Fragments from a War Diary, Part #57
The epic writer Leo Tolstoy, who was a vocal pacifist and exerted a significant influence on several Ukrainian authors, and who spent some time living in Crimea which is lawfully part of Ukraine, was well known for extolling the virtues of manual labour as an antidote and complement to intellectual and scholarly work. For Tolstoy, it was essential for an intellectual to do both. Undertaking manual labour clears the mind of its endless torrents of thought and ideas, and enables a person to focus upon the straightforward tasks that both permit one to live from day to day and also form the foundation of agricultural and industrial productivity that raises humans to a level beyond subsistence living.
Regular experience of manual labour also removes from a person a certain snootiness that may persist if one’s professional pursuits exclusively occupy the attention of the mind. The idea that one is of a higher social class, or more worthy, if one earns one’s living through reading, writing, speaking and listening, rather than through use of the body and the muscles, is pervasive throughout virtually all societies but fundamentally misconceived. For without manual labour on the part of others, none of us would have sufficient free time to use or minds for the purposes of thinking. Therefore all scholars and intellectuals, and other people who would imagine that their contribution to society depends upon their thought and their mental output, would do well to remember that they are beholden to those whose manual labour frees them up to focus upon intellectual pursuits. In Tolstoy’s words:
I never believe in the sincerity of the philosophical and moral principles of a man who compels a servant girl to wait on him.
Over the last weeks, living in wartime Ukraine, I have become acquainted first hand with Tolstoy’s reflections upon the subject of manual labour. Virtually every day of my life in Ukraine has involved moderate to strenuous manual labour for several hours a day. The tasks I have performed include lifting dough out of giant mixing machines; chopping dough up into large chunks; taking frozen food out of cardboard boxes; unwrapping foods; serving people standing in line; lifting heavy tables around; lifting huge sacks of rice and other items; lifting large plastic bags full of heavy items; shifting around pallets of medicines and cleaning products; performing basic security duties; helping people in and out of heavy goods vehicles; and so on and so forth. All these tasks might be imagined beneath a person; but somebody has to do them, and in times of war everyone is equal and social barriers break down. Your priorities living through war are to keep yourself alive and well and to keep others alive and well. To achieve these goals you do not necessarily have to be a huge intellectual; you just have to be able to perform straightforward tasks, often under pressure of time or fear for your welfare or that of others, quickly and efficiently.
My experiences in delivering aid and non-lethal assistance so far during my time in Ukraine have been exceptional life lessons. I have never had a career involving manual labour, but I have relished undertaking hard physical work in the context of a wartime environment. I pride myself in being calm and effective under pressure, and therefore when labour is required because there are many people to feed or to care for I am very pleased to chip in and to do my bit. Each task in a production line of feeding or caring for people in a war zone is straightforward, and you learn the task fairly quickly with the kind guidance of your colleagues and then the goal is to be able to repeat what you do as quickly as possible to achieve the tasks established for the day. Today I discussed with a colleague how many smooth dough balls we could fashion with our hands each minute. We reached a consensus of about four. It was a cheery, pleasant conversation with a kind and decent man, and I appreciated it.
Undertaking these straightforward tasks, outside the constant interruptions of mobile phones pinging and ringing, and without being perched awkwardly over a desk with a telephone to one’s side and a glaring screen wearing away at one’s eyesight is a pleasing relief for me. The environment may be unusual; working in conflict zones is always full of unusual and extraordinary things. Being flexible and able to deal with unexpected events is a key skill to any sort of work in a war zone. Being calm and patient is also important, because things are unlikely to go each day as you might imagine them. It is refreshing to be working in such an environment. Also, because a lot of manual labour is repetitive, it brings a certain sort of relief from intellectual torment which Tolstoy anticipated when he said:
You ask me why manual labor presents itself to us as one of the unavoidable conditions of true happiness. Is it necessary voluntarily to deprive ourselves of intellectual activity in the domain of science and art, which seems to us incompatible with manual labour?
Working with the body and the muscles allows the mind to wonder and reflect, free from the intellectual irritations of daily life that so plague the mind in what we call advanced or civilised society. For me it is the time when I think about my experiences of the war in Ukraine that buffet me each day, and it is the period when I find the inspiration that leads me to write these diary entries.
I have now been working on or close to the front line for some six weeks. I have seen all hell incarnate in those six weeks; this is what it is like to work on the front line in a war. I have also had, and I continue to enjoy, the privilege of working with some of the finest people I have ever met. My work has been manual, but it is of no lesser value for that: this is precisely what is needed to help people stricken by the incidents of war. Also it has freed my mind, much as Tolstoy envisaged, to help me write these words and others. Long may that continue.
I have the possibility to return to the relative calm of Lviv, to pursue an administrative role assisting with civilian support for the war effort, that might fit my particular skill set. Without doubt I will travel to Lviv and meet the people involved, as they seem to be of extremely generous spirit and with the kindest of hearts. I imagine I will go soon; but the travel will entail a break from my daily grind of manual labour, that I have so very much come to enjoy. If I take an administrative position for the balance of my period in Ukraine - and this does make some sense, as a number of people have remarked to me - then it will be important for me to recall what I have learned and the experiences I have enjoyed and the people I have met when engaged in solid hard work on the front line, feeding people and, we hope, saving lives in the process.
A soldier outside my hotel in Kharkiv walks up and down the courtyard solemnly each day, at a quarter past four. I can tell from his cap and uniform that he is an officer. He walks in solitude, with a small dog. We exchange glances respectfully, but never anything more. I wonder who he is and what his story may be in this sad, seemingly endless war.