanism.

There are theoretical questions across disciplines exploring these issues, but ultimately it eventually contributes to a range of practicalities such as improving digital literacy in the humanities research community, long-term institutional and infrastructural sustainability of the Digital History projects, platform and software dependency, compatibility and research data management. This approach lays out grounds for truly interdisciplinary and mutually beneficial studies between humanities and science.

Taras Nazaruk is head of Digital History projects at the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine. His background is in journalism (BA, University of Lviv, Ukraine), media studies and communication design (MA, University of Wroclaw, Poland). Since 2016 he has been working as a coordinator of the Lviv Interactive project, the digital encyclopedia on the modern history of Lviv. His areas of interest include digital history, digital storytelling, social media archiving, Soviet cybernetic legacy, Internet histories, and media studies. During the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, he’s been working on a Telegram archive of the war.

Featured image (at top): Over the last two hundred years, the city of Lviv/Lwów/ לעמבערג‎‎/Львів was a place of various political, social and cultural transformations. While its rich architectural heritage remained almost intact during wars, its population dramatically changed after WWII. Photograph by Edmund Libański, 1928. Ihor Kotlobulatov Collection, Urban Media Archive, Center for Urban History of East Central Europe.

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