It is cold and dark. Sirens break the silence from time to time. Although the Christmas tree in the city square is standing, there is a tank trap on top of it. This is what the locals draw strength from.
This is not the first time I have crossed the Hungarian–Ukrainian border since the outbreak of the war—in the past, my team and I have provided legal assistance to more than 1,200 Hungarian compatriots from Transcarpathia.
Now, however, duty calls to areas outside Transcarpathia.
On my way to Lviv, I arrive at the Záhony border crossing on December 28th. The soldiers indicate that they want to go carefully over my luggage, so I get out of my car and look around. In the cars coming from Ukraine, women of different ages sit behind the wheel, but there are no men around.
Beyond the border, the road toward Lviv is cloaked in complete darkness for hours. Lviv, a large city in western Ukraine, is also known as the ‘Vienna of the East,’ and as Lemberg (Ilyvó in Hungarian).
Dim candles are burning only in every tenth house in the villages, and people are roaming the streets with headlamps and mobile phones—I almost hit one of them coming across the road. I drive up and down hills, and cannot perceive anything from the outside world except the low-quality roads. Intermittently, I can talk to our colleagues from Transcarpathia by mobile phone, and they are happy to tell me that the greatest gift on Christmas Eve was that there was electricity.
A long time passes before I finally see a great patch of brightness on the horizon: coming closer, I see that a local church is lit up beautifully, with a manger of Bethlehem in front of it.
I arrive in downtown Lviv at 1:00 a.m., when there is no electricity running, nor is there heat or hot water in my pre-booked apartment room.
The host was waiting for my arrival, with just 5 degrees in the apartment.
In the middle of the night, the local air defence destroys five out of seven rockets, but two of them successfully blow up certain centres of the electrical infrastructure, so the next day—despite the promises—there is no heating and electricity all day, forcing me to look for another place to stay. One can only survive in a place where there is no problem with gas.
I am warmly welcomed in Lviv, as I have come to provide the help the locals often do not have the energy or capacity for. After walking around the city and getting my first impressions of everyday life here, I start preparing for my business in a century-and-a-half-old coffee house. After a few minutes, however, the sound of air defence sirens penetrates the polished windows of the Atlas coffee house. When I first hear it, I run out, but I seem to be the only one whose heart rate soars.
It seems that one can get used to anything, even air raids.
In the evening, another walk awaits me in the dark city, where everything is still alive and buzzing with life. Generators are rumbling in front of the countless restaurants—there are reportedly 1,500 coffee houses in the city—groceries, jewellery stores, and pharmacies. People can barely hear each other on the street.
Everything is working, everything is living and everything wants to go in its usual way. As I wander the city, I walk in front of the unlighted building of the National Opera House, where next to next year’s program schedule there is a notice saying that performances will continue undisturbed, but they ask for the audience’s understanding because they can only announce a reduced number of seats, since only ‘x’-amount of people will be able to enter the shelter in the event of a possible air defence attack during a performance.
The legend immediately comes to mind, when during World War II the British Parliament wanted to temporarily end support for culture due to war costs, Churchill opposed by saying, “But then what are we fighting for?”
In the square in front of the Opera—one of the city’s main squares—there is pitch-blackness, with no Christmas lights anywhere. Only the lights of the cars driving around the square illuminate the city’s huge Christmas tree, on top of which I can see an averted cross—an X. Walking closer to better examine the unusual structure, I learn from a group of people standing nearby that the shape on top of the Christmas trees erected in public squares this year symbolises a tank trap.
The next day, when I talk to a local teacher and her family, who lived with us during the first months of the war with her daughter, she reveals that among the holidays this year, Christmas is not even the most important to them. She recalls that two of her cousins disappeared while protecting the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, then she shows images of soldiers eating their Christmas dinner near the city of Bakhmut, where the fighting is fiercest currently.
“Many of them are no longer alive,” she says. “However, we continue to persist, and now, for us Ukrainians, the New Year is much more important than Christmas. The New Year is full of hope, while Christmas is always problematic anyway,” she adds. When I am a little confused by this, she continues by saying, “Traditionally, we Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, while the majority of the world’s Orthodox community celebrates it on December 25th.”
However, since 2014, more and more people in Ukraine do not want to celebrate together with Russians and Belarusians anymore. Today, according to a survey based on the opinions of one and a half million people, 58.99% of Ukrainians never want to celebrate Christmas with Russia again, while 25.48% would stick with January, 12.59%—having regard to the elderly—would celebrate both dates, and 2.94% would not celebrate anything at all.
The teacher also explained,
I dare say that the New Year is much more important to us now. At that time, every Ukrainian citizen will eat his celebratory dinner, pop champagne, and wish for the same thing: the end of the war. We are prepared with water and food, and we have charged the batteries in our homes in case the power goes out. Although our neighbour wished us happy holidays with a very serious rocket offensive—this was the reason for the blackout in Lviv as well—we are strong, and our soldiers on the front are protecting our country at the cost of their lives.
Do you know why? Because we are free people in a free country and we want it to stay like that.