On the morning of Feb. 25, the day after Russian bombs began falling on his country, Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s most famous living writer, received a phone call at his home near Independence Square in central Kyiv. The call was from an old friend, a businessman with close ties to the government, who had just got hold of some privileged information: Kurkov, a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin, was on a list of “pro-Ukrainian activists” drawn up by the Kremlin, whose forces could seize the capital in a matter of days. He needed to get out.
As it happened, Kurkov was working on a novel about an earlier Russian invasion, the so-called Soviet-Ukrainian war of 1917-21, in which Ukrainian nationalists, aided by various Western powers, established an independent republic for the first time in their history — only to see it swiftly absorbed into the new Communist imperium rising in the east. The novel, the third in a series of books about this turbulent period, was inspired by a cache of secret-police files, which the daughter of a former K.G.B. officer bequeathed to Kurkov several years earlier. The documents evoked, in granular detail, the terror of life under Russian occupation, as well as its piquant absurdities. Kurkov, a sly satirist in the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov, was especially delighted to learn about a Russian Underwear Tax, whereby each Ukrainian family was required to donate three pairs of undergarments to the ill-equipped Red Army. The same went for a Russian Furniture Tax, which stipulated that Ukrainian households could possess only as many chairs as there were household members, plus one for guests; the rest were requisitioned.
Now, a hundred years later, as Ukraine found itself besieged once again, Kurkov was forced to abandon his boxes of precious documents in Kyiv. He and his wife, Elizabeth Sharp, an English expat who has lived in Ukraine since their marriage in 1988, had time to gather only a few essentials (food, laptops, chargers) before loading up their car and heading to Lazarivka, a village 60 miles to the west, where they own a country house. They were not the only ones trying to flee that morning, and on the outskirts of town they hit traffic. A couple of miles to the north, Russian forces were bombarding the Antonov airfield, and the sky pulsated with explosions. Normally the drive to Lazarivka takes about an hour; that day, it took four and a half. When they finally arrived, Kurkov felt a sense of relief. He took some groceries round to their neighbors, then came back home to write an article reflecting on the day’s events. He didn’t get very far before his phone began to ring again. It was the same friend who called earlier. Where had the Kurkovs ended up? he wanted to know. The village was still too close to Kyiv, the man said on hearing the answer. They had to keep going.
Diverted from his historical novel by history in the making, Kurkov has been on the move ever since. After the second warning came through, he and Sharp got back in their car and drove to Lviv, in westernmost Ukraine, where much of the country’s intelligentsia and civil society has converged, like balls on a tilted pool table. The couple’s three adult children were spending the weekend there, and a few days later the reunited family moved once more, this time to a city in the Carpathian Mountains, near the border with Slovakia, where a contact had offered them the use of her pint-size Soviet-era apartment. In the ensuing weeks, the place became a headquarters of sorts, from which Kurkov and his family have opened up their own cultural front in the resistance to Russian aggression. While Sharp and the children, all of whom are British citizens and thus ineligible to be drafted, spent their time working with refugees, Kurkov dedicated himself to chronicling and contextualizing the war for foreign audiences, a task he has performed with prodigious zeal. Hardly a day goes by now without a new article, radio broadcast, television appearance or public lecture.
“I think everybody should do what he can do best for the country,” Kurkov said recently. “The snipers should kill the enemy. The singers should sing for the soldiers and the refugees. What I can do is write and tell things, and that is what I am doing.”
“Arrested, taken to Russia, put in prison,” Kurkov said nonchalantly, as though describing his plans for the weekend, when I asked him, in late March, what he thought would happen if the enemy got its hands on him. As he was quick to emphasize, his situation was hardly unique; in fact, it was the norm. In Russian-occupied territory in the east, the military was systematically detaining journalists and intellectuals, a number of whom have not been heard from since.
We were sitting in the library bar of the Hotel Bristol, an elegant establishment in downtown Oslo, where Kurkov — whose latest novel, “Grey Bees,” has just been published in the United States — was spending the Norwegian leg of a 10-day European tour. So far he had addressed capacity crowds and spoken to the media in London, and met with high-level politicians in Vienna. Now he was to do the same in Oslo and Paris before flying back to Kosice, Slovakia, where his trusty Mitsubishi Grandis was waiting in the airport parking garage, a 60-mile drive from the Ukrainian border. Kurkov was here to make a plea not just for compassion and support but also for understanding. “Empathy without knowledge is empty,” as he told more than one audience.
The knowledge he had come to impart was that Ukraine and Russia, for all their tragically intertwined history, were two distinct nations with two distinct mentalities — one anarchic and free-spirited, the other pliant and long-suffering. In the past 20 years alone, while Putin has been stifling dissent and consolidating his autocracy in Moscow, Kyiv has experienced a pair of bottom-up revolutions, in 2004 and 2014, each of them inspired by the wish to cast off Russian influence and forge closer ties to Europe.
Though he grew up in Kyiv and holds a Ukrainian passport, Kurkov was born in St. Petersburg and writes in Russian, his mother tongue, a fact that has long drawn ire from Ukrainian nationalists. An instinctive cosmopolitan (he speaks six languages, and his novels have been translated into 41), Kurkov has little patience for this kind of essentialism, and his work has tended to expose its hollowness. “Grey Bees” tells the story of Sergey Sergeyich, an unsophisticated ethnic Russian from eastern Ukraine whose life is upended by the war between Moscow-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government that began in 2014. Despite his heritage, Sergeyich finds himself increasingly alienated from Russia as the war engulfs his native village in the Donbas region. At the same time, his Russian identity makes him an object of suspicion to people in Ukraine. Though different from his creator in many respects, Sergeyich, like Kurkov, is a man caught between two cultures, and the book, for all its deflationary comedy, is deeply sympathetic to his plight.
When the novel was published in Ukraine in 2018, it was criticized by some for its insufficiently patriotic account of the Donbas war. Others suggested it was of interest mainly to foreigners. Kurkov sees such purism as reductive. Ukraine was ruled from Moscow for hundreds of years, and about a third of its citizens speak Russian as their first language, so to insist, as many now do, that “Ukrainian literature” means simply literature written in Ukrainian is to overlook a good deal of complexity. Some of the greatest Ukrainian-born writers, from Gogol and Bulgakov to Babel, Akhmatova, Grossman and Kuznetsov, did their work in Russian. This didn’t stop them from bearing witness to Russian crimes, including those against its smaller neighbor. “I have come up with different ways of explaining that the language is not to blame,” Kurkov wrote in a recent essay. “That Putin does not own the Russian language. That many defenders of Ukraine are Russian-speaking, that many civilian victims in the south and east of Ukraine are also Russian-speaking and ethnic Russians.” For now, however, he has dropped the subject. There are more pressing battles to fight.
‘They think you cannot mix culture and politics. I said: Maybe you cannot. I can!’
Since the start of the war, Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 have been eligible for military call-up. When I met him, Kurkov was a few weeks shy of his 61st birthday. Though he hadn’t been mobilized, he looked as though he still could do some damage on the battlefield. Short, bald and sturdily built, he wears a gray walrus mustache with varying amounts of roguish stubble. A pair of rectangular glasses sit somewhat aslant on his round face, which after weeks of frantic travel and fitful sleep showed signs of enervation. This was what I had been preparing for, a man on the edge, a beleaguered rider on history’s storm; and yet, to my delighted surprise, Kurkov proved to be a motor of vitality, thrumming with laughter and exuberant contention, anecdote and analysis, gossip and good cheer. At present, he was taking a photo of his postprandial cheese course — a wedge of Norwegian-style Gouda with a dollop of plum jam — to send to his publisher in Ukraine. Trading such photos was a longstanding tradition, he explained, inspecting the image on his phone. He seemed to think a more flattering angle was possible and had another go at it.
Many writers are deskbound anchorites; Kurkov is a compulsively social animal with a deep bench of illustrious friends. Wherever he went, he dined lavishly and stayed up talking (and drinking) until the early hours. That evening at the Bristol, beneath a row of Moorish columns and a carved wooden screen, we were joined by a contingent of Norwegian literati, several of them from Kurkov’s publisher in these parts, the venerable Cappelen Damm. Also present was Mikhail Shishkin, one of Russia’s greatest contemporary novelists, who has been living in semi-voluntary exile in Switzerland since 2013, when, in a letter to the Russian government, he described his homeland as a “pyramid of thieves” controlled by a “corrupt, criminal regime.” The following night, he and Kurkov would be sharing a stage at the House of Literature, Oslo’s premier cultural venue, in what was being billed as a “Ukrainian-Russian meeting of minds.” The two men are old friends and have little to disagree about, though when the conversation turned to the matter of cultural boycotts against Russia — the Metropolitan Opera in New York cutting ties with artists that support Putin, for instance — a note of tension began to emerge.
“Yesterday I was questioned about this for two hours by British journalists,” Kurkov, who has expressed qualified support for such boycotts, said in his pungently accented English. “And they couldn’t understand my point of view. They think you cannot mix culture and politics. I said: Maybe you cannot. I can!” He cited an open letter in support of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which was signed by hundreds of leading Russian writers and published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, one of the country’s pre-eminent weeklies, on March 4. “That’s not just about culture anymore. It’s about politics.”
His own novels, he went on, have been repeatedly banned in the country of his birth. “So tell me, who is boycotting whom?”
“Kurkov is boycotting Russia,” Shishkin, a rangy man with neat gray facial hair and probing pale blue eyes, said mischievously, to general laughter. While he shared his friend’s contempt for the moral frailty of Russia’s current cultural elite, he expressed dismay at how some canonical writers, including Soviet dissidents like Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were being thrown into the same camp on social media. Those writers were no longer around to defend themselves, he said. To pronounce upon how they would have viewed a war they never lived to see was deeply unfair.
Kurkov wasn’t so sure. Solzhenitsyn, an adherent of the doctrine that Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians were all part of a single nation, met with Putin in 2000, shortly after his ascent to the presidency, and in Kurkov’s words, “offered him advice on how to recreate a Greater Russia. Isn’t it true?” he added, his voice hardening.
“It’s absolutely true,” Shishkin said, pinching his fingers in an imploring gesture. “But when people say now, Brodsky would support this war, Solzhenitsyn would support this war, Pushkin would support this war — I don’t believe it. They wouldn’t!”
Kurkov grimaced skeptically. “I don’t know,” he said.
“I can’t imagine it,” Shishkin said after a moment. “It hurts to listen to such things.”
They ultimately agreed that the focus ought to be on those who were alive now — and why more of them were not speaking out. “I think people have become much more fragile,” Kurkov said, sounding not unlike Solzhenitsyn, who in a notorious commencement address at Harvard in 1978 argued that the West’s material abundance had brought about a corresponding “decline in courage.” Kurkov felt that something similar had happened in today’s Russia, where living standards have drastically improved since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic turmoil of the 1990s. Under Communism, he suggested, rather provocatively, the choice between the privations of a “free” existence and those of the Gulag may have seemed less stark. “Now you can have either quality of life or prison,” he said. “So they go for quality of life.”
(The Russian American journalist Masha Gessen complicated this characterization. “There have been several thousand arrests and detentions for antiwar protests since February in Russia,” Gessen wrote in an email. “That’s three orders of magnitude more dissident arrests than during any three-month period of the Soviet era. I don’t mean to suggest that Russians have done or are doing enough to stop the war. Obviously, we have not, since the war continues.”)
The atmosphere around the table was one of emergency but also of excitement and common purpose. Kurkov was talking about intelligence sharing between the United States and Ukraine when the room was suddenly filled with the rolling wail of an air-raid siren. People sitting at the nearby tables looked around, alarmed and confused.
“This is the siren where my wife is,” Kurkov said, holding up his phone and showing us an app that notifies users of incoming air raids.
Sharp was still in the Carpathian Mountains with one of their sons. Did this mean they were running to a bunker as we spoke? someone asked.
He shook his head. “You can’t run five, 10 times a day to the shelter — you just get fed up. You have to listen to the explosions, and if you see that they are not far away from you, then you go for shelter.”
Live Updates: Russia-Ukraine War
Updated May 27, 2022, 4:56 a.m. ETHere are the latest developments in the war in Ukraine.Russia makes incremental gains in ‘skirmishes and fights’ in Ukraine’s east.Fissures emerge over what constitutes victory in Ukraine.
A few days before the Russian invasion, Kurkov doubted it would happen. Now, four weeks later, he was already inured to the exigencies of war. As the rest of the table swapped worried glances, Kurkov returned to his cheese.
At a Ukrainian Army checkpoint in the eastern Donbas region in 2015.Credit…From Andrey Kurkov
The Soviet Union was an empire that specialized in failure — missed quotas, bungled engineering projects, swelling portfolios of abandoned political reforms — but it did have one resounding success. It destroyed Nazi Germany and won the Second World War. That achievement came at a cost of some 27 million Soviet lives, the highest body count of any belligerent nation. (The figure for the United States is slightly more than 400,000.) Because the Allied victory segued so smoothly into the onset of the Cold War, the scale of Soviet losses went largely unacknowledged in the West for many years. At home, meanwhile, the victory over Nazi Germany and the sacrifice it entailed became the source of an all-encompassing national mythology, which the young Kurkov readily imbibed.
His father, Yuri, was a pilot in the Soviet Air Force who had to look for new employment when Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Communist Party, decommissioned large numbers of military personnel as part of a fleeting season of good will between the world’s two superpowers that followed in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Yuri, who had been stationed near Leningrad, found a job at the Antonov aviation factory, in Kyiv, and moved his young family into an apartment building just across the street. Kurkov was 1 at the time, and he grew up to the sound of jet engines, in a country whose leaders claimed it was roaring toward the future; and yet, for all the talk of soon-to-arrive material plenty, the Soviet Union remained fixated on the past, which offered the regime a source of legitimacy as its promises were scaled back and then quietly forgotten.
As a child, Kurkov loved the lavish Victory Day parade, held each year on May 9, with its troops and tanks and blizzard of balloons. At school, he joined a military youth group, which spent its summers retracing the steps of the Red Army during the war. They dressed in full uniform and were rewarded with aluminum medals. From his maternal grandmother, who spent a part of each year living with the family, Kurkov heard stories about his grandfather, who died a heroic death in the battle to liberate Kharkiv from the Nazis in 1943. Less heroic violence was all around. His father beat him with a leather belt whenever he received poor grades at school, though after a while he started to fight back, and the punishments ceased. In the neighborhood where they lived, mass brawls between rival groups of kids were not uncommon, and Kurkov always played his part. A path to higher things presented itself in the form of literature, art and the natural world. When he was 9, he began collecting cactuses. “They were thorny, and nobody loved them,” he said when I asked him why. The hobby introduced him to botanical Latin, his gateway drug to foreign-language acquisition.
One day in the mid-1970s, Kurkov’s older brother brought home an unbound, hand-typed samizdat copy of a new work by Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago,” which had recently begun to circulate among dissidents. By then, Communism was already a punchline for most Soviet citizens, including Kurkov, yet it wasn’t until he read “Gulag” that he came to grasp the evil perpetrated in its name. Terror and slavery, the book made clear for all time, were not mere revolutionary excesses: They were intrinsic to the Soviet state. Kurkov had the manuscript for just a day or two before it had to be passed on to the next person, but its effect on him was transformative.
A few years later, while an undergraduate at the Kyiv Institute of Foreign Languages, Kurkov learned he had had two great-uncles who were sent to the Gulag in the 1930s. Neither of them had ever been mentioned. The discovery inspired him to begin his own project of historical recuperation. Posing as a student of journalism, he traveled the country with a dictation machine looking for retired public officials who were willing to talk to him about the past. In Crimea, he came across an 80-year-old man, a former prosecutor who was now working as a night watchman at a parking lot. During Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-38), when execution quotas were handed down by fiat, the man signed hundreds of death warrants without even reading them. As shocking as the information itself was the carefree tone in which he relayed it. An unrelenting Stalinist, the former prosecutor continued to see his actions as good and necessary.
When he was 9, he began collecting cactuses. ‘They were thorny, and nobody loved them,’ he said when I asked him why.
Kurkov was haunted by a question: Why did Khrushchev’s “thaw,” his efforts to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, end in such colossal failure, with the ascent of the reactionary Leonid Brezhnev, who came to power in 1964 after his predecessor was deposed in a bloodless coup? The ex-prosecutor in Crimea, who resented Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin and his halting attempts at liberalization and reform, seemed to provide an answer. Kurkov spoke to dozens of such people on his travels in the early 1980s, former Communist officials who had all but merged their identities with the institutions of the state. As they saw it, freedom, however limited and gradual, was something to be feared and resisted, a Western notion that simply made no sense in the Soviet sphere. “Our people need freedom like a monkey needs glasses,” as a party administrator says in “Secondhand Time,” an oral history of the Soviet Union’s final days by Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel laureate. “No one would know what to do with it.”
This amoral and submissive personality type — “Soviet man,” as he has been dubbed — was the subject of Kurkov’s first major novel, “The Bickford Fuse,” written in the mid-to-late ’80s, part of which he spent in the army, working as a prison guard in Odessa. The book is a work of raucous fabulation, which owes more to Bulgakov and Zamyatin than it does to Solzhenitsyn. Its main character, Junior Seaman Vasily Kharitonov, is shipwrecked in Russia’s Far East near the end of World War II. He goes to look for help, taking with him an enormous spool of safety fuse, which he attaches to several tons of dynamite in the ship’s hold. This way, he figures, he can prove to anyone he meets that he isn’t a deserter because he is still literally attached to his vessel. As soon becomes clear, the fuse is endless: Kharitonov walks thousands of miles, all the way to Leningrad, and it never runs out. Such, Kurkov suggests, is the hold of history.
During his journey, Kharitonov encounters a succession of isolated communities, each one epitomizing a different facet of the Soviet pathology. Early on, he is taken prisoner by a mad general who proudly claims not to have slept or brushed his teeth in more than a decade. “And what’re you all doing here?” Kharitonov asks one of the general’s men, Izvodyev. “Breaking out of encirclement,” he replies. “But there isn’t a soul for miles around,” Kharitonov shoots back. Izvodyev is unyielding. “The general says we’re surrounded by enemy forces,” he faithfully declares — a sentiment that Putin is exploiting to justify his own war. Later, at a musical labor camp, or Mulag, a composer begs Kharitonov to deliver a stack of sheet music to the Kremlin. “Everything I’ve written here over the years,” the man explains. “The cantata ‘And We’ll Die as One,’ a cycle about noble hatred. …” His greatest wish, after years in prison, is the approval of the state that put him there.
Beneath the acrid comedy of such episodes lies an abyss of confused sorrow. Because Kurkov’s characters lack the internal wherewithal to assimilate the devastation of the war, they fall back on official forms of mourning and remembrance. One man Kharitonov meets, a guard at a remote airstrip, is maniacally obsessed with building a giant wooden monument “To All Those Who Have Perished.” The idea sounds merely pathetic — until he begins to put it into action. Lacking materials, the locals he pays to construct the edifice start tearing down houses for the timber. Just as it was in the world of Kurkov’s youth, the future is sacrificed on the altar of the past.
The Soviet Union disappeared on Dec. 26, 1991, but Soviet man has been more tenacious. In Kurkov’s view, he was to blame for Boris Yeltsin’s failure to modernize the new Russia and now stands squarely behind Putin. His influence on Ukraine, which voted to secede from the Soviet Union a month before its eventual collapse, has been more ambiguous. In the early ’90s, Kurkov was optimistic about the country’s future and believed that democracy would soon take root. The transition proved to be more complicated. Independence was followed by a period of social and economic mayhem, which, in the words of Serhii Plokhy, a leading Ukrainian historian, made the late Soviet era “look like a paradise lost.” One casualty of this time was the publishing industry, which all but ceased to operate. Kurkov, who had failed to find a home for “The Bickford Fuse” in the waning years of Soviet rule (hardly surprising, given its content), decided he could wait no longer to launch his career. Borrowing money from friends, he published the novel at his own expense and sold it on the streets of Kyiv. Some days, he would parade in front of his stall wearing a sandwich board. “I AM THE AUTHOR,” it read. Newspaper kiosks started distributing the novel, and within a year the print run of 25,000 had sold out.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Card 1 of 4
Debating the war’s end. As the conflict rages on in Ukraine’s east, the global conversation is increasingly focusing on how the fighting could end and how to define victory — and for whom. Some Western leaders are suggesting a territorial compromise, which Ukraine opposes.
The war’s economic toll in Russia. Gripped by heavy sanctions and increasingly isolated from Western suppliers, Russia is working to keep its factories and businesses running and stave off a return to Soviet-era scarcity. Meanwhile, Russia’s central bank slashed interest rates again in an effort to prop up the economy.
Russian oil ban. The European Union has stalled on its proposed ban on Russian oil. The measure is being held up by Hungary’s refusal to back the embargo, claiming it would devastate the country’s economy.
On the ground. Moscow’s military has narrowed its focus to a 75-mile-wide sliver of land in the heart of the eastern Donbas region, which has allowed Russian forces to make incremental gains. Russia’s main immediate target remains Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control.
In the absence of a domestic book market, Kurkov began sending manuscripts abroad. He had received scores of rejections when, in 1997, the Swiss publisher Diogenes Verlag accepted his novel “Death and the Penguin.” The book tells the story of Viktor Zolotaryov, a novelist manqué in post-Soviet Kyiv who finds work writing obituaries for a local newspaper. Viktor is a descendant of the Soviet men in “The Bickford Fuse,” only here the Communist state has given way to the Ukrainian mafia. When he discovers he’s a pawn in one of their schemes and maybe even an accessory to murder, it occasions what must be the shortest crisis of conscience in Russophone literature. “Was it worth trying to discover what was going on? Worth risking comfort … and peace of mind?” The emphatic answer is: no. What redeems him, up to a point, is his affection for his pet penguin, Misha, which he has adopted from the bankrupt city zoo. Pitiably displaced and wholly dependent on his new owner, the bird is in a predicament similar to Viktor’s. Over the course of the novel, he becomes a sort of mascot for the post-Soviet condition. “The penguin is a collective animal who is at a loss when he is alone,” Kurkov has said. The book became a best seller across Europe and later in Ukraine as well.
Ever since, Kurkov has been making periodic forays around the continent, to promote his novels (he has published 24 of them, as well as many books for children) and to speak about the evolving situation back home. “The speed of life there has been three, four times faster than in any other country in Europe,” he said in a talk at Oslo’s House of Literature the night after his conversation with Shishkin. During the past 30 years, Ukrainian politics has been destabilized by both foreign interference and domestic corruption. “I can help you buy a political party in Ukraine if you want,” said Kurkov, who, for all the moral urgency of the moment, is not above cracking jokes about his country’s reputation. “Before the war it was already cheap. Now it’s probably even cheaper.”
At the same time, ordinary citizens have repeatedly shown there is a limit to what they will stand for. In 2014, in what has come to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, mass protests, centered on Kyiv’s Independence Square, brought down the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally who refused to sign a vastly popular association agreement with the European Union. Moscow responded by annexing Crimea and sending troops to the aid of pro-Russian separatists in the east, fomenting a civil war. This only served to further harden Ukrainian resolve as volunteer battalions streamed toward the front. By Feb. 23, 2022, the conflict had already claimed more than 14,000 lives.
In his House of Literature talk, Kurkov framed what is happening today as merely the latest chapter in a history of colonialism that dates back hundreds of years. Before the late 18th century, when much of what is now Ukraine was absorbed into the Russian Empire, the territory was largely controlled by Cossacks, a warrior people who chose their leader, or hetman, in a democratic ballot. Under czarist rule, Ukrainian nationalism, fueled by myths of Cossack liberty, was severely repressed, a tradition extended by the Bolsheviks. When Stalin introduced his policy of collective agriculture in 1929, forcing millions of farmers off their land, it met with especially fierce resistance in Ukraine, the so-called breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Afraid of a full-scale uprising, he intentionally starved whole regions of the country. Millions of people died as a result. Today the Holodomor (or “Death by Hunger”), as the famine came to be known, is widely acknowledged as a genocide, though for decades all mention of it was officially suppressed. Many Ukrainians, including Kurkov, learned of what happened only after 1991.
The recuperation of historical memory in the years since independence has been a force behind Ukrainian nationalism. Kurkov sees Putin’s new war, in part, as an effort to re-erase this memory. “First he was saying that Ukrainians and Russians are brothers,” he told the audience. “Recently he started saying that Ukrainians and Russians are the same. Now he says that Ukrainians don’t exist.”
“I think everybody should do what he can do best for the country,” Kurkov says. “The snipers should kill the enemy. The singers should sing for the soldiers and the refugees. What I can do is write and tell things, and that is what I am doing.”Credit…Antoine d’Agata/Magnum, for The New York Times
Keeping up with Kurkov is an endurance sport. At 4:30 the next morning, I met him at the airport for a flight to Paris. If he was tired — or homesick or contemplating his mortality — he didn’t let on. Expounding on the intricacies of cactus maintenance as we waited to check in, he was only a notch or two less sprightly than he was onstage the night before. In a trance of lassitude, I went off to look for breakfast (“They have Toblerone,” Kurkov called after me), and when I found him again, at our departure gate, he was already hunched intently over his laptop, banging out another dispatch on the war, this one for The Kyiv Post. I removed my notebook and stared at it gravely, hoping to demonstrate that I was busy, too. A single word came to mind: “Stakhanovite.”
Kurkov kept writing his article on the plane, and by the time we reached Charles de Gaulle, it was finished. He was staying in a hotel near the Jardin du Luxembourg. When we arrived there, in the pouring rain, a little after 11:30 a.m., someone from his French publisher, Liana Levi, was waiting at reception to escort him to their nearby offices, where the afternoon’s battery of interviews was scheduled. By the time I caught up with him again, for an event at the Ukrainian Cultural Center that evening, he had been awake, I calculated, for all but seven of the past 48 hours. You wouldn’t have known it. Standing before a packed audience on the second floor, Kurkov made his case, in French, for the people of Ukraine with his usual dynamism. Aggrieved sighs and bitter laughter rippled through the room, whose walls were decked with scathing antiwar cartoons by French and Ukrainian artists: Putin at the head of an empty conference table beneath a slogan inviting him to eat feces; an insecure-looking Putin exposing his genitals, accompanied by the words Moi j’ai des couilles (“I have balls”).
Kurkov was there to discuss the war, but because “Grey Bees” had recently appeared in French, the event was doubling as a book talk. Four years ago, when the novel first appeared in Ukraine, it was timely in the extreme; today it is already historical. The story takes place in 2017, three years after Putin sent his forces into the Donbas region, where, unlike the central and western parts of the country, Soviet nostalgia continues to run high. The Russian calculation was simple, Kurkov says in a foreword to the English translation of the book: “A Ukraine with a permanent war in its eastern region will never be fully welcomed by Europe or the rest of the world.”
Sergeyich, the novel’s protagonist, is quite literarily caught in the middle of this grinding conflict. The 280-mile-long front between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces is separated by a narrow strip of territory known as the “gray zone.” Most of its inhabitants fled at the beginning of the war. Sergeyich, a retired mine-safety inspector, has stayed put and is now one of only two remaining residents in the village Little Starhorodivka. “If every last person took off, no one would return,” he reasons. As shells whistle overhead and provisions run low, Sergeyich seems to think of only one thing — beekeeping. This was once a hobby, but now it has burgeoned into something more. In the absence of family and community, his hives provide him with a sense of purpose. “He had to maintain his health not only for his own sake, but also for the sake of the bees,” Kurkov writes. “If something should happen to him, they would perish in all their multitude — and he just could not allow himself to become, whether by his own will or otherwise, the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee-souls.”
Sergeyich doesn’t just care for his creatures; he admires them. The order and cohesion of the hive remind him of Soviet times. For all its deprivations, life back then made sense. Today there is only chaos and confusion. A Russian speaker, Sergeyich resents that the name on his passport is written in Ukrainian (as “Serhiy Serhiyovych”) and dismisses the Revolution of Dignity as “all that nonsense in Kyiv.” He also admires Yanukovych, the ousted president (who enriched himself and his family at considerable public expense), as someone you could “understand and trust, like an old abacus.” In other words, Sergeyich seems to be a familiar contemporary figure, the sort of jaundiced middle-aged man who whines about free speech when he is told he can’t call women “broads” anymore. Under different circumstances, he might have been a Trump voter or a Brexiteer. As it is, he appears a likely candidate for reabsorption into the Russian hive.
Kurkov is out to tell a different story, however. Sergeyich finally decides it is time to leave the village when he notices his bees are producing bitter honey — burned gunpowder has contaminated the pollen they collect. Packing the hives into his beat-up Lada, he drives first to the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region and then to Crimea, where he intends to visit an old friend, Akhtem, whom he met at a beekeeping convention years earlier. Akhtem is a Crimean Tatar, a member of the Indigenous Muslim minority, whom Russia has been persecuting ever since it annexed the peninsula in 2014. When Sergeyich arrives at his home, he learns from Akhtem’s wife that he has been taken into custody: She hasn’t heard from him in almost two years. Sergeyich is temperamentally apolitical, but as he petitions the authorities for information on his friend, he is slowly awakened to the horrors of Russian state violence. Kurkov traces the development of his rustic hero with great subtlety and care, resisting the impulse to scold or editorialize. It is hard to think of an American novelist from the cosmopolitan centers who has done the same with a rust-belt MAGA supporter.
In the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, a young compatriot asked Kurkov if he had any plans to write a novel in Ukrainian. He did not, he said, politely yet firmly. Later that evening, at the obligatory four-hour dinner, where Kurkov showed no sign of flagging, he told me how much the question irritated him. Its subtext was clear: If you didn’t use the Ukrainian language, you weren’t really Ukrainian. What’s more, it seemed to miss the spirit of “Grey Bees” itself. While the book reveals a country divided by language, region and ethnicity, it also suggests that these divisions are less entrenched than they appear. Despite his Russian roots, Sergeyich becomes friends with a Ukrainian soldier who makes periodic visits to his home. In Zaporizhzhia, a shellshocked veteran of the Donbas war takes an ax to his Lada, believing him to be a separatist, and yet this doesn’t prevent Sergeyich from forming a romantic relationship with one of the locals. An Orthodox Christian, he has to overcome an instinctive wariness of Akhtem’s observant Muslim family, though he ends up devoted to them.
The Russian invasion has shown that Ukraine’s internal divisions can indeed be overcome. Today the country is united as never before, though at considerable cost. Tens of thousands have been killed; literature itself is also a casualty. “In Ukraine, the time of books has come to an end,” Kurkov said in a recent broadcast for the BBC. “Grey Bees” is no longer available there. Publishers have suspended operations, and the last print run sold out before the beginning of the war.
At the end of “Grey Bees,” Sergeyich returns to his bombed-out home. Two days after the event in Paris, Kurkov did the same. “Because it is my country,” he said, when I asked him why he was going back, despite the danger. “It is not their country.”
At Kosice International Airport, a humble facility the size of a provincial bus station, we met up with his daughter, Gaby, who returned to London, where she lives, in early March and was now back for a visit. A lashing, Old Testament-style rain began to fall the moment she emerged from customs, and the first 30 minutes of our onward journey were like driving through a carwash. As Kurkov squinted at the road beyond his steering wheel, Gaby, who has auburn hair and pale green eyes, spoke of how the war was changing her sense of Ukrainian identity. At 24, she had already lived through two national uprisings, but neither of them had affected her like the current Russian invasion. In school, she’d had to read many of the writers who were banned during Soviet times, including the freed serf Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), one of the fathers of Ukrainian nationalism, who in his rousing poem “Testament” enjoins his countrymen to “water your freedom/with the blood of oppressors.”
“Everything was always about Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine,” she said of such literature, which left her somewhat cold at the time but has since come to feel burningly relevant. “Everything that’s happening now and everything they were talking about then suddenly makes sense,” she said excitedly.
We were traveling, at great speed, through a landscape of greens and browns — bare trees, tilled fields, a line of low vague hills huddled in the distance. Impatient drivers on the other side of the road kept crossing into our lane to pass the cars in front of them. “The Slovakians drive like the Ukrainians did 20 years ago,” Kurkov said patriotically.
I asked him when he began to feel like a Ukrainian, as opposed to a Russian or a Soviet. He mentioned the Orange Revolution of 2004, when hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets to protest a rigged election, as the moment his sense of national identity was awakened and mobilized, though its roots lay deeper in the past and were more difficult to pinpoint.
And what was the meaning of that identity? I pressed him.
“To pay taxes in Ukraine,” he said after a moment, shrugging. “I don’t like all this patriotic madness, the speeches and slogans and public singing of old folk songs. I don’t have any labels attached to me saying ‘I’m Ukrainian’ because I don’t need them. I know that I’m Ukrainian, and I don’t care what other people think.”
Dusk was falling as we approached the border town Vysné Nemecké. On our right, in a separate lane, a line of humanitarian-aid trucks stretched back for maybe half a mile. We joined a shorter line of cars waiting to cross over, and Kurkov spotted a Kyiv license plate on the vehicle in front of us. As we inched forward, a thicket of red-and-white tents rolled slowly into view. “Coffee. Tea. Sweets,” said a sandwich board outside one of them. “Chapel,” said a sign on another.
Just then, Kurkov’s air-raid app began to wail.
“I don’t miss that sound,” Gaby said.
Kurkov silenced his phone and said, “We’re being welcomed back.”
Giles Harvey is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was a profile of the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Antoine d’Agata is a French photographer, film director and member of Magnum Photos. His most recent book is “Francis Bacon/Antoine d’Agata” from The Eyes Publishing.