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Letters from Ukraine: 04/04/22 – Ladies of Kyiv

Hellen Rose weaves together the stories of the women who remain in Kyiv, as she encounters them in the supermarket and the street.

As we walk around exploring the world, it is like having a dream then waking up to find that its real. We visit small shops that are still open to get supplies. Each store has different things that the other hasn’t got, but these places are a gathering point for the locals, also becoming a place where the locals are now familiar with the faces of two strangers all the way from Australia: the artist and the singer. The Russians have said they are pulling out of Kyiv, but the bombing becomes more frequent daily, and creeps closer to the heart of town from the outskirts. We know that the incredible Ukraine army are keeping them at bay, and we pray that continues. The bombs rattle the walls and windows, and teeth and bones and nerves of everyone, the old dames of Kyiv included. I think of my actor, singer, and artist friends in Sydney, the female artists who I’ve known all my life. We all of us dwell deep in the city streets and theatres, bars, clubs, and pubs performing, earning our living. Many of us will end up alone, with our stage memories and old photographs in glittered outfits and tinselled revelries. There is the old actress here who appeared in one of the older-style wooden shops near the theatre, her face painted in completely white pancake makeup, too white like a clown – or like Joan Crawford as Baby Jane’s sister, with dark pencilled eyebrows and red-gash lips – as she hovers over the scarce offerings, deciding on some home-baked poppyseed buns which the two young gentlemen who run the store baked themselves, simple and delicious. The young men are as bohemian as the old woman, and pay her special attention under the shadow of the closed Kyiv National Academic Molodyy Theatre, known locally as The Molodyy. I recognise her soul immediately, and we start a mime of broken Ukrainian and English to describe our mutual appreciation of each other, and a comedy of flailing gestures ensues. The brothers who run the store laugh and become involved, and suddenly we forget the bombs and air raid sirens, and are all purchasing refreshments during intermission before heading back to see the second half of the show. When I walked past the theatre the other day, I saw someone had placed a yellow tulip over the door handle. I’ve seen these golden tulips on other building steps and doors as well; I wonder who places them there. I remembered the terrible story of the famous German cabaret performer and actor, Dora Gerson, who was last seen grovelling on the ground in Auschwitz, Poland, at the boot of a mindless fascist before she and her family were killed like animals at slaughter, as if they were nothing.

At another store we go to, I met a very old lady shuffling around and talking to herself and me in Ukrainian. Although I have tried to tell her many times that I do not speak Ukrainian, this does not deter her from carrying on a full and animated discussion, with me nodding and smiling politely until I can escape to the tins section – then she’ll catch me near the dairy section and continue the conversation. She is quite dapperly dressed, in a little velvet blue vest and dark trousers. She has a walking stick that she very much needs, and is very slow to squeeze past people in the aisles, trapping them and then having her discussion. I can’t quite tell if the locals can understand her either, they seem to do a lot of nodding and wan smiling as well. The checkout chicks seem to find her difficult and roll their eyes when she speaks; perhaps she’s insulting them or telling them off in some way. Last time I saw her she positioned herself right next to me in the queue, muddled with her bags and what was in them – there wasn’t very much there. She waited, chatting away with us all, while the cashier checked my stuff. I told the cashier that I would pay for the old lady’s food; she wasn’t buying much, and I just felt for her, she seemed so alone and in need of human kindness and company. She was so shocked when the cashier told her I had paid for her food, she spoke loudly, so grateful, and everyone else in the queue seemed to approve. She grabbed my hands with her papery, warm fingers, surprisingly strong, and in a very deep and low voice that only I could hear, suddenly looked me dead in the eyes. For the first time I noticed her eyes were a deep sparkling navy blue, and she said in perfectly accented Greta Garbo English, ‘Thank you darrrling,” then put her hand to her mouth and blew me a perfect stage kiss.

George came back from the submerged underground supermarket yesterday with excited news to impart. The sentence, “They’re selling vodka at the super market!” burst from his lips with almost evangelical zeal! “I don’t believe it,” I responded with casual semi-interest, not really quite trusting that this could be real. He insisted it was true even though we had both seen the alcohol section of the supermarket virtually barricaded off – similarly to the walls keeping the Russians out – from the booze-starved Ukrainians who have been deprived now for over a month, under circumstances that would be high on the list of “bloody hell I need a drink” priority! Tetotal George was unleashed on the store and there was a real buzz in the air: Perhaps the laws allowing the sale of alcohol had been lifted? When I enquired from a fellow customer he just shrugged, stuffed bottles in his basket, and said in broken English, “I don’t know, just get it now and who cares.” We both laughed. The Ukrainian people have been incredibly disciplined on every level in their defiance of the theft of their homeland. Our young translator is very conscious of doing the right thing at all times to help Ukraine; she won’t take the smallest amount of cash at all without accounting for her tax contributions. We stacked a few bottles into our cart and joined the people in the queue, who were all chattering and unusually happy in these dour and fearful days. Suddenly in the queue in front of us, I saw a tall blonde woman and a man dressed in boho-adapted army fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs with baskets stacked with bottles and snacks. Jurijk had already sampled the goods, that’s for sure, but both were incredibly friendly, and me and Alyna sparked up a great conversation in German and English. She was originally from Austria, had married Juijk from Kyiv, and had two children. She certainly didn’t expect to be carrying a gun in defence of her new homeland. With an innate loathing of fascists, they both made the decision. Jurijk gestured that he loved George’s long hair, and gave me many hugs – he is an artist as well. We exchanged numbers and arranged to meet up. Alyna told us of a wonderful stage where they are staying with many volunteer soldiers and asked me to perform. By this time the whole queue was listening and watching the show. I sang my song “Ukraine is in my Heart” to a great response from the queue and checkout guy in this store, an incredibly handsome young man around seventeen who couldn’t get the grin off his face, reflecting all the levity and laughter as good signs that Kyiv may not be taken by the Russians after all. Alyna told me she was also buying some food for the beggars at the doors of the supermarket. We knew them well and also gave them food and things.

Outside the supermarket in the main square is a once-beautiful young junkie, slender and elegant in a heroin chic “all black,” though I suspect she may be on crystal meth as she has dug gouges in her pretty face. Her hair is cut short with chocolate-brown loose curls. She is an intellectual, a poet or dancer, an artist of some type. She stretches out her too-slender bone china hand like a ballet dancer. In the snow her skin is white and her large chemical-green eyes glisten like a desperate animal caught in a trap knowing it’s going to die, unable to scream just seeming to impart their need for death to come quickly. Addicts are destitute in a flourishing economy; I can only imagine her hardship in this war-torn poverty where everyone has lost their work and is volunteering. She begs in a persistent manner, and we bought her a coffee and food yesterday. It’s difficult to turn her away. It’s difficult to leave the abandoned pets searching for their owners wandering the street. It’s difficult to think about the old people who would rather die in their homes alone surrounded by the things that remind them who they are and were – their photographs, their memories – than to run and die among strangers in a strange bed. It’s difficult to think of what it must be like as a mother to take up arms against an invader who would kill your children. 

Yesterday we saw a row of photographs stacked with adorning tulips of every colour, wilting in the still-frosty days between the sunny ones. We saw their faces and names and ages – eighteen, twenty-one, seventy-two – and we thought these must be soldiers who had died on the front line. However, we walked on and saw a huge plaque calling these people the Heavenly One Hundred; these were the one hundred citizens shot down dead in the square we were standing in, in 2014, for demonstrating against Russian attempt to control Ukraine through a corrupt government of that time, before Zelenskyy and before this invasion now.

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