Fragments from a War Diary, Part #146
Today I had a relaxing day off. Although I had intended to take yesterday, Saturday, as vacation, I found myself wondering to work as I meandered through Lviv’s cobbled streets amidst the icy chill and dark clouds. Some sort of deep-seated guilt plagued me, and I just walked to the military kitchen, like an automaton, to undertake my duties. Today was different. I woke up this morning with a deep depression, which had no obvious origin, and I just didn’t want to do it. So I didn’t. I expunged my feelings of guilt, and I washed out my love of the opera, and I decided that today I would do damn all.
I am incapable really of doing damn all, if I scrutinise my soul and peer into my darkest recesses, so of course it didn’t really work out like that. I started the day by trying to read the newspaper online - I have no idea, living the intensity of each day in wartime Ukraine, what is really going on out there in the rest of the world. And then I found myself carrying things round the city centre for people and undertaking some administrative obligations and catching up on paperwork I had been overlooking for a while. It is hard to focus on paperwork when you are working in a conflict environment; it just doesn’t seem relevant. I am behind on so many things that are of importance.
I met a friend for a late and extended lunch. Again I realised how fiendishly hungry I am; I am not eating enough. We sat down in a traditional Soviet-era Lviv restaurant and I scooped up three full main courses: enough to feed an army, I suppose. I wolfed down a hot meat soup, a veal cutlet and a plate of pasta, with half a bottle of wine and a couple of goblets of beer. I was ravenous. I ended up finishing the soup by placing the bowl to my lips and drinking the lot without a spoon, straight into my mouth. Working in a war zone, I have become thoroughly uncivilised.
I didn’t do any physical exercise to speak of today, apart from carrying an oversized military rucksack around the city centre for a few kilometres in the driving rain. I am worried I am getting fat. I fear I am losing all sense of perspective and proportionality. This is what war does to a person’s mind.
My friend and I slumped in our usual bar, content to sup on a few beers and not to care about much except enjoying a calm environment. And indeed my stress and adrenalin levels seemed thoroughly depressed as a result of my choice to take things easy today, and I am very grateful for that. But this momentary lapse into normality was not to last. An enthusiastic young Ukrainian nationalist decided to intervene in our calm and quiet conversation. He told us he had been overhearing our discussions of the war, and the need for an armistice; and he wanted to tell us what he thought. I am used to this kind of thing, and I waited for his diatribe as me friend diplomatically retreated to another table.
This gentleman, who displayed his political colours with his Stepan Bandera sweatshirt, started by announcing that he had attended a renowned British public school. Then he proceeded to tell me that in his view Ukraine should be partitioned for the sake of peace; but that his fellow countrymen would kill him for saying this. Then he expressed admiration for the values of free speech and tolerant debate that characterise real democracy, as opposed to the sham democratic institutions that have characterised post-independence Ukraine over the last 30 years in the absence of a free media and elections in which voters have been overtly bought. He was an articulate, reflective and astute individual, and although he drank ever more and his opinions became increasingly vocal, I appreciated the time he took to tell me what he thought.
He was from an intellectual Soviet family, but he repudiated the Soviet system of political values in which you are a political slave of the Communist system and freedom of thought is frowned upon and even repressed. But then his conversation veered into a form of racism that I do not like to hear on the lips of the Ukrainians, in particular those with education and cultivation. He was doing his very best not to hate the Russians, he told me, but he really wanted to see Moscow and St Petersburg bombed and he wanted to see the grief on the faces of those Russian mothers of the dead Russian soldiers, just as the Ukrainian families endure grief by reason of their children being killed or maimed on the front line. In other words he wanted revenge. He knew he should not want this; he knew he should not wish these things, as a humanist, as someone who values all lives equally. But in his heart he wanted revenge, and he wanted to cause suffering to the Russians as the Russians have caused to the Ukrainians.
Of course emotions like this are very natural in the course of war. It is terribly difficult to condemn a person for expressing such guttural feelings, and I listened quietly and with sympathy to what he had to say. But of course Russian mothers and families are also suffering as a result of their children being killed on the other side of the front line; we just don’t hear about those horrifying stories, because there is a wall of media propaganda that separates the information each side receives. The perpetuation of this war causing indefinite misery on both sides, and there is no need for revenge because both sides are suffering. This war is no good for the ordinary Russian, and Ukrainians should understand that hatred of their neighbour is no good because Russians are fighting this war under duress of a tyrannical leader. Russians are not intrinsically terrible people; they just have an intrinsically terrible system of government, at least for now.
In war, every person’s death is a tragedy. I am increasingly convinced, as was my fellow professed humanist, that we need to do everything we can to bring this terrible and cruel war to an end as soon as is humanly possible, for all our sakes. The fantastical imperial ambitions of one deranged FSB officer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, cannot be allowed to plunge the entire region into interminable wallowing misery for the indefinite future. In the immortal if disturbing words of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), “What is to be done?”. This was the name of his 1902 political manifesto for radical revolution and reform in the face of impossible crisis within the Russian political hierarchy. Although I agree with virtually nothing that Lenin every said about any subject, I can sympathise with the idea that radical change is needed in Russia in order that this catastrophic maelstrom of events surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine be brought to an end. And I think that the only people who can orchestrate changes of this order are the Russian people themselves, dissatisfied with the dictatorial tyranny that renders Russia an international pariah state and ever further inures her people to contemporary serfdom and penury.