By Andrew Higgins
City in Ukraine Tied to Masochism Finds Link Painful,
Sure, but Some Like It
A waitress at the Masoch Cafe in Lviv, Ukraine, pouring a drink
into the mouth of a customer voluntarily tied to a chair.
Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
LVIV, Ukraine — Taras Demlan was out for a quiet drink with
friends in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, a beguiling jewel of Hapsburg
architectural splendor, and his companions persuaded him to try the specialty
of the house.
A waitress took off his shirt, tethered
his hands behind the back of a chair and began dripping molten wax from a
burning candle on Mr. Demlan’s chest. Then came a rubdown with ice cubes
followed by lashings of a whip across his bare back.
“That,” said Mr. Demlan of his ordeal at
Masoch Cafe, “was really uncomfortable.”
however, is exactly what Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the 19th-century writer
from Lviv in whose honor the cafe is named, would have wanted. His best known
work, “Venus in Furs,” features lengthy philosophical ruminations on and
descriptions of sexual pleasure derived from pain, and led a Viennese professor
of psychology, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, to coin the term “masochism” as a
description of what he viewed as a deviant clinical condition.
A statue of the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in Lviv, Ukraine.
A professor used his name to coin the word “masochism.”
Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
As a gimmick to attract
attention, the writer’s legacy would seem unbeatable for a city eager to
attract foreign tourists to the western edge of Ukraine, a former Soviet
republic better known these days for its political turmoil, struggles with
President Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin and general post-Communist angst.
“He is world famous; he
put our city on the map,” said Yuri Nazuruk, the creative director of the
company that runs Masoch Cafe and a string of other theme restaurants inspired
by local history.
But the link to
masochism brings little pleasure to guardians of Lviv’s image as a cradle of
Ukrainian nationalism that survived the miseries of the Soviet Union to reclaim
its position as one of Europe’s great, inventive and most seductively beautiful
cities. They prefer to celebrate other aspects of Lviv’s creative spirit, like
the introduction, in 1853, of Europe’s first streetlights.
“People here treat
Sacher-Masoch as a joke, not as somebody serious,” said Petro Kolodiy, the
chairman of Lviv’s regional legislature and a local leader of Svoboda, a dour
nationalist party that bars atheists and promotes nationhood built on common
“blood and spirit.”
“I have never studied
him myself,” Mr. Kolodiy added.
Lviv’s young have no
such hang-ups and have turned the Masoch Cafe into a popular spot for dates and
group outings. On Friday evening the whipping, which is free of charge, started
hesitantly on a coy young woman who was out for a drink with three girlfriends.
A male waiter dressed all in black stopped beating her after a few strokes when
she complained of the pain.
In general, however,
female customers are far less squeamish than their male counterparts, Sasha
Bankovich, a waitress at the cafe said, cradling a whip in her hands. “We’ve
noticed that men scream a lot,” she said, adding that requests from customers
for a whipping had remained constant throughout Ukraine’s months of tumult. “In
this respect, things are very stable in our country.”
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Lviv’s mayor, Andriy
Sadovyi, an open-minded former electronic engineer, said he has nothing against
Sacher-Masoch, but noted that the city has had a “very long and complicated
history” that needs to be celebrated as a whole without undue attention to a
writer of such narrowly idiosyncratic tastes.
The city is dotted with
monuments to more wholesome heroes, like Taras Shevchenko, a poet hailed as the
founder of modern Ukrainian literature, but the local government has put up no
tributes to Sacher-Masoch. The cafe commissioned a bronze statue of the writer,
but even that modest, privately funded memorial, located at the cafe’s
entrance, drew complaints from members of the City Council.
“He is too provocative
a figure for a place like Lviv,” said Ihor Podalchuk, a Ukrainian filmmaker
from Lviv. “It is a conservative city by religion and tradition.”
Mr. Podalchuk, a big
fan of Sacher-Masoch, a writer he sees as standard-bearer for taboo-breaking
artists, began lobbying for Lviv to embrace its most famous native son soon
after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s emergence as an
independent nation. He set up the International Masoch Fund and campaigned to
get a street named after the writer. His efforts, however, got nowhere.
Even the Masoch Fund,
added Mr. Podalchuk, does not bother much these days with promoting
Sacher-Masoch, and works instead simply to encourage freethinking artists.
Taras Voznyak, the
editor of Ji, a Lviv cultural journal, said he understood why “Venus in Furs”
is not required reading in local schools and raises eyebrows in some quarters.
But he says the city is missing out on a lucrative branding opportunity by not
making Sacher-Masoch the city’s trademark, like Mozart is for Salzburg,
Austria. “He was not Mozart, but then practically every language in the world
has the word ‘masochism,’ ” Mr. Voznyak said.
Mr. Nazuruk, the Masoch
Cafe’s creative director, said the hesitancy toward Sacher-Masoch was a sign of
Ukraine’s “difficult birth as a nation” and the difficulties that a country
caught between Russia and Europe has faced in dealing with the sometimes
uncomfortable nuances and complexity of its history.
“Over the past 100
years, power, language and culture have changed many, many times in Lviv,” he
said. “For a society to talk about difficult themes involving morality it needs
to be secure and mature. We are still on that road.”
Mr. Nuzuruk noted that
Sacher-Masoch wrote about much more than just painful sex and, in works like
“Galician Tales,” provided “brilliant descriptions of this small part of the
world.” (The Masoch Cafe, of course, focuses on the sex stuff, its walls strung
with whips, chains and bras, its menu a sophomoric compendium of double
A big part of the
problem with Sacher-Masoch, aside from the sex, is that he wrote in German, a
language that barely any of the city’s residents today speak or read. “Venus in
Furs” has now been translated into Ukrainian, but the work is still far better
known in New York — thanks largely to the Velvet Underground (“Venus in Furs”
inspired the band’s 1967 classic song of the same title, written by Lou Reed)
and a 2011 Broadway production, “Venus in Fur,” by David Ives — than in the
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“Venus in Furs” also
has many fans in France, where Roman Polanski last year made a film version of
Ives’s play and a Paris theater this summer put on a French version of the
Another problem is the
confusion that has surrounded the identity of Sacher-Masoch. “There are so many
legends and myths about his background that nobody really knew who he was,”
said Halyna Svarnyk, a Lviv scholar and librarian who has spent two decades
digging into local archives for information about the writer’s forbears.
His family has been
described by other scholars as being of Jewish, Ukrainian and Spanish
aristocratic descent, but, said Ms. Svarnyk, such claims “are all just
Ukrainian as well as German, and probably Polish as a boy, but “was definitely
not Ukrainian or Jewish,” or descended from an ancient noble family, Ms.
His real origins, she
added, are far more prosaic: Austrian bureaucrats. His grandfather moved to
Galicia, as the region around Lviv was known, as a servant of the Hapsburg
Empire, working there on tax reform and managing salt works. His father headed
the local police.
But for a family
tragedy, she noted, the phenomenon known around the world as “masochism” would
have been “sacherism,” which doesn’t really work, as that implies sugary
sweetness like sacher-torte. The writer’s surname at his birth in Lviv in 1836
was simply Sacher but this was changed to Sacher-Masoch in 1838 after the
brother of his mother died and her father, distraught at losing his only son,
asked the Sacher family to add his family name, Masoch, to its own.
She said she had not
studied how the writer’s family background might have shaped Sacher-Masoch’s
fascination with rough sexual practices, but dismissed speculation that his
father, the local police chief, had been a cruel brute. “He was a very cultured
man” with a keen interest in music and other arts, she said, noting that his
mother’s family was also deeply involved in local culture and academia.
NOV. 14, 2014