Letters from Ukraine: 7/5/22 – Azog the Destroyer

Writing from Odessa, George Gittoes plans a collaborative public painting inspired by a magic mix of influences.

A few years ago, some pictures appeared of Putin topless, riding a horse. They seemed to be photoshopped to make him resemble Conan the Barbarian. His behaviour is classic “toxic male.”

The most prominent movie available on Ukrainian Netflix is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. When the war started, and lockdown curfews kept everyone inside, people went to this fantasy to comfort – but soon found it mirrored their own situation.  

As a result, many of our conversations have led to the Russians being described as Orcs, and Putin as Azog the Destroyer.  

The poet Viktor Solodchuk tells me The Hobbit helped him to survive mentally, and has written a poem about it. Viltor and I are about to collaborate on a large street work, where I will paint orcs in black India ink, and Victor will inscribe in his poem in compatible lettering.

Viktor says, “Tolkien was onto something. Destroyers like Azog re-emerge repeatedly though human history – Napoleon, Hitler and now Putin.” Viktor is not anti-Russian. He was born in Odessa, but he spent ten of his formative years in Russia and wrote his first novel there: “Moscow is where I found my voice.” Victor does not wish to portray Russian people as evil, or as Orcs. The phenomenon of a leader who is incomprehensibly evil with an army brainwashed to follow his commands, no matter how destructive of life and property, is where Viktor sees The Hobbit moving over from fantasy into the reality of Ukraine in 2022. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when Hitler’s Nazi curse was spreading darkness over Europe and igniting World War Two. 

In my film Miscreants of Taliwood I compared the book-burning by Taliban supporters at the Red Mosque to Nazi Germany, and made the comparison to Tolkien. I am in Ukraine and back to Tolkien.

Before we met Viktor, Hellen and I watched The Hobbit in our apartment in Kyiv while bombs reigned down around us, destroying Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka. It had been decades since either of us had viewed the trilogy. The screams of the orcs going into battle blended with the screaming air raid sirens.

The Orcs reminded me of the zombies in my Iraq painting Zombie Shuffle. I had been out with Elliot Lovett and his squad on one many “contact” missions they carried out in Baghdad. It was a horrific day which I never want to describe. The US army likes to send Black and Latino squads out on an inhumanly demanding number of missions based on the misguided assumption that they are less likely to get PTSD because of gang warfare they were thought to grow up with. A large percentage of the white soldiers were “techs” and spent the war playing video games, watching movies, and working out at the pool or in the gym. When Elliot and his squad got back the “techs” were crowded around a wide-screen TV, entranced by the zombie movie Day of the Living Dead.  Elliot went over to the remote and switched the movie off and called out to his squad, “Hey, show ’em the sombie shuffle.” Elliot’s comrades in arms slipped effortlessly into a slow-motion zombie dance. When it was finished Elliot turned and said, “We are the living dead.” Now, back in Florida, Elliot feels luckier than some of his buddies who have overdosed on oxycodone and other army-prescribed drugs.

Yesterday I found myself at an Odessa restaurant drawing a new version of Zombie Shuffle, but this time it represents the Russian army in orc motion, with Putin conducting the music to their dance of death. I got excited and rang Viktor proposing our collaboration and titling it RUSSIAN OFFENSIVE. We will do it on a long parking lot fence which is covered in graffiti, and only across the road from where we are living. This is at the centre of Odessa city, so I am hoping people will come up and ask what it is about and give their feedback to our cameras.

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