Letters from Ukraine: 31/03/22 – Russian Roulette

George Gittoes writes about the exploration of Kyiv that he and Hellen Rose are undertaking, some of the films they are turning to for inspiration and understanding, and their hopes and plans for foreign aid to Ukraine during this period of conflict.

Gittoes with the sandbagged public sculpture of Dante in Kyiv, photographed by Hellen Rose

When Hellen and I arrived here a week ago, today, every hour felt like we were literally playing Russian Roulette with our lives. Bombs and missiles were raining down all around Kyiv and the TV news was anything but heartening.

The good news is that we have found our feet and begun to think this is survivable.

A couple of nights ago we needed to escape the sound of the bombs getting closer to our apartment, and Hellen discovered movies on her laptop. We chose Munich: The Edge of War, with Jeremy Irons playing Neville Chamberlain. From the start, it has seemed like we had travelled back in time to the era of World War II, so this seemed to fit our mood. But it was a big mistake, hyping our anxiety and making sleep more difficult. In the film, young friends who became best friends at Oxford university – one German and one English – are thrown together in a mission to inform Chamberlain with secret documents showing Hitler’s true intention to conquer all of Europe. They risk their lives to get these to Chamberlain, but he rejects them in his naïve and blinkered belief that he can make a lasting peace deal. Knowing of this failure, the young German, who has become an assistant to Hitler, finds himself alone in with the Führer in his office. He has smuggled a gun in and hides it behind his folder of notes, building the courage to shoot. He is unable to act, and slides the gun back inside his coat and leaves. Millions of lives would have been saved if he had succeeded.

Putin has now stimulated people around the world to hope someone will have the courage to take him out and end this terrible war. But few know that Putin has the 340,000-strong National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardiya) as a private army to follow his will like obedient robots. He declared March 27, 2017, as National Guard Day. Even closer to him as his immediate personal protection are the Wagner Group of mercenaries bankrolled by the man they call “Putin’s cook,” Yevgeny Prigozhin. Angry with the army generals who have failed to deliver Kyiv in a quick victory, Putin has put the founder of Wagner, Dmitry Utkin, in charge of the ongoing war as they redirect their forces on Donetsk in the east.

Utkin is a follower of the native faith, Rodnovery, which worships pagan gods similar to those adopted by the Nazis as a rejection of what they called the Arabic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Wager Group were named after Utkin’s personal call sign – Wagner of the Ring Cycle and Valkyries of Apocalypse Now. The Wagner mercenaries have been called back from their operations around the world including Libya, Sudan, and Syria. They are a brutal army of professional assassins with no ethical restraints about killing civilians, and a love of slaughter. 

Putin’s negotiators are suggesting that he will be happy with “liberating” the territories in Eastern Ukraine like Donbas, and no longer has an intention of taking the capital of Kyiv – that there is a possibility of a peace agreement to divide the country. But the truth is that Putin feels a divine right to reunite Ukraine with Russia under his leadership.

The head of the Orthodox Russian church, Patriarch Krill, has described Putin as “a miracle of God,” and the leader who will fulfil the destiny of Russia by making it the “new Rome.” He sees the war in Ukraine as a holy war against the decadence of the Nazi West, demonstrated by their support for the LGBQT movements and gay marriages. Krill declares that  God has given the war in Ukraine His blessing by sending a sign, when on 7 March, drops appeared on the icon of the Virgin Mary in the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.

The world leaders would be as naïve and deluded as Neville Chamberlain if they believed Putin would stop with taking the Donbas territories in the East. Putin no longer sees himself as human, but as the spiritual and physical embodiment of the destiny of Russia. Wagner and the National Guard will keep him more protected from assassination or harm than Hitler’s SS, and like Big Brother, he has digital surveillance to monitor and prevent dissent. Chamberlain died a few months after World War II commenced, tormented by his failure to see Hitler for what he was.

We have had queries from our friends and families in Australia, asking what people on the streets think about their President, Zelenskyy, addressing the Australian Parliament this week. On every corner we are pulled up by Ukrainian soldiers asking to see our passports and press accreditation – once they realise we are Australian they smile, relax and welcome us. They are surprised and heartened that we have come “all the way from Australia to support the Ukraine people.” They are all aware that Australia is not a member of NATO, but has pledged significant aid, both humanitarian and military equipment. Our government has committed to trade and banking embargoes, but as a country we have little economic connection to Russia and do not depend on it for oil or gas. If there is a nuclear conflict, we are safely on the other side of the world.  

As a kid I remember going to the Saturday movies while on Christmas holidays at Tuggerah Lakes to see Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner as lovers in the Movie On the Beach. It scared the wits out of me.  Australians were the only people left alive after a nuclear war. But they only had a short time before clouds of radiation would roll down the curtain on life. The film ended with empty city streets and a Salvation Army sign saying “Repent. The End is Near.”

Yesterday, Hellen and I followed our map to find the river that cuts through Kyiv. We climbed a hill to a park where I recognised the head of Dante, carved in marble, poking up above white sandbags placed to protect this sculptured tribute to the great Renaissance poet of the Divine Comedy. Deep holes had been drilled into the centre of Dante’s eyes, making his gaze intense. In war, inanimate art comes alive and his eyes seem to fix on whoever passes, as if in shock at the ring of hellfire that has surrounded this city.

The view from Dante’s park looks out on the modern city of Kyiv. Smoke from bombs billowed behind a skyline of tall buildings as broad as a combination of the CBDs of Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne combined. Having spent all our time in the old city around the Maidan, we had not realised how huge Kyiv is.

The world hopes this conflict will end within a month and peace talks will bring an end to hostilities, but Hellen and I have concluded we will be working here on our films, art and music well into 2023. We will have to juggle Ukraine with our Yellow House project in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Both seem like one, and both have the common history of a Russian invasion destroying their countries.

Before our walk to the river Hellen recorded the song “Raining in My Heart for Ukraine,” adopted from the classic by the Bryants, who wrote other classics like “Love Hurts.” When she sent the song to David Ross in the US to collaborate with an instrumental track, he forwarded it to famous film music composer David Majzlin to get a click track added, in order to help the with placing his guitar and harmonica. David Majzlin was “blown away” by Hellen’s voice and reinterpretation of the song. He has proposed contacting celebrities to create an event to support the people of Ukraine.  Del and Caroline have added their support and are making calls to famous musicians. As well as being the son of the writers, Del was the former President of Broadcast Music, Inc. Del is one of my oldest and closest friends. When in Nashville we are their guests and Hellen, recently, recorded a Pastho version of “Love Hurts” in a Nashville studio, while we were staying with them. Fingers crossed this idea will have legs. I cannot imagine anything better to lift the morale of the Ukraine people than a celebrity concert. I remember the impact of the concert that Pavarotti and Bono organised for the children of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. I was in Sarajevo, and it was wonderful for the city to feel that level of support from all the artists that took part.  

If Hellen’s song can be the spark that makes that creative fire happen, then Australia will have made a huge contribution to peace in the Ukraine. Today we will go out onto the street of Maidan and shoot a phone video of her singing “Raining in my Heart for Ukraine” and post it on social media. If the celebrity event happens it would be a massive blow to Putin that even his hold of media reporting could not repress. It would be so loud the Russian people would have  hear it.

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