Letters from Ukraine: 03/04/22 – The Rock

Writing from his balcony in Kyiv, George Gittoes reflects on a chance encounter with artists in the supermarket, and the absurd figure of the celebrity politician.

Dwayne Johnson watching over Kyiv, photographed by George Gittoes

There is a sense of possible victory in the air that is rising with the spring tulips that are beginning to push their way up from the soil. When we got on the train, with Kyiv as our destination, we did not know if we would ever get out, and each day seemed like we were playing dice with our lives – but that has changed to a deeper appreciation that we are lucky to be here.

Light snow is falling. I have decided to try not to wake Hellen, who is still sleeping, and to take my breakfast cup of tea outside and write. I am getting a bit of shelter from the awning over the front of the closed Victoria’s Secret store. From here, I can see down into Maidan Square and have waved to the soldiers guarding our corner. I will bring them a hot drink once I’m finished. 

Yesterday, lines from the “There was a Tavern” song – “Those were the days my friend / We thought they would never end / We will sing and dance forever and a day” – fitted the mood in my head.  Filming the old city evokes that kind of  nostalgia. 

After six weeks of fighting the advancing Russian hoard, the people here have clicked into a new channel of feeling – the fear that “tomorrow we might die” has morphed into “Let’s live life to the max while we still have it and enjoy every moment – loving those around us more deeply than ever before.” 

My appreciation of every minute I am still breathing has been moulded by the wars I’ve “been there” in, but what Hellen and I are experiencing, now, with the people of Kyiv, is new. This is the first time I have felt my “way of being” shared by all those around me.

It must be what it was like to have volunteered  for the Spanish Civil War, as Hemingway and others did, or to have been a member of the French Resistance in World War II.

Hard alcohol sales have been banned since our arrival. I told Hellen that our underground food store had begun selling it again, but she did not believe me until she went to check for herself. The shelves were emptying quickly as she stacked three bottles of vodka in a plastic shopping basket. At the check-out, Hellen found herself standing behind a beautiful, tall blonde woman who wore army cams in a way that made them look arty and exotic. But what impressed Hellen the most was the casual way she had slung a shiny new black Kalashnikov rifle over her shoulder. Hellen asked if she could take a selfie with her. I could see Hellen envied the “look.” They made rapid friends as obvious kindred spirits. Alyna introduced her partner and, of course, they were artists. The man’s name was George and he asked to shake hands when he heard my name was the same, taking his military hat off to show he had long hair, as well. He wore grey military gloves and had a crushing grip. In his other hand, George carried a large .50 calibre weapon with ammolite, armour-piercing shells. He was proud to tell us he was aged fifty-two while his wife, Alyna, was much younger. Hellen dropped that I am seventy-two and George’s eyes popped open. He shook my hand again more firmly, with a sense of amused disbelief. Alyna, who speaks good English, told us they are billeted, with other bohemian and artist volunteers, at the large hotel on the other side of Maidan Square. Their red shopping basket was full of booze and drinking snacks. We imagined a twenty-four-seven party of the kind reminiscent of the early twentieth century, Paris Montparnasse scene, which the likes of Picasso, Soutine, Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne made legendary. 

Inspired by her new friends, Hellen broke into singing “Raining in my Heart for Ukraine,” to the delight of all the shoppers. George and Alyna clapped, and invited her to come and perform on the large stage at their bohemian hotel, explaining how good this will be for everyone’s morale. That is something we can look forward to.

I am accustomed to arriving at war zones to the stare of the “Great Leader” following me from giant billboards – in Nicaragua it was Ortega, Iraq Saddam, Gaza Arafat, Syria Assad, Congo Kabila, Kabul Karzai, but here there are no inflated images of Zelenskyy. If the Russians take this city, they will not have the satisfaction of pulling Zelenskyy’s statue down or plastering graffiti over his image. The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, glares down from the single giant billboard that dominates central Kyiv. Across his broad chest, printed on his grey hoodie is: “EARN GREATNESS.”

I was in Baghdad just prior to the American forces entering the city. My closest exercise gym was called “Arnold Classic.” Mr Sabba, who owned and ran the gym, like Saddam Hussein, was a huge fan of Arnold. So much so that he named his only son Arnold, and had a thick scrapbook of Arnold clippings from his earliest success as a weight builder. 

Mr. Iraq, the National body building champion, trained there and took me aside to whisper, confidentially, “When the Americans arrive, they should make Arnold President of Iraq. We need a strong man to lead us.” 

One day, Mr. Sabba came to me with a black-and-white photo of the young Arnold, and pleaded with me to paint him on the side of the gym. I painted gigantic images of Arnold flexing his muscles on two walls facing the main road into Baghdad. 

When the American tanks rolled in, they were greeted by my murals of Arnold.

At the time, Arnold was Governor of California. Mr. Sabba wrote to him about the gym, attaching photos of my mural. Arnold wrote back, flattered. After a few months, a container load of new gym equipment arrived complements of Arnold.

Ever since our arrival the prime Ukrainian television station has shown very little of President Biden, but it has been playing Arnold’s message to Putin over and over again. 

The smartest intellectual friend I have in the US keeps telling me how worried he is that American democracy is under threat. When I asked him who he thought could save democracy, he replied “It should be Arnold but that would never happen, as they would have to change the constitution.”

Looking up to the giant billboard of Dwayne Johnson presiding over Kyiv, I wondered how long before we see billboards asking Americans to “Vote The Rock for President,” “Make America Strong Again” or “Earn Greatness.”

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