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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #361

My evening out in Kryvyi Rih began a little disagreeably. I walked out across the road from my hotel past the wooden shacks selling pizzas, hot dogs, cappuccinos and other simple fare and I went to what looked to me like a pleasant bar and restaurant in the contemporary Ukrainian style: a series of large rooms where everyone sits a long way from one-another (Ukrainians don’t like to socialise with strangers, save in a few unusual haunts in Lviv where foreigners hang out) and people ordered bottles of vodka and the like. And I sat at one of these tables. And I tried to buy some ice cold beer. And the lady kept offering me zero-alcohol Stella Artois. This started to upset me after a while, so after about five minutes she pulled out her telephone and wrote in words that came up in English “you are in the military”. I replied to her “I am not in the military” and I even showed her my passport and my civilian volunteer residency card, but she would not be persuaded. For her the issue of course was not whether I was in the military, but rather that I was wearing clothing which suggested that I might be in the military.

Which was a fair point. The main issue was my warm trousers, which are in green camouflage fatigue and are perfect for the icy evenings out in front line destinations. They also give you a certain credibility at military checkpoints, causing you to be waived through without questions or complications. But in a bar in Kryvyi Rih, which is one of the cities close to the front line where alcohol is available, they are concerned about the Military Police. There is a culture of suspicion and fear when it comes to the Police in Ukraine; no interaction is wanted with them whatsoever. The lady imagined that she would get in trouble for selling me alcohol because I was wearing camouflage coloured trousers, rather than my getting in trouble or - what would actually happen if the Police came into the bar - I would just show them my passport and paperwork and then they would leave us all alone. But that isn’t the way Ukrainians think in their post-Soviet paranoia. They imagine that the Police will start bearing or detaining people on pretexts, or that bribes will have to be paid. So it did not matter what quantity of paperwork I brandished or what explanations I gave; she was afraid of the Police and I had to go back to my hotel and change into clothes that looked more “civilian”.

Now I must warn you that none of my clothes that I brought with me here to Kryvyi Rih look particularly civilian. My flak jacket and plate carrier, with two heavy lead plates inside it, certainly doesn’t look particularly civilian. Neither does my steel helmet. All my jackets are brandished with various patches with insignia of flags and even one of my t-shirts is in camouflage design green and black. So I walked back over the road, past all the stray woofing dogs and the decrepit trams and all the rest, to my hotel that was mercifully close to the location I had chosen, and I surveyed my wardrobe and I wondered what to wear. Eventually I went for some black military trousers with a brown military jacket with all the flag patches torn off it except for one which has a women with a thong bikini bottom poll dancing round an assault rifle. (It was a joke flag patch from Kramatorsk.) This was as “non-military” as my wardrobe extended, and then I tramped back again across the road past all the woof-woof-woof and I tried my chances once again.

I sat at one of these isolated tables designed to ensure that you aren’t able to talk to anyone else, and I summoned the bartender who this time miraculously smiled. I told him I wanted some very strong alcoholic beer and he said “yes”. He asked me whether I wanted anything else too and I said “yes; some vodka”. And then when he brought them a certain paranoia enveloped me: what if he was still bringing me non-alcoholic beer and non-alcoholic vodka? The vodka didn’t taste quite right. (That’s probably because it was moonshine.) So I had to “repeat” several times just to make sure that these liquids were actually getting me intoxicated.

I had something to eat. I drew up a new one-page CV - something I haven’t done for a while but my friend who is a recruitment consultant insisted upon because he doesn’t want me joining the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Let’s just say it is a very unusual document, with two photographs: one of me wearing a suit, and the other of my wearing a steel helmet in Kherson. I went back to the hotel to type it all up and send it to him, and miraculously he said it was fine. I thought I was no good at writing those sorts of things. Then I went back to the bar for a third time, and I tried to sit on a bar stool that had mysteriously emerged, at the bar, to try to be a bit more sociable given that I was dining on my own. Ukrainians seldom do this, again except in crazy Lviv; they are actually highly introverted people and if they are on their own they tend just to sit in their rooms and drink vodka rather than go out and be in the presence of other people. I find this aspect of the Ukrainian national personality - introversion - quite unusual and I put it down to a combination of the cold weather and Soviet-era paranoia about being seen with people you don’t know intimately in public places, lest someone might inform on you. It’s a trait only breaking down now and again principally in Lviv, where there are so many internally displaced people and foreigners and they want to make new friends so they go to bars to meet one-another as they lack any other social space or family or social connections to do so.

I find it quite liberating actually, to see  Ukrainians start to act in more western ways and to unbuckle their warmth and social natures that are hidden under those frosty exteriors, even if it tends to take alcohol to get them to do so.

Nevertheless I was moved on from the bar and told to go and sit on my own at a vast empty table again, which I figured was my cue to leave. So I tramped back home across the street amidst the dogs and the derelict trams, and I found myself in bed and asleep by 9pm. Then I woke up at 3am; the sleeping pills aren’t working anymore; they never do after a while. I’m back in the front line rhythm, which involves tedious evenings and deathly early morning starts. Now I’m waiting for my ride to Kherson, which will likewise show up at some deathly early morning hour. Welcome back to life on the front line.


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