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Diary: Francis Martin

01 March 2024

More photos in the gallery

More photos in the gallery

Alarm call

THE rising wail of the air-raid siren propelled me out of bed. I’d previously only heard that eerie sound in Second World War films, but now it was blaring from my phone.

It was just before six a.m. on the third day of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Ukraine (which I was covering for this newspaper). A voiceover on the hotel’s announcement system gave directions to the air-raid shelter in the lower basement. I pulled on some clothes and made my way down, trusting that the man in front of me, still clad in his pyjamas, knew where he was going. The lower part of the underground car park had been decked out with tables, chairs, and a lot of single beds, many of which were already occupied by guests for whom the air raids had become routine, and who were keen not to lose any sleep.

The other residents of the hotel were mostly European embassy staff and businessmen, the majority of them male. A few recognised the Archbishop and came to talk with him. Down in the shelter, it was hard to have much sense of what was going on in the city above, but we were told that explosions had been heard, and live news coverage confirmed that Kyiv had been hit by Russian missiles. In total, six people were killed in the morning’s strikes, including a Ukrainian pilot.

We were sheltering for almost three hours before the all-clear sounded, our phones again delivering the news, signed off with a prayer, of sorts: “May the force be with you.”

On track

THE phrase echoed the purpose of the Archbishop’s visit, though he expressed it in less gnomic terms: “To show that we remember the people caught up in this horrible conflict, and that they are in our prayers and thoughts.” He had delivered the line into my voice recorder as we stood, side by side, in the narrow corridor of the sleeper train to Kyiv. The passing vista of black trees silhouetted against the snow was striking in its anonymity and repetitiveness, like an endless barcode scrolling past the window.

I had woken up to this scene after a fitful night in the upper bunk of a four-berth compartment. In a reversal of the demographics that we would encounter at the hotel, the other occupants of the carriage were all female and Ukrainian, returning home from holiday or business. They had watched with wry amusement as a group of foreigners, half of them priests (and one perhaps vaguely familiar from that televised thing with a king), had struggled to make up their bunks.

Iryna, one of our fellow passengers, told me that she was grateful that we’d come. “It helps us because, at the moment, lots of foreigners think the war is not important. But it’s important for us to continue to talk about this, to tell our stories.”

What’s in a name

WHEN I was last in Odesa, in 2019, the city was known by a different name, and its Russian spelling — Odessa — still looks right to me (even as Kiev now jars). I suspected that the city, which had been predominately Russian-speaking, would be less consistent about the name change than English-language newspapers, and so it proved. Many non-official signs, posters, and graffiti around the city used the Russian (though not pro-Russian) Cyrillic spelling “Одесса.

The Archbishops’ trips are, in my limited experience (Diary, 3 November 2023), a study in compression, with a tightly packed agenda. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find ourselves in Odesa ahead of schedule, with the late afternoon and a vista of the Black Sea spread out in front of us. It fell to me, as a third-time visitor, to lead an impromptu tour.

Odesa bears the scars of war more openly than Kyiv. A missile strike in July left a gaping wound on the cathedral’s south transept, and several other buildings that we passed had been reduced to rubble and girders. The grand hotels on the promenade were boarded up, and the Potemkin Steps were blocked with concrete and coils of razor wire. And yet the raffish charm of this dashing port city has not been completely extinguished. Most of the statues around the city are now encased in corrugated iron to protect them from Russian bombs, though not the bronze bust of Alexander Pushkin — a monument to the brief period during which the poet was exiled to Odesa before a dalliance with the governor’s wife meant that he had to be moved on again.

Long the spine of the city’s tourist trade, Deribasivska Street, named after the Neapolitan naval mercenary who helped to build Odesa, is quieter than it was before, but still harbours buskers, hawkers, and hustlers. As I walked through Odesa’s streets, it still felt like the city that I’d fallen for almost a decade before, even if its name is a letter shorter.

Premature delivery

PUSHKIN might have approved of our hotel in Odesa. With its plush gaudiness, replete with mirrored ceilings, and the condoms available in the minibar, it felt like just the kind of establishment where one might conduct an affair with a governor’s wife — though not, perhaps, where you would expect to find the Archbishop of Canterbury. In a sign of the times, the selling-point for Lambeth Palace had been the proximity of a bomb shelter.

We were interrupted halfway through breakfast, but by a sound much friendlier than the siren. The waitresses had struck up a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and we joined in, looking around for the lucky guest, only to realise that they were approaching our table with a pink cake. Our visible confusion made them hesitate. “Is there Francis? Your birthday is tomorrow?”

I hadn’t told the rest of the group, or expected the hotel to check our passports and mark a birthday that wouldn’t begin until after we had checked out. Perhaps, with so few guests these days, they had decided to extend the range of their birthday-cake policy. There was a touch of Blitz spirit about it all: a defiant normality amid the air-raid alerts.

Francis Martin is a reporter for the
Church Times. You can read accounts of the Archbishop’s visit to Ukraine in the issues of the 9 and 16 February.

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