Letters from Ukraine: 1/5/22 – Book Market and Satire – Odessa

George Gittoes and Hellen Rose move to Odessa, documenting its vibrant cultural life ahead of a city-wide lockdown in the wake of Russian bombing.

Odessa is the most art-oriented and art-friendly city I have ever visited. The people all look super cool, switched on, bohemians. There are free concerts in the streets with world-class musicians, and the kind of coffee shops and bars you could imagine Modigliani and Picasso enjoying back in Montparnasse in 1907. I could not imagine anything more abominable than to see this place bombed and turned into another Mariupol. The Ukrainian love of freedom is even stronger here than Kyiv where it was remarkable. The people of Odessa are a model of how humanity can evolve through culture and the arts to a higher level where war is an unthinkable thing of the past.   

What we thought was a fruit market, with an art deco canopy and stalls underneath, is a book market: old and new books in many languages, as well as lots of children’s books. I recognised many of my favourite books from my own library. My eyes settled on the satirical art that is being produced and sold about this war. Unlike the kind of old-school satirical drawing I do with a pencil or pen, in the tradition of Daumier and Grosz, these works are created digitally and printed. I purchased five: Putin’s face morphing into a pig with a snout and Russian flag (his piggy eyes are hypnotic), Putin’s face on the body of a dwarf , a young Putin with blue eyeshadow, false eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and lipstick, a close-up of the classic black and white photo of Hitler and Mussolini in the back of a limo on parade, but Hitler’s face switched for that of Putin, and my favourite, which I have already appropriated into a drawing, is of a fat Russian soldier with a “Z” on his body armour and the head of a pig under a helmet. In one hand he holds a bag of loot, and over his shoulder some appliance he has stolen; protruding from two of his ammo pouches are the necks of bottles of vodka.

As we strolled back there were two earth-shaking thuds, and then the sirens started. The Russians had bombed the airport. 

We had imagined we would be able to film the Potemkin Stairs and Black Sea beaches but for several city blocks, back from the shoreline, it is all totally blocked off with white sandbags and steel tank traps. There is an army of nervous soldiers guarding narrow entry points. We were arrested when I took a photo of Hellen well away from the blockade. We were marched off to a guard post and our passports and press IDs were scrutinised by a succession of officers, then my camera grabbed, and the two photos of Hellen deleted. As we were freed, I shook hands with the two arresting officers and patted them on the shoulder telling them they were “doing a good job.” From ten p.m. tonight there is a total curfew. We must buy food as this could go on for some days. No one will be allowed outside including those with international press credentials like ours. 

We are going to soak up our freedom today before the lockdown. I want to film our impression of this highly civilised city. If in three months’ time the worst happens, and it is bombed like Mariupol, we will have documented what has been lost to the world.

NOTE: I recommended Kate, our assistant in Kyiv, to Steve Dupont, the Australian photojournalist, who has just arrived in Kyiv. He and his friend Gary are employing Kate until we return. Kate met with them yesterday and has decided she likes them. The cat has settled into Kate’s home and she is spoiling him.

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