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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #363

As I write these words it is just before 5am and I am sitting in the foyer of a most unusual youth hostel in central Zaporizhzhia. My friend and colleague is still sleeping and I have let him rest in our common room while I watch the unusual cacophony of bizarre characters up early in this hostel stride by. Most of them seem to be Ukrainian construction workers. What they are building or why they are staying in a youth hostel designed for backpackers, I can’t say. Nor do I know why they are all up at 4.30am or what essential duties they have that call them off to work at so ungodly an hour. They aren’t a very friendly lot; I can see that from their faces, and from the fact that when I asked not one of them would even give me a tea bag. I satisfied myself with a slice of orange from my bag and watched them as they walk by, each one a ghost in the wind. The faint music blares in the background and the hostel attendant sleeps, fully dressed, on one sofa. I am wrong about the meanness of the workmen; he goes to his room and brings me back a bag of insipid green tea that I gratefully accept and I sup on while I type out these words in this lonely, eery room.

An aggressive elderly type of fellow comes over and demands to see the receptionist. He presumably thinks I work here, because I’m typing on a laptop. The whole environment here, just before dawn, is faintly menacing but there is a sense of work to be done. I see emergency workers in orange jackets get up and go out for their daily duties. I see soldiers with their guns rise and go out in their uniforms. This seems to be a cheap lodging house for all manner of unusual people who are just passing through, all of them Ukrainian except me and my new friend and colleague. Now the elderly man is shaking the receptionist awake aggressively, leaning over him and demanding some things or other from him in Russian. The receptionist rises to attend to him calmly and even nonchalantly. Doors are being slammed.

Zaporizhzhia is a city on the edge of a zone of total war, where buildings are being destroyed every day and rockets are slamming into something or other on a near hourly basis. The wail of air raid sirens is relentless and yet the city retains an unusual calm normality. During the day, people go about their business but soon after dark the streets empty. Restaurants and bars must bring their bills by 9pm and after that time the few people on the street are hurrying home. My colleague and I went out for dinner in a well-known Italian restaurant last night with exquisite food, served right in the middle of a war zone. I smoked a shisha pipe and a sweet smiling girl at the next table bought me a beer. I don’t know quite what she meant by this except perhaps as an expression of good will for my support for Ukraine. Girls took selfies in front of.the sign of the restaurant, which is quite famous in Zaporizhzhia circles; elegant ladies in their best dresses wore high heels and imbibed cocktails of various unfathomable colours in unusually shaped glasses. In short, all seemed just as it ought to be in a Ukrainian provincial city of this kind - except that it wasn’t. You can still buy a fur coat in the local shops and the electrical goods stores and supermarkets are still awash with wares. But the city hall is full of holes from Russian missiles and boarded up and the residents remember the times when cruise missiles would fly down the central street in the early days of the war.

The Russians over-extended themselves in Zaporizhzhia; they tried to seize the city in the early weeks of the war but amidst their botched attempts to throttle Kyiv and Kharkiv they gave this region far too few resources to achieve any quick victory in the Zaporizhzhia region. Although they were able to advance unopposed along the south bank of the Dnieper River towards Kherson through that region’s quite backroads and rural tranquility, they could make no progress in capturing Zaporizhzhia. As became a typical pattern for the Russians, they imagined that the Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities would welcome them with open arms because, in the minds of the tyrannical prevailing Russian nationalist ideology that permeates the Kremlin, Ukrainians are just “confused Russians” and those who are ethnically Russian and speak Russian as their first language are not even confused; they are obviously and overtly Russian.

The Russians were wrong about this, of course; one effect of the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was that it reinforced a sense of common Ukrainian national identity that transcended linguistic and imagined ethnic differences. Although to a discriminating eye it is sometimes possible to distinguish ethnic origins on the basis of appearances or behaviour there has been sufficient family and cultural intermixing in contemporary Ukraine to make such guesses are most haphazard affair. The process of assimilating a singular Ukrainian national identity with the common feature of opposition to Russian nationalism began in 2014 with the Maidan Revolution, President Viktor Yanukovich firing on the protesters and the subsequent annexation of Crimea and parts of Donbas by President Putin. Nevertheless this sense of common identity that overrides linguistic disparities became ever more omnipresent as the subsequent decade rolled on and now it is rare indeed to hear anyone in Ukraine openly express overtly pro-Russian views. There is a handful of traitors, to be sure; but they are very much in the minority.

Hence Zaporizhzhia stands as a shining example of a Russian-speaking city that survived the Russian onslaught and rejected brazenly Russia’s supposition that its population would be naturally inclined towards Russian occupation. The people of Zaporizhzhia found themselves taking up arms to resist the Russian invaders, who became bogged down in a series of trenches just a few kilometres outside the city limits. The explosions on the front line are still visible from the centre of the city; the war is still going on. As I write these words I hear the first air raid siren of the day from my basement of a youth hostel. Nevertheless the people of Zaporizhzhia stand firm and proud.


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