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The Ukrainian city Lviv has become a de facto safe haven if Russia attacks


The city of Lviv in the far west of Ukraine has become a de facto safe haven for those fearing a potential Russian attack. It's only about an hour's drive from Poland, and in 2014, thousands of Ukrainians relocated there when war began in the East. Now the U.S. and other embassies have moved their personnel and operations to Lviv. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports on what life in the city is like now.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: These days, in Lviv's cobblestone central square, you see a lot of Ukrainians on what they call extended vacations. One is Svietlana Frolova, a schoolteacher from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

SVIETLANA FROLOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She explains that she's here because she's afraid. Her hometown is just 25 miles from the Russian border, so she and her 5-year-old son went as far away as they could.

FROLOVA: (Through interpreter) It's all much better organized than our hometown, where there are no shelters and it feels much more dangerous.

KAKISSIS: On this same square, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, also blamed Russian aggression for the American Embassy's move to Lviv.

KRISTINA KVIEN: So while we're here in Lviv, our core team will continue to engage, night and day, to help Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.


KAKISSIS: Russia does feel very far away in Lviv.

IVANKA GONAK: It is the safe zone. Yeah, it is. And the possibility of invasion getting right here is rather small.

KAKISSIS: Tour guide Ivanka Gonak says it's not just the geographic distance, which is nearly 700 miles from Russia. It's the historical distance, too. Unlike Eastern Ukraine, Lviv was barely influenced by the Russian Empire.

GONAK: This city, from its very beginnings, was connected and incorporated into the cultural space of Europe in general. Walking over the streets in Lviv, you might see whole Europe in miniature. Right now, we're walking along Austrian quarters, and the illusion like we are somewhere in Vienna is perfect.

KAKISSIS: She points to baroque and renaissance buildings. Lviv spent hundreds of years as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland.

GONAK: In Lviv, history takes such unexpected, unusual turns and mixes it all up.


KAKISSIS: At a restaurant dating to the Habsburg era, historian Ihor Lilo talks about one year Lviv changed hands.

IHOR LILO: My mother and my father was born in the same year, in 1939. So - in the village close to the city. But my father was born in July, like a citizen of Poland, but my mother, in November 1, like a citizen of the Soviet Union.

KAKISSIS: Thousands of Ukrainians fled to Lviv after the Russian invasion in 2014. Oksana Novikova and her family left their home in Crimea in Ukraine's south. She now runs a chain of popular Crimean bakeries in Lviv.

OKSANA NOVIKOVA: (Through interpreter) Lviv is well-suited for business development, much more than any other city. More than Crimea, for sure.

KAKISSIS: Some international companies are moving their Ukraine headquarters from Kyiv to Lviv.


KAKISSIS: But cybersecurity expert Nadiya Balovsyak says Lviv can't protect itself from the long arm of Russian cyber war. For months now, parents in Lviv have been getting text messages warning of bomb threats in schools nearly every day. Ukrainian police say they have traced the bomb threats to Moscow-affiliated bot farms.

NADIYA BALOVSYAK: (Through interpreter) The goal is to distract security services from doing their job, like catching criminals or firefighting. They're wasting their time looking for fake bombs.

KAKISSIS: Balovsyak says the fake bomb threats are creating a low-grade unease in society. Mayor Andriy Sadovyi says this psychological war has gone on for years.

ANDRIY SADOVYI: (Through interpreter) Our enemies probably thought that by attacking us with fake news about bomb threats, they would cause some panic in Lviv. But go for a walk. You won't see any panic. People are living their normal lives.


KAKISSIS: At a jazz club called the LV, Anastasia Bulgakova is relieving her panic by singing her heart out.

ANASTASIA BULGAKOVA: (Singing) Days of wine and roses.

Oh, I'm trying to just close my eyes to all this things, all this facts, what's happening right now because it's making me so much upset. It's why I'm just try to be in my world - yeah, in my music world. I'm just making what I can.

KAKISSIS: Sometimes war with Russia feels too close, even here in what everyone calls the safest place in Ukraine.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Lviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "THE ERASER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.