Francis Joseph in Czernowitz

August 18 is the birthday of Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. On this day, the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim house in Jerusalem hangs out on its façade the huge double Austro-Hungarian flag made in 1880, which was seen in 2014 in the Weltuntergang exhibition in Vienna, in the room dedicated to the Austro-Hungarian gunners fighting in the Holy Land. We, however, were able to pay tribute before the statue of the old monarch on this illustrious day only in the “Jerusalem along the Prut”, as Czernowitz was called in his day.

That a statue of Francis Joseph still stands in the capital of the former model Hapsburg province, Bukovina, in itself would be a sensation in the Ukraine, where hardly any monument from the “brave old world” has survived the Soviet regime. Especially not a statue of the ruler of a previous empire, if even that of John Sobieski, King of Poland, who had a much better renown as the scourge of the Turks, whose monument was exiled in 1945 from Lemberg, together with his people. The real sensation, however, is that this statue was erected not a century ago, but quite recently, in 2009. This shows how times are changing in Czernowitz, and how the nostalgia for pre-war Galicia, as the last golden age of the country, has taken over all of Western Ukraine.

Vlodko Kostyrko: Golden Galicia, 2009. From the exhibition Mythos Galizien, Vienna, 2015

The other special feature of the statue is that it was not erected by the city or by the Ukrainian government. Not even by an association, like the  “Verein zur Verschönerung der Stadt Czernowitz”, which in 1998 restored the memorial plaque of 1908 on the “Habsburghöhe” behind the university, originally dedicated to the 60th anniversary of Francis Joseph’s reign. But rather by a private citizen, on his own expense. Maybe for the reason that if the statue caused politically too great a scandal, the city could wash its hands of the matter. But also, if the bold gesture proved successful, it could bring significant political capital to the one who erected it. And this is what happened. The statue was erected by Arseny Yatsenyuk, the recently resigned president of the Ukrainian parliament, at his own expense, according to the inscription, “as a gift to the inhabitants of Czernowitz”, just before announcing his candidacy in the Ukrainian presidential elections, which he would win only five years later, in 2014, after the Kiev Revolution. Yatsenyuk comes from an old Czernowitz family, his father is a vice-dean in the university of the city, originally named after Francis Joseph, where he also graduated, thus the donation can be also considered as a gesture of a local patriot to his hometown. Nevertheless, the leaders of the local and provincial government, as well as the Austrian Embassador in Ukraine also participated in the inauguration of the statue on 3 October 2009. On that occasion, Yatsenyuk emphasized in his speech, that he was inspired “not by a nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but the recognition of the achievements of the Empire”.

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This statue can be also considered the restration of a previous monument. Until 1918, a few streets further south, in the so-called National Park stood the statue of Francis Joseph, which was the model of the sculptors the present one, Segei Ivanov and Volodymyr Tsisarik. The statue depicted the monarch not in a solemn, representative posture, but as a walking figure. This is how the citizens of Czernowitz saw him on his third and last visit to the city, in September 1880, when, after having participated on the Yom Kippur Day ceremony in the Great Synagogue, he traversed on foot the streets of the “Little Vienna” lying on the eastern border of the Empire, and he even spoke to passers-by, which increased in no small measure his popularity in the city’s historical memory. The modern monument omits the pedestal, thus allowing the emperor to mingle again with the passers-by.

The original statue was destroyed by the invading Romanian army. Later National Park was built over. Its area is now covered partly by the city stadium, and partly by Guzar Street. This is why the founders choose a nearby site for the new monument, the former Ferdinand Park next to the former Roman Catholic cathedral.

The choice of the site is full of significance. The church of the Heart of Jesus was built by the Jesuit order between 1891 and 1894. The Jesuits arrived in 1885 from Silesia, which at that time still belonged to Germany, while their provincial, Frank Eberhardt – after whom the street in front of the church was named by the grateful city – from Berlin. They undertook the pastoral care of the local Germans, who amounted to 80% of the city’s Catholic population, so this is the time when the earlier Catholic church, the Holy Cross on Main Street definitively became the “Polish church”. When later the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ceded Northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, and in 1940, before Stalin took his share, Hitler “repatriated” the Bukovina Germans, the church lost its adherents, and the Soviet regime converted it into a state archive. Still today the stumps of the moulded steel supports of the shelves can be seen drilled into the walls.

The church was emptied after the change of regime, and in this year returned to the Catholic church. I just saw it first opened. Inside, a real abandoned places feeling receives us, with crumbling plaster and broken-down organ choir. However, the archival use preserved the church from the worst danger, the penetration of water and fungi. Not much is missing to make it again the Catholic cathedral of the city. And if they do so, the square will also revalorized, and the emperor’s statue will once again stand in a central place of Czernowitz.

That the square already plays an important role in the city’s memory is shown by the small “folk memorial” standing next to it. The wooden panels leaned against the cross decorated with fresh and artificial flowers and wreaths announce: “Here stood the chapel of St. Anthony, preacher of the Word of God from Italian Padua”. The 13th-century Portuguese Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua is still extremely popular in Catholic folk religion as the patron of lost things, affairs and people, of whom over the last century there were plenty in Czernowitz. This “substitute monument” is a remarkably Ukrainian genre. These are established when still there is no money for a real monument, but they already want to indicate the sanctity of the place. As the plaque in Simferopol which announces that “the Armenian church will be reborn here”, or the barely visible stone in the market place of Zhovkva, that “the Shevchenko monument will stand here”.

We line up in front of the emperor’s statue, we take selfies with him, which a century ago would have been impossible to the passers-by of Czernowitz, and not only for technical reasons. Then we congratulate him with the song “God, keep our emperor”, written by another Franz Josef, by family name Haydn. The modern passers-by of Czernowitz stop by, and listen benevolently to our veneration.

F. J. Haydn: Gott erhalte unsern Kaiser

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