I met a Ukrainian lady last night who speaks fluent English although she has never been to an English speaking country, and she told me that she doesn’t like the volunteers or foreigners that have come to swamp her city of Lviv. For the most part they are uncouth, course, drunkards and deranged, she explained. This is a cultured, educated person and therefore I listened to her opinions carefully. They think they are coming here for tourism, she continued. It’s all a bit of a fun and a bit of a laugh for them, to come to a war zone and faff around volunteering in one capacity or another. Given that yesterday was International Volunteers’ Day, and the Ukrainian National Bank has printed a special coin commemorating the contribution of volunteers in the country, these struck me as harsh words indeed. So I reflected on what she had said, and I decided to form my own view about the issue.
I think her main point is that foreigners in Lviv often behave disgracefully in bars. She is right, of course; but so do Ukrainians. Drunk people often behave disgracefully. Nevertheless I think it is quite wrong for foreigners to come to Ukraine and get drunk and behave badly, because they serve as Emissaries of the West and if they behave badly then Ukrainians will not get a good impression of the western system of values and peoples that we are asking them to embrace in lieu of Russian domination. This lady was also, she explained, disappointed with the quality of their conversation and their presumptions about Ukraine and her people and the lack of knowledge they had about Ukraine’s culture and history. I think this is a legitimate criticism. I have met very few foreign volunteers in Ukraine who know anything about the country at all. Even the handful of people who arrived in the early days of the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine know remarkably little about Ukraine. It’s not just a matter of learning the language, she explained; in fact in her opinion that is rather pointless because everyone is learning English and Ukrainian is a relatively obscure minority language. It is more a matter of understanding Ukrainian customs and traditions, and the different ways the genders and the generations interact compared with other European norms.
She also complained that she had heard many voices in France and Germany expressing scepticism about the Ukrainian desire for self-determination, with people asking “why don’t you just settle with the Russians?”. I must admit that I have not heard people express such opinions in Europe, and I certainly don’t share them. Maybe it’s because I’m British, and in the United Kingdom we as a polyglot people are firmly committed to the principle of resisting Russian imperial aggression in Europe just as we have opposed military aggression on the European continent throughout our history. We are perhaps the most vocal supporters of Ukraine and I do not think you will find a single significant political voice in the United Kingdom that harbours any doubts about the justice of supporting the war in Ukraine. So I reassured this lady that the international community fully supports the Ukrainian cause, and I urge every foreigner engaging with Ukraine to repeat my message of overwhelming moral, financial and political support.
I do think there are some foreigners who come here with poor intentions, but I don’t think they are the majority. I think this lady has just been hanging around in ropey bars full of ropey people. Nevertheless war zones - and this is not my first - do attract some strange and unusual people, and if you aren’t careful you can find yourself associating with some undesirables. I urged her to be careful about the people she makes friends with, and to avoid those nasty, dire bars. Also I gently tried to persuade her that not all the foreigners visiting and helping Ukraine might be as educated and cultivated as her. It can come as quite a shock to realise that most people are not as educated, cultured or open-minded as you are; the world is full of rough and ready types and you have to learn to get on with them as best you can nonetheless. That’s actually one of the most important skills involved in working in a war zone.
At the end of the war, the undesirable people who often loiter around in war zones tend to go away. Also, those who are here for ignoble reasons often leave quickly in the second stage of a war, when you reach stalemate and everyone realises that this is a marathon and not a sprint. War is not in fact glamorous and it isn’t just a giant booze-up, even if alcohol abuse is common in war zones to defuse the stress, anxiety and tension of relentless daily immersion in an atmosphere of death, violence, chaos and confusion. Those who stay for longer periods, or who keep coming back, may (but not always) in my experience have higher motives. I do respect this lady’s disappointment in the attitudes of some foreigners coming here, and on behalf of the international community I can only apologise to her and to any other Ukrainians who has suffered a less than impeccable experience on the part of foreigners travelling to Ukraine in wartime.
So far today has been rather busy, notwithstanding the rather glum, freezing cold mood outside. Soldiers have been marching through the city centre. I went off to a military facility out of town today, to look at a secret new project which seems very exciting and that will be needing new volunteers very soon. I can’t tell you about it yet, but it is sure to be the subject of one of my seemingly endless diary entries in the near future. It involved taking some clapped out and knackered buses and marshrutkas (Soviet-era private minibuses) to get there and back, and in the snowy conditions these vehicles chug and thud along the potholed roads of suburban Lviv at the speed of a tortoise. People in huge puffy coats abound on the corner of every dilapidated Soviet-era tower block, and I realised I think for the first time that Lviv is really a very large city: certainly substantially larger since the war began. Rebuilding Soviet-era suburbs to meet European standards of accommodation will be a substantial exercise in Ukraine, as this country progresses towards her inevitable future in the European Union. To my friend from last night, I am sorry once again that she has suffered unpleasant behaviour on the part of some of my foreign colleagues.