I’m really starting to lose it. I mean, today was supposed to be some quiet day when I would go chopping and peeling and chopping and peeling of all those onions and tomatoes and beetroots and carrots and all those other human and literal vegetables that we have in our military kitchen, providing essential daily supplies to the front line that keep those heroic Ukrainian soldiers alive. The morning was bogged down with some frustrating rubbish, some bureaucrats and lawyers and silly things like this from back home who don’t understand the very existential peril we are all living through in contemporary Europe with the Russian Federation and the Red Army redux on our doorsteps and all the horrors of Neo-Stalinism that nobody’s really thinking about in Europe and yet we a small committed community of volunteers plough on relentlessly like hapless volunteer soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. I think about that analogy constantly and I wonder whether the West will let us all down like they did in the Spanish Civil War and then there was Franco and then there was fascism and then there was Hitler and really who gave a damn but the valiant volunteers were stuffed and screwed. And I hope it won’t end up like that and I don’t believe it will but I can’t be sure but one thing I can be sure of is that I won’t let all these daft western bureaucrats hinder my determination to do the right thing.
We had a bit of humour today in our military kitchen which let’s face it is grim determined unrelenting and unforgiving hard toil. I broke the brutal silence with some nonsense talk about Ukrainian Railways. Then my new friend and colleague, C——, a younger man than me but with good temperament and certainly with the customary phlegm, decided to share with us some silly story about Ukrainian Railways who as we all known turn out to be curiously efficient in their own bizarre and strange way. He had reported a lost bag on the train. Presumably he had got on some long-distance horror Soviet-era train all drunk and had left his bag on there. So he had filed a report: a very Soviet thing to do. He had lost a bag on this train or that, and yes they would look into it and report back and this and that and nobody expected anything further.
But here is an index of how Ukraine is changing. He received this afternoon a text message in Ukrainian, explaining various things to him. Ukrainian Railways, that most patriotic institution, was proud to inform him that they had found his missing piece of luggage. And what’s more: it was waiting for him in a railway station for him to collect at his convenience. There was only one problem, as the English and Ukrainian speakers in our military kitchen collectively deciphered the message we reviewed on his ‘phone. The bag he was missing had been found in some strange railway station 150 kilometres north of Kyiv, somewhere or other, in some town that sounded deeply obscure to me. It’s all fine; it only required some 10 hours or so of third class bunk bed hard wood sleeper train travel to get there in order to collect his missing item, and it would be waiting for him. In the meantime he would be charged some unspecified recurring storage fee. Good luck with that.
I suppose my friend and colleague has some sort of meticulous and deranged arithmetical calculus to perform in his head as to whether the time and money and effort involved in travelling to this provincial Ukrainian nowhere is worth the contents of the misplaced luggage. He pathetically tapped into his mobile telephone a message of reply asking Ukrainian Railways whether they might be so kind as to forward his missing and discovered article of luggage to Lviv. I mean, what can I say. Perhaps we can be so generous as to predict that he is extraordinarily optimistic.
Anyway his conversation generated a propensity for ever-increasingly absurd but genial interactions amongst the collective of vegetable choppers and hackers. It seems that we all had ludicrous stories about losing and finding things on Ukrainian Railways. After listening to all this nonsense, I delivered the literary coup-de-grâce: “I was travelling on a train from Kherson to Donetsk the other day, when I left my portable shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile on seat 13 in first class. I called Russian Railways, and I asked to be put through to Mr Putin. He informed me that due process would be meticulously observed.”
Everyone looked at me like I was mad, and then they erupted in stupendous laughter. There is of course no train from Kherson to Donetsk; there has not been one since 2013. I was engaged in darkest miserablist humour of a kind that the Ukrainians find particularly endearing. And then we kept on chopping our vegetables. It’s always like this in war. You find quiet moments of humour in dark and ridiculous things.
I went to a new language class in central Lviv, at the suggestion of my friend T—-, to help young Ukrainians improve their English. There was nobody there; it was like a ghost ship. I had to apologise to my new friend M——, who had agreed to join me because she wants to make friends who speak English and she is a lovely person and I have only just met her and although she said to me “I am extremely depressed because I don’t meet people anymore in this war” and I had sympathy and compassion for her I see that she is a kind and decent person. War makes us all lonely and solitary and strips human relations and screws us all up.
Then I went to my favourite bar, and I met someone who might just be from the Church. She is an articulate and compassionate and sophisticated lady, and she has opinions of valour and tenor. I was profoundly impressed by her, in all respects save that she only uses Telegram which as the regular readers of my diary know is a Russian intelligence product. She seemed astonished when I presented her with the details; but there is so much ignorance amidst war, even amongst the educated classes. She radiated decency and humanity. But she had to undergo the inevitable strict scrutiny. Does she like Opera? I sent her the schedule of the Lviv Opera House. She said she would consider it. She told me she only wants a Platonic relationship. I asked her what she knows about Plato. He authored a famous book called The Republic. Maybe she didn’t know about that. She told me about Ukrainian culture; but Ukrainians need to learn their Plato if they are to incorporate themselves into the European intellectual traditions that over centuries and millennia have forged themselves into the common European polity that we now call the European Union.
I think I will see my new Ukrainian intellectual friend again. I think she had come to hunt me out. She radiated goodness and decency. She’s one of us. But it goes without saying that she has to like opera.