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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #330

Last night I went out for a quiet drink with a charming young lady in Kharkiv I had met before only for five minutes in the street in Lviv back in early September 2023 outside the Sacher-Masoch cafe when she was recommending I go in for a good whipping. Yesterday afternoon she messaged me said she had a headache so she couldn’t stay long as her boyfriend was waiting for her at home. We met in one of Kharkiv’s most upscale establishments, and then we decided to have a quiet drink. Between us, over the next four hours, we drank three beers; three strong cocktails; two double vodkas and four bottles of red wine. We also ate four meals. I have no recollection of getting home but I suppose this is what the Ukrainians call a “quiet night out”.

By some miracle, I woke up entirely without a hangover at 5am to take my train out of Kharkiv to Kyiv. The hotel attendant had finally worked out how to make the card reader in her hotel work although I have no recollection of paying her and no recollection of how much it cost. When I woke this morning, feeling curiously refreshed (perhaps I just needed this sort of thing as a break from the stress of daily wartime existence - and so did she), my hotel proprietor was chain smoking on the doorstep: a dangerous habit in a war zone at dawn, because the heat or light from a cigarette might attract a reconnaissance drone or incoming ordnance. The taxi I don’t remember ordering last night was amazingly ready and even early, and I cheerily bumped off to the railway station along Kharkiv’s potholed roads and boarded a train that actually looks like it might be appropriate for the twenty-first century (although only just).

The security guards in the railway station, who x-ray and search all luggage entering Kharkiv station, were entirely nonchalant about the fact that I had Grade IV body armour in my luggage including two giant lead plates and a steel helmet. So I passed security without incident and I enjoyed a light cup of coffee in the station cafeteria, the coffee being served up by a boisterous aggressive woman shouting at everyone in Russian. The station and platform were lined by police officers wearing flak jackets (not my superior form of body armour) and carrying AK-47 assault rifles with old-fashioned wooden stocks and wearing balaclava masks. The station was also patrolled by men in paramilitary uniforms carrying four-foot wooden sticks to beat any itinerant passengers. So everything was perfectly normal so far. All these things are just normal daily routine in wartime Ukraine.

The lady in question is certainly one of the more refined and educated Ukrainians I have had the privilege to meet in Ukraine since I arrived. She works in IT as a software developer and manager for a foreign company. She explained to me that after the initial Russian shelling of Kharkiv began in late February and early March 2022, she and her family fled as internally displaced persons to a village outside Kremenchuk, an industrial city based about an oil refinery west of Dnipro in central Ukraine. They were bored stiff there, but they returned to Kharkiv once it became apparent that the Russians had called off their invasion of the city. Some of their friends returned, while others didn’t. She was in the uniquely privileged position of maintaining a decent income because she worked online as a software developer for major American corporate clients. But for her revenue stream, her family would have become impoverished. Now she helps her father, who works in the military, rebuild damaged and broken vehicles. Ukrainians are remarkably resourceful when it comes to keeping older vehicles, that have taken a hammering on Ukrainian roads, running somehow or other.

Her father, a serving military officer, is convinced that the Russians will not reinvade Kharkiv - or at least he breezily dismisses it. But she is not so sure. She perceives that Kharkiv is left mostly undefended, and its proximity to the Russian border renders it a constant target for Russian Neo-imperialist fantasies and ambitions, as does its predominantly Russian-speaking population. Of all the cities in Ukraine, Kharkiv is that most likely to be seen by Russia as legitimately falling within her sphere of influence and hence ripe for occupation. The people of Kharkiv don’t see it that way, of course, but they are just confused, according to the Russian mindset. In the interim my friend regaled me with stories of how in the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine, the authorities have abandoned even use of computers and the internet and public records are now kept on paper and using typewriters. Russian-occupied Ukraine is tantamount to reverting to the early 1990’s in technological terms, she glumly surmised.

We had a discussion about the prospects of reunification of free Ukraine and the regions occupied by Russia. She expressed a view no doubt unpopular amongst many Ukrainians but hard-headedly realistic: that it would now be virtually impossible to reintegrate those areas into Ukraine, in particular the regions occupied by Russia for the last decade, because all the sane people in those regions have left and only those fixated with a Russian ideological mindset remain. To introduce those people now into contemporary Ukrainian ideological thinking, based around concepts of liberty and assimilation to the European democratic polity, would be so onerous and financially costly a task as to be virtually impossible. Indeed reintegration could hold back the development of the rest of Ukraine. So in my new friend’s view, the partition is permanent and not just for military-geographical reasons but for cultural and ideological ones as well. Free Ukraine has moved on, whereas Russian-occupied Ukraine has moved backwards. The gulf between the two is greater than ever.

With those harsh and unwelcome thoughts heavily on my mind I sit on this super-fast, high speed western European train bolting like a javelin from Kharkiv to Kyiv. Such a train represents the Ukraine of the future, with its glossy television advertisements in the carriages, its wide comfortable seats and its European-style buffet car. The catastrophic situation in Russian-occupied Ukraine represents the Ukraine of the past, and as the mostly elderly people who remain living in those regions die out I anticipate that Russia will have produced in her occupation of Ukraine nothing but a wasteland.


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