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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #202

I want to return to a topic I have mentioned before, which is extreme drunkenness in Ukrainian society. I think I’ve mentioned to you the people I have seen in the street in the middle of the morning swigging vodka, of both genders. By the way, the word vodka can be frowned upon in Ukraine now, as associated with Russia. Although the word “vodka” still appears on the side of vodka bottles in supermarkets and stores, many Ukrainians prefer to use the word “horilka”, although horilka is really a more generic word for strong alcohol in general, and in some circles outside Ukraine it refers to a sort of vodka flavoured with chilli peppers. There is also something called “samohon’’, which is really a Ukrainian word for moonshine - distilled strong alcohol made outside regulated manufacturing procedures.

The attempt to eliminate the word “vodka” from Ukrainian is illustrative of a trend I have noticed throughout the Ukrainian language to stop using words whose etymological origins are Russian. Another example is the word “haracho”, which means “ok”, “good” or “fine”. Ukrainians have used this word a lot in the past, even when speaking Ukrainian; but now they are increasingly preferring to use the word “dobre” which has a Slavic non-Russian etymology. Stripping the Ukrainian language of Russian words has become a cultural priority for some Ukrainians, particularly in the west of the country, and I suppose I can understand why.

So every Ukrainian knows the word Zapoi, which is a form of extreme drunkenness that extends over several days typically involving the consumption of large amounts of vodka. Zapoi is originally a Russian word although its meaning is understood throughout the former Soviet Union. Contemporary French author and movie director Emmanuel Carrère had described Zapoi in the following terms:

Zapoi is serious business, not a one-night bender of the kind we partake in, the kind you pay for with a hangover the next day. Zapoi means going several days without sobering up, roaming from one place to another, getting on trains without knowing where they're headed, telling your most intimate secrets to people you meet by chance, forgetting everything you've said and done: a sort of voyage.

I have sometimes joked with my Ukrainian friends that I am going on Zapoi, to much merriment and amusement on their part that a westerner knows what this expression means. However I have never really gone on Zapoi because it is incredibly bad for one’s health. It involves getting so drunk on vodka that you have no recollection of what you are doing, sleeping in the streets or on benches, falling about all over the place, talking to other crazy people on Zapoi and generally making a total damned fool of yourself. It’s not only men who go on Zapoi; I have seen Ukrainian and Russian women do it as well, but it is mostly a male activity.

Zapoi is peculiarly nihilistic; it involves an abrogation of all your obligations and responsibilities in life just for the sake of getting drunk. When you eventually sober up, you may be in a police station or a hospital or on a bench or you may have lost all your money or your belongings. It may take you days to recover. It is a crazy business and it illustrates a streak of anarchism that pervaded the Soviet Union and indeed the Russian Empire; Dostoevsky described incidents of Zapoi in a number of his novels.

Although contemporary figures are not available in wartime Ukraine, without doubt hazardous alcohol consumption patterns remain a major cause of mortality in the country. The curfews imposed in a number of Oblasts across the country have moderated public displays of drunkenness to a degree; but in large part they just result in people starting to drink alcohol earlier in the day. Also now people go back to apartments when the bars in Lviv close at 11pm, and continue drinking vodka (or horilka or samohon) until the small hours or even all night until the curfew is lifted. This in itself is a form of Zapoi, and I have seen some foreigners get caught up in these all-night binges and then wonder why they cannot process anything or do any work the next day. The answer is because in all likelihood they drank an entire bottle of vodka to themselves the previous evening. Saturday afternoons in Lviv’s Old Town, even in the snow and sludge and ice and with massive piles of dirty snow heaped up in the streets so high that you have to walk around them, is a good place to observe the beginnings of the ritual of Zapoi. I am typically in bed at about Midnight, but still from my apartment opposite my favourite bar, even as curfew falls, I can hear the manic shrieks of people out on Zapoi or something akin to it, as they dodge the impending Police presence and rush off to some secluded apartment or other to get started on the hard liquor. And then of course they cannot leave until morning, because the curfew is in effect. So they drink and they drink and they drink.

I have left my apartment just opposite my favourite bar, for a few days, and I am now comfortably ensconced in a new apartment of an old-fashioned, grandiose style. I do not share upper middle class Ukrainians’ taste for modernist minimalism in interior design; I like places with a sense of history, and in this apartment, lacquered in various shades with brown wooden furnishings and old-fashioned comfortable settees, I feel very much at home. It’s only about 50 metres from the last place, but in a very different style. It is behind a series of large heavy shuttered gates in a building I would guess dates from the Second Polish Republic period: formal, ornate and with statuary shorn into the stonework on the front of the building. This must have been an apartment for a privileged Soviet official at some time, and now it is my temporary but most pleasant home. Being a little back from the main road, I won’t be able to hear the wails of the youngsters enjoying Zapoi on the weekends while I am trying to sleep. A few days’ respite from that might not be a bad thing. Maybe I can just pace around my new lodgings with a cup of coffee in the evenings, relaxing and reading a book and forgetting about the inebriated insanity outside amidst all the horrors of war. Or maybe I won’t do that at all, and I will spend the week on Zapoi.


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