It is a glorious spring evening in Lviv and what could be better than a ballet gala at one of Europe’s grandest opera houses? The performance starts with an unusual announcement. In the event of an air raid siren, all spectators must go to the bomb shelter. The red-velvet seats are less than a third full – not for fear of going to a ballet in a war in which Russians have bombed a theatre, but because they can sell only 300 tickets since that is the bunker’s capacity. There is an emotional rendering of the national anthem for which the audience stand, hand on heart, and it is hard not to shed a tear, then the lights dim and the curtains open. The ballet was exquisite – ballerinas from Lviv and the eastern city of Dnipro performing fragments from La Bayadère and Don Quixote – the perfect antidote to a month spent reporting on the war and the kind of atrocities by the Russian army which, even as a seasoned correspondent, it is hard to stomach.
Before the performance I have coffee with the artistic director, Vasyl Vovkun. ‘I feel sorry it took a war for foreign journalists to discover us,’ he smiles. Me too. How did I not know this beautiful old central European city with its cobbled streets and trams, coffee-scented air from its wonderful cafés, tree-lined promenades with men playing chess on benches and babushkas selling lilac blooms? And this ornately decorated theatre, now the only one open in Ukraine. It closed when Putin launched his invasion in the dawn hours of 24 February, and joined in the war effort. The bunker became home to some of the refugees passing through Lviv, while its wardrobe department turned their skills to making tourniquets and camouflage webbing. Lviv is far from the front line so Vovkun was determined to reopen as an act of resistance. ‘People need to breathe again, to distract themselves from looking at news on their phones,’ he said. He chose an uplifting programme but with some notable absences. ‘No Swan Lake, no Nutcracker, no Rite of Spring…’ he said. He is in talks to bring an opera by the Ukrainian composer Eugene Stankovich to London and wants to invite Boris Johnson to the premiere.
It is somewhat disconcerting that at every checkpoint when I say ‘Press Britanski’, they reply ‘Boris!’. ‘You can have him,’ mutters one of my colleagues. A couple of weeks ago I left Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, for the pleasant town of Poltava a couple of hours south. At the hotel bar was a group of rich kids from Kharkiv who had escaped the war for the night to celebrate the 28th birthday of one of them, Natasha. They insisted we join them to toast Boris and the Queen. As the evening wore on, they became more and more emotional, toasting friends they had lost. One, a Latin dancer, told me his grandparents lived in Russia and won’t believe him when he tells them about the bombing, insisting that it is Ukraine doing this. ‘It’s like they are zombies,’ he said.
Sadly, I speak neither Russian nor Ukrainian so most of my conversations were through an interpreter or fixer. I got to the war late and found all the best fixers long snapped up. First I had an IT guy who loved wearing the flak jacket and helmet and kept taking selfies. Then a sensitive young woman who interpreted brilliantly but got carsick after ten minutes of driving, useless in this vast country. And a third, who endlessly reminded us he had been a ship’s captain and would listen to someone speaking tearfully for five minutes only to tell me: ‘She is sad.’ But I have never reported from anywhere where people are so keen to help, despite the risks.
Like the ballet, the Eurovision victory brought some rare cheer. ‘We are winners,’ smiled Kateryna, the hotel receptionist, the following morning, which was my last. As if to give me a send-off, I had been woken at 4.30 a.m. by sirens and four missiles, but I was sorry to go. The sun had come out and so it seemed had the people. Having pushed back Russian forces from Kharkiv and humiliated them in their attempts to take Kyiv, the capital had come back to life – shops and cafés open, youngsters zooming around on electric scooters, couples enjoying ice cream in the parks, carrying small dogs and a long-haired rabbit. But the war is never far away. Many were wearing uniforms and I watched a young woman tearfully bid farewell to a lover heading to the front in the east. Three months of this bloody war have drained their faces. I left thinking of the words of the Lviv Opera director. ‘After all this, society will have a collective depression,’ he said. ‘We need to bring some light.’
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Christina Lamb is the Sunday Times’s chief foreign correspondent. Her new book, The Prince Rupert Hotel for the Homeless, is out next month.
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