Today I decided no: I am not going to wallow in misery on a Sunday and feel bad and depressed about everything which is the usual gloomy mood when everyone talks about Ukraine now. Instead there are soldiers out there fighting and starving and dying and I am going to do my bit, at least a bit, even on a Sunday. So I pulled myself together and off I went to work. Where I work is a 365 day a year operation, because wars don’t have days off. We all have to keep going. We can’t sit there and stare gloomily into our vodka glasses and drown our sorrows along with the weekend drunks freezing to death on the streets of icy Saigon. This is war and it is hard work and we must all keep going. So off I went and I got on with my daily duties and my usual routine.
Life is just a perpetual circle of tedium, misery, anxiety and despair, with occasional moments of happiness inflected, so why not spend it fighting for the most just and important cause in modern times which is resisting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Still, thing are getting slow as the temperature gets colder and as we edge ever closer to Christmas. The working hours of everything except Lviv Croissant, which is reliably open seven days a week from 5am to Midnight, gradually become ever shorter just because marching round the city amidst all this snow and ice is exhausting and we are all just moving about with the sole purpose of surviving. I am contemplating popping to the shops for some groceries and to the pharmacy for some medications. I’m wondering whether I’ll be able to make my train to Vinnytsia tomorrow. Everything is kind of slowing down, and I’m obsessed with the idea that I’m getting fat because it’s hard to exercise in this kind of weather but it’s not hard to eat and drink heartily. In fact that’s all there is to do, plus of course to sit here in the warm confines of my old-fashioned apartment in Old Town Saigon and write these diaries.
My mind is wondering all over the place. Will I find love and romance here in icy Saigon? I haven’t done so far but I haven’t really been looking. As you get older you get ever fussier and demanding and so do your potential mates. But I’ve made lots of friends from all over the world as they pass in and out of this fascinating and unusual city, and I relish the moments of pleasure these new people in my life have given me. I’m also pleased by how I have managed to stay out of the greater majority of internecine infighting in the NGO community, which initially came as a shock to me. Stay polite to everyone in public, and exercise your frustrations or concerns only in private. Stand up to bullies and bent people when you need to, and bask in the genuine appreciation of the Ukrainian people for the fact that you are here.
It’s rather an open-ended sort of existence, fighting a war that you have no idea how long is going to last, and I never thought I would get pulled in as deep as I have, arguing daily in these diaries about the importance of continued western support for the war and trying to explain to people outside Ukraine what life is really like in wartime Ukraine and what the appalling conditions on the front line are really like. I suppose I have become a propagandist for Ukraine, trying to speak to all people, those in positions of power and influence and also just normal people in Ukraine and abroad, of the importance of fighting and winning this war and not in just reaching some grubby compromise with Vladimir Putin and the band of militarised criminals that surround him. That is no good for anyone and it will be unsustainable. We tried this last time in 2014 and it didn’t work - Russia just went quiet for a bit and then prepared herself for another invasion to try again.
The Russian empire is something that must be relentlessly managed and actually it must be gradually subsumed into the European system of political values. Only then can the temptation on the part of Moscow to engage in international military adventurism as a tool of diverting domestic attention from the country’s internal failures of governance is diffused. Russia has always been an ungovernable enormous landmass that defies easy government due to her abhorrent infrastructure and low population density. We’ve been achieving our goals slowly. In the Caucasus reforms are underway in all of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, in each case at different speeds but there has been progress of a kind in all three. In what was once known as Soviet Central Asia there has been limited to moderate progress in a number of countries. Things are changing slowly. Very sadly, Russia has lost many or even most of the members of her liberal and intellectual classes as they have fled totalitarian modern Russia amidst tyrannical oppression of free speech and political dissent, and all political pluralism has been extinguished. The horrors of the draft have not escaped Russia’s educated classes either, and so many of the clever people Russia needs to rebuild her institutions after the end of this period of totalitarian rule have fled the country and will be most unwilling to go back.
The second Cold War, that will therefore emerge after the conclusion of this hot war - and this war must be brought to a satisfactory, not a fudged or compromised or messy conclusion - will be an exercising in managing Russia and restructuring her government and her infrastructure to conform to international norms. It is an enormous exercise in international development that the world has never previously come to terms with, but it is necessary and essential. The project of managing the second Cold War will take place over many decades to come, and we must not lose sight of our long-term strategic objectives. For now, we need to win this war and we need to do so decisively.
I have to go to work. There are vegetables to peel and chop, bags of potatoes to be carried, fellow volunteers whose morale and spirits need to be lifted, and I must endure the icy cold for some time at least. I commit myself to doing at least some physical work every day. It is morally uplifting and it makes me feel better about my expanding waistline. Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go.