A humorous Ukrainian writer, with nothing to laugh about
By Alex Marshall
Andrey Kurkov, one of Ukraine’s most renowned authors, is often called a comic novelist for books like “Death and the Penguin,” about an obituary writer who takes in a penguin from a failing zoo.
But since Russia invaded his country Thursday, Kurkov said he “didn’t feel ready to laugh at anything.” He had stopped writing a new novel, he added in a telephone interview from his home in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, on Thursday, and was devoting his time to speaking with reporters to explain what was happening in his country.
Kurkov has long been bringing wider attention to Russian aggression in Ukraine. His 2018 novel, “Grey Bees,” which is scheduled for release in the United States in April, is set in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine where, in 2014, rebels loyal to Russia declared independence for the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The book follows two old men living in the neutral zone between Ukrainian army positions and those of the separatists, one of whom is seemingly more interested in tending his honeybees than in the conflict around them.
In the interview, Kurkov talked about “Grey Bees,” how the war would change Ukrainian literature and his hopes for the future. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: You’re at home in Kyiv. What is life like for you?
A: Well, earlier we were looking for shelter because the neighbors started shouting that an air raid was coming, and instead of shelter, we went to the Radisson Hotel and stayed there for half an hour.
Then we went to my friend who has a shelter in his house. But it was very shabby and not nice. There were more explosions, but then there was some quiet so we returned home.
Q: Some readers will turn to “Grey Bees” to try and learn about the background to this conflict. Why did you decide to write about the earlier war in the east of Ukraine?
A: Well, I wasn’t planning to write this book, but in 2014 we had an influx of refugees from Donbas in Kyiv, and I met a young businessmen from Donetsk who was driving every month to a village not far from the front line, where seven families remained: without shops, without electricity, with nothing. So he was bringing them medicines and whatever else they asked for, and they were saying thanks by giving him jars of preserved vegetables and pickles.
I had this idea that there were thousands of people stuck between the Russian army and Ukrainian army, with nowhere to go, and wanted to give a voice to those people.
Q: In the book, your two main characters are just dealing with daily life; they don’t seem to care about politics or war.
A: People just want to survive. And people adapt to war, if it’s not destroying them personally. I went there three times, and I noticed that even the children could tell what rocket or mine caused an explosion, just by its sound. War became something banal, part of life.
Q: Given you saw the conflict up close, did you ever expect this invasion?
A: No, until several weeks ago, I didn’t think it was realistic. And then I noticed that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin became very old, very quickly, and started talking like (Josef) Stalin before his death. Putin has a dream of re-creating the Soviet Union, and he considers everybody who doesn’t love Russia, but understands the Russian language, as traitors. And he loves to kill traitors.
Q: Since 2014, what effect has the upheaval in Ukraine had on literature in the country?
A: Before the war, there was no war literature. It was mostly sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — and crime stories, of course. But this war created a parallel literature — literature written by war veterans, by volunteers. Those authors are probably already on the way to the front lines.
If Ukraine survives, it will create even more militant literature. And that doesn’t mean that the literature will become better. It just means that literature will be more politicized — like Soviet literature, but with a different kind of propaganda or patriotic ideas.
Q: It sounds like that development worries you.
A: It does, because in Russia, traditionally writers are serving the government and its ideology. But in Ukraine, writers are serving themselves and their readers. I mean, the government never took interest in what writers were writing. That’s why we had so many books about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and not many about Ukrainian history.
Q: As well as talking to reporters, you’ve been writing guest essays for newspapers and magazines, to get the word out about the situation in Ukraine. What message do you want to give to New York Times readers?
A: Generally, I would like to explain the difference between Russians and Ukrainians, Russian history and Ukrainian history, Russian mentality and Ukrainian mentality. Because Putin and all his cronies repeat every day that Ukrainians and Russians are the same — that we are brothers and they have to live together. It is not true. It’s a long story, but Ukrainians for 300 years were independent from the Russian czars and from any kind of imperial rule.
Q: For our readers looking to learn about Ukraine at this moment, what book would you suggest they read?
A: I have my favorite writers I can recommend, like Maria Matios — she’s originally from Bukovina, near the border with Romania. She is the author of one of the best novels written since independence called “Sweet Darusya.” It’s about two villages in Bukovina, and life there from the 1920s to the 1990s. It’s about horrible things, but it’s written in such a wonderful language that you fall in love with every character and you feel for them. It’s an emotionally very powerful book.
Q: What do you hope will happen now?
A: Well, my only hope is that the world finds a way to stop Putin and to leave Ukraine in peace because his goal is to destroy the country and to destroy Ukrainian independence. And if it happens, then half of the country will leave to Europe — they’ll be immigrants or refugees — and everything that will remain will be destroyed by the Russians who’ll behave like Bolsheviks in 1919.