Fragments from a War Diary, Part #80
As I pack by bags and prepare to depart Lviv after my short stay, I contemplate the normality that this city has represented amidst the chaos of armed conflict in the rest of the country. I spent my days here very busy, rushing from one meeting to the next as I expanded by database of Ukrainian and international contacts and I considered the prospects of living here, working here, having an apartment here, even falling in love here. Who is to say. These are all decisions for the coming days and weeks. I am in a contemplative mood. Let’s just say that right now I am going along in Neutral.
After you have been in Ukraine for a while, with all the peculiarities and distinctive features of living in a war zone, you get used to a chaotic existence in which every day throws up new and unusual experience and Lviv for me has reminded me of my usual routines: meetings, memoranda, going to offices, talking to people, working with them on administrative tasks, charming and persuading them, and socialising with people who smile and are happy and have something to smile about. I have heard many unusual stories while I have been here, but fundamentally life carries on as normal in Lviv or even in more sprightly a fashion that it did before the war.
It would be a mistake to say that Lviv is wealthy. Quite the opposite is true; there is visible poverty around every corner and a number of elementary services are not available. However I am told that there have not been any air raid sirens for a few weeks: a truly remarkable occurrence after you have spent time in Zaporizhzhia, in which they seem to be triggered every hour or so. In Lviv you don’t feel trapped - or, at least, I don’t. The most reliable exit from Ukraine - via the Medyka border - is only a couple of hours away, and then all the normality of Poland is right on your doorstep. The humming vibrancy of the city and its openness and friendliness - in which strangers will approach you in bars and restaurants and talk to you about why you are here and where you are from - belies a deep anxiety in the people of Lviv. Most people living here are dislocated in some way, whether from family or friends, and this is the result of war.
In the early days and weeks of the conflict, huge numbers of Ukrainians - and foreigners present in Ukraine - moved physically around the country or out of it. People moved from the south and the east because it was under bombardment. People fled from the Russian-occupied territories while they still could, in the early months of the war when the front line was permeable by civilians. People from the capital Kyiv fled because they were in fear of being encircled in a siege and their government overthrown in a coup d’état driven by the Russian Armed Forces. People fled Lviv for Poland because they imagined that if Ukraine fell to Russian control then the precepts of Soviet rule might be reimposed and the borders of Ukraine might be closed, keeping Ukrainians prisoners in their own country.
Different members of families made different decisions as to what to do. The elderly were more likely to stay put. The young were more likely to flee. Many people gave up their apartments and homes that in some cases had been in the family for long periods of time. Friends urged one another to flee and everyone was split up, moving in different directions. The choices Ukrainians had were to move to Western Europe; to move to Poland; to move to Lviv; or to stay put where they were. Everyone made a different sort of decision, and now each person is living with the consequences of the decision they made.
The net result is that social networks and contacts all broke down, and the relationships people now have often stem from the early days and weeks of the war when people found themselves living in different places on their own and they didn’t know what to do. Their friends and family may have been down the end of a telephone but they had to make new personal relationships on the spot with unknown people from both their own country and abroad, in order to survive and not to go insane. Many people have no idea whether they will ever see their old friends or family members again. Ukrainian society has been completely and probably permanently re-crafted in consequence.
There were various nightmare scenarios in people’s minds in the early days of the conflict, that we now forget. Kyiv could have fallen to the Russians. Russia might have had a plan to carve of a rump part of western Ukraine with its capital in Lviv as an independent state, and to keep the rest of Ukraine with Kyiv as the capital of a Russian-occupied zone. The Russian Armed Forces might have taken Mykolaïv, pushed through to Odessa and joined up their zone of occupation with Transnistria. Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro might have fallen. The Russians might have pushed to capture Kharkiv. In the end, none of these things happened. However the fear of them, widely distributed amongst Ukrainian social media channels at the time, caused people to panic and this explains the massive population dislocation in which a very substantial proportion of the population is no longer living where they were in February 2022.
I know of no exact figures, but it is a truly remarkable phenomenon to see Ukrainian society so heavily shaken up as a result of the country’s invasion by her massive foreign neighbour. Lviv, now an eclectic and cosmopolitan hotchpotch of different people, many of whom have come from other parts of Ukraine and which has also seen a huge influx of foreigners who have come to Ukraine to play their role in keeping Europe safe from Russian aggression and in alleviating the misery of war. Now this unusual mixture of people rub along happily together in a city that is enjoying renewed cultural vibrancy and life. Prices have gone up, of course. That is inevitable when an increasing number of people create higher demand for a fixed quantity of accommodation and services. I am told that to rent an apartment here can now cost as much as US$500 per month. Everything is vastly more expensive than it is in the front line communities where I have been spending my time. But then there are things to buy. On the front line, your focus is on daily survival and not much more complicated than that.
Goodbye, fair Lviv, and I shall inevitably see you again very soon. I look forward to your welcoming me once again with your beautiful face and your warm, radiant smile.