With a certain grim inevitability, I’m back where I started. Yes, that’s right. I’m staying in the same ropey old hotel just up the steps from the same ropey old railway station in the remote southeastern Polish town of Przemyśl, the closest population centre of any size to Ukrainian military theatre. Just a few kilometres to the east is that heavily militarised pedestrian border, which the intrepid military nutter can walk across, amidst the barbed wire, guard towers, gravel tracks and corrugated shacks, more or less free and unhindered, and go in and out of Ukraine without anyone asking the slightest questions. The reason I have taken this route is because the road borders are now subject to significant delays, and all the connecting train and bus services I could find involved traversing the borders in the middle of the night: a special form of hell that I have decided I am too old for. I need to pamper myself. Tonight I will stay in the same horrible old-fashioned Polish hotel I know from three months ago when I started this adventure, and then tomorrow I will retrace my steps across the military border. I like things that are good, solid and reliable. Like marching into a war zone with a rucksack on my back, the old-fashioned way.
Przemyśl (yes, the town with the unpronounceable name - it sounds something like “Pshemish”) is really rather a beautiful place. It is also far calmer on a sub-zero evening at the end of November than it was when I began this adventure some three months ago, when the streets were awash with people enjoying themselves in the lazy evening sun. The bars and restaurants are a shadow of their summer selves, and as I pause in one of the only places still open after dark for a fattening Polish pseudo-pizza full of chopped sausage, cheese and peppers, to sustain me after a day of travel on the relative comfort of Polish railways, I notice the barmaids putting up the Christmas decorations. This is a town on the edge of a war zone, yet determined to maintain an air of normality.
I remember, three months ago, a lady I met telling me “we don’t care what’s going on over the border; we just want to get along with our lives”. Yet three months later this wanton self-denial appears increasingly implausible. I was accosted by a polite yet inquisitive Polish man on the train to Przemyśl this afternoon, who realised I was obviously going off to war in Ukraine. There is no other reason for any foreigner to be passing through Przemyśl, particularly one dressed as I am. This place is exceptionally remote. He was positively worried about the Russians. The Poles are worried about the Russians. They understand this mentality. They realise that if Russia successfully maintains her occupation of parts of Ukraine, then in the coming years and decades she will push ever further westwards until she is at the Polish border; and then she will continue pressing west further still, as she did in 1939 and in 1944. This is the Stalinist mentality of territorial expansionism, all over again, and it happened in the twentieth century and now it is happening again in the twenty-first. So the Polish people may like to pretend that they are sitting on their laurels while an irrelevant war takes place next to them, but really that is not how things are. This is an existential threat to Europe, and in particular to Poland and Ukraine’s and Russia’s other neighbours. Russia must be defeated.
Somebody yesterday told me that the Poles and the Ukrainians are much the same. From my experiences of both countries, I can say that this is decisively not the case. Strolling through Przemyśl’s serenely cold and empty streets tonight, and those of Lublin last night, it is obvious that the Polish people are far calmer and more conservative than their eastern neighbours in Ukraine. Right now in Lviv, just a hundred kilometres or so to the east, the city is ablast with riotous behaviour even on a Monday evening, as the drunks get drunker and the bars get rowdier. By contrast in these Polish towns, everyone is tucked up in bed. This may be down to a difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy but it is too easy an explanation to put everything down to differences in liturgy and religious expression. I have never thought much of that kind of thing. I don’t think the Poles and the Ukrainians are the same people, for whatever reason. They occupy differing positions on a spectrum of Slavic people, but the history of this part of Europe, once known as Galicia, is far too complicated to suffer such simplistic narratives of differences and similarities between peoples who have been living adjacently for centuries.
In any event, modern Europe is about tolerance, compassion, individual liberties and the right to live differently and with respect for one-another, in liberal democracies that coexist and represent groups of people with distinct identities, and it would be profoundly fallacious to assimilate the Poles and the Ukrainians. This may be a hark back to the ethno-nationalist ideals of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Second Polish Republic, to assimilate all the peoples of the region as one. I don’t know. But I don’t agree that this is the right approach. Ukrainians are a people with a distinct national identity, which in many ways is rather subversive and humorous, whereas Poles are not like this in the same way.
This southeastern corner of Poland feels dreadfully remote. You go through empty fields and isolated hamlets to get here. Lviv was once the capital of this region, and now the Polish people feel entirely separated from what was once the cultural capital of the area. My interlocutor on the train this afternoon asked me what life is like there, and I told him. He seemed astonished that anyone might go there. I wondered why. You can be there in just a couple of hours. It’s not a difficult or trying journey. It is just a matter of fear of the unknown, I suppose. And now I have lost that fear, because Lviv is no longer the unknown. It is a part of me.