The center of Lviv is picture-perfect: the low buildings that frame the narrow streets with streetcar tracks seem to come straight out of a postcard from the late 19th century. This is why underground there are no large parking lots, underpasses, a subway network with tunnels and stations or business premises. On the contrary, we only find normal cellars or basements in residential buildings and sometimes low rooms in stores. So, when the sirens sound the warning of incoming bombs, we usually need to go down steep, narrow stone stairs, no more than two at a time, and once we get there, there are no large well-lit spaces like in Kiev, but rooms that are dimly lit or not lit at all.
For now, the sirens don’t sound often here, so everyone takes them very seriously. Nevertheless, the residents of Lviv are trying to equip themselves. At the top of the stairs leading down into the dark, they have often installed charging stations with emergency flashlights. In many public places, there are white paper signs on the walls, recently printed, with the words “shelter” in English and Ukrainian and arrows indicating the direction.
In short, they do what they can, because the general sentiment is that the “capital of the west” will not be spared. Without a clear explanation why, many had told us they were certain that an attack by the Russians was coming over the weekend; however, this did not take place. Perhaps Putin’s words to Macron had a lot to do with this tragic certainty. The Russian president said that he intended to “take back” all of Ukraine, emphasizing the fact that he wasn’t going to be satisfied with just the eastern part, traditionally closer to Russia (but today, as seems to be the case, further away than ever).
Obviously, these statements too should be read as propaganda, as a shot fired in the media war, which aims, on the one hand, to weaken the morale of the enemy and on the other hand to show superiority. As if to say that the full conquest of Ukraine is only a matter of time.
Yet, so far the armed conflict has not proved the Russian president right, and the morale of Ukrainians far from Kharkiv and Mariupol is still high. So high that they are able to organize themselves quite effectively. For example, in Lviv, right in the center of the city, the municipal library now functions as a supply collection point, and at the entrance, young people wearing orange and yellow reflective vests collect packages and provide information. Near the doors of the buildings that don’t have adequate facilities there are signs with maps that show where the nearest shelter is and how to get there.
While going around, or on the internet, you can find how-to guides on how to behave in case of an attack and where to take shelter. But there are also people who are actively engaged, especially among young people who don’t intend to enlist in the army or in the territorial defense forces. And, it must be emphasized, these are not few in number: hundreds of young people who have never held a weapon in their hands and have no interest in doing so, but still feel the need to get personally involved.
This is also what makes today’s Ukraine so difficult to understand for those who do not know it: the feeling of belonging that is widespread at all levels and in all social strata in the local population. Our neighbors at the moment—to give just one example—have dreadlocks and wear baggy pants made of Indian type cloth; in Italy, their appearance would immediately peg them as “youngsters from the social centers,” and that definition is perhaps not too far from reality. We spent an afternoon with them and we can testify that they’re certainly not right-wingers.
Stepko worked for 5 years in Vietnam in a center that helped abused children overcome their traumas; Dana is a psychotherapist at a kind of refuge home here in town; Oleg is a van driver; Ilya used to work as a delivery boy, but now he’s unemployed; and many others we didn’t have the chance to talk to belong to a world that is very far from xenophobic or chauvinist ideas. Yet, if you ask them about Ukraine, they’ll tell you without any hesitation that the country is under attack and it must be defended. “But would you call yourself a nationalist?” we tried to ask these young people, as well as many others like them in Kharkiv, Mariupol and Odessa before the war, and in Kiev just a few days ago.
For what it’s worth, their answers can be summarized as follows: “I wouldn’t say a nationalist, but rather a patriot.” What’s the difference? “Ukraine has many problems (they almost always mention corruption at the top of the list) and it’s not the best country in the world, but if someone attacks us, we have to defend our land.” We realize this is a slippery slope: there are so many issues that cannot be left out in the narrative of Ukraine from 2014 to the present. So many hidden responsibilities, so many obscure points to be clarified and so many mistakes made.
There is a serious problem tied to the militarization of the country that has led many far-right groups to become assets for the Ukrainian fighting forces: for instance, the now famous Azov Battalion, whose insignia proudly display a symbol of Nordic mythology later appropriated by the Nazis. Many of these groups have also been condemned by Amnesty International and the OSCE for criminal actions of unprecedented violence, such as the “burning of Odessa” in which 48 people lost their lives.
However, this is not what we are talking about here. The question is how it came to be that a country, very undisciplined in almost all aspects regarding the management of public affairs, has become united to the point of wanting to resist at all costs against one of the most powerful armies in the world. How is it possible, for example, that the rule prohibiting the sale of alcohol that has been in effect for three days is being respected so strictly by all the shopkeepers, who give us disapproving looks if we insist on buying a beer. And they don’t do it for fear of being fined, far from it; they look at us as if to say, “But do you understand what situation we are in?”
In the same way, Stepko and his friends, now volunteers to support evacuees arriving from all over the country, have organized themselves to find food, blankets, clothes, diapers and ammunition. That’s right, ammunition. “But had you ever seen a bullet before in your life?” I asked them. “Only on the ground, in the woods, where the hunters go,” was his reply. Now, through the internet and word of mouth, these kids are trying to support a cause they feel is vital. “But do you hate the Russians?” I finally ask him.
“No, but I hate Putin. He’s been talking about us (Ukrainians) for years as something that should be erased, and I can’t accept that, and, for that matter, I don’t understand why he wasn’t stopped sooner either.” “And don’t you think it would be better to stop the war instead of continuing to look for weapons that will cause more deaths?” “Putin won’t stop, we know that. I’m afraid of war, very afraid, but what am I going to do, leave Ukraine and go somewhere else? I feel good here and I want to stay here.”
The situation is complex; there are many parties that bear responsibility in this war, rooted in years of diplomatic failures and, it must be said, Western interference. But today’s Ukraine is also Stepko’s country, a country made up of regular young people who overnight found themselves in a historical tragedy and are now trying to get through it as best they can.