A year in the lives of Chiswick residents and the war in Ukraine

Image above: Roman Romanovich

A poignant and very moving piece by a Chiswick resident whose life has been deeply affected by the war in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has predictably gone off the front pages. The longer it goes on the more it merges into the background of dreadful things going on in the world that you do not really want to know about, unless you have to.

Chiswick residens Stuart Kerr and his family have to. A year ago he wrote two guest blogs for The Chiswick Calendar telling the story of his 42 year old step-son Roman Romanovich, who had joined the volunteer army to fight against Russia.

His pieces reflect the Dad’s Army quality of a volunteer force – the camaraderie, the lack of equipment, and the ability to take your pet dog on manouvres.

READ ALSO: Watching the news knowing your stepson is there somewhere, fighting for the Ukrainian army

READ ALSO: A Chiswick resident, a stepson fighting in Ukraine and his dog, now also defending his country

Since then their lives have taken a much darker turn as they have inevitably been drawn into this brutal war. Stuart writes movingly here about how the war has affected his family over the past year.

Image above: Roman’s Band of Brothers – Roman front and centre, with the moustache, laying back smiling

No weddings, three children, one dog and a funeral

By Stuart Kerr    

A few days after the illegal Russian invasion, having quit his fabulous job with an American software company to volunteer for war, Romchick and his motley band of brothers, ably supported by Morty the tiny miniature Schnauzer, spent the rest of 2022 sitting safely in trenches guarding a small area in the north of Ukraine, about an hour’s drive from Lviv.

This was in case the Russians, who had initially invaded from Belarus before being repelled, should come back to have another go. Meanwhile the focus of the war was rapidly shifting – from the discovery of beyond-appalling Russian war crimes around Bucha and Izium to battlefields in the south and east of Ukraine, particularly the vast area known as the Donbas.

As the summer wore on and Russia continued shelling defenceless civilians and pummelling beautiful cities like Mariupol into blood-soaked dust, Romchick was growing increasingly worried about his five year old son. He had been badgering his mother (my wife Tatyana) since the previous year with news of the boy’s lack of normal progress, begging her to fly over from Chiswick and see for herself (impossible during Covid and rather dangerous since the invasion).

But now his pleading had a new urgency. The child was not simply undernourished, he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t communicate. All he did was make animal noises, order everyone to go away and throw tantrums.

The underlying truth and the cause of the poor boy’s problems slowly emerged. His mother Olya, who had been drinking since she abandoned breast feeding a few weeks after his birth, had now graduated to heavy binge drinking, disappearing for hours during the day and spending even more hours sleeping it off in an alcoholic stupor.

Roman’s son Yuri (not his real name) was spending his childhood watching cartoons on TV in pitch darkness with the sound turned down so as not to disturb his mum, who was rarely able to wake up and take him to kindergarten, or make him proper food, or read him stories, or brush his teeth.

He had never had a friend of his own age. He ate dry biscuits, formula milk and week-old warmed-up bits of boiled chicken and pasta from the fridge. Before the war his sister and brother were able to come to his aid and his father would come from Lviv at weekends. But once the war started his father was away and his siblings had lives of their own to lead, so Yuri became isolated. He became angry, very angry.

Image above: Roman with the two older children

Roman and Olya’s story

Roman and Olya had been childhood friends in Stryi (a small town 50 miles south of Lviv) and got together six or seven years ago after meeting again at a school reunion. Olya was a divorced single mother living with two young children, 10 year old Anastasia and Oleg aged 7. Their father, who had disappeared years earlier, had been a violent drunk.

By the time Yuri was born six years ago, Roman already knew he had no future with his mother, even though he was already closely bonded with her two children. A situation which was only clarified when Olya registered Yuri as the son of her drunken ex-husband. Single mothers of three children in Ukraine qualify for ‘heroine’ status, which comes with a very generous sum of monthly benefits.

As Roman was emotionally attached to her two older kids and had a well paid job, he paid for their clothes, their education, their hobbies and holidays with him abroad. Olya found herself independent and relatively well off.

Images above: Roman with Olya’s daughter Anastasia and his own son Yuri

For us in Chiswick it was hard to believe a mother could be quite so self-obsessed as to use her children as a meal-ticket over and above all other considerations, until about two years ago when something barely believable happened that changed our minds. Olya and her sister, visiting from Kiev, worked out a plan that if they could prove Yuri was mentally damaged or at least abnormally backward, then Olya would qualify for a lifetime of benefits as a caring mother bringing up a disabled child.

Yuri was taken for a brain scan, which revealed nothing physically wrong, but with no functioning Social Services in Ukraine, there was nobody in authority to detect that here was a child in limbo, unable to develop because of his mother’s gross negligence.

Soon after this disappointment Olya threatened Roman with a knife, then banned him permanently from entering the flat.

Image above: Anastasia

Anastasia’s story

Roman had quickly become the father Anastasia Romanivna never had.  As a little girl she remembered the drunken fights between Olya and her birth father, but not much more. Her life became far more peaceful once he disappeared, although being raised by a mother like Olya did little for her wider education or anything approaching ambitious thinking, beyond maternal advice to find herself a man, get married and have babies.

As a young teenager, Roman encouraged her talents for long distance running and swimming. He took her to competitions all over Ukraine where she would usually be a prize winner. They even travelled to Turkey to do a half marathon. She became a skilled mountain skier and often joined Romchick on adventure trips in heavy snow and swimming in freezing rivers and lakes.

Before she was 18 Roman had taught her to drive both his car and his powerful motorbike. Now, under Romchick’s guidance, she is at college studying sports medicine with a view to becoming either a nurse or a professional sports therapist.

Roman also told her about his trips to England, visiting the sites and the Tower of London and the times he spent in Chiswick. She heard about drinking draught Guinness in The Tabard, and picking blackberries on the railway bank on Acton Green.

Anastasia arrived to stay with us in Chiswick six months ago in September. She had spent the summer working in Hamburg where our daughter Iryna had picked her up and brought her to London. They then spent a week enjoying a luxury yoga retreat in St Ives, Cornwall (which Anastasia took to as ducks do to water) and a further three weeks cycling around the sites of London, dancing nights away in some trendy East London nightclub and doing plenty of clothes shopping.

She was a late summer regular in Foubert’s ice-cream parlour and by the time she left knew our High Road shops almost as well as any lifelong Chiswickian.

Images above: Roman with Oleg as a young boy and as a 16 year old

Oleg’s story

When Roman came on the scene, seven year old Oleg Romanovich was desperately in need of a father. Physically he was weak and quite poorly in health, an obvious target for schoolboy bullies.   Mentally his brain was under-developed. Fortunately it was just waiting for someone to turn the key.

Roman soon discovered Oleg had a natural talent for mathematics and that is the subject in which the lad soon began to shine. He became quite well known in Ukraine as an incredibly fast solver of a scrambled Rubik’s Cube, winning several prizes as one of the best in his age-group.  He also became a teenage computer boffin and began to tell everyone he wanted to become an expert like his dad.

Roman also fed the boy up and sent him to martial arts classes where he quickly gained confidence. Within a couple of years the school bullies had all been vanquished and Oleg had become leader of his own gang in which nobody was allowed to either drink or smoke. A wonderful transformation.

Image above: Roman Romanovich

Rescuing Yuri

In mid July last summer my wife Tatyana made the long and potentially dangerous journey to Western Ukraine to see for herself the state of her grandson, Roman’s five year old boy Yuri. Since the war began there have been no direct commercial flights to Ukraine, so she flew to Krakow in Poland then caught the overnight bus service across the border and onwards to Lviv and Stryi.

She found Roman had not exaggerated and the child was in a far worse state than she had imagined. Over the next three weeks she spent plenty of time with Yuri and began the process of forming a relationship, although she wasn’t convinced at this stage of what level of success she could hope to achieve.

She managed to persuade Olya to consider letting her bring the boy to England, which proved easy once she realised her benefits would not be affected. There was nothing Olya could do for Roman’s son and she was beginning to panic. They went to a solicitor and she signed papers giving Tanya permission to travel with Igor and take him into her care.

In early August 2022 Tanya returned to Chiswick and we began the process of applying to the Home Office for Yuri’s visa. As reported earlier, Anastasia was to join us in mid September but then, early the following month, all hell broke loose in Ukraine as Putin launched his massive nationwide missile attack on cities, aimed at destroying the electricity grid and terrifying the population into submission.

By mid-October my wife Tatyana lost her patience waiting for the Home Office to approve a travel visa for a five year old child in the midst of a cruise missile attack and decided to go back to Ukraine and care for the boy until the simple paperwork was completed. To the eternal shame of the UK government, that was to take a further nine weeks.

Throughout November Romchick and his Band of Brothers could see the cruise missiles, launched from Belarus, flying overhead and onwards to various cities in the west including Lviv. Tatyana and Yuri, when they were not at a small flat we have in Stryi, were sheltering in Roman’s Lviv flat and able to hear and see nearby explosions from their 8th floor windows.

Every day there were blackouts, electricity cuts, water cuts, curfews, sirens telling everyone to rush to air-raid shelters – all the stuff of 20th century Nazi warfare being played out, with them and thousands of others squatted beneath in a beautiful 21st century European city.

By the time the Ukraine counter-offensive had retaken hundreds of square miles in the south – and with Kherson successfully liberated – Putin was indiscriminately chucking hellfire in any and all directions in a furious attempt to finally break Ukraine’s deeply set will to survive.

Still no visa for Yuri. So in early December we gave up and daughter Iryna managed to rent a flat in Krakow for a month, enabling Tatyana, Yuri and Anastasia to get out of the country and wait for events to unfold in the safety of Poland.

On 9 December I flew to Krakow to spend a long weekend with the little boy heading our way. Anastasia, whose college was closed during Putin’s bombardment, flew in the opposite direction to spend Christmas with us in Chiswick.

By this time, Yurichick was already a delight. I told Tatyana that Romchick’s son just had to be a clever boy and I was not wrong.  He had been under Tatyana’s wing for just three weeks yet he was already reciting poems and nursery rhymes by heart and could count to ten in English, while keeping a close eye on the available pizza and milkshake.

The visa was eventually granted and a few days later on 21 December, just in time for Christmas, Yuri and Tatyana landed at Heathrow.

Image above: Roman Romanovich

Rescuing Morty and Yuri starts school

In early January Romchick and his fellow volunteers were told they would soon be moving to the east to help reinforce Ukraine’s regular army. Roman’s dog Morty, who had been with him in the trenches for most of the year, would have to be found another home.

Roman had tried having him stay in Olya’s flat in Stryi, but now, with Anastasia in London or otherwise at college in Lviv and with Oleg keeping far away from his mother and mostly staying with friends elsewhere, he thought it likely Morty would be kicked out to roam the streets, so Roman found a colleague with a young son to take him in.

Yuri started school in Chiswick this January, a few days after the beginning of the Spring term. He loved it immediately. By this time he was already catching up fast with his counting and early mathematics but now he faced a trickier problem – having to learn English.  Thankfully the school was wonderful in its support of this odd little refugee in the care of his granny, his grandad and his aunt.

Using the modern phonetic system Yuri is now picking up phrase after phrase and beginning to join things together. He recites English rhymes like Incy Wincy Spider and Baa Baa Black Sheep and it is a wonderful delight to open your eyes and see a cute Ukrainian kid leaning over your bed early in the morning asking in perfect English,  “Would you like a nice cup of tea?”

During this time Roman arrived in the Donbas.

Meanwhile Anastasia arrived back in Ukraine, with us begging her to rescue Morty, on the basis that Roman’s little dog was considered “family” in Chiswick and there was no way we would tolerate him ever being given away to strangers. As far as we were concerned he was Romchick’s dog and we would look after him until the war was over and he could be reunited with his boss.

Anastasia was brilliant.  She got on Romchick’s motorbike and managed to track down the family who had taken the dog. The man insisted he had been given Morty and that his young son had fallen in love with the dog, but Anastasia held her ground and insisted the dog still belonged to Roman and she was taking him away on his behalf.

She won.  Little Morty was stuffed into her rucksack (a safe nest he’d travelled in many times before) and they roared off together back to Roman’s flat in Lviv.  In three weeks time this heroic two  year old war veteran will be driven across Europe to Calais, en route to live the rest of his days happily with us in Chiswick.

Image above: Roman’s dugout with the photograph of his daughter Anastasia. The railway line is just 100 yards away with Russians on the other side

Roman was killed by Russians on 24 March 2023

He had told us several fibs. Firstly The American company he worked for had not fled from Ukraine on the outbreak of war.  Quite the opposite.  Roman had simply resigned to enlist.  Secondly, he wasn’t guarding a remote road junction in comparative safety, 50 miles behind the fighting in the Donbas. He had volunteered for the most dangerous of positions and was killed in his dugout on the front line in Bakhmut, scene of the ongoing and bloodiest battle fought since the Somme over 100 years earlier.

A Russian shell had landed just a bit too near where he lay. Three of his nearby mates were seriously wounded but Romchick took the full force.  A poignant photo of his dugout taken earlier in the day reveals he’d propped the photo of Anastasia with coffee on the muddy edge.

Image above:  The Light of the World (a self portrait); Roman saw Holman Hunt’s Light of the World in St Paul’s Cathedral 20 years ago and kept a framed print in his flat. Roman at rest.

Stop all the clocks

Tatyana flew out of Heathrow for Ukraine a couple of days later. His father (Tatyana’s ex), also called Yuri, flew from his home in Valencia followed by his wife and daughter. Friends, colleagues and admirers gathered from all areas of Ukraine for the funeral in Stryi on 30 March.

News of his death was broadcast across the Lviv area on radio, television and the internet. Hundreds of townsfolk lined the streets as the coffin was brought to the church for the requiem mass.  The mayor of the town and senior church officials gave speeches. The military played its part and saluted their warrior with gunfire. During the service and on the long parade from the church to the cemetery, a well known Ukrainian choir and full brass band played patriotic songs such as Plyve Kacha.

Back in Chiswick Roman’s name appeared on the St Michael & All Angels Palm Sunday list of the recently departed to be remembered in prayers, leaving no doubt that the heart and soul of Ukraine is still alive and beating loud in W4.  Our Romchick (army code/nickname Schweik) was buried in a new and quickly expanding memorial graveyard, Alley of Glory, reserved for national heroes.

Like thousands of others Roman was never a real soldier, more a devoted patriot prepared to sacrifice his life to save his beloved homeland. The day after his funeral the space next to him was being dug for yet another precious local killed by Russians, an only child.

Slava Ukraini

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