Letters from Ukraine: 21/05/22 – Our Failure

Writing from Bucha, Gittoes reflects on our failures to use technological accomplishments for fit purposes, as he attempts for a third time to sketch the inside of a burned Russian tank.

George Gittoes sketching inside the tank in Bucha, photography by Kate Parunova, George Gittoes and Hellen Rose

Kate and I headed out to Bucha at five this morning, to the Russian tank containing the charred remains of a Russian soldier.

Last night I had been trying to finish a large drawing based on my diary sketches, but realised I needed to include more of the minute detail. The soldier was like a Giacometti bronze sculpture twisted over onto its side but he was, also, a conglomerated mixture of pieces of tank. Electrical wiring, bullets, melted aluminium parts, computer circuits, and his body armour had become part of him, and the heat of the explosion had fused him to the inside floor. I souvenir-ed his nail clippers to remind me of his personal humanity outside this war. I also collected a piece of melted aluminium that has the shape of an angel, and sat it next to him like a cosmic medal.

The reason for leaving so early is that the Russians have destroyed Kyiv’s fuel storage depots, plus Ukraine has been dependent on Russian oil. There are long queues outside service stations that stretch for miles and can take five hours. We needed to beat traffic to conserve our limited tank of petrol. Each morning as I make my thermos of tea, I look out the window to watch an old lady who comes to feed the pigeons and a lone crow. She scatters pieces of bread and fills bowls with water from a green plastic bottle. 

As I walked to the car, I looked up to the statue, high on a column in Maidan Square, of St. Michael and his golden wings caught the first light of sunrise.

On the drive to Bucha I read some of a book on Kandinsky by Annabel Howard: “Russia was crucial to Kandinsky’s identity and to his art. Despite an almost lifelong exile – initially self-imposed and later enforced – Kandinsky clung to his Russian heritage. He regarded Moscow with a mixture of nostalgia, longing, and fabulist romance. He described the evening sun that dipped over Moscow and dissolved the entire city into a single red spot that ‘Like a wild tuba, set all one’s soul vibrating’. He also wrote that ‘To paint this hour, I thought, must be for an artist the most impossible, the greatest joy’.”

I thought, “Here I am heading out to draw the red rusted interior of a destroyed Russian tank, of the kind that rolled proudly along in Moscow for the parade on 9 May to celebrate the victory over the Nazis in World War Two, with Putin watching smugly from a podium surrounded by his ageing, medal -bedecked Generals.” My insides recoil at the idea of being back inside that tank.

This is my third session in the tank. Over a month ago a crew of Ukrainian soldiers arrived as I worked, and told me they were going to have to move the tanks from the road. Their boss, Sasha, was fascinated by my drawing and apologised for the  interruption, promising to move my tank last. They were using a former Russian tank which had a bulldozer shovel fitted to the front to push the wrecks into the forest and fields on either side. Any that could be recycled were lifted onto trucks by a crane. When it came to the turn of my tank, they discovered its wheels and treads had melted into the bitumen of the road. Sasha told me I could keep drawing because they would need to come back with jackhammers to get it out.

The tank has defied all efforts to move it. The charred remains of the dead soldier are still present but severely disintegrating, while the interior remains the same.

Over my first diary sketch I wrote, “The humanity, ingenuity, and skills to make this tank are evidence of a highly evolved species. But all this intelligence and skill has gone into making a sophisticated killing machine. Its metal, wiring, bullets, and computer controls have been welded into the charred flesh of the soldier. This is an indictment of the human race. If this is the result of all our science and advancement, we have failed. Sitting inside this burnt tank has taught me that our species is losing. Humans do not deserve the opportunities they have been given.”

How can I express this in a painting? Can Kandinsky help? Should I add beautiful abstract shapes over the blackened and rusted details of the interior I am drawing, to show the spirit of the dead Russian being released to a higher spirit reality?

Another three hours spent in the tank, and I must pack up my things knowing I have not found an answer, only deeper contradictions. I belong to the same race as the old woman who feeds the birds each morning and the people who make and send these machines to kill.

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