Fragments from a War Diary, Part #105
This evening I found myself rushing around Lviv from one meeting to the other, encountering ever more members of the international community with a variety of different backgrounds. This experience, while exhausting, was hugely useful to me, as it enabled me ever further to come to understand the variety of international community engagements with Ukraine; the history of alliances and disputes those various factions have had since the Russian invasion of Ukraine beginning in late February 2022; and how we might corral their efforts more effectively.
At a dinner I went to, a man pulled out a ziplock back full of brand new iPhones and offered them round. My phone spend the evening pinging relentlessly, with messages from this person and the other. People approached me and talked to me with the patter of rifles’ rapid rattles. Girls I didn’t know threw beams of happy smiles at me. A strange, intense man in a bar asked me why I was writing things in a notebook. Every third pharmacy seems to have been transformed into a sex shop selling items more appropriate in De Wallen (the Red Light District of Amsterdam) or London’s Soho. Sacher-Masoch’s cafe was just footsteps away.
Again I met the man who worked in the US federal prison system for 21 years. He seems to show up wherever I go. He has back in business tonight, buying everyone in the bar limoncello and shooting the breeze relentlessly to anyone who would listen. A colleague stuck with him last night to the very end, and spent the morning, so he gracefully admitted to us with his head down the toilet. I admire him for his tenacity, but less so for his wisdom. He is young. In time he will learn the foolishness of spending too long with people of this kind.
Soldiers stood in the street as the girls passed by in the unusually warm weather, moodily chain smoking outside their favourite bars that they cannot enter while they are in active military service. As always, I have to take off my camouflage jacket whenever I go into a place serving alcohol, to prevent the proprietors attracting the ire of the military police whose role is to stop soldiers from getting drunk. Inside the bars in central Lviv on a Saturday evening, beautiful people go crazy. Girls are dressed for hard techno beats in twenty-four hour nightclubs in the flimsiest of outfits. Men are showing off their tattoos and their muscles in tight shirts and jeans. The bars are roaring with people and the streets are a melée of the beautiful and the wealthy. Notwithstanding the curfew, the youth of Lviv are determined to capture as much as they can of the sumptuous and decadent lives they had before the war.
I chat with some intelligent and pleasant people - mostly Ukrainian. The people of Lviv have been learning English in a frenzy, in an attempt to peel off reliance on the Russian language as a lingua franca, and they want to talk to me. A number of the people I talk to are educated and civilised and they want to express to me their considered and reflective opinions about the war. Most of all, the educated classes in this war want it to stop. My sense is that this group of people - the thought leaders of Ukraine, if you will - are prepared to make the difficult concessions necessary to achieve peace, because they realise that war is a terrible evil and nothing good can come of it. They also, in their quietest, most reflective and most sober moments, understand the nature of their enemy: one which, while in substantial part grossly incompetent, has essentially unlimited resources in terms of both tolerance to the loss of human life and the capacity to regenerate destroyed military and civilian infrastructure and to re-supply their front line weapons systems with limitless quantities of cheap if inaccurate ammunition. Modern technology seems essentially irrelevant in this war; the Russians are fighting it with cheap, old junk, in vast quantities.
A drunk is offering me relationship advice. The American is peeling off his banknotes. The adrenalin’s coursing through my veins. I’m being sucked in deeper. The last words I hear before I march back home and up the pitch black stone stairs to my new apartment are, “I hear you’re thinking of getting rich, living in a graveyard”. I have no idea what this means. It is ludicrous, and there is no point trying to work out who is saying to whom or why.
It’s an asylum, and I am part of it. I feel like I am in a movie set in Saigon in 1973. There is a frenzy, a relentless energy amidst uncertainty and chaos. Tonight was spent meeting hordes of different people, each with their fascinating agendas; tomorrow I am going to the ballet after a day at work (remember: we work seven days a week) but I will take a morning off tomorrow as the place where I work is closed until Midday. Hence I have a few moments of respite as I write these words, just before curfew as I hear the traffic road down the cobbles as everyone rushes to get home, to paint a picture of Lviv on an energetic Saturday evening during the chaos of war as patriotic Ukrainians and their foreign supporters from all over the world mix and live and work together. It is truly an extraordinary thing, and I hope that these words help you understand the complicated social structures that have arisen in this city as a result of the war we are all living through upon the doorstep.
At the end of the evening, the American man from the US federal prison system was handing out Russian Armed Forces flag patches, saying he had taken them from soldiers he had personally murdered while he was on the front line. This is false. He is a maniac. Nobody in downtown Lviv hands out Russian Armed Forces flag patches, unless they are truly deranged. As I walked home, he was pouring more limoncellos into the mouths of anyone who would take them. Presumably tomorrow morning there will be more heads down toilets. What am I to make of all of this? Is it normal? Can I make a difference? What is my advice to anyone who might be listening, about what to do to bring this war to a quick and satisfactory conclusion? For now my only thought is that maybe all of us in Lviv: we need a quick burst to the head.