Today is my last full day in Ukraine before I leave tomorrow to start the long journey home to see my family and friends for Christmas. It’s a sobering reflection. I have been here since the beginning of September, and there’s no doubt that I have changed. I’ve become “battle hardened”, as they say, or more inured to the daily incidents of living through a war zone and all the peculiarities that involves. I can sense that I’m tired. This seven-day-a-week routine, in which there is never a spare moment in the day to do anything except write these diaries, is starting to exhaust me. I fancy a day or two or three lazing around by the television and drinking mulled wine, or all the things they do back in my home country over Christmas that I’ve forgotten about. I wouldn’t mind buy and giving some presents, or unwrapping them under the Christmas tree. I wouldn’t mind a bit of normality, away from all this craziness and unusual people.
Mano’s Bar was roaring again last night, as the international community celebrates Christmas over lots of liquor. There was much merriment. There’s a Christmas party tonight, one of several, but I don’t know if I’ll go. I am going back to Lviv Opera House today - twice, can you believe that - once to listen to a recital of some violin sonatas and once to see an opera called The Terrible Revenge by Stankovych. I don’t know this latter piece but it sounds suitably gloomy for a nation celebrating Christmas at war. I understand the opera to be based on one of Nikolai Gogol’s stories that I haven’t read although his writing is wonderful of course. I was inspired last night by the most extraordinary performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that brought streams of tears to my eyes with the impassioned patriotism flowing from the orchestra under the direction of a Canadian-Ukrainian conductor whose talent and passion drew an immediate standing ovation. I confess to having had problems following the lyrics of Ode to Joy in Ukrainian but I have trouble following them in the original German.
In more depressing news, a friend last night disappointed me terribly, writing remarks to me sympathetic to the Soviet Union. For me that is the unthinkable for a Ukrainian, because I associate the Soviet Union with the worst excesses of Russian imperialism and there should be no space for Ukrainians now, whose compatriots are fighting for western freedoms, to go around saying what a good thing the Soviet Union used to be. That’s what Vladimir Putin says and what he means is that the Russian Empire ought to be recreated using military force. I am well aware that there is a (very) small minority of Ukrainian people who think that Ukraine would be better off if the Russian invasion were to succeed but I don’t want to be anything to do with them. Ukraine is a free country now and I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to express those sorts of opinion but I certainly don’t want to listen to them.
It remains the fact, as another Ukrainian friend informed me last night, that Ukrainians are dying and suffering to protect western values and freedoms and Ukrainians must embrace those values and freedoms now. There is no way back. You might consider this if you are very cynical as an alternative variety of cultural imperialism - that’s what the Soviet Union used to say of the West. But those intellectuals who remember living in the Soviet Union recall just what a ghastly place it was in terms of suppression of individual liberties. You couldn’t express your political opinions, whether at the ballot box or otherwise. You couldn’t criticise the government. You couldn’t even think what you wanted, because the government controlled and manipulated all the media including both the news and the television. Nobody believed anything they read or watched because they didn’t trust the government and there was no competition for ideas. Now Ukrainians are dying and fighting not just for their homeland but for this anti-imperial vision of a European future in which Ukrainians are free and equal with all the other peoples of Europe and can express precisely those liberties. So I don’t want to hear and nostalgia about the Soviet Union, and that is that.
I’m going to put in another couple of hours of voluntary work in today, and to say goodbye to some people but otherwise I am packing and making all my arrangements to go - and to come back. My emotions are quite a rollercoaster, but I am certainly pleased that I came here because until I arrived and became immersed in this conflict I don’t think I really understood just how important it really is. I understood the human suffering aspect of things from afar, of course; but those acknowledgments have been intensified for me as a result of what I have experienced in the last three and a half months. And I have committed to come back for at least another three months, because I have come to realise not just that there is a huge amount of suffering to be relieved but also because the international community stands in dire need of coordination in order to husband its limited resources effectively; and also because the West needs to hear increasingly clearly and loudly that Ukrainians are fighting and dying for western values. There was a debate amongst much alcohol last night as to whether Ukraine will join NATO but the consensus reached is that of course it will. There is no other option. NATO troops are making contingency plans to enter Ukrainian territory and at some point someone will decide that those contingency plans need to be put into operation. At that point Ukraine will have joined NATO de facto and the Russian Armed Forces will be staring at NATO troops across the River Dnieper. Then - and only then - will this insanity stop and we can start the monumental exercise in reconstructing Ukraine and dragging her decrepit public institutions into the twenty-first century.