Crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border last week was literally pedestrian this time. We did it with my wife and a friend from Ukraine who is now a famous violinist in the USA. We first headed for the metropolis of western Ukraine – Lviv, where Ukrainian Catholics have traditionally outnumbered Orthodox Christians.
The city’s women are extraordinary, I must say. Not only our friend Solya. For example, an ordinary female saleswoman in the "Blyzenko" store, where I asked for cognac, but only from Ukraine, and she offered me the “Shabo” brand. Well, I pulled a face and asked how, with such a name, it could be from Ukraine.
She instantly gave me a geography lesson. Isn't Odesa Ukraine? And “Shabo” is from that region. I paid 251 hryvnias for the cognac (about $7), and 9 hryvnias for the lecture. It was worth much more.
Lviv was festive, but not elaborately decorated, at least as much as it used to be for these holidays. According to the curfew regime, restaurants are still open practically only until 9 p.m. because the employees need to get home. Generators and people were busy working everywhere. Christmas trees and fir or pine branches were still being sold near the Halytsky bazaar.
Curfew comes at midnight, and everything ends. But on the first day, there was not a single sign of alarm. All the stores I visited were working.
At this special time, the dark faces of evil reared their ugly heads again. Putin and Kirill – the Moscow Patriarch, proposed a Christmas ceasefire. The irony was palpable. Are these people religious in any real sense?
Ukraine was skeptical about this proposal. And rightly so, because in the best case it would have been used only for propaganda, but would not have affected the fighting on the battlefield.
Turkey’s President Erdoğan proposed a one-sided cease fire because he was urging Russia to display normal, human behavior from its side. But no one wanted to even discuss his initiative. Suffice it to say that there was no respite in the fighting.
All the same, relative calm was widely expected in the coming days because Ukraine is not the aggressor and Russia is not doing so well and needs some time to regroup and develop a new military strategy. Putin and Kirill need a breathing space not to celebrate Christmas but to revamp their killing machine.
We decided to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas itself in Kyiv.
We called a taxi to take us to the railway station in Lviv. He deserves special mention. He was a Turk from Istanbul. He has been studying the Ukrainian language ever since Feb. 24, the day on which Russia launched its massive attack on Ukraine. His taxi has an inscription that the driver does not understand the language of the occupiers. There are also signs on how to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine – where to go to donate blood for the wounded.
In the train, we met interesting people: a student from Kyiv doing a doctorate at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, as well as a lawyer and engineer from Chernihiv who has a Russian mother, was born in the Russian Federation and helps the military through work with charities.
My categorical attitude towards Russians changed a little. Here was a really good Russian.
Russian inveterate aggression is not a biological problem but a cultural, psychological, one. I am convinced that Russians can become relatively normal when they discard their imperial mindset. And this means that the Russian Federation must be broken up into different nations living on its territory.
We spent the first evening in Kyiv with old friends not far from the center. We talked, but mostly we listened to their observations and experiences. We ate more than the traditional twelve dishes prescribed for Christmas eve.
Kyiv is also festooned, but also less elaborately than usual. Signs of war and missile strikes are everywhere. Even the covered Shevchenko and Hrushevsky monuments near the University indicate that times are not normal.
Nevertheless, the spirit of Christmas is felt.
This year's Christmas had special historical significance in Kyiv. In the ancient Cave Monastery (Pechershka Lavra) complex, Ukrainian spirituality, as opposed to chauvinistic Russian Orthodoxy that held sway there until now, was finally restored and the pro-Moscow “religious” fifth-columnists ousted. Metropolitan Epiphany of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine conducted the first Christmas service in the Assumption Cathedral on the territory of the Lavra in Ukrainian, hammering another nail in the coffin of Russian imperialism in Ukraine.
This televised event was greeted throughout Ukraine as another important victory and historic milestone.
Unfortunately, I caught a cold and, with a mask on my face, decided to go not to the Lavra, but to the nearest church – St. Volodymyr's Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. It was also full. Here, Patriarch Filaret celebrated Holy Mass with a great number of co-celebrants. Over 90, he does not look or act his age.
As in the Lavra, prayers for Ukraine, its armed forces and people were offered. There was joy and concern at the same time.
As an American Ukrainian, I was happy and privileged to be in Ukraine at this special time of ordeal, sacrifice but also unity, determination and success not only on the battlefield.
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