Fragments from a War Diary, Part #156
The only thing I’ve learned about Ivano-Frankivsk so far is that it is absolutely full of bars. I’m sure the city has a fascinating history but I’ll learn about that tomorrow. Its current function is to serve as an après-ski centre for the nearby Carpathian Mountains skiing industry. I am staying in a giant Soviet-style hotel (the sort of place with long anonymous corridors, stingy single beds and cheap furniture) and it is absolutely packed with people going to or from Carpathian Mountain skiing vacations. This isn’t what I expected at all from a city in a war zone that has been the subject of aerial bombardment by the Russians over the course of the war. Nobody here seems too concerned about that. They’re all here to start or end their skiing holidays by getting drunk.
More generally, Ivano-Frankivsk is a quiet safe city where wealthy Ukrainians who cannot afford the corrupt payments to send their children abroad instead send their children to live out the war in relative peace and calm. This evening my friend and colleague and I toured a series of restaurants and bars and all we saw in each one was young complacent Ukrainians living lives of relative wealth and luxury and avoiding all the incidents of war. The reception of my hotel sells all sorts of absurd creams and gels and this and that, luxuries ludicrous in the middle of a war zone. We found a shop selling giant Dutch cheeses for hundreds of Euros. The restaurants are full of young Ukrainians spending their parents’ money because there are no jobs or work in this town. It is just a series of communist concrete bunkers but it is far enough away from all the harrowing features of war that the children of the wealthy get sent here to live out their leisure suit lounging lifestyles while the war goes on. If they want to go to ski resorts or spas for the weekends, those things are a couple of hours away. In the meantime they can roll upon their giant Dutch cheeses.
This young class of privileged people have no comprehension of what is going on out east or down south or even in Lviv. The internally displaced people who populate Lviv are genuine refugees who have learned to integrate with the foreigners that have fallen in such huge numbers upon the city because they need revenues and incomes and they have travelled far from occupied territories and they are living for each moment, every day, scrabbling to learn English to sell things to foreign visitors and scrabbling for the future of Ukraine through their entrepreneurship, their tenacity and their vision for European values. By contrast the young people of Ivano-Frankivsk, internally displaced people of an insulated kind, cut off from all the idiocies and horrors of war through the money and privileges of their parents, care nothing for the daily grind of wartime existence. They are just patiently waiting it all out, supping on their luxury cocktails and their fine dining and their alternative lifestyles and lounging around and doing nothing. They don’t want to speak Russian but they don’t want to learn English. They want to live in their own bubble, created for them by their parents, to isolate them from wartime; that bubble is called Ivano-Frankivsk.
There are no Military Police or press gangs or “recruitment” of young people in Ivano-Frankivsk. Instead there are way-out bars in which the youngsters of conscription age wear their pierced lips and their shaved heads and their pierced this and their shaved that and their pierced this and their shaved that. They didn’t much appreciate me showing up with my military jacket emblazoned casually with a variety of supporting nations’ flags. When I walked into one bar, half the young men of military age stood up and left within a minute or two; they presumably thought I was a military recruiter. These privileged youngsters have found their place of peace and harmony courtesy of the good financial fortunes of their parents and they are living out the war in this isolated community of privilege and luxury.
Which is all kind of a joke, because this town looks and feels like a communist dump.
Nevertheless there are new luxury apartment blocks to be seen, dotted around the city, built no doubt with the ill-gotten gains of various politicians and businessmen who got rich in Ukraine’s dirty years doing business with Russia. Now their children languish in those luxury apartments but without an obvious future because they are not engaging either with Ukraine’s intrinsic deep-set cultural norms nor with the bright European future that the West wants and urges Ukrainians to adopt. There is no gratitude here for the enormous expenditures in blood and treasure that Ukrainians and the international community alike are incurring in defence of the Russian menace. There is just a complacent intention to carry on life as normal, like it always was as the privileged children of the corrupt and wealthy Ukrainian classes, until this nightmare that the young people of contemporary Ivano-Frankivsk presumably barely understand comes to pass.
But this war won’t just come to an end, as these privileged children might imagine and hope. They can’t just wait it out. Sooner or later, the press gangs and the mandatory conscription units will arrive in Ivano-Frankivsk and they will start taking away the children of the wealthy to train in the military camps and then to be dispatched to the front line. This is what gradually happened to the children of wealthy Americans in the Vietnam war, as the casualty toll mounted as the war ground on and the need for new soldiers to replace the dead and mutilated meant that even the children of the wealthy and the privileged were no longer immune to the draft. Hence the wealthy classes amongst American people elected an extraordinary new leader to bring the Vietnam War to an end.
I think that once the press gangs arrive in Ivano-Frankivsk, a strong dose of reality may strike the privileged upper middle classes and power brokers who retain significant influence in Ukraine. The Oligarchs may be gone, but this upper class of wealthy Ukrainians who are now paying for their children to be insulated from the daily horrors of the conflict cannot maintain the safety and security of their children forever.
It’s time to leave Ivano-Frankivsk tomorrow. I have enjoyed the delicious food, the resplendent bars, the ambience of youth and the carefree attitude that there is no war going on in Ukraine at all; the sense that instead we can all just carry on living how we used to. That is the attitude of people who have more money and less culture and less understanding of history and the cruel dynamics of conflict. But that is not ultimately going to be the driving force that stops the mayhem and slaughter of this brutal and bloody conflict.