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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #349



I attended my first event at the Lviv Philharmonic Orchestra last night, an Elysian array of flute concertos played by a distinguished and talented soloist. Even amidst the nightmares of war outside the front door, with government buildings having their basement windows sandbagged to serve as impromptu air raid shelters, a semblance of cultural normality was able to continue within the gilded hall of the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra, an institution that before the war undertook tours across Europe and the world. Last night they were out with all their pride and pomposity, but unfortunately the room was at best one-quarter full. War has taken its toll upon the number of casual visitors to classical music events, and of course tourists, who ordinarily would form a significant part of the audience of so distinguished a chamber orchestra, have dropped off completely. Hence while the music was delightful, and I was uplifted by entrancing melodies of J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach and other composers with whose work I was not so familiar with, when I turned round from my front row seat to see the standing ovation customary at all such events it was a sad affair, with just a few handfuls of enthusiasts dotted around the hall notwithstanding the outrageously cheap price of the tickets.



I think war has caused people to lose interest in the fine arts, which is perhaps to be expected but it remains intensely sad as Ukraine has traditionally been one of Europe’s (relatively unknown) centres of excellence in this regard. Every city has an opera house and an orchestra, often of the highest international standards, and it has proven a popular form of entertainment. Even now the Lviv Opera House keeps nightly performances of three times a week, and the Philharmonic Hall still more so - it seems to have an event virtually every night. Nevertheless there is a tinge of the solemn and tragic in seeing such fine performers play to such desolate and decimated audiences. We are reminded of all those young and old men not occupying the seats with their wives and girlfriends in the Philharmonic Hall as these men go off to the front to die and their women stay home wondering what to do to pass the time.


Lviv has developed an increasing problem with aggressive military alcoholics. These men, typically scarred from battle injuries and with psychiatric problems to accompany them, are discharged after treatment in military hospitals in Lviv, after having been injured on the front line. They are then given rest periods before returning to the front; but they have severe psychiatric problems so they roam the street at day and at night drinking vodka, mumbling to themselves and aggressively interjecting themselves in your daily business. A couple of them have taken to hanging around outside the small supermarket beneath my apartment, and they can be seen more or less at all hours when the shop is allowed to sell alcohol: that is to say, from 12pm until 9pm. They mumble and grunt “Slava Ukraini at me and they seek to engage me in conversation or bear hugs. The way this works if you accept their interactions is you find yourself swigging vodka from a bottle at half past three in the afternoon in the street and then by seven in the evening you will by lying in a gutter comatose, or dealt with by the Police.


The same problem exists in bars, as these aggressive men, still with some money left from their elevated salaries while serving on the front line (that nevertheless drops off dramatically when they are injured and must return to the relative safety of a Lviv military hospital), crawl around pubs and bars in Lviv - at least, those that will accept them that are increasingly few. They then seek to engage anyone they can in the worst sort of aggressive, drunken conversation, offering to buy strangers drinks and wanting to grunt at them about the war. These people have psychiatric injury, of course, and they are self-medicating their own traumas from the nightmares they have been through. Nevertheless they are coarse, rough, unwashed and potentially violent, and the best course of action is always to ignore them. I tried to explain this to my new friend last night, who understands these problems because her husband and father are in the military and her father has been injured (thankfully not gravely) out in Avdiivka. So she knows the challenges and tribulations of dealing with these disturbed military folk.


In happier news, the military kitchen where I work is now awash with volunteers - so many that we can hardly find space for them all. To the large group of old aged pensioners have now been added members of a ladies’ college, all of whom come in and sing uplifting songs while we do our work. We laughed and swayed in there yesterday afternoon, all of us jammed together like sardines chopping and peeling carrots and potatoes and liberally swearing and cussing and smiling and joking as we did so. This military kitchen is becoming a victim of its own success and I am proud to put in just a few hours each day that I am in Lviv, between my other duties, as a form of manual labour to clear the mind of all the other things I am doing now in Ukraine. I lurch from boredom to excitement and back again, never quite knowing what’s coming next in each crazy day. Between classical music, violent drunk soldiers in bars, chopping up vegetables, writing and editing a newspaper and running a trust fund, I never quite know what’s coming next. I try to find time to relax for a bit, and then I suddenly start thinking about my upcoming trip to the front line and all the things I haven’t done to prepare for it. My mind is agog with swirling, whirling thoughts and for now at least, I think, I’m loving every minute of it. I have my bad days, but this certainly beats the office nine-til-five.



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