Letters from Ukraine: 16/5/22 – Smell of Victory

Returning to Kyiv, Gittoes shares a sense of optimism with Ukrainian friends, his assistant Kate, and partner Hellen Rose.

As we arrived in Kyiv this morning from Odessa on the overnight train there was a real smell of victory in the air. Kate was at the carriage door to meet us and help with our bags. She was lighter and happier than I have seen her with a new reggae hair style and bubbling with excitement over the news that Ukrainian forces have forced the Russians back out of Khakiv. This was something that seemed impossible only a week ago. Then the other news that a Ukrainian group had won the Eurovision song contest and Russia had been excluded. As we walked with our bags she said, “And Finland is joining NATO and Sweden is going to as well. All Putin’s plans are crumbling like a house of cards. Our soldiers are still holding out in Mariupol, and we are about to cut the supply lines of the Russians into Donbas.”  

Our bags full of film equipment are very heavy and the railway steps in Kyiv are like serrated mountains. I was delighted to look back from the top step to see two huge soldiers in uniform, fresh from the front, pick up the two biggest bags like they weighed nothing and carry them up for Hellen and Kate. These two big, bearded guys were grinning from ear to ear as other passengers turned their gaze up to them with admiration and congratulations.

As Kate drove us to our new apartment (yet unseen) she told us she had recently been to Kharkiv by train. By train!!!! ???? Getting into Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was unthinkable before we left to Odessa. This would need to be added to our immediate plans. 

The building where Hellen had paid for our apartment in advance looked shabby with crumbling masonry and was covered in low quality graffiti. 

The place we had found on the internet in Odessa had turned out to be terrible, so our positive emotions sank. The guy who came to give us the keys and show us in could have passed for a homeless street hustler. Nothing felt right as we made our way up dirty steps. But once the door was opened, we found ourselves in accommodation paradise. The apartment is tasteful and huge. It has a spa bath and sauna, and more than enough room for me to do large paintings. Large windows on either side making it light filled and airy. There is a second bedroom Hellen can make into a music studio.

We turned on the TV to see the Ukrainian band performing that have won Eurovision. The song was rousing and filled with video of images from the war, images which have burnt into our minds over the last months as we shared the Russian threat with all of Ukraine. We could not understand the words, but the meaning was “We have overcome, overcome, overcome.” Hellen and I looked at one another and danced around the room laughing, infected by the joy of this special moment. Like Kate, we could smell victory. 

Immediately we decided we must stay on and share the victory. We are, now, sure it will come and much sooner than anyone expected. I told Hellen, “This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” and she replied, “For both of us.”

One night in Odessa Hellen was feeling really low and saying she had given up hope in humanity ever stopping wars. This forced me to prematurely share my undefined but growing sense of optimism. I remember being in Northern Ireland during the last days of the Troubles and most people saying there will never be an end to the sectarian hate but the small business community of people like pub and restaurant owners all told me “This has to end; it is making us poorer and poorer while the South and Dublin get richer and richer.” It was this commercial pressure of “not wanting to be left behind” that ended it. I told Hellen that businesspeople around the world are hurting because of this war. Hurting in very real ways and I am sure they will bring it to an end and make sure no more wars like this start again. That this conflict in Ukraine is a tipping point. It was the same in South Africa when the embargos began to hurt so much the racist regime opened the jail doors for Mandela and a free vote for all.

China will not want to bring down the kind of ruin Putin has caused Russia, and will not risk a war over Taiwan.

My poet friend, Viktor Solodchuk, is a serious astrologer. He tells me that the stars are predicting sixteen years of peace and prosperity after the end of this war. I have never been a follower of astrology, but my gut instinct is telling me Viktor is correct. I would love to travel back to all the places I have known in their times of conflict and rent studio spaces where I can paint and Hellen can make her music, in peace. Enjoy the transformation of a world away from war.

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