Letter of love to the Dutch friends, from Ukraine by Vadym Kastelli

Vadym Kastelli, photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli

Vadym Kastelli, photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli 

Analysis & Opinion, Russia, Ukraine

Article by: Vadym Kastelli

Vadym Kastelli, Ukrainian filmmaker, producer and interpreter sent this letter to his Dutch friends on the eve of the referendum in the Netherlands. Kastelli’s friends suggested that the appeal becomes public, so here is the full text.

This is an open confession of love to you, my friends: to those of you whom I have told of my feelings before, and perhaps more importantly – those whom I have not.

I think that this is the right time to speak about love. First, because I am getting old and time runs away quickly. Second, because a ruthless enemy is waging war against my country and killing my children, and if tomorrow he comes close, there will be too little room left for love.

So let me do it now.

I fell in love with your faraway land when I was nineteen. Her name was Akke, she was a student and a tourist, and I was a student and a guide for that noisy and free-wheeling group of Dutch boys and girls on a summer visit to the USSR. The trip took us to the somber underground chapels of the medieval Lavra Monastery in Kyiv and the warm Black Sea waves under the starry Crimean sky. It was there that you, Akke, taught me my first words in your guttural language as you tried to explain the difference between Ik hou van jou and Ik ben verliefd op jou. I pretended I did not understand and you promised to send me textbooks. You probably did, but the communist customs officers must have destroyed them as they looked too nice and liberal, bourgeois propaganda. I guess this is why I never learned to speak Dutch. Did I ever tell you that you were my first love, Akke?

Soviets would not allow me to go abroad as my father was a Ukrainian writer and dissident, so KGB arrested and killed him. I studied your landscapes through the eyes of Vermeer and your history through Tijl Uilenspiegel’s adventures.

Do you know, incidentally, that the story of the Dutch revolution was so popular in my country that a unit of young Ukrainian nationalists who courageously fought the Nazis and then the Soviets throughout 1940s and 50s called itself Orangists, in memory of Willem van Oranje?

I am grateful to Robert van Voren, the Chief Executive of Global Initiative on Psychiatry, and not only because he was the first who finally helped me come to the Netherlands after the USSR collapsed, but because of his relentless campaign against the political abuse of psychiatry by Communists that helped my country break away from that terrible Soviet legacy as it reformed the Ukrainian psychiatric care system. Did I ever tell you, Robert, that it was your boundless energy and your belief in my nation’s future that inspired me to study filmmaking and start producing documentaries?

Vadym KAstelli at work. Photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli

Vadym KAstelli at work. Photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli

Our journalist NGO made the films that were hard to fund as we covered unpopular areas: election fraud, drug addiction, disability rights, domestic violence… A top manager of a major Ukrainian TV channel told me, “Why are you so serious? People want to be entertained, and nothing else!” My deep gratitude goes therefore to Matra Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands that has supported our work as well as hundreds of civil society initiatives. Whoever invented that programme did a great job to promote democracy, human rights and respect for minorities in my country. Although Katharina and Pieter turned down some of my proposals they could really smell a good project, such as when we suggested to make a video tool for disabled people with spinal cord injuries that would teach them various wheelchair techniques. Five years after the toolkit was produced, our NGO keeps printing thousands of DVDs annually and distributing them for free among disability centers, associations and hospitals.

The demand for these videos is now growing in Ukraine, as well as for wheelchairs, artificial limbs, and blood donations. Every week Ukrainian men lose their legs and arms at the front, they get maimed and killed. Marieke asked me once, “Why are you fighting this war? Can’t you just make peace with your opponents?”

You may not remember it, Marieke, but when Hitler attacked the Netherlands in May 1940 you did not make peace with him, your soldiers and pilots fought the overwhelming enemy force with bravery, perhaps with hopeless courage. Putin, the Hitler of today, did the same to us when he sent his regular army to seize Crimea and then invaded our eastern provinces with hundreds of tanks and deadly missile launchers.

He was sure it would be a blitzkrieg, but we managed to stop him at the cost of thousands of lives – and thanks to your support, the firm position of the West, including the Dutch Government. If it were not for your sanctions against Putin’s KGB-run economy, my Kyiv could have been lying in ruins like Rotterdam once was and bombs would have been blowing up in all the European capitals.

You know, Marieke, why the Russian dictator started all that carnage? You may be surprised: it was because of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, the very document that some people in your country are now suggesting to kill. After ten long years of meticulous technical negotiations, my country was ready to sign it in October 2013 and all of Ukrainians were looking forward to that day – literally everyone, nobody was opposed to it! And it was not that the Agreement invited Ukraine to become an EU member or promised to give it billions of euros, nothing like that, for all of us it was just a push, an incentive to develop faster, start new businesses and promote integrity.

But it meant that we would move away from the totalitarian and corrupt Russian ordnung, so Putin ordered the greedy and stupid Ukrainian President not to sign it. You may remember what followed, it was on TV screens all over the world: the students protested, they were brutally beaten by the police, then millions of people went out to the streets, more police was brought in, clashes started, then they began firing at the crowd, the shaking President ran away, an interim government was formed, and Putin went mad with anger as he saw a part of his empire getting out of his control.

Vadym KAstelli at work. Photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli

Vadym KAstelli at work. Photo from https://www.facebook.com/vadim.kastelli

Robert Serry, an experienced Dutch diplomat, was working as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process at that time, but the UN Secretary General asked him to go to Ukraine as Robert had been the first Ambassador of the Netherlands in Kyiv and knew my country very well. After meetings in the capital Robert flew to Crimea that was already packed with Russian soldiers, and he suggested that I go with him. You know, Robert, I never had a chance to thank you for that trip, in spite of everything that happened, and I really mean it because I saw you at work and I realized how powerful professional diplomacy could be.

I felt that after several days of talks with the local chieftains your experience, your logical approach and the weight of the United Nations could do miracles, and a peaceful and legitimate solution could be shaped up. Unfortunately, Russians realized it too, so they cut your talks short, had a mob stop our van in the center of Simferopol and told you they were taking us to the airport and deporting. When you opened the door and walked right into the raging crowd and then away, they were stunned. Frankly, so was I: how could you be so composed and fearless? The goons made frantic phone calls and eventually received an order to run after you. My door was blocked, so all I could do was call all the reporters that I knew were in town and tell them to hurry your way. Luckily, the mobsters did not touch you, perhaps the media presence helped, but they did force you to go to the airport and put you on the last departing flight to Istanbul. I was locked for the night in a room of an empty airport hotel and then sent back home. The following day Moscow announced that Crimea would shortly have a “referendum” to join Russia.

MH-17 was shot down by a Russian missile on July 17, killing 298 people, of whom 173 Dutch.

I was visiting friends in the Hague on that day, and when I heard the news I walked out of their house and roamed the streets aimlessly, seized by a single feeling: shame.

I was ashamed to be walking amid Dutch people where any passerby could be a family member of someone no longer alive. What if somebody asked me where I came from? How could I look them in the eyes?

I felt shame because I should have talked and explained and convinced so many Russians that I used to know. Many of them were once good and intelligent people. Yes, now most were brainwashed and glassy-eyed, but anyway I should have tried harder.

I was ashamed to be Ukrainian and not at the front. My wife tells me I can’t shoot anything, except film maybe, but I think I can still learn, can’t I?

I did call my cameraman Victor and asked him to travel 600 km to the crash site with foreign journalists, risky as it was, and try to film as much as he could. One day I should brace myself up to make a documentary.

My dear friends. I have said it before and will say it again: please forgive me. I do not know if I could prevent it, but I should have tried.

I said I would talk of love, so here it is.

Judge Frans van Arem.

Most Ukrainians do not believe in fair trial as our previous governments have turned the courts of law into hotbeds of corruption. A real judicial reform is only starting now and it can take years, so when Frans came to Ukraine and said he had a quick and effective solution, everybody smiled ironically. But he insisted, and his reputation was so impressive that soon the first groups of lawyers and judges gathered to hear what that strange thing called mediation was.

He taught them for a week and changed their mindsets completely. God knows where he found time with all his work as lawyer, mediator, manager and coach, but he came down again and again to teach more Ukrainians. As a result, several courts have started providing mediation, a law has been drafted, and more people are turning to mediators as they do not demand bribes and the process is swift. I once asked him, “Frans, you have almost singlehandedly shaken that sluggish system that seemed frozen for ages, how do you do it?” He said with his usual smile, “I just love the job, and with love you can do things much faster.”

Media Guru Ad van Loon.

My country has good investigative journalists and brave reporters but the media are owned by tycoons, TV technology is obsolete, and for years Ukraine has remained the only country in Europe without public service broadcasting. The EU and Council of Europe asked Ad as a leading advisor on European media standards to help.

He dropped his prestigious classes at a New York law school and practically moved to Ukraine for two years, bringing along so much energy and knowledge that soon we had an action plan for digital switchover, a law on access to information, regulations on public broadcasting and disclosure of media ownership. Then the government changed and the pro-Russian administration halted all media progress for almost three years, but it is coming back now – transparency rules are enforced, media diversity is growing, and we finally have a public broadcasting service!

Perhaps you can come to Ukraine for a couple of years again, Ad?

Hotelier Lars Sammelius.

I always thought Dutch men were pragmatic, until I met him on a plane to Kyiv. He was flying to Ukraine because he had a vision of a beautiful modern hotel that Kyiv just had to have. I was cautious: “Do you think it will be profitable soon enough?”, I asked. It turned out I was too down-to-earth for Lars. He said, “You live in a city that is more than a thousand years old, that has baroque churches, white beaches, blossoming chestnut trees, and the most stunning girls in the world! I love this place, and it must have a stunning hotel, too!” That dream hotel was built in downtown Kyiv, against all odds, he trained its staff and managed the hotel until it started shining. And Lars, special thanks for teaching the chef to make perfect bitterballen.

Each of these men worked with that stubborn Dutch belief that even one person can bring about change, with stamina, skills, and perseverance. This personal example is what my people need so much now. We were once a nation where individual effort was a distinct feature of the Ukrainian farmers who worked hard on our famous black soils making Ukraine the breadbasket of Europe. The Russian empire tried to replace the individual spirit with collectivism, and communists consummated that policy by killing over seven million Ukrainian farmers and their families. Dutch friends are helping us regain that spirit now, and we respond with enthusiasm, especially when we feel support.

This is why we need the association with Europe: to feel your support and encouragement while we do our own homework.

Such as the support that we are getting right now from the Dutch Legal Aid Board as Ukraine is building from scratch its system to provide free legal aid to the needy. Do you know that you have an amazing conflict resolution tool called Rechtwijzer? Your experts are eagerly sharing your best practices with us in this area as well as in agriculture, forestry, bio-energy technologies, and many other fields.

The other day I received a letter from Liselotte where she wrote, “Please understand that this referendum has very little to do with your country: we are just fed up with our own Government policies so it is a way for us to express our dissatisfaction, and Ukraine simply happened to be the object.”

I can surely agree that there may be people who do not like their government, whether in the Netherlands or Ukraine. What I cannot agree with is to be just an accidental object of somebody else’s game.

A negative referendum result would make Putin happy, perhaps even give him more crazy ideas such as train more terrorists or shoot down more passenger planes. You think he can’t do it, Liselotte? I am afraid he can – he hates the West as much as he hates Ukraine.

My people are looking at your country with gratitude for what you are doing for us. And with admiration, too, because you have many wonderful things that you are so used to that you take them for granted, such as pluralism, competition, non-partisan civil service, but also security and robust defense. We see them and we try to learn from you in the hope that one day, if we work hard, we can have all that in our life, too.

Is this just some wild hope? We Ukrainians are full of it. I know, my friends, that many of you are afraid of open borders because you think that thousands of unskilled Ukrainian workers and their families may join African refugees in flooding your cities. This will not happen.

When Putin sent his thugs, tanks and missiles to crush our freedom, 1.5 million people had to flee their homes in the east. Only a handful of them left Ukraine.

I often visit the towns and villages that have given shelter to these people. Life is difficult there as nobody was prepared for such a humanitarian disaster in the 21st-century Europe, and local residents share even their basic necessities with the internally displaced. When I talk to the refugees, they all tell me about their dream: to go back home and to start a new life, in the land free of violence, hate speech, and corruption. They want the same thing that I want, to build a new Ukraine that will move, with small or big steps, away from the dark age of dictatorship and toward freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The things that we call, for short, the European values.

I look at their faces and into their eyes, full of resilience, determination to survive, and that wild hope, and I believe that they will make it. They only need my support along the way.

Just as I need yours now.

With love from Ukraine,
Vadym Kastelli
Filmmaker, producer, interpreter

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