Letters from Ukraine: 17/06/22 – The Old Russian Dog

Hellen Rose recalls the social and cultural life she encountered during her stay in Odessa, and its disruption by violent conflict.

Watching Putin on TV, May Day, May 9th, from our bomb shelter bedroom in Odessa, interested me not because of the moment when he was up on his podium, but the “theatrical performance,” his “ploy,” appearing as “one of the people” when he marched the streets disguised, truly I felt, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Turning his head in small talk, most definitely surrounded by his Wagner Group or Russian special forces dressed as civilians, a cluster among the throngs of everyday Russians who march and carry photographs of their dead forbears who were killed in the Second World War in their fight against the German fascists of Adolf Hitler. As I looked deeply, I saw a moment of discomfort: his recognition, if only for a fleeting few seconds, of how this same crowd will tear him to shreds when they discover they have been so horrendously lied to, manipulated into his hell on earth, implicated in the rapes and murders of children. In that moment in my imagination, I suddenly saw the crowd change and stop around him, pointing and screaming, “murderer!” – beating him to death, like the Italians dragging the body of Mussolini through the streets, or like Ceausescu of Romania beaten and dragged and hung upside down from the walls of parliament, I wonder . . . 

Odessa was created by Catherine the Great, and the town is known as the pearl of the Black Sea. This is a city of beautiful women dressed similarly to Melbourne or Paris chic – in fact they love Melbourne Australia here, and love Melbourne musicians, especially poet Nick Cave and his entourage. They adore poetry and bohemian flamboyance, academic excellence, and real talent in all the arts. The opera company and orchestra performed on the streets at the beginning of the invasion outside one of the oldest opera houses in the world. Built in 1810 and burned then rebuilt in 1887, its title is Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. 

Art and music are everywhere one turns here, from the extraordinary architecture to the beautiful wrought-iron garden edgers around every perfectly pruned tree in the streets. Even the street art is gallery worthy and curators, including our friend Uma, are putting the art of resistance up on the walls and fences of the city even though the galleries are closed.  

On the first day of arrival, I went out on my own to explore the town and was drawn towards the surprising sound of a jazz band in the spring afternoon. People were everywhere, the opposite of Kyiv where we were among a very few, mainly soldiers. George was deeply tired after our long train journey, so I left him slumbering. Slowly, as I walked, my eyes came upon a large crowd gathered, quite large, sipping coffees and nibbling croissants, a true “café society.” I have since then discovered that the Odessans love their croissants and even have a popular chain all over Ukraine called Liviv Croissants.  Smoking is not a concern here, vaping shops abound, and I’ve been fooled into smoking one or two myself, because like the French with their Gitanes they have their own cigarette fashion: long, thin, elegant looking “poisoners,” and for a moment I fell into the trap. Thank goodness, somehow, I came back to my senses! Ornate hookahs, vaping pipes, strange contraptions that are modern cigarette holders, and traditional pipes all puff quietly among the coffee cups and ruby lips and perfectly coiffed moustached mouths that chatter alternating over steaming cups and puffing aromatic plumes.

Across the narrow road around the park, in a second-storey balcony, a band played with the beautiful blue and yellow coloured flag fluttering gently in the spring breeze, more like a pretty veil than a typical national flag. The large crowd was silent, listening, soothed by the melody. One young girl mimed with hand and arm gestures each word of a song being sung; another group of young girls sang like a small street choir along with the chorus. I thought of George’s painting The Preacher, how during the Rwanda massacre at Kibeho the lone preacher intoned the words of the bible, bolstering those about to die, those whose fear overwhelms them, strengthening their dignity and resolve. This moment seemed to have a similar almost holy quality here with the people of Odessa. There was an amazing clarinettist among the musicians, whose notes seemed to twirl from the instrument directly over to the people in the park winding around them a golden vine, elevating each one of them for a moment, away from the cruel realities on the horizon, fortifying them for the unknown of the days to come. The musician seemed almost to fly as he played with all his heart and magical musical skill. 

As the warm Odessan seaside days of spring blossomed, and beautiful gardens passed by, I started to realise that the despite the beauty, tensions were very high in Odessa. The roses and tulips in bloom could not disguise the sorrow or placate the fear of the Odessan people. “The briar is strangling the rose back down,” and “the rose is trampled, fallen on the street.” These words, close to the writings of William Burroughs and Tom Waits, roll over and over in my thoughts. The place we live in was built in the traditional style, with a large courtyard where horses would have been tethered and where the poor lived, which under the various Soviet regimes has been most of history of the region. The place reminded me of Russian realist writers Gogol or Dostoyevsky, who although termed realists were not averse to introducing a little magic realism into their works – I’m thinking of Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” where Akaky’s ghost haunts those who mistreated him in life. Poverty under Russian imperialism, royals and then Stalin, till now has been incredibly harsh on the people of Ukraine as well. It has only been since the time of democracy that a middle class has emerged and a more comfortable standard of living has been available for all, even reaching out to the villages although traditional wells are still seen in the suburbs  just outside of town. I’m not saying luxury, I’m saying decent plumbing and electricity: you can still not drink the water from the taps anywhere in Ukraine. The sickening greed of Putin and his oligarchs while the people of Russia live in less than dignified circumstances is as sickening as preying upon Russian youths and grooming them into rapists and murderers.

These apartments are very small and look into each other’s windows and lives. During the time of Stalin, KGB spies would be easily looking into your life, the walls paper thin. One of the pluses in the advertising for the apartment we stayed in was “sound proofing,” although we could still hear a neighbour through the back wall; their apartment kind of wrapped around ours. 

It slowly started to dawn upon us that we were only a couple of streets away from the red-light district. We were both surprised by the exotically decorated velvet bed head and the glittering lights adorning it when we first saw where we were meant to sleep.

I was happy to be in a very central location close to everything and to the Potemkin steps – I wanted to create a performance harkening back to Eisenstein’s movie Battleship Potemkin where the baby’s pram goes hurtling down the steps with mother trying to catch it. I thought the relationship of today and that iconic symbol would be a perfect metonym for this time.

Most people who lived in the apartments on Zhukova Lane worked nine to five. Sergey, who lived across from us in a basement, is a chronic alcoholic, perhaps an ex-junkie but who has definitely done hard time. He lives in the small space with a wife and a teenage daughter who take advantage of the spring for outdoor time, sitting on their doorstep. His wife permanently keeps her eyes to the ground and the daughter looks through everyone as if they don’t exist, used to proudly averting any inevitable looks of pity from standers-by. Sergey is some kind of labourer who goes off in a fluoro jacket at the crack of dawn after a hefty vodka breakfast; I saw him begging on the street outside a local supermarket one afternoon also. Other times he is doing odd jobs for the other residents. We witnessed him and another man lugging an old lounge out of a lady opposite’s third-storey apartment, along stairs so steep, rickety, and high they would never pass the DA in Australia. Sergey and friend dismantled the rotting old lounge and threw it in the large bins across the street. 

Agniya, traditionally a Russian sympathiser, lives in the rooms above him with her little black barking dog. She is a bully and a harridan whose bellowing voice dominated the mornings. She is plump with short hair and bustles in a bossy way as she gossips and makes cruel jokes – and she decided that she was going to bully me. The first day we arrived she sat herself on the chair at our front door as if it were her right to, with her dog, and started up a loud conversation on her phone, throwing her weight around. I opened the door and was polite; perhaps she hadn’t realised that the apartment was now occupied and would be embarrassed and apologise and take herself and her dog off to her own area. Instead she turned her slitted eyes towards me and mimicked my accent, made rude jokes in Russian to another neighbour at my expense, and behaved as if it should be me to take myself off from her property. Well, I took this in stride until the very next morning the same ensued. I chased her off without ceremony; she bustled aggressively back to her rooms, bellowing expletives I couldn’t understand behind her, and hovered in the periphery trying to seek her revenge for the rest of our stay in the place, never venturing to but emitting ugly vibes where she dared. 

One afternoon at the end of the working day, I was just coming in with the cameras from filming and to my shock a very tall young man started screaming at me in Russian. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I only understand very little Ukrainian.” He then started screaming at me in English, towering over me, “You have a picture of Putin on your wall! Don’t you know he is killing us?” What? I couldn’t believe it, I had to stand up for myself, he would not listen to any of my denials and he carried on and on attacking me. George was out on the street talking to someone and wasn’t present. “Call the police”, I told him. “If you keep attacking me, I will call them myself”. I was shaken, I put the cameras in the door, he seemed to be walking off to his apartment. As I came out to find George, the man came back, yelling at me again – why not George I wondered to myself. We do have some really lovely neighbours right next to us who suddenly appeared to my defence, thank goodness: Andre, who speaks fluent English, along with his wife Luda. Down came the tall man’s wife as well, a young and quite petite woman, very sweet looking. Suddenly, George appeared with a caricature and anti-Putin print that he had purchased down at the Starobazarnyi book market of Putin with a full face of makeup including long false eyelashes. Everyone gasped  –obviously he had been peering into our windows – although George assured me that he would have had to be right on the balcony to see this. Anyway, the yelling man suddenly disappeared, me and the wife hugged, I realised the fear had got to these young people. I explained to the young woman that this situation would never have occurred if it wasn’t for “that evil man” – everyone knew I was referring to Putin.

Agnyia snuck down in the early morning and had her dog leave a giant turd at our door for George to wake up to. We thought the young man may still be crazed and have left it but to our relief, the next day, the young man was horribly embarrassed and deeply apologetic, never Agnyia, the old “Russian dog,” as another neighbour called her.

Later that morning when I went out for my matcha latte, another  neighbour who lives with his wife across from us towards the left –who has a larger space with a garden at the front, with a glorious wisteria wrapped around a metal frame he has built himself, and who speaks no English but with the charm of an old world European gentleman – walked with me to the street. Plucking a blossom from his tree, he handed it to me with a little bow. I lifted it to my nose and smelled its exquisite perfume, like honey and cherries, and we exchanged smiles.

It’s unusual, but even though Odessa is a large city, birdsong is everywhere. Somehow in the spring the birds appear with the blossoms, strange birds that I am unfamiliar with: ones with fan tails with long deep blue tail feathers or little yellow-breasted sparrow type birds, chirruping and chortling in different tones from the birds I am familiar with. The giant storks with their imposing nests atop anything high enough are mainly in the village areas. They are the ones who deliver babies and other fairy tale activities. The birds in Mariupol are the same: the storks, the little finch type birds, the ones with fan tails. The beautifully manicured garden parks, the pretty fountains and beds of perfectly planted tulips and roses, and the cafés in the garden squares have all been reduced to smashed rubble along with all the historic buildings, opera houses, art galleries, primary schools and pre-schools, universities all blown into mounds of rotting rubble.

The Odessan people and Ukrainians in general are dog lovers. Our assistant in Kyiv is actually a dog trainer and when we first met, she was spending her days driving around in her sedan car with a boot load of dog food, feeding dogs and cats who had been abandoned by fleeing families or whose families had been killed in the bombings in the villages of Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka. Kyivans love their pets but arriving in Odessa was a new level of the pampered “lap dog” levels of cuteness, almost painful. Most of these over-loved cuties are tiny and what you call “teacup” size, often wearing outlandish outfits, sometimes matching their human parents. The breeds are little terriers, powder-puff Pomeranians of every colour – some pure white with little bows tied in top knots, miniature sausage dogs wearing Sherlock Holmes caps, impish-sized Jack Russels much smaller than our Jackies with little denim outfits, even Sydney silkies or tiny shaggy-haired chihuahuas. One I have totally fallen in love with is called Bug; his owner is a Californian native who has been living in Odessa for decades and who never wants to leave. He came to Odessa, he said, to escape the homelessness and the violence of LA. One afternoon, I saw a woman walking not two, not three, not four, but five little doggies in a teensy pack, a busy little sniffing and scurrying, tail bobbing bunch, all of them off lead, following their owner’s instructions to a T. There were two rougher types of dogs, medium sized, who romped tirelessly trying to hump each other every afternoon, leaping over each other in bliss. One dog lover in the park, however, has a giant Saint Bernard – it seems almost out of perversity to the norm! He is a very refined academic and writer who chats with his students there every afternoon walking whilst ambling along with the giant, Drago.

On one of these early evenings before curfew, as I capered my way home with the joys of the Garden Square still bubbling in my mind, I saw the old gas lights now converted to electricity all flicker on at once so prettily romantic, the warm globes mirroring the moon, starting to ascend the twinkling skies. Tripping in through the little courtyard with the smell of dinners being cooked, mingled with the scent of flowers and into our tiny apartment, I kissed George and with elation I said, “The streets are beautiful tonight in Odessa, darling.” An hour later a huge bomb ripped through the balmy night air and rattled the town, landing only fifteen kilometres from us and destroying the Riviera supermarket and apartments. Andre and Luda  were on their exercise bikes, purchased during Covid lockdowns, Luda riding through Florence on her “virtual bike journeys” computer program, Andre the virtual Swiss Alps. They were jolted into reality and rushed out into the little shared courtyard. All the neighbours were there including the cruel Agniya, her pudgy little face wiped clean of her sour looks. Now she wore the grotesque face of a cowardly fear; she ran with a little suitcase yanking her frightened dog and kicking it to move along towards the bomb shelters down the street, yelling something at us: “You’re going to die if you stay here, it will be your fault!” We all sighed when her grotesque silhouette finally turned the corner. Luda and I hurried into our apartment and did the strangely English thing of making everyone a hot cup of tea with plenty of milk and honey. The sirens screamed, and church bells rang out at this ungodly hour – a prayer signal, crying out in the darkness of a man-made apocalypse. Everyone gathered in the same way as we gathered with our neighbours when the South Coast burned, as if Satan was walking the Earth – the sky was red, and the sea turned black. The neighbour directly next to us had tears running down her face; Andre put his arm around her. She said she wasn’t prepared at all and what did we think she should do? Her little dog was whimpering in her lap. We brought everyone down to our shelter to listen out if any more bombs were falling, and see if we could try and focus on something positive.

The next day we went out with our local helper to document the bomb site. It’s disturbing to see the destruction of our modern world, little things such as rows of shopping trollies twisted and melted together under the impact, ice-cream stalls blown to pieces, and the advertising images of happy families ripped and blackened and scattered – retail goods busted up and thrown blocks away into an array of bizarre garbage. The bombs ripped apart the giant complex where mums and dads go on the weekends and where teens do their universal “hanging out at the mall” –  all obliterated. A giant apartment block next door, about two blocks behind the centre, had all the windows blown out, and several apartments at the front of the building were hit and their interiors destroyed along with the children’s communal playground. Everyone had to be evacuated.

During the day before the bombing George and I had tried to walk down to the Potemkin Stairs. We took the still camera to take photos and I was excited about my Eisenstein-inspired idea. We discovered the whole of the coastal area had been sand-bagged, fortified, and closed off. We got to the beautiful historical opera house and George took a photograph of me. We were a block or so away from the fortifications, so we thought we’d be ok. As we walked off, we heard someone running up behind us and calling out; he was speaking Ukrainian so we didn’t turn around till we were tapped on the shoulder by a man who turned out to be a soldier. He was very angry with us, and we had to immediately explain we were foreign journalists. We were made to walk back to the manned post and show our papers and passports to him and his commander. They made us delete the photo still however; the Russians were only two hours away in Mykolaiv.

Two days after the bombing, the night skies had been quiet. We were all woken up again this time by the sound of soldiers gathering in the courtyard in the early hours of the morning: Ukrainian soldiers in full Kevlar, helmets and heavy weapons. Agniya was being marched out by them, one female soldier was holding her poor little dog. It turned out that everyone was right about her, she had been arrested under the Ukrainian anti-collaboration laws. She had been caught creating anti-Ukraine posts on social media, and was communicating with relatives in Crimea.

All names and exact places have been altered out of respect for the brave and beautiful people of Odessa.

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