Tanks for the memory


A Russian tank outside Chernobyl power station, 24 February, 2022


As the dying embers of Soviet Communism flickered their last, I was in Ukraine bumping along in a Transit van en route to Chernobyl. At one point we passed several Russian tanks apparently parked in woodland bordering the road. Were we about to be escorted to that grim monument to nuclear power? The answer given by our world-weary translator was simple: the Evil Empire, as that old ham Ronald Reagan called it, was stony broke. The tanks had run out of fuel because they couldn’t afford to top up.

I was reminded of that utterly surreal moment 23 years later while watching coverage of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this week. A farmer, unarmed except for a splendid sense of humour, offered to tow a Russian tank and its crew back to the border after, yes, you’re ahead of me here, it ran out of four-star.

It was one of the few images to lighten a grim week which has exposed exactly how deluded and mad Vladimir Putin really is and, happily, what a remarkable country and its 43 million people he has taken on. Not to mention an unlikely hero in its president Volodymyr Zelensky.

All this has brought back great emotions for me. While at the Express I reported from Ukraine on several occasions and grew to love the country, the people and particularly the stunning beauty of Kyiv, or to give it its old Russian name, Kiev. The most searing of which is standing awe struck in the magnificent 1,200-year-old domed cathedral of Saint Sophia listening to the ethereal majesty of its unaccompanied choir singing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. 

By contrast seeing children in hospitals in Kyiv born with terrible deformities following the fall-out of the explosion that ripped apart Chernobyl Reactor No 4, the faces of their mothers who stayed with them day and night, and the utter dedication of medical staff working non-stop despite the absence of the most basic medicines and equipment. Like fuel for the tanks, the old Soviet Union, couldn’t afford such essentials, it was spending the last of its roubles on Zil limos and Crimean dachas for party apparatchiks.

There are terrible echoes of that grim past today. Putin, nearly 70 and in power for 22 years, has, in the way of all dictators, gone mad. Not in a good way like poor old Van Gogh or King George the Third, but in the bloodied footsteps of Stalin and Hitler. Both tyrants survived many assassination attempts and we should all pray there is someone brave and resourceful enough to make sure that Putin is not so lucky. 

But in the meantime what? Will brave Ukraine keep up the resistance (it is after all the size of France and so far Putin has committed ‘only’ 200,000 troops?) If so, will he look at the nuclear option and if he does will one of those square jawed generals stand up to him? They will know what the rest of the world thinks, even China appears nervous. Putin is alone apart from the dubious company of North Korea and Belarus, an old Soviet state almost unchanged in 100 years where, as I have reported here before, is almost mediaeval once the outskirts of Minsk make way for countryside. 

We must all pray that Ukraine, that most beautiful independent European country, survives without destruction and that soon or later Putin’s inner circle make the move that all Russians deserve.

PS: All this of course has diverted attention from Partygate. Boris will not be unseated by his MPs while we are on the edge of a world war. The Great Houdini of politics will survive. But watch out for Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, the coming man.


© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre