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

Image above: Roman Romanovich

While most of us are able to watch the news with a kind of detached horror, for some the war in Ukraine is personal. The world is now so interconnected of course there are people in Chiswick with relatives caught up in it.

Stuart Kerr has written a guest blog for The Chiswick Calendar about the experience of cheering from the sidelines, doing whatever their family can to support his wife’s’ son, his stepson Roman Romanovich, a 42 year old computer expert with three children of his own, who has signed up to fight for his country.

A glimpse of Romchick in Putin’s war from a little house in Chiswick

By Stuart Kerr

Me and Valery Gergiev go back a long way. Not that I’ve ever conducted a live orchestra, eyes closed in deepest reverie. Or even learned to read a single note of music. The fact is, I’ve always rather imagined I can do both, with or without a baton. So I’ll never forget that morning of 24 February when Russian troops crossed the border to strangle the soul out of Ukraine, when my instinctive first reaction to war was to seek hope from something fine in Russian culture – and play very loudly Valery’s exquisite recording of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony with his own St Petersburg Mariinski Orchestra.

I should have known better.

My recently departed mother-in-law, Nina Alexandrovna Rykova, was pure Russian, born in 1926 in Smolensk. As a teenager she ran before the advancing Nazi army and ended up trembling on the other side of the Volga River whilst the monstrous Wehrmacht shelled Stalingrad to rubble. Over a year later she managed to creep her way back home to enjoy a couple of short years, her last as a teenager.

Image above: Nina Alexandrovna Rykova

Then the war ended and Stalin ordered thousands and thousands of his people to up sticks, answer the call of their motherland, board a cattle truck and go off to “Russify” the Western Ukraine, taking advantage of all those nice empty houses left vacant after Hitler’s holocaust. Not to mention lots more suddenly available homes after about 200,000 Ukrainians, deemed far too nationalistic, were rounded up and sent forever to Siberia. Which briefly explains how Nina got to marry Ukrainian Lev Ilyich Kuzma and create her daughter and my wife Tatyana Lvivna.

Nina’s long life was thus idly contaminated and savagely kicked about by the two most ruthless of evil dictators ever born. But thank goodness death spared her from the flowering of this third depraved war criminal. The one that terrified her in her final years – the one now busy murdering thousands of innocent Ukrainians and their children.

The one who flattened Mariupol – and then flattened it again and again until the decaying human flesh and the twisted debris and the unexploded bombs and the shards of shrapnel congealed into a sickening Martian-like landscape, reminiscent of a vast empty building-site pummelled down into blood-soaked hardcore with a few eerie skeletons of once grand buildings dotted in-between – the one who now joins Hitler and Stalin to become that triumvirate from hell whose joint memory will be cursed until the end of time – Vladimir Putin.

Image above: Lviv Opera House

Tatyana and I were married in Lviv, honeymooned in Kiev and have been back countless times. Lviv is a beautiful and nowadays lively European city with trams, pretty cobbled streets and glorious architecture in its historic centre. Like a small-scale Vienna on account of it once being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, almost certainly designed by the same architects.

We love the wonderfully moody restaurants like Amadeus with its hints of the old days, musicians softly playing jazz and eating vareniki or borscht. Or popping into an Austrian Kaffeehaus for outstanding coffee with multilayered torte, or divine strudel, traditional poppyseed cake and a huge choice of delicate pancakes with scrummy fillings, tastier than the best we have along Chiswick High Road.

If you ever get there, take a stroll along the centrally pedestrianised and very wide Svobody Prospect pausing occasionally between the horse-chestnut trees and the old gentlemen on benches playing chess with the spring sunshine glittering between the leaves. Then wander on down to the glorious Opera House set in its beautiful square of statues and fountains where children sing and dance at the weekend, It’s a delightful place.

Even more delightful because Tatiana’s son and my amazing step-son Roman Romanovich enjoys a wonderful life there. Or rather he did until recently (more of that later). Romchick, as we call him, has visited us in Chiswick a few times but would have come far more often had not successive British governments (thanks Theresa May) pandered to the very worst of those millions among us who assume he or any other Ukrainian only ever want to get into England to disappear into the black economy and stay forever.

Getting a visa to visit this country has always been a complete nightmare for Ukrainians. A ridiculous nightmare because people like Romchick are deeply patriotic and would never want to spend more than a couple of weeks of the year away from the land they love.

Roman has two teenage children and a five year old son in Ukraine: an expensive ultra-modern two bedroom flat that many in England would die for; another flat in nearby Stryy where he was born and has friends; a motor-bike, a car, two mountain bikes and even a blinking Brompton bike; a top job (until this war) with an American computer programming company; a mutual love affair with Morty a young miniature schnauzer; a life of fabulous skiing in the nearby Carpathian Mountains; adventuring far and wide; swimming in beautiful rivers and lakes in mid-winter; white water rafting; morning jogs through the woods five minutes away; exploring European cities; taking summer breaks in places like Israel, Egypt and Turkey; teaching, entertaining and educating his kids; a wide social whirl with nightlife and rich culture in a throbbing city he adores. Every day that passes he’s sucking the very best out of his beautiful homeland.

So, quite apart from frightening the life out of his mother, it was hardly a surprise when about a week after Russia invaded, our precious 42 year old Romchick along with most his friends trooped off to the authorities and signed up to fight for their freedom.

Image above: Roman Romanovich in his original uniform in his trench

First they had a week’s training. A crash course for beginners in the basics of war including what to do when you get shot but are still alive and important facts about which end of the rifle the bullet comes out. By all accounts (no names or specific details are allowed re Russian internet spies) these recruits, in the image of our own “Dad’s Army” make a splendid addition to the Ukrainian National Guard.

There’s several bankers and computer programme experts like Roman, an Orthodox priest with a beard down to his belly, a Member of Parliament, the doorman of the famous Grand Hotel in Lviv, a professional footballer, teachers, businessmen, several 50 plus year old veterans from the old Soviet army, even a lad who was working with his father in Poland but ran back to the border and joined-up after dad confiscated his passport in order to keep him safe.

As for the wives, children and families of these brave lads. At least we could all relax. For a while our boys were safe. So far they were only playing at war. Pretending. Then one morning in mid March around dawn, news broke in London that Putin had bombed an army training camp just north of Lviv. Many were feared dead.

Forgive me if I pass on the next five or six hours. None of us everyday, non-military folk has the foggiest experience or concept of war landing on our own doorstep. Particularly in Europe in 2022. War in all its sordid detail with all its gory violence and its ruthless cruelty. That’s something we occasionally see on TV from places in the middle-east or Burma or remote corners of Africa. Far away sad places where people somehow don’t know how to settle their differences in peace. Somewhere else. Anywhere else. But not here on our own doorstep in leafy W4. Impossible! How wrong could we all have been? How naïve?

Thankfully, after a barrage of desperate Skype messages from Tatyana, news came through from Romchick just before midday. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t me. We’re not even in that training camp.”

That’s modern war for those involved but looking on from afar. People live from one newsflash to the next and all we can do is wonder. And fret. You soon learn. Individually everyone learns how to cope. Somehow. Anyhow. How to hope but not too much. Just in case. How to get through spending every hour of every night and day on the brink of receiving either the horrific news you dread – or the sudden joy of bells ringing out and a signed armistice. When they all lay down their guns and go home. Meanwhile the wait goes on. Everyone is in limbo.

About a week later Roman broke the news that, unlike Ukraine’s regular army, the National Guard didn’t have the sort of stuff soldiers should wear when they go into battle. That woke us up! But alas, we were already too late. A quick check across the internet soon told us that the Ukrainian diaspora had already visited just about every army surplus store within 300 miles of London and stripped the shelves bare. Panic set in. And guilt. Why didn’t we think of this? Why didn’t we ask? How on earth could we be so useless as to send our boy to war with sod all to protect him against Russian bullets?

This time it was daughter Iryna who came to the rescue. Roman’s far younger baby sister. Either by chance or some sort of divine intervention, she was at work that day for the first time in about two years of Covid and was already at a City desk. She quickly rang around and managed to find a nearby shop in Mile End that specializes in state-of-the-art military stuff. Brand new and expensive but they might have a few pieces left in their storeroom. They had. She got three fantastic helmets (two for Roman to give to his friends), an amazing pair of shrapnel-proof goggles, special knee pads and gloves and finally an £800 vest of full body armour back and front. The last one in stock. Made of a compound half the weight of steel but twice as protective against bullets.

Thus a large 20kg parcel stuffed full of kit, packets of mixed nuts from M&S and multi-packs of Snickers chocolate bars, left Chiswick in our regular Ukrainian van on 28 March 28 bound for Lviv. From where it was immediately transferred into a private car and driven about 80 miles by an army friend, arriving in Roman’s secret camp on April Fools Day. Efficient these Ukrainians.

Image above: Roman Romanovich wearing his smart new hat and goggles

So what happens next with this war? And how will it all end? Nobody knows, obviously. But I’d suggest there are two likely outcomes. Either (more like wishful thinking) a few in the Kremlin see the writing on the wall and take Putin out. Or (most probable) he relentlessly carries on, losing thousands more of his hapless army, until such time as he’s caused enough death and destruction to claim a glorious victory back home having fulfilled all his promises: castigating all the neo-Nazis, forcing NATO to abandon potential membership plans and proudly saving Ukraine.

The problem with that outcome (apart from it being lies and nonsense) is that it would do absolutely nothing for one of the major victims of Putin’s War. His main audience. Putin’s own Russian people. The masses of brainwashed zombies that see their great leader as the saviour of their great nation. Who post-victory would look forward to once again seeing their sportsmen up on some rostrum where they belong: in some great stadium with world leaders and VIPs looking down as their flag flutters on high and their great national anthem blares forth yet again with their conquering hero of a leader benevolently smiling down on his adoring subjects.

This terrifying yet possible scenario would represent the exact opposite to what happened in Germany after WW2. Because Germany was visibly and thoroughly defeated with nobody left standing to claim any crazy self-styled victory. In 1945, with their cities bombed to bits and Hitler dead, the humiliated German public entered a period of acute ignominy and widespread self-criticism. It’s taken them years post Nuremberg to own their national humiliation and throw off the final shackles of shame. Seventy seven years to be precise. Blocking the Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline and sending German armour to Ukraine represents the sudden re-emergence of Europe’s most powerful nation – the one positive bi-product of Putin’s war so far.

Putin simply cannot be seen to have won this war. This planet cannot afford a victorious Putin leading his adoring country. He’d only be back to do it all again somewhere else. If he does survive beyond the inevitable ceasefire, the hardest of sanctions and sporting bans must continue for at least as long as it takes. Until it dawns on the good citizens of Russia that they’ve swallowed far too much Putin Propaganda Poison and that they’ve been thoroughly duped. No more Olympic Games. No more football. No Formula 1. Nothing. No global sporting or cultural contact whatsoever. Russians need to learn why their country is an ostracised pariah state. Then they need to bow low before photographs of a shattered Mariupol with its dead children and all its murdered grannies and accept the naked truth – that this grotesque quagmire wasn’t created by Ukrainians but by the serial war-criminal Putin. Who did it all in their name! This much they must own. It might take decades. But there can be no going back. No “normalisation”.

And as for Valery Gergiev. Sacked by the Munich Philharmonic, cancelled by the western world of music, now back in Moscow isolation making grandiose cultural plans with his friend the President, all my CDs and LPs of his work are now gone. Destroyed. I never want to hear of him or his work ever again.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: The Arts Society celebrates Ukrainian artists in unique fundraiser

See also: Chiswick’s ‘Russian spy’ Sergey Brilev sanctioned by British Government

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