Journal

Women rise like sunflowers in Ukraine’s bloodied fields

Louisa Young

It’s difficult even to think of writing about anything other than Ukraine now. It stirs my heart to see women rise to the occasion: former Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lenna in military training; MP Lesia Vasylenko with her AK47, and Elena Kovalskaya, the Director of Moscow’s Vsevolod Meyerhold State Theatre resigning, saying “It’s impossible to work for a murderer and collect a salary from him.” (I mightily hope that she has somewhere safe to go.) Twenty per cent of the Ukraine army is female.

And of course it stirred the heart to see the old lady handing out sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers, telling them to carry them in their pockets so the flowers would grow when their bodies fall on Ukraine soil. Sunflowers (the national flower; we all know that now) often appear in Ukrainian petrikivka, the folk art listed by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

They are stars too of the glorious radiating flower headdresses known as venki, worn by Ukrainian maidens, who look like Ceres and Persephone and the Queen of the May, for festivals and marriage. So the old lady’s gift reminds me of the myths where pomegranate trees sprout from the blood of fallen princes, where soldiers sprout from dragons’ teeth, and of the opening scene of sparagmos, human sacrifice for peace and plenty, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film of Medea, where blood and organs are scattered over the fields.

And then I read of Ukrainian Major General Borys Kremenetsky saying that some 200 of the Russian soldiers he captured are “about nineteen”. “We allow them to call their parents,” he said. “Parents are completely surprised.” There is now, apparently, a hotline. No doubt these boys had been told they would be welcomed with rose petals as they liberated their Ukrainian brothers. (NB: 40,000 Russian soldiers are female.)

The old Vietnam song sparks in my head: N-n-n-n-nineteen. Is patriotism less frightening for being poetic, noble, presented by women, and in the right? Maybe. Maybe.

Crush

Meanwhile, did you see the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky single-handedly disproving the theory that nobody goes on to greater things from having won Strictly? He won the Ukrainian version, Tantsi z zirkamy, in 2006, demonstrating a nimble pair of feet and some good hip-swivel action in the best use of a pink satin suit since Rod Stewart in 1973.

Zelensky recently declined a US offer to airlift him out, saying “I want ammunition, not a lift”. Not for him being Photoshopped topless on the back of a bear. So cool, so courageous, so clear. How we fear for him, and for everyone in Ukraine who responds to his rousing and perilous example. But what other options do they have?

It is very far from my job, sitting here on the Kent coast, looking across the dinghy-strewn Channel to France gleaming in the evening sun, so close I could reach out and pat its cheek, to tell anyone in Ukraine what they should do. I can still tell my government, though. I can say: stop lying. Stop lying about everything from dirty Russian money to refugee realities, from illegal parties to Brexit. Stop being such utter chancers. Be more Zelensky. This is what women want. Except for Liz Truss, of course. She just wants free access to the military dressing-up box.

Romcom

Zelenskyy used to be a comedian, an actor who played the role of Ukrainian president in a film, and also the lead in romantic comedies. Hugh Grant might be our equivalent, though as everyone (except me) hates Love Actually it probably wouldn’t work. Personally, I think Grant would make a splendid PM. Apparently when he met Monica Lewinsky he said: “Hello, I’m the other Blow Job Story of 1995.”

I have myself written a romcom, out in June. The bound proofs have just arrived. It’s my fifteenth book, but the thrill of seeing it as a physical object, put together by actual other people who are now involved in your hitherto solitary project, never fails. You clasp it and start smiling foolishly. It’s about matchmaking ghosts, which of course I don’t believe in, and actually nor do the ones in the book. “Over my dead body!” says one of them, to the suggestion that his widow be match-made, and the other gives him such a look.

At least, I think it’s a romcom. My publishers think it’s a poignant, tragic and uplifting heartbreaker. I’m hoping it may prove both, and so successful it’ll allow me to upsize in my old age to a new London home rendered affordable again when the Russian gangsters stop finding us so amenable. Zelensky is sadly not scrawny enough to play my sad rockstar hero in the film. And he has other things on his plate.

PS

I learn Zelensky was Paddington Bear in the Ukrainian version of the film. Is there no end to his charms?*

*(Now awaiting inevitable revelation of some terrible scandal wherein he plays a villainous part, and giant feet of clay are revealed.)

Louisa Young’s latest novel, “Twelve Months and a Day”, Borough Press (HarperCollins) comes out on 9 June 

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