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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Volume #2 Part #5

Easter weekend in the frozen Saigon, while beautiful weather, was a little drab if I am honest. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for it. I liked the idea of some quiet days, and the shells and the bangs and the booms and the missiles and all that haven’t been coming through to Lviv. The weather was warm, the people were out in the parks, and the environment felt warm and comforting to all. The weekend went past like a rapid warm breeze, and I wasn’t sure when it started and when it ended but I spent my time with some of the people I like here. It’s an extended period over Easter, because the Orthodox Easter was so late this year (the beginning of May) and therefore it runs into the highly controversial Victory Day holiday, 8 May each year, which celebrates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945. Associating the Soviet Union with Russian imperialism, this holiday has been officially cancelled in Ukraine and it’s worth saying a few words about that.

Victory Day was always more associated with the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine and was celebrated more comprehensively in the east and the south of the country before the war. The Ukrainians themselves were divided in World War II over the war between the Nazis and the Soviets, and this is one reason why so many of them died. Many saw the Nazis as liberators from the Soviet Union when Nazi troops headed east through Ukraine in 1941, at least initially. The people of Kyiv - at least some of them - recall the period of Nazi occupation as a welcome respite from the horrors of Stalinism, Five Year Plans, agricultural collectivisation, and the like. That was until the visceral anti-semitism and anti-slavism (the Nazis hated Slavic people almost as much as they did jewish people) came to the fore and arbitrary murders and ill treatment of civilians started to become prevalent in Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere. The people of Lviv had an even more contoured range of occupations; they had been occupied by the Poles until 1939; then by the Soviet Union pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; then by the Nazis from 1941 as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was torn up by Nazi Germany.

Anyway all these events created a Ukrainian fascist movement as well as a Ukrainian communist movement during World War II, supporting the two sides who were fighting over and occupying Ukrainian territory and therefore Ukrainians were fighting one-another and this is one reason why the death toll in World War II is so high at about 25% of the Ukrainian population. As a nation, the Ukrainians suffered more than any other in World War II. So Victory Day is highly controversial. The Ukrainians who supported the Soviet Union were (far) more likely to come from the east and the south of the country, where the people had always traditionally been Russified and it was in these sections that some of the fighting in Ukrainian territory was at its worst: the areas now occupied by Russia or close to the zone of occupation by Russia. By contrast Lviv escaped virtually unscathed by World War II, which made Stalin deeply suspicious of the people of Lviv who just sat placidly as the Nazis occupied them and ousted his forces and then sat equally placidly as Lviv was re-occupied in 1944 by Soviet forces. Kharkiv and Kyiv by contrast were destroyed; Kharkiv was rebuilt beautifully in the aftermath of World War II, as a beautiful city for the most advanced Soviet workers to come to work in, whereas Kyiv was more of a ramshackle (if larger) Soviet city that was not beautified quite so much and German forced labour was used to reconstruct parts of it after the end of World War II.

All these events interacting, World War II remains a controversial and gruesome series of episodes and periods in Ukrainian history and although formally it used to be celebrated this year it has become an extension of Easter and so the country is still partly on vacation this week. Although Ukraine has by governmental decree moved Christmas Day to the Catholic calendar - anything to get away from Russian traditions - the same has not happened with Easter yet so this time of year is the largest period of vacations, in which people traditionally travel home to their roots, to their small towns and villages to be reunited with their families. Nevertheless many people are unable to do that this year because wars do not stop for public holidays and we are seeing small but significant Russian advances on the front at this time in the intervening gap between US confirmation of military support for Ukraine and the ammunition and weapons actually arriving. Therefore it is difficult for families to be ruined and Lviv was full of a lot of people spending Easter on their own or at least not with the usual family groups.

Hence I noticed people on their own or with casual friends or groups in the bars and restaurants around town, which remained open in the city across the Easter period. I went into Church, to pay my respects, to find a service commemorating the glorious dead who have fought for Ukraine’s independence. It was a difficult time and it remains so for Ukraine, because changes to the conscription laws are about to come into force and everyone is very worried about what those mean for the male members of families and for the youth. So it is a tense and uncertain time.

On Friday I attended a classical musical recital at Lviv Opera House, that was interrupted when a Mig-35 (capable of carrying long-range ballistic missiles) took off in Russia, causing a country-wide air raid alert and emptying all the public buildings. I read and wrote at my leisure in a Lviv cafe and listened to a loud and beastly band drumming on my ears on the evening of Easter Sunday; I spent Easter Monday working in my military kitchen on the vegetables. Although formally closed for the holidays, a number of the volunteers gathered outside on ad hoc tables and carried on with the work. I became rather exhausted working in the muggy heat and I disappeared off down into one of the coffee shops in the narrow streets of the Old Town to relax before meeting a friend destined yesterday evening to return to Kharkiv after a break, and I vowed to follow him in a few days or weeks. The city has been taking one hell of a pounding, day after day, as the Russians make slow plans to occupy the entirety of Donbas over the summer fighting season and then encircle Kharkiv. The aid needs to move quickly to the Eastern Front, or things will be too late for large chunks of Eastern Ukraine including her second city. Happy Easter to all and let’s get moving.


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