Why They Are More Afraid of War in the Western Ukrainian Provinces Than in Big Cities

NEW – July 28, 2022

Over the past few months, I have had a chance to talk to people from different villages and towns in Galicia and Bukovina. The main impression is that people there are more afraid of the war than in Lvov or Chernovtsi.

It’s not just the province’s characteristic lower level of “informational education”. The problem is also that in small localities, where “everyone knows everyone” and gossip spreads faster than smells, trust in authorities at different levels and in official sources of information is traditionally low. Therefore, certain general trends there are becoming more obvious and sensitive — first of all, those related to the fighting in the East.

It should also be emphasised that, unlike the eastern Ukrainian agglomerations, the majority of the population of Galicia or Bukovina, Transcarpathia or Volyn are residents of the province. Even the inhabitants of relatively large cities, especially regional centres, are mostly middle-class citizens only in the first generation. They maintain close contact with their rural or parochial families, and usually stay in the same “mental field” with them.

So, provincial residents of Western Ukraine have at least three main arrays of war-related regrets and fears, suspicions and complaints about those with whom they associate state, regional or local authorities.

“Catching” local men and “selling bodies”

Along and across the territory of Galicia and Bukovina, people have a feeling that the mobilisation of military units and sending them to the war zone affects their fellow villagers much more than residents of other regions. From both banks of the Cheremosh, Prut, Dniester, Stryi, etc., you can hear terrible and outrageous stories about “lapanka” (literally translated – “catching”, back in the days of “grandmother Austria” in these places they so called the forced transfer of recruits to the Austro-Hungarian army), which is arranged by representatives of regional military enlistment offices in relation to men of military age.

Men who are liable for military service are detained to serve them with summonses wherever they can: on the roads in private cars, in bazaars in district centers, in public catering establishments or “nalivayka”, and even in mountain meadows, where they are now massively collecting blueberries. There are also stories about cases that, according to local concepts, “cry to the sky for revenge”. In one of the Bukovina villages, a military commissar came to the funeral of a military man who died in the East to hand summonses to those friends, classmates and relatives of the deceased who came to say goodbye to him.

Among the explanations for why “they take our people first of all”, you can hear the following arguments. First of all, “Westerners” are kind and hardworking people, jack-of-all-trades. Secondly, they are smart and experienced people, they will cope with everything quickly. But there are more disturbing explanations. For example, that military commissars are immigrants from the East of Ukraine, who simply do not like the “Westerners”, and therefore do not feel sorry for them.

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In addition, people are sure that military commissars earn money from mobilisation: they receive huge bonuses for each mobilised person, and they take bribes from each evader. As a result, I have often heard about how local residents show representatives of military registration and enlistment offices the wrong way to a particular village or farm, send them to impassable roads, or simply throw felled trees in their way.

To this should be added the complaints of families who have already lost their loved ones in the course of hostilities, about the delay in the process of returning the bodies of the dead or not returning them at all. Among rural and small-town residents, like fire on dry grass, there is a version that some representatives of the military authorities demand money from their relatives for the return of bodies for burial. Therefore, a clearly visible trend of the Western Ukrainian province today, in contrast to the initial militant enthusiasm, is the desire to hide from the “lapanka” and hide their loved ones.

Dubious “refugees” and potential threats from them

Suspicions about the hostile attitude of military commissar “Easterners” towards the local population were also transformed into the conviction that the soldiers (it is clear that they also pay a corresponding bribe) specifically do not touch men of military age who fled to the West of the country from the regions covered by military operations. In addition, those who fled not just like that, but in expensive cars and judging by the lifestyle that they lead in places of “forced temporary stay” – with good cash reserves.

Provincial Galicians or Bukovynians come to such conclusions by looking at those displaced people, currently called refugees, who allow themselves to rent expensive houses, often arrange entertainment with music and kebabs, travel or sunbathe. And all this at a time when local people are working hard and are worried about their loved ones at the front. It is clear that there are many low-income refugees, but they, for obvious reasons, do not bother local eyes.

But those who attract attention are increasingly becoming characters in “authentic stories” that are common among the local population, which cause outrage and sow a sense of threat. A popular storyline is the “beating by our people” of defiant refugees. For what? One in the store, pushing away a woman, bursting out of the line, and also demanded discounts based on his status. Another, being drunk, somewhere under the tavern boasted that he would “screw local women” — because soon many of them will be left without men who will die at the front. A third mocked the local customs and language… all of them were allegedly “taught a lesson” by the locals with kicks and punches. Whether any of the “ours” suffered in this case – the legend is silent.

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Stories about how hospitable Galicians were forced to drive away ungrateful refugees were no less widespread. Why? Some put forward excessive demands to their benefactors, others behaved in a boorish way, stole from the owners and did not maintain cleanliness, some reproached the patriotic “Westerners” that it was because of them that this entire armed conflict began. Vulnerable souls of hospitable Galician provincials could not stand it — they had to drive away the forced guests.

The most interesting, full-length movie-like story I ever heard was something like this. One family in the Carpathian region allowed several women with children from somewhere in the East. They were provided with free housing and food. One day, the owner, who was busy with spring work, gave the refugees the keys to the food cellar so that they could prepare their own lunch. And she left, but her heart was restless.

She returned just when the migrant women were in the cellar. The Galician hostess heard how the ungrateful guests, shocked by what they saw, shared their impressions and plans. In their opinion, “these Bandera” made such huge food supplies, because they knew in advance that there would be a war, and they had been preparing for it for a long time. So, after the war, when people will be hard and there will be hunger, they will need to be “dekulakised”.

It is not difficult for connoisseurs of the Galician epic and ethos to guess what happened next – with the help of a rake and “some kind of mother”, the hostess drove the insidious refugees out of her house, categorically ordering her own husband to collect their junk and immediately throw them out of the gate.

Now here – they repeat, like a cliché, in the villages and towns of Western Ukraine – refugees are not particularly visible. There are mostly women and children, and if their men are still preserved somewhere, then they prefer not to show themselves on the street.

“Where is our help for the front going?”

The third mass of discontent is related to the aforementioned stocks in Galician cellars and acts of charity, but in a slightly different aspect. From the very beginning of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, almost all villages and towns in Western Ukraine have been collecting money and food in support of the Ukrainian military on the front line.

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Beads filled with cereals, lard, home-made canned food and stews, warm clothes and other good things almost every day were sent to the East. The collected money was transferred to volunteers, mostly authorised by local, mostly district authorities. Targeted initiatives were also massively supported, such as uniforms and bulletproof vests for fellow villagers or cars for individual units. All this happened in a fairly organised manner, except for one point — bookkeeping.

After several cases when canned food was sold at the nearest bazaar, bulletproof vests turned out to be of poor quality, and cars did not arrive at their destination at all, word spread through villages and towns: someone earns money from the war. Individual attempts to identify this “someone” often faced threats from local authorities and activists. The threats were accompanied by accusations of sowing panic and spreading false rumours aimed at discrediting the volunteer movement and undermining national unity — which, of course, works in favour of the enemy.

So the search for the culprits slowed down, but at the same time the generosity of the “givers” decreased. At the same time, there was quiet talk that not everyone and not everything will be able to be written off on the war. They say that our guys will return from the front, and then we will figure out where our help went.…

I would like to note that all this is unpleasant to listen to, and the prospect for the region looms unsafe. It is not known how much is true in these stories, but how many are fictions based on prejudices, backwardness, and stereotyping of the Western Ukrainian province, or on the “conscious denigration” of reality by some unrecognised “enemy agents”. But the very fact of the existence and prevalence of such stories shows a lot.

Kiev, and after them, the regional authorities, using the provincial population to the maximum, stuffing it with propaganda in the style of “Arestovich’s vision”, do not care at all about maintaining a real, and not a feigned sense of patriotism, which is impossible without honest and responsible relationships. People’s distrust of the government is a problem in peacetime, but it is a disaster in times of martial law. And if Kiev does not begin to correct the situation now, then even after the end of hostilities in Ukraine, peace may not reign. At least in the western part of it.

Oleg Khavich

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