Fragments from a War Diary, Part #158
This afternoon, before catching our train back to Ukraine’s Saigon, my friend and I took a brief stroll along Ivano-Frankivsk’s principal promenade and we walked past a row of memorials to fallen soldiers from the region. This was a sobering experience, as I read the biographies of each of these men. Most of them were younger than me, their lives tragically cut short in the course of this horrendous war, fighting to protect their homeland and their fellow people from the nightmare of a Russian invasion with the threat of totalitarian rule under Russia’s contemporary dictator, Vladimir Putin. Each of these men (and I did notice one woman amongst the fallen) had their own personal story, and I was heart struck by the tragedy of it all. There is no city or town in Ukraine that does not have its own wall of the dead, local people who travelled to the front line to resist the Russian invasion and who died along the way. They are heroes each and every one of them, and I felt privileged to be able to read short snippets of their lives.
I also learned about the annihilation of the Jewish community in Stanislav, the pre-1962 name for Ivano-Frankivsk, between 1939 and 1944. The Jewish community in the region, during both the Austro-Hungarian period and during the Second Polish Republic, had organised themselves into a self-governing community in the region of Stanislav and their influence upon government, politics, culture and commerce had been substantial. The Jewish community had been active supporters of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic whose capital had been in Stanislav during its brief existence between the 1979 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ending the war between revolutionary Russia and Germany, and the Peace Treaty of Versailles, and they enjoyed positive relations with the Ukrainian population in this region.
Nevertheless when Stalin occupied Stanislav and this region of western Ukraine pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, he accompanied that with persecution of the community of Jewish people in Stanislav that the time numbered some 20,000. The Jews of Stanislav had nowhere to run with the overtly anti-semitic Nazi Germany to their west. When Hitler invaded this region in 1941, his commanders created a Stanislav ghetto in which the greater majority of the region’s Jews perished. By 1944 when Stalin re-liberated this part of western Ukraine, only a couple of hundred Jewish people remained alive. I was reminded of the horrors that the Jewish people suffered in this part of Europe in the course of World War II and under the yokes of both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and the importance of never forgetting the genocide perpetrated against Jewish people in the middle of the twentieth century.
We stopped off for coffee before boarding our train, and we found ourselves sitting amongst a variety of people drinking too much alcohol for lunch. The vodka, brandies, beer and wines were all flowing with the clock barely past Midday, and I was reminded of the problem of alcoholism that so besets Ukraine. The country needs to dry out. Of course I understand that this is war and that people are bored and that when you are bored you need to fill the time and one of the ways that you do this is to drink. Nevertheless the levels of consumption of alcohol are sufficiently high to present a real question of public health that needs urgently to be addressed by the Ukrainian public authorities and by civil society irrespective of, or even more by reason of, the ongoing war.
In wartime, people are depressed and bored and anxious and scared and they have a range of other negative emotions, and one way of addressing all these negative thoughts is to drink to forget, as Tolstoy said of the Russian peasant classes in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless this is not the most healthy or effective way of dealing with all the psychological stresses of war, and we return to the problem of the absence of adequate psychiatry in modern Ukraine: a problem exacerbated by wartime conditions as professional people have left the country and the limited psychiatric capacity existing within the country’s healthcare system is overstretched, dealing with military personnel and civilians alike suffering from conditions such as acute trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.
We arrived at the railway station, which was inexplicably locked and bolted shut. Some gruff and sullen guards were uncommunicative as to the reason for this, but I think the reason is that there has been a constant threat of aerial bombardment of Ivano-Frankivsk during the course of today that began with an extended air raid siren this morning. This has resulted in all public buildings being shuttered, because they present potential air raid targets. Outside the immediate vicinity of the front line, in which it is entirely normal for the threat of air raids to be constant and unrelenting, I have not experienced this before in Ukraine and as far as I could tell there was no public information about what the threat might be. The anxiety caused by events of this kind might of course explain why everyone was getting stuck into their liquor over lunch. The disruption caused by the constant air raid threat in Ivano-Frankivsk today made the day extremely frustrating and we didn’t really get anything done that we had intended to. In war, you have to remain flexible.
We wondered whether our train was going to run at all; but even through all the horrors of this war the one thing that is reliable is Ukrainian Railways. Air raids or none, those hulking old bulwarks of trains are going to be running under any conceivable circumstances. Although we weren’t allowed into the railway station the various passengers due on our train stepped through a hole in the railway fence and our train was duly waiting on the platform. This was an old, miserable, clapped out set of carriages to be pulled by a diesel engine and as I sit writing these words I am cramped sitting on a dark brown plastic bench in a carriage of at least 50 years old. Each carriage on these ancient Soviet relics is heated with its own wood-burning brazier and there is a chimney atop each, belching smoke. A train guard is shouting at us as I write, providing us with bed linen and offering a range of drinks for sale that I don’t want. I think my friend as trying to get some hot water out of the stove for a cup of Bovril (an unusual British drink associated with wartime). Good luck to him. I hammer out these words like a crazed maniac, determined to post this article before the internet goes dead. Although this train might be old, it is going like the clappers and soon we will be in the middle of nowhere and cut off from all communications.
Tonight we will be back in Lviv, that city of culture, chaos and an eclectic mix of Ukrainians and foreigners, the centre of the international war effort. Somehow, this image of familiar chaos that characterises Lviv is both reassuring and comforting. Because I know there are some yet more chaotic adventures ahead.