Letters from Ukraine: 27/03/22 – Vodka

Today's dispatch from George Gittoes sees he and Hellen Rose navigate the possibilities and impossibilities of everyday life in Kyiv, from the grocery shop to the fortified streets.

Hellen Rose in Kyiv with camera, photographed by George Gittoes

When I was nineteen in New York in 1968/9, I got a job at IBM and my boss was Mr Wallager (not sure of the spelling, and I never knew his first name), who was Russian. He was a wonderful, kind man who let me get away with murder. My job was to illustrate investor reports showing profits and losses with simple pie graphs and coloured columns – all very in tune with the minimalist art of the time. Almost out of perversity, I used oil paint instead of water paint – which meant thinning it with turpentine. The smell seeped into the enclosed glass rooms where men in white coats worked on shipping-container-sized computers. Mr Wallager received the complaints and was perplexed – he was happy with the illustrative work I was doing but conflicted over the odour. His solution was to move me to the nuclear fallout shelter in the basement of the building, to share space with the cleaning staff.  It was great down there, and I soon converted the space into a subterranean studio.

One weekend was a Russian Orthodox religious holiday, and Mr Wallager invited me to his home. The women were all sitting around a large round table in their kitchen making pirozhki (little stuffed puddings), and I was invited to join in. We rolled seasoned mince meat into small balls and then formed a flour skin around them. I remember them as the most delicious things I have ever eaten. 

Yesterday in Kyiv, we went on a hunt for vodka. None of the supermarkets we had purchased our supply of food from had any spirits on sale. The liquor shelves were empty, like all the others. A woman gave us detailed instructions on how to find a shop “with a blue door” where we could “get vodka.” She whispered this information to us in a conspiratorial way which seemed strange, but we thanked her for her help. We enjoyed getting lost and had various adventures trying to find this place, and when we did it was almost by accident. We had followed a neon sign into a shop to convert US dollars into local currency, where there was a woman in a sealed metal box with bullet-proof glass who gleefully did the swap.

Walking out and stuffing a thick stash of Ukraine notes into my pocket, I saw the blue door across the road. All the customers inside were uniformed soldiers with their heavy rifles strapped over their shoulders and bulging bullet-proof vests. As usual, most of the shelves in the store were empty except for three shelves near the cashier which were stacked with vodka bottles. Hellen began to take a bottle of her favourite Buffalo Zubrowka down from the highest shelf when the woman shopkeeper began shaking her head and saying “No! No! War! War!” Hearing this the soldiers had all turned to us and the penny dropped: we realised that alcohol had become a banned substance due to the war, and that it is now illegal to buy or sell it. Hellen, shakily, put the bottle back. As she was doing so, the shopkeeper winked at her. I was slow on the uptake about this woman-to-woman communication, so Hellen had to pinch me hard on my arm and push me towards the back of a different aisle in the shop – then whispered, “We have to wait until the soldiers leave,” and then she will sell us some. While waiting, my eyes opened wide when I looked into a refrigerated bin and saw the little white pirozhki which I had loved so much fifty-four years ago in the kitchen of Mr Wallager’s home. I scooped up a tray and followed Hellen to the counter, where she was wrapping the two vodka bottles in soft paper so they would not clink together as we exited past the soldiers stationed outside.  

Back at home I put the little white balls into a saucepan, and Hellen mixed a couple of strong vodkas and selected a Nina Simone album to play on our portable speakers as we made love for the first time since arriving in Kyiv. We danced in our socks – sliding around on the polished floor until the pirozhki were cooked. We dipped them in teriyaki sauce, and they were as delicious as I remembered. Quite drunk by then, I turned to Hellen and said, “Those puddin’ things were great.”

Hellen found my “puddin’ thing” term incredibly funny and we both fell into uncontrolled laughter. We have decided that if we survive this war, we will start a food franchise called “Puddin’ Things” and make a fortune out of it. Who could resist the temptation to try “puddin’ things”?

Earlier we had walked across Maidan Square to the main city road, which has been heavily fortified and manned by a lot of jumpy soldiers – who bristle whenever I raise my camera. Obviously, they do not want Russians to see their anti-tank and other preparations. A young civilian guy who was caught doing a selfie on his phone with the defences in the background was surrounded by angry soldiers and being heavily chastised with threats to confiscate his phone. When Hellen began filming one of our regular social media posts on her phone the same group began to converge on us.  I walked towards them unfolding our media accreditation papers. Once they read the papers and saw our Australian passports they began to smile and apologised. The fact we have come all the way from Australia to support, goes down very well in Kyiv. I asked if any spoke English but none did. Unlike Poland and other European cities, there are very few people in Ukraine who are bilingual and speak English. We are on a rapid learning curve to speak basic Ukrainian. They beckoned a tall young soldier with his hair in a ponytail, Anton, over. I asked Anton if he was in the regular army and he said, almost shocked that I could think he was a professional soldier, “No I am an IT guy with computers, I’ve volunteered!” I told Anton that I wanted to make a film about love stories – about how lovers have been separated with the women leaving for safety and the men staying behind to fight, and asked him if I could film his love story. Then I got the bad news. There is an order than none of the soldiers can be filmed or speak to the media, and must never let their faces be recorded. This was the case in Baghdad when I made Soundtrack to War. No US soldiers were allowed to be filmed without permission from their media officers. I got around it then by finding soldiers who were prepared to break the rules, and getting official permission through the army media unit for others. I am going to have to do the same here. 

We are staying at Maidan Square, the most sensitive area of Kyiv city, and the guards near our apartment and at the end of our laneway have grown familiar with us. Today I will see if they are willing to bend and tell their love stories.

On our way back with the bottles of vodka in a bag we saw a soldier with hair as long as mine and when I waved and received a kind wave and smile back it was clear the uniformed soldier was proudly transgender. Then we got a message that our new friend, Diva Butterfly, could not join us for a visit because she had decided to enlist in the army and was being inducted. We will see Diva today and begin recording her story for our film Love in War.

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