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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #112

Yesterday was a long day and I felt at danger of burning out. My children are enjoying half term and it is too far to join them from Ukraine, which of course makes me feel sad; but my family sent me encouraging and supportive messages which lifted my heart. I was rushing around from one place to another and I was spending both too long looking at a computer and too much time talking to people. I am not taking enough time for myself. The American man handing out the Russian Armed Forces patches in my local bar had been reading my diaries, and of course he didn’t like them. He issued me with an insidious threat as I left, saying that he would be following me home. That at least is one thing I don’t have to worry about. The Police are everywhere in central Lviv after dark and they carry assault rifles and wear body armour. Lviv is one city in which you don’t have to worry about physical security.

However I worked late and I went out for a walk after curfew to refresh my head. I realised that going outside after curfew without a good reason is a terrible mistake. There are armed Police on every second corner and they definitely don’t look friendly. I had to plot a route bypassing the Police by taking turns down back alleys. You can walk around at night but you have to be extremely careful how you do it and the Police in Lviv in fact, I realise, enforce the curfew far more rigidly than in the eastern cities of Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaïv and Kharkiv where there is barely any Police presence except as first responders to Russian artillery and rocket attacks. In Lviv, I think, the Police exist in large part to maintain public order and to keep foreigners safe and to stop soldiers from drinking alcohol. Lviv is, after all, packed with people whereas these other cities are not.

I slept badly and decided to take the morning off, and to research the history of another enigmatic Ukrainian intellectual, Ivan Franko. This figure, although barely heard of in the West, was obviously important I decided because an entire Carpathian city, Ivano-Frankivsk, has been named after him. This city, of about 300,000 people, was formerly called Stanyslaviv and it has oscillated between Polish and Habsburg rule throughout its history. By all accounts its architecture is similar to that of Lviv, but I was advised that it is not worth a visit. It’s not far; I may ignore that advice and at some point go there for a day trip as it is not far away. We will have to see.

Stanyslaviv was part of the very short-lived Western Ukrainian People’s Republic that existed from November 1918 to July 1919 amidst the chaos of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I and the disorder accompanying the Russian Revolution, until it was absorbed into the Second Polish Republic pursuant to the terms of the Peace Treaty of Versailles. After Soviet occupation of eastern Poland in 1939, subsequent Nazi occupation in 1941, and then Soviet occupation at the end of World War II, Stanyslaviv was absorbed into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1962 the city was renamed after Ivan Franko by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian. Ivan Franko was a Ukrainian nationalist intellectual who advocated socialism for the Ukrainian people as an alternative to imperial domination under the Habsburg Empire. The majority of his work was undertaken at the turn of the twentieth century where he was an academic in Lviv.

Although little known outside Ukraine, Ivan Franko probably contributed more intellectually to the idea of Ukrainian nationalism than any other Ukrainian. He was a political scientist and he wrote about socialism as a method of redistributing the inequalities inherent in imperial wealth in a republican form of government. These ideas were an intriguing mix of American republican sentiment and Marxist socialism, and it seems that he drew on both ideas we now commonly associate with modern democracy in the West and the idealism of Marx and his acolytes, associating capitalism with imperial rule as was fashionable in parts of Europe at the time. However Franko grew to be a vocal critic of Marxism as he saw its development from theory into a bureaucratic, dictatorial and revolutionary movement in the late nineteenth century, and he sought to forge a model of democratic socialism for an independent Ukraine. As foment grew in intellectual circles against the idea of one group of people ruling another, particularly if the two groups of people were Europeans, Ivan Franko developed this into an idea of a distinctive Ukrainian political identity.

Arguably Franko was the intellectual founder of the modern Ukrainian nation state, as he was really the first person to articulate in scholarly terms the idea that there should be such a thing, forged out of the ashes of the European empire, with its own distinctive polity which he imagined ought to be some form of democratic socialism. He died in 1916, just before his project for an independent Ukraine embracing socialism and democracy without Marxist tyranny was briefly realised. Then of course this moderate version of socialism was eliminated as the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War and absorbed the entirety of the territory we now call Ukraine into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

I certainly have more sympathy for Ivan Franko as a historical figure than I do for Stepan Bandera, who was an antisemite, a Nazi collaborator and a violent fascist. Franko’s corpus of works is more distinctive and coherent than that of Taras Shevchenko, who was really a poet and artist and not a political theorist. Franko was a true intellectual, and he fashioned a moderate course amongst the currents of European political thinking in circulation at the turn of the twentieth century. Those continental political themes were of course driven by the unification of Germany in 1871 and the growing threat that German armament was perceived as presenting to the European peace (rightly, as it turned out) and the chronic inequality in industrialised nineteenth century Europe that led to the growth of Marxism as an international political movement. Franko is sometimes asserted to be a radical, perhaps by reason of his vocal expressions of support for his own distinctive kind of socialism; but it is always important to place political thinkers in their historical context. Amidst the intellectual maelstrom within Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, Franko sought to steer a moderate third way between the competing kinds of radicalism embraced in ethno-nationalism and hard-line Marxism. Ultimately, it was his political vision for Ukraine for which we are now fighting in 2023.

In my favourite bar last night, there was a youthful live band and they sang the Ukrainian National Anthem. As always, we stood with our hands across our chests while the anthem played and the tears of joy and sadness rolled down the cheeks of those who have suffered so much during the course of this cruel war. I think Franko would have approved of the lyrics. In English, they read:

Ukraine’s glory and freedom have not perished

Still upon us, young brothers, fate shall smile

Our enemies shall vanish, like dew in the sun

We too shall rule, brothers, in our country.

Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom,

And we shall show, that we, brothers, are of Cossack descent.

There are further verses, but these are the words most commonly sung in public events, and the themes with which I think Ivan Franko would have had the most sympathy. Despite Khrushchev’s attempts to reinvent Franko as a protean Soviet communist in a typically Soviet rewrite of intellectual history, he was a moderate patriot with aspirations for an independent and democratic Ukraine. And that is the struggle now underway.


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