Sep 16, 2014

The Straight Line on a Complex Map: Border near Dobromyl and Khyriv, Lviv Region, Ukraine

Bus station in Staryi Sambir
Photo: Roman Lozynskyi

I was 5 or 6 years old when in the very first time I “saw” the border - my grandpa took me by his old Moskvych car to visit Khyriv borderland town in the beginning of the 90’s. When we climbed a hill, my grandpa said “Look over there, it is the border with Poland, you see the mountains - it is already Poland”. As a small child I couldn't understand and recognise this other country – Poland, since the mountains where the same as here. My dreams about palms, exotic trees and other landscapes were unfulfilled.

The Ukrainian-Polish border near Dobromyl and Khyriv was demarcated relatively recently in 1951 when Polish People's Republic (PPR) and Soviet Union (USSR) carried out the “exchange of territories” – Ustrzyki Dolne town and surrounding villages that were included after II WW to Soviet Union became a part of PPR and settlements near Sokal town as territory of PPR became a part of Soviet Union (1). Dobromyl and Khyriv, once at the crossroads of several regional roads (2), after II WW found itself on the Soviet border line – cut off from their historical connections to Poland, Hungary and Austria and lost their ties with Peremyshl and Sanok. Here in Khyriv and Dobromyl and areas around the new Soviet border, where the border was changed so often (3), local people were disoriented in post-war time that everything could be changed again in the near future. However, the biggest tragedy of II WW was the destruction of notably and culturally diverse communities by extermination and deportation of people (4). Regarding to this, the Ukrainian-Polish borderland could be understood as a post-catastrophic and its places as semi-places in the meaning that Poles, Jews and Ukrainians for whom those places once were homes are physically harmed or deported, and interwar senses of place are lost or far away with their people.

During the Soviet Union the borderline was strictly controlled by military force (5). Also local communities were involved in the process of controlling by encouraging them to report any “strange” persons in a settlement, suspected in being spies, in return of remuneration. A school circle “Young Friend of the Border Guard” existed in order to educate youth in a proper way. However there were some exceptions on border crossing. Khyriv and Dobromyl as important transport knots have served from 1963 till 1994 the train from Zagorz to Peremyshl (later also to Warsaw) well-known in Poland as “Solina train” and in Ukraine as “Polish train”, that ran 42 km. through the Soviet territory on a single narrow railroad, but without any passenger stop (6). Also in the 60’s there were organized some “mutual encounters” on the border in Smilnycia, closest village to Poland, and in Shehyni - another border pass few dozen kilometers to the North, in order to level the imagination about the USSR border as closed and unfriendly and gave an opportunity to meet people from borderland (7). Nevertheless, the stakes in crossing the Soviet-Polish border were relatively low compared to the iron curtain border between two German states (Follis 2012, 40). High fence, barbed wire, plowed ground and soldier patrol along the border were for local people an everyday experience of isolation and control. Border checkpoint near Khyriv (Smilnycia-Kroscienko) was opened for “ordinary” people from borderland area with special permit – “propusk” only in 1986 (8).

After the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the border between Ukraine and Poland in Smilnycia-Kroscienko started to be crossed very frequently beginning from 1994, when the train from Khyriv to Ustrzyki Dolne (later also to Jaslo) began to run, before this the Zagorz-Warsaw train had continued to move through Khyriv and Dobromyl till 1994. It was very popular among local people as it was relatively cheap and only an international passport was needed to cross the border. Smilnycia-Kroscienko border checkpoint for vehicles was opened in 2002. Nonetheless, the checkpoint near Dobromyl, the road cross Nyzhankovychi to Peremyshl, was still closed and promises to make the border checkpoint have been circulating, given by officials of different ranges through all 00's and beginning of 10' (such plans were most notably declared regarding the 2012 UEFA European Championship). Train from Sambir to Dobromyl began to run only in 1996 and celebration with solemn ceremony and concerts was organised by the town municipality. Thus, even in independent Ukraine inhabitants of Dobromyl experienced in some sense isolation.

The economic crisis in Ukraine in the 90's and differences in prices between two countries make borderland a suitable area for local border trade and it was the main aim of locals’ cross border mobility (9). The train Khyriv-Ustrzyki Dolne was well known as “smuggle train” – with its help it was relatively easy to transfer illegally in train's saloon a large amount of goods, mainly cigarettes and alcohol cross the border. Thus, from the 90's till the beginning of 00's border trade became a significant part of locals' surviving strategies and the Ukrainian-Polish border became associated with “chovnyky” (“shuttles”) – as they were known in Ukraine or “mrówki” (“ants”) in Poland - people who cross the border almost everyday in order to sell or/and buy goods. However, after 2004 when Poland set up visa regime with Ukraine and 2008 when Poland joined Schengen area all kinds of cross-border mobility became increasingly regulated (10). The effect was appreciable, although according to statistics the visa requirement has not reduced the traffic significantly, as it returned to the prior levels within a year (Leibenath; Korcelli-Olejniczak; Knippschild 2008, 142143). However, statistics does not show that in next years after 2003 in order to get a Polish visa in the Embassy of Poland in Lviv it was needed to stay hours in a terrible line and the same situation was on the Ukrainian-Polish border checkpoints. As a result of changes in the Ukrainian-Polish border regulation some people call the new EU-Ukrainian border a new “Iron Curtain” and some consider it as “Paper Wall” or “firanka”, a velvet curtain (Follis 2012, 29). Both considerations are true as for some stratum of people border remains quite permeable, for others it is a gate that will open only after certain bureaucracy procedures and for some people the border is still a wall (Follis 2012, 51). There were several local protests on the border near Khyriv beginning with 2002 regarding to long border lines for Ukrainians (slaw work of border guards), with requirements to improve the road quality from Khyriv to the border and to pass the law about “local border traffic”. In 2010 the train from Khyriv to Ustrzyki Dolne was cancelled due to reparation of railway in Polish side. However, after reparation, cross border railway connection was not renovated due to “the continuous devastation of wagons which were used for smuggling and since the technical condition of wagons endanger the safety of passengers” (from Polish local media report – Rynek Kolejowy, 2010-11-03).

Meanwhile, the living conditions in Dobromyl wish to be much better. From the beginning of 90's life near the border as in mostly all rural areas of Ukraine is featured with high unemployment, weak infrastructure (roads, cultural and public buildings), emigration of young people, even from towns, and high rate of alcohol addiction and other diseases. A lot of people, who had previously worked in kolgosp (kolkhoz), in factories, are working abroad in Greece, Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal and Poland. The lives of those who stayed in Dobromyl and Khyriv consist from farming itself, slight local trade and help received from relatives working abroad. However, new king-size houses enclosed by expensive gates mark beautiful landscapes of Carpathian Mountains piedmont showing a new post-socialist values.

In the late summer evening of 2013 I was returning from Ustrzyki Dolne and crossing Smilnycia-Kroscenko border checkpoint. The line was huge especially in front of Ukrainian checkpoint. One man turned on music of Modern Talking really loud in the car as a protest against slow work of Ukrainian border guards. In his emotional conversation with a guard which I have witnessed, he with indignation and sarcasm offered to buy a computer for Ukrainians border guards, as those justified the long line with not having enough computers in the border checkpoint. 

  • David Seamon Humanistic Geography pre-publication draft of entry to be published in the International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment, and Technology, Douglas Richardson, Editor-in-Chief (NY: Wiley, 2015, forthcoming) 
  • Karolina S. Follis. 2012. Building Fortress Europe: The Polish-Ukrainian Frontier. University of Pennsylvania Press. 
  • Karri Kiiskinen. 2008 The Power of Translocal Cultural Heritage in the Polish-Ukrainian Borderland. Ethnologia Fennica 35, 16-30 
  • Markus Leibenath; Ewa Korcelli-Olejniczak; Robert Knippschild (14 May 2008). Cross-border Governance and Sustainable Spatial Development: Mind the Gaps!. Springer. pp. 142–143. 

Internet sources

  • – Polish Internet System of Legal Acts 

(1) According to the agreement about “exchange of territories” between PPR and the USSR it was carried out for mutual economic benefit of two countries – oil field near Ustrzyki Dolne was given to PPR and coal deposits – to the USSR. However there are assumptions that the border was changed in order to build Solina dam and hydro power station on the San river – the construction of which was already planned before the II WW (Natalia Kliashtorna). Currently it is the largest dam In Poland.

(2) The Khyriv town was an important transport knot beginning from 1872 when the “First Hungarian-Galician Railway” – Lviv-Budapest and “Dnister Railway” – Khyriv-Stryi began to run.

(3) The Polish-Ukrainian border changed 5 times before 1945 (Follis 2012, 30). Finally, the border was demarcated in 1945 during Yalta Conference based on “Curzon line” – the demarcation line proposed by British foreign minister George Curzon in 1919 between Soviet Union and Poland that in that time was considered to be temporal. However, in the area between Khyriv and Peremyshl the border changed few more times – in 1948 when Medyka village and few more settlements were included into Poland and then in 1951 when the “exchange of territories” was carried out between the PPR and the USSR. In addition, in 1952 there was a plan to carry out one more “territorial exchange” in the same borderland area according to which Dobromyl and Khyriv town with an important railway line had to become a part of the PPR and Hrubeshow town with coal deposits - a part of the USSR (Ivan Kozlovskyi).

(4) Beyond all dramatic events of II WW Salina tragedy when in 1941 with the beginning of Nazi German invasion in a former salt mine Soviet NKVD killed near 3500 people firstly transported from prison in Peremyshl is particularly well-known for inhabitants of Dobromyl.

(5) The border area was highly militarised and controlled. Famous high school “Scientific and Educational Department of the Jesuit Fathers in Khyriv” (in Polish “Zakład Naukowo-Wychowawczy Ojców Jezuitów w Chyrowie”) that were considered one of the most reputable academic institution in Poland with huge building complex after II WW became Soviet barracks till 1992 when it vested to Ukrainian army.

(6) The train was quite popular in Poland and was often considered as touristic attraction since to cross the Soviet border a passport was not required. Soldiers patrolled every entry to train coach, to take photos was not allowed and passengers couldn’t even open a window, although often the rule was not followed. As a result if someone threw outside rubbish (especially if it was a peace of balled paper) soldiers made emergency stop in order to examine it. In the 70’s and 80’s relatives that were divided by border settled by letter about visual meeting in particular place near railway in order to see each other through train windows.

(7) Anyone who wants could participate in the event. From the Polish side column of people were supervised by soldiers cross border pass. There was Ukrainian and Polish concerts and a fair, where it was possible to bye some goods and products.

(8) According to the “Agreement between the PPR and the USSR about simplification of state border crossing by people living in a borderland area” signed in Moscow on 14 of May 1985, people from certain list of settlements could cross the Polish-Soviet border and stay in the area no farther than 50 km. between two border settlements (see agreement at Polish Internet System of Legal Acts

(9) In the very beginning of the 90's the Poles come to Ukrainian borderland towns for goods that right after the collapse of Soviet Union. However, starting from the middle of the 90’s Ukrainians from the closest border towns and villages visited Poland with the aim to sell mainly alcohol and cigarettes and buying cheaper and wider range of goods.

(10) Actually, cross-border mobility became more regulated with the beginning of 2002 when the Government of Ukraine imposed restrictions on the import of food in a quantity greater than for personal needs amounting to 50 euro and required a certificate of quality for the quantity over this amount. The rules of crossing border have changed in later years from Ukrainian and the EU side, which made crossing the border by the locals more complicated. In 2008 the law about local border traffic was assigned (put into effect in 2009) and inhabitants that live in 30 km. distance from the border could stay up to 60 days in the 30 km. border area in Poland with special permission in a passport for two years.

Photos from the borderland.

Staryi Sambir railway station

Shop in one of the borderland villages

Old buildings in Murovane village

Slot machines on the market in Khyriv

Railway station in Khyriv
with timetable to Ustrzyky Dolne (Poland)

Khyriv railway station (outside)

Map of tourist roads near the Khyriv railway station

Train to Staryi Sambir town