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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #344

Today I took the day off; it has been my first, really, since returning to military theatre about six weeks ago. I intentionally stayed out of the way of people, because I could feel those inexplicable waves of tiredness overcoming me that are characteristic of living in a war zone. When you find yourself falling asleep in the middle of the day without explanation, it is a pretty good sign you are burned out. I like to imagine I have a relentless energy, and in a sense I do; but it has its limits and although I can work seven day a week starting each morning at 7am with something or other I know when I am becoming exhausted. So I didn’t even leave my apartment until 2pm, and then only to do some errands.

The weather outside was suitably miserable, alternating between the depths of bone-shaking cold and torrential rain. Grey hooded figures clambered for shelter under the gigantic awnings of the Lviv Opera House, as storm followed thunder and the grey cobbled streets were awash with miniature rivers and plinking sounds on rusting old Soviet-era drainpipes. An elderly lady was perched in the doorway to my building, trying to sell something or other and apologising profusely at the indignity of having to sell her wares while jamming my doorstep. I told her as best as I could in my cracked Ukrainian not to worry about it. One of the groups of victims of this terrible war is old aged pensioners, who have seen prices rise and social security benefits fall away at the same time as their Soviet-period state pensions have remained miniscule. Pensions in Ukraine can be as little at US$70 a month and although Ukraine might be cheap, it is not so cheap that you can afford to live on barely US$2 a day. Ukraine is slightly cheaper than Poland, to give you a sense of perspective. I just bought a good pair of Ukrainian-made trousers for slightly less than 40 Euros. They are in a dark black figure-hugging fighting style, simultaneously waterproof, so the sort of thing that goes with my mysterious KGB black jacket. I am an exercise now in black sinisterism.

The aged in Ukraine are suffering terribly as a result of this conflict and it is as though they are expected just to stay home and die quietly in silent misery rather than to project themselves as a political force who have rights too. The elderly have nothing to do with the war; they cannot fight; so they feel at a loose end. One of the most admirable things about the military kitchen where I am usually employed daily is that they have recruited these otherwise idle old aged pensioners and turned them into volunteers preparing food. The military kitchen comes to serve as a social club for the aged, and they bring a joy and frivolity to this their only communal space because wartime Ukraine has no facilities for the elderly otherwise get together. It was always thus: the Soviet Union was a place where you were expected to die early once you had come to the end of your natural useful productive life, and investment in medical facilities to keep people alive until older ages was scant. On the contrary, the elderly were sometimes murdered quietly by the Soviet healthcare system, as a waste of resources to wider society. Hospitals became centres for involuntary euthanasia in the Soviet Union, and doctors and nurses became mass murderers.

The elderly have not very successfully adapted to the anarcho-capitalism of post-independence Ukraine; they were not natural entrepreneurs and as the entire Soviet system that they had grown up with collapsed about them they did not fare well in a new social system in which you were expected to steal as much money as possible and then spend it as quickly as possible before someone else stole it back from you. The elderly did not understand what had happened to what they perceived as a more gentle society in which your basic needs would be taken care of by the state, and they were beyond the point where they could learn to be entrepreneurs. So they were left behind; their pensions stagnated and their value did not increase in accordance with inflation; and they became a disenfranchised, forgotten underclass of the impoverished who had no voice in Ukraine’s political system because its democracy was (and remains) so dysfunctional.

These tragic circumstances have been accentuated and augmented by the onset of war, as the entire economy is swung in a single direction namely to support the soldiers in their relentless struggle against the Russian invaders. There really is no valuable economic activity left in Ukraine which is not directed towards military victory. The only shops that sell things or have customers are military ones; soldiers are by far the best paid people in the country, and the only ones with money; shops selling presents for soldiers’ girlfriends, including the colossal number of outlets selling sex toys, are the only consumer business in existence. Buying normal clothes is extremely limited; buying clothes suitable for combat operations is something available around every corner. In this stream of war mania in the economy, groups such as the elderly are forgotten all about and they just go about their lives quietly, almost fading into the background, trying to sell their trinkets from their houses on street corners in the grey rain to supplement their modest incomes.

Another of my chores today was to obtain a notarised and translated copy of my passport. It turns out that the process with my residence is not yet completed; I have to go to the town hall with a Ukrainian citizen who signs a piece of paper confirming that (s)he owns the property where I sign to say I am staying. This preposterous formality seems entirely vacuous because neither the owner has to own the stated building nor does the resident actually have to be living there. Everyone just has to sign a piece of paper saying this, and for these purposes you need a notarised passport translation (again). Otherwise you can’t get a tax number and who knows what the consequences of not having one of those is. (I highly suspect that the answer is nothing; but I am going through the process just in case.) After some negotiation and discussion with the notary’s office about the price of preparing this unnecessary administrative document, I received a  message on their phone informing me that the notary was undertaking this service without charge. There was no explanation, but I know the Ukrainian way and it was their small way of expressing their appreciation for my service to their country. When I returned to collect the paper, nobody said anything; nobody smiled; nobody greeted me; that is not the Ukrainian way. They just gave me the paperwork without my paying the fee. This small favour illustrates to me the warmheartedness of the Ukrainian people underneath the occasionally glum and stoney exterior, and it warms my heart to know that these are people worth fighting for. Slava Ukraini.


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