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Andrey Kurkov: ‘When the war is over, will the nation stay together?’

The Ukrainian novelist describes how people carry on their lives in a crisis
April 7, 2022

“I will be talking to you and cooking lunch for my family,” Andrey Kurkov tells me on Skype, restlessly roaming among his kitchen’s yellow cupboards. Ukraine’s best-known novelist is in a hurry. In the weeks since Russia invaded his country on 24th February, he and his family, usually based in Kyiv, have moved four times. Now they are on the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. “It seems safe,” he says, “but we just had a siren going off for 15 minutes.” He has downloaded a war notification app and has just been pinged that the danger has passed—for now.

Kurkov, now 60 and with a grizzled moustache and lively eyes, has just returned from London, where he spent two days drumming up humanitarian assistance. He has stopped working on his sequence of historical novels—about the Bolshevik occupation of Kyiv in 1919—and is instead trying to publicise his nation’s cause: “I’ve done three articles today already, and I will probably write one more later if I have enough concentration and energy.” He tears open a colourful packet and pours out some powder. The kitchen table doubles as his writing desk.

In his Ukraine Diaries, about the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests, he wrote: “war seems terribly close, closer than ever.” Was he surprised by the 2022 invasion? “Well,” he says, “I thought it was very possible, this war. But I didn’t believe until the very end that Putin would dare to start it.” Kurkov believes Putin wants his place in history as the man who rebuilt an empire. He may also be impatient, he speculates, because he is “very ill.”

Though there have been high-profile anti-war protests in Russia, Kurkov says “the majority of Russians are with Putin.” Eighty per cent, he reckons. When he visited in 2013, he found many had “Soviet-time ideas about life and politics and social issues.” Kurkov himself was born in Leningrad but raised in Ukraine. He writes in Russian but, from 2000, he tells me, “I didn’t feel any Russian identity in me, because the Ukrainians and Russians kept completely different opposite mentalities.” He sums up the Ukrainian mentality as “anarchist” and “individualistic.” Unlike autocratic Russia, his country is a noisy democracy with around 400 political parties.

He is grudging about the adulation being poured on president Volodymyr Zelensky. “He has to play the hero in order to keep up the morale of the society—he is an actor, not a very good actor—but he is doing the job well for now.” But he is scathing of Zelensky’s pre-war rhetoric. “He said… ‘I will just look into the eyes of Putin and find peace there.’ So it’s a lower level than Chamberlain.” He points out that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had been equally naive—or simply wanted to trade with Russia and so ignored the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

Kurkov’s 2018 novel Grey Bees is set in the Donbas region, in a no-man’s land between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian loyalists. It is a tragicomic fable following the life of a beekeeper who moves around a warzone trying to find a safe haven for his hives. Along the way, he reconnects with a Tatar Muslim family in Crimea persecuted by the Russians. “Many minorities were [also] ignored by the Ukrainian state… Hungarians, Moldovans, Greeks,” Kurkov tells me. “The question of nationhood was ignored until the Orange Revolution [in 2004] and Euromaidan.” Now this war is uniting everyone, he says, even those in the east who identified more with Russia. “The question will be, when the war is over, will the nation stay together?”

Kurkov is in something of a grey zone himself, trying to maintain normality as he watches Kharkiv and other cities he knows well being destroyed, as Grozny and Aleppo were before them. His English wife Elizabeth is teaching refugees; his son is helping people cross the border; meanwhile Kurkov cooks lunch, writes and broadcasts. “People have to carry on their lives, even though there’s war around them. If you stop doing what you are used to doing, then you go berserk.” He has noticed that when a siren goes off and people are making their way to a bomb shelter, “it doesn’t change the speed of their walk.”