The Ukrainian Town Where ‘Masochism’ Was Born

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The writing of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch impacted the world, but in his birthplace of Lviv, in western Ukraine, his controversial legacy has not been officially recognized.

An unwitting tourist who wanders into Lviv’s Masoch Cafe after dark may be in for a shock. Inside the late-night drinking den, it’s not uncommon for passing waitresses to thwack customers with a leather whip.

The basement of the Masoch Cafe, where ordering cocktails such as Punish Me, My Mistress! will get customers summoned to strip half-naked and undergo a painful-looking ritual involving whips and hot candle wax.

The basement of the Masoch Cafe, where ordering cocktails such as Punish Me, My Mistress! will get customers summoned to strip half-naked and undergo a painful-looking ritual involving whips and hot candle wax.

The cafe is named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a writer born in today’s Lviv whose cultural impact on the world is enormous. Nearly all major languages use the word “masochist” to describe someone who derives pleasure from pain, and Masoch’s book Venus In Furs was the inspiration for the icy, classic Velvet Underground song of the same name. The book also spawned a broadway play and a movie directed by Roman Polanski.

Yet in the western Ukrainian city where he was born and spent his early years, Masoch is barely acknowledged beyond the cafe, where giggling tourists are tormented by whip-wielding waitresses.

Halyna Hrynyk, the deputy head of Lviv’s tourism office, confirmed to RFE/RL that the city has no current plans to acknowledge Masoch and said that while a small number of tourists were aware of the writer’s origins in the city, there are no tours built around his legacy.

Masoch was born in 1836 in the center of Lviv (then called Lemberg) when it was part of the Austrian Empire. Although known for his finely written accounts of ethnic minorities in and around today’s Lviv, Masoch’s name became linked to ideas of warped sexuality and self-destruction after the publication of Venus In Furs in 1870.

The novel presents a man, Severin, who falls in love with a beautiful young widow named Wanda. After Wanda warns Severin that he may not be the one for her, the hapless hero declares that if he cannot attain the happiness of love, “I want to taste its pains and torments to the very dregs; I want to be maltreated and betrayed by the woman I love, and the more cruelly the better.”

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A detail of a letter written by Masoch on his own customized stationary in 1883 when he lived in Leipzig.

A detail of a letter written by Masoch on his own customized stationary in 1883 when he lived in Leipzig.

The book’s slave/master narrative descends into a bleak sequence of bloody tortures and humiliation before Severin signs a contract and his own “suicide” note, freeing Wanda to kill him if she chooses. Wanda, for her part, vows to wear furs wherever possible.

After a final brutalizing of Severin at the hands of Wanda’s handsome lover, the novel closes with the battered hero concluding that women will be a man’s “slave or despot, but never his companion” until such a day as “she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.”

A photo of Lviv (then called Lemberg) in 1915. The photo was made just meters from where Masoch was born in 1836.

A photo of Lviv (then called Lemberg) in 1915. The photo was made just meters from where Masoch was born in 1836.

After Venus In Furs was published, an Austrian psychiatrist dubbed the lust for pain and humiliation detailed in the book “masochism.” The psychiatrist justified the unapproved use of Masoch’s name by claiming the writer “was not only the poet of masochism, but he himself was afflicted with the anomaly.”

In 2019, the company behind the Masoch Cafe opened a hotel in the same property where doors decorated with dripping “blood” open to rooms with oversized beds hanging with chains and shackles. A statue outside the Masoch businesses that was paid for by the company is the only public acknowledgement of what is arguably Lviv’s most influential cultural figure.

Taras Maselko, an executive at the venture behind the Masoch-themed businesses, believes the lack of a street named after Masoch, or even a plaque in the city may be due to the “specific topics” in Masoch’s most famous book, which, 151 years on, still has the power to shock.

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“Clearly in Ukraine and in Lviv we have a lot of people with strong religious views and with a strict point of view about the things Masoch was writing about,” said Maselko, adding that, in today’s Ukraine, “it’s becoming more popular to speak about topics you would not even mention 50 years ago.”

An obelisk atop the grave of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s grandfather, Franz Masoch, in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery. Leopold is believed to have died in Germany in 1895 after spending his final years in a psychiatric ward.

An obelisk atop the grave of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s grandfather, Franz Masoch, in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery. Leopold is believed to have died in Germany in 1895 after spending his final years in a psychiatric ward.

Lviv tour guide Andriy Maslyuk agrees that Masoch’s legacy remains largely taboo in a country where religious morality is still sacred, but also points to Ukraine’s authoritarian past as a reason why Masoch is barely acknowledged in the city of his birth.

“Because of the Iron Curtain here, many local heroes that didn’t fit with Soviet mentality were not promoted, and they ended up simply being forgotten,” Maslyuk said. “Masoch is only really being discovered by the newer generation.”

In the formal atmosphere of Lviv’s tourism office, Masoch and the violent sexuality his name represents make questions about his legacy feel awkward and inappropriate, but tourism executive Halyna Hrynyk answers with professional poise.

“It’s good that you came here to ask about Masoch,” she said. “We know he is important for some people, so perhaps we could look at organizing a year of events dedicated to this person.”

Lyrics of the classic Velvet Underground song inspired by Masoch make the mind race at what such public events might look like on the elegant streets of Lviv:

“Severin, Severin, speak so slightly. Severin, down on your bended knee. Taste the whip in love, not given lightly. Taste the whip, now bleed for me.”


Author:

Amos Chapple is a New Zealand-born photographer and picture researcher with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R.
Republished from RFERL

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