Letters from Ukraine: 12/04/22 – Antonov

George Gittoes learns about industrial production in Ukraine, reflecting on the country's strength and position in Europe and the world.

Antonov headquarters, courtesy the artist

Whenever I have been with peacekeepers in places like Cambodia and Somalia, I have found myself hitching rides in Antonov transport planes as they transport aid cargos. They always had “no frills” interiors, which displayed an engineer’s priority for function over smooth presentation. My memories associate Antonov planes with international aid. I always assumed they were Russian-made, and an example of Russian industry and design. Each day on our way to the outskirts of Kyiv to visit places like Bucha and Irpin, we passed a large complex with a huge billboard showing an Antonov transport plane in flight. Yesterday as we passed, I turned to Kate, who is Ukrainian and does the driving, and said, “That big ugly Russian machine again!” expecting her to approve of this anti-Russian comment. But I learnt a lesson: Antonov are a Ukrainian company. Back on 28 February, I had seen the world’s largest plane, an Antonov with six engines and wingspan of 290 feet, destroyed at Kyiv airport by a Russian strike. This was one of the first images of the war, and stuck in my mind. This huge, beautiful white plane like an oversized pelican slit in two on the tarmac made me think “the Russians are destroying their own planes.” How wrong could I have been. I never thought Ukraine could be the centre of a high-tech aerospace manufacturing industry like Boeing. All I knew about Ukrainian industry was that they were massive producers of wheat and sunflower oil. I saw this as a primary-producing rural economy. My own country of Australia has nothing like Antonov – we do not even manufacture cars any more with Holden, Toyota, and Ford closing their plants. If we were a major aircraft manufacturer, we would be very proud of this achievement. 

It is very important to note this. When the world gives weapons like stinger missiles to Ukraine it is not like they are a backward rural economy incapable of making modern weapons of war. If they can make the world’s biggest cargo jet and supply the world with vehicles that can carry aid to Africa and Cambodia, they could have made missiles as well.

The Antonov complex is untouched by Russian missiles or artillery. It is a prize military asset for Russia if it falls into their hands. An asset which Putin and his Generals must covet.

The name of huge Antonov 255 is Mriya, which translates as Dream. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister commented, “Russia may have destroyed our Mriya, but they will never be able to destroy our dream of a strong, free, and democratic European State. We shall prevail.”

Every day I become more impressed with the cultural, architectural and engineering achievements of this country, knowing that the soldiers at the frontline fighting the Russians are often talented and well-educated professionals that the world needs, not for war but for the benefit of humanity. Tomorrow I will make a point of stopping and photograph the Antonov billboard and see if it is possible to get onto the airstrip where the largest Antonov has been destroyed.

Yesterday we were at Irpin when we drove up to a mountainous rusted pile of cars. All the cars from the Bridge of Death had been scooped up and brought together. When I walked over to film them, a local farmer needed to show me where not to tread. There were unexploded mortars embedded in the bitumen, dotted around in random patterns. He was a farmer, and pointed to the pile of cars where families had died. I had filmed the children’s toys and dried blood inside them, and he said “We will met them down and make farm tools with them.”  I am sure they will; this is a community who knows how to make things as well as provide food and cooking oil for the world.

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