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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #333

Your body clock in war zones manages to go completely awry. I woke up at 1.30am this morning, which wasn’t terribly convenient. I was so exhausted yesterday that I slept from 4.30pm to 6.30pm, woke up, had dinner, and then I was in bed again by 8.30pm and then up at 1.30am. Then I sat up answer emails and writing. This is the sort, waiting for the curfew to break for my crack-of-dawn train back to Lviv at 6.20am. The worst thing about all this is that I don’t have a kettle in my hotel room, so I can’t make myself any coffee. I just have to sit here and stare out of a blank empty hotel room. Now there’s coffee in the station, which is next door and is open all night, full of all these grimy soldier types and the great unwashed passing through on trains that have a horrible habit of arriving and leaving at the most ungodly hours. Nevertheless the three-minute walk to the railway station would be a breach of curfew and it’s virtually inevitable that I would be stopped by the Police as Kyiv railway station must be the most policed place in Europe. There are literally hundreds of heavily armed Police officers in the environs 24 hours a day. In fact the only people I am likely to bump into are the Police. So right now it, is’t not even 4am and I am just waiting, staring, solemnly gazing at nothing out of my window although I can see an occasional long-distance train drift in and out of the railway station like a silent ghost.

Kyiv used to be a vibrant, throbbing 24-hour cities with nightclubs open well past dawn and people swilling across the streets all night. Now I hardly recognise the place. It feels cold, empty, shabby and miserable, like an old lady sitting on her own in a cold empty living room at night waiting for her husband to return home who died 20 years ago. It’s all so incredibly sad to see a metropolis that I once knew as so vibrant and exciting reduced to this. Kyiv’s moneyed classes, made wealthy off the back of corrupt Russian deals with Ukraine, have fled to the Swiss Alps or wherever they have gone, and they have left the poor and ordinary folk behind. There are empty Christmas decorations still flashing mindlessly along the high street from a couple of months ago, but the city is stripped of its former glamour amidst the daily toils of war. My mind wanders, contemplating how many others are having sleepless nights right now, like me, thinking of things to do with war also waiting for curfew to break so they can catch one of these insanely early trains. I feel somehow lonely, stuck in this isolated and sanitised hotel room; I want people around me, even if it’s those rough and burly soldiers with their unkempt personal hygiene habits and a groggy gaggle of beggars spotting the foreigner (although we have become a lot more common in Kyiv during the war) and scrabbling towards us to sell us trinkets or seek our loose change.

Even the long cleansed corridors of this antiseptic palace somehow repulse me. The hotel is never full but it is never empty either. It is one of those soulless hotels in which you see people rushing to and from the door to the elevators, whereupon they disappear up into their rooms with no desire to interact with anybody. The staff always say the minimum; they are trained in western ways but they retreat into their gloomy introversion and they are no solace for me in my insomniance. I would rather be standing on the achingly cold platform with my giant military rucksack, packed with body armour that proved quite unnecessary to travel to Kharkiv, then waiting in this empty pocket of space for nothing to happen other than for the clock to be ticking past. This hotel is a place with one purpose only: to wait, to pass the time, until your train departs. Its location, amidst the grot and crooked taxi drivers and tacky food stalls, in one of the less pleasant parts of town, has nothing to commend it. You’re only here for the railways.

Kyiv railway station is a monstrous, even frightening place, an example of Soviet brutalist architecture masquerading as art deco socialist realism. It is awash with images of the workers pressing forward with their agricultural and industrial labours - while doing something with trains, and it contains a series of gaudy images of Kyiv’s principal tourist attractions. Kyiv is a huge city and its centre is not compact at all, engendering long walks in cold weather, particularly in the winter. It is hilly too, but the Kyiv I remember was one of beautiful girls and funky bars, riding around the centre in taxis on alcohol-fuelled evenings out that could be any night of the week. While Ukraine remained corrupt and impoverished in its post-independence period, Kyiv underwent a renaissance of sorts that it had never previously experienced in its history. A class of wealthy young socialites in the financial services emerged, and virtually all their revenue was Russian. Multiple daily flights would take commuters along the air corridor between Kyiv and Moscow, where these elites would serve their Russian clients in their Ukrainian investments. Kyiv had an air of decadent anarchy to it, and it was fun.

Now all this is gone. Kyiv is empty since more, as though returning to its days of World War II occupation or its dark emptiness during the Soviet era when the city was largely neglected in favour of Kharkiv and the Donbas industrial heartlands of Ukraine. Who knows how many people have fled this town, that once amounted to more than 3.5 million people; I wonder whether the city’s former metropolitan glamour is gone forever, or can somehow be restored as Ukrainian culture undergoes a new term of unprecedented vibrancy in a post-war period. These are all questions for a future generation of young Ukrainian politicians and citizens to decide, in a new Ukraine, truly independent of the Russian net, a proper democracy and genuinely free. These are the future hopes for which we are fighting today.


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