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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #293

Yesterday represented a festival of musical exuberance of a kind I have never before experienced in my life. It began at Midday with an opera called Natalka Poltavka, which is the operatic dramatisation of a nineteenth century Ukrainian play. There is very little Ukrainian literature from prior to the contemporary era. For much of Ukraine’s history its predominantly agricultural population were largely illiterate, and in repeated purges of the Ukrainian language starting at least as far back as the seventeenth century the use of Ukrainian within the Russian Empire could result in severe punishments. As a result the remnants of written Ukrainian from the pre-twentieth century era are few and far between, and the Ukrainian language was likewise discouraged in Stalin’s Russia. It was only briefly after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the collapse of the Russian Empire, in 1917, and the emergence of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic and West Ukrainian People’s Republic, that Ukrainian language became widespread. In the Lviv region comprising Ukrainian territories in the period of the Second Polish Republic between the twentieth century’s two World Wars, Ukrainian was frowned upon and people were encouraged to speak Polish. In Stalin’s Soviet Union you were meant to speak Russian. It was only in the 1960’s, after the accession to the Soviet premiership of Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian from the Donbas region, that the restrictions on writing in Ukrainian were lifted; it was only after Ukrainian independence in 1991 that the language truly blossomed in its written form.

Therefore it was a delight to watch an opera sung in Ukrainian and fashioned from older Ukrainian poetry. The theme was of the joys of rural life in Ukraine, and the opera was full of people falling in love and splendid arias. It was an extraordinary set of themes to behold. It was in many ways an opera for children, but it displayed nonetheless the beauty and fantasy of opera nonetheless and I hope the tradition of fine opera, prevalent in opera houses across Ukraine even in the midst of war, remains notwithstanding the inevitable cultural assimilation of Ukraine into western television and media and all these other stupid things that dumb us down in the West.

The next show on the road, also at the Opera House, was a rendition of Puccini with a superlative pianist on a Steinway and a wonderful operatic singer who brought the house down and amazed us all. She bewitched the audience for an hour and we were entranced by her exceptional talent. I have never seen an audience more enthusiastically rise to its feet so rapidly. She received one bouquet of flowers after another from different members of the audience and she was absolutely extraordinary. I wonder who she was. The tickets were relatively expensive by Ukrainian standards and she must have been well-known. She is an extraordinary singer that will just have to remain lost within my dreams.

I took a lightning quick break from the music to do a piece of work, and then I returned at 5pm for the third episode in this extraordinary day. It was a piece with the title Don Quixote, and I thought it was the well-known early twentieth century French opera of that name; but I hadn’t read the small print. Instead it was the nineteenth century Russian ballet of the same name, which was quite different. This famous piece in the former Soviet Union, not much known outside and in the West, is remarkable in its own way for the energy required of the dancers and performers and the extravagance of its cast. However it wasn’t quite what I was expecting even though it was splendiferous in its own way. I think by this time I was tiring, and although the music was mesmerising I had already sat through two renditions of Ukraine’s National Anthem - one at 12 Midday and one at 5pm - and I departed my front central seat in the Stalls three quarters of the way through, discreetly in a break before the final act in this marathon of a ballet, in order to listen to an entirely different type of music.

I walked over to Mano’s Bar, to see an enthusiastic group of young musicians, exhilarating in their own way, sing Ukrainian ballads with electric guitars and extraordinary voices. All these things can be achieved in the corner of a tiny bar, and on Sunday evenings this particular location is booming with a youthful crowd coming out to support their own musicians. There was emotion, there was a jam session, there was crying and laughter. I always pay a little more at these exceptional Sunday evening events, because I want to support the local musicians and the youngsters who are doing their best to feel normal and maintain their youth despite the horrendous war that is going on outside.

And now it is back to that horrendous war that I must go. There is fighting on, and things are bleak and dark out east. The front line isn’t moving; it hasn’t really done that for over a year. However people are dying, and I must go to investigate what is going on and report something back to the world. I don’t know what I’m going to find this time, and I am filled with an element of trepidation because I hear that in the last weeks people are getting desperate. I’ve acquired a top-grade military medical kit, the so-called IFAK, and I think I’m ready. Exactly how it’ll work out, I don’t know - you never do. Extraordinarily, I have tickets booked for the opera in Dnipro for all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, so enthused am I by the prospect of still more wonderful classical music. Whether I’ll get to any or all of those performances, who’s to say; I purchased the tickets in a rush of exuberance and the thrill of all this wonderful music. But the grim realities of war, uncertainty, anxiety and hell on earth that is trench based conflict now await, and in the intervening period between now and Friday anything could go wrong.


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