ANDsa young man, Andrey Kurkov traveled round the USSR – on trains, riverboats and in lorries he’d hitched a lift on – interviewing former Soviet bureaucrats. He’d read a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prohibited The Gulag Archipelago and wanted to know more about the gulag itself. One judge he met owned up to signing 3,000 death warrants for people sentenced without trial. The experience was a lesson to Kurkov about the suppression of memory and truth: members of his own family had suffered forced deportations, famine and decades in the camps, but such traumas weren’t ever discussed. For Kurkov – ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking but long based in Ukraine – truth-telling has been a mission ever since.
He’s best known for novels such as Death and the Penguin and Gray Bees. But after the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he put together a set of dispatches in a book called Ukraine Diaries. Now he’s done the same around this year’s Russian invasion, with journal entries that run until mid-July. The epilogue tells us to expect more; he’s still keeping a diary, sometimes in disbelief (“This new Ukrainian reality far outdoes my writer’s imagination”), sometimes in dismay (“Will I ever be able not to write about the war?”) and sometimes with a pleasing samurai aphorism in his head (“If you sit on the riverbank for a very long time, then sooner or later the corpse of your enemy will float past you downstream”).
The diaries begin last December, two months before the war did, and include items that might not seem pertinent: power cuts, Pushkin, Covid, drink-driving, hipster bookshops, school meals and whether Ukrainian is a sexier language than Russian. But underneath is a constant fear of imminent conflict. It’s not as if war isn’t happening already: Kurkov’s 2018 novel Gray Bees, set in the zone between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, was a reminder of ongoing hostilities in the east. And he knows what’s coming will be bigger and worse, with “horrors that have no place in contemporary life”.
He was at home in Kyiv when the first missiles hit, before driving at a snail’s pace to the village where he has a house (“The front was everywhere”) and from there, for another 22 hours, to the safer haven of Transcarpathia. He made occasional trips over the western border in the following weeks but never for long: “I stay and will continue to write for you so that you know how Ukraine lives during the war.” The “you” he addresses are readers in the west, whose governments, he hopes, will take his country’s side. Germany is reproached for its reluctance to provide aid and Greece for its equivocation. President Zelenskiy is praised but not adulated for his speeches. Boris Johnson doesn’t get a mention.
Kurkov’s line on the war, as “aging Putin’s last chance to fulfill his dream of recreating the USSR”, is familiar. So is his riposte to the allegation that Ukraine is anti-Russian and antisemitic: if it were, why would a Russian-speaking Jew be elected as its president with 73% of the vote? What the book offers that international reportage can’t is surprising detail: Ukrainian farmers sowing seed – rape, buckwheat and rye – despite the risk from Russian shelling and landmines; an 85-year-old woman taking her rooster with her when she’s evacuated and the rooster waking her exhausted fellow evacuees at 4am; thousands of people buying tickets to a zoo they can’t visit because they want the animals to be fed; passages on dentistry, petrol scams, dolphins and “little graves days”, when people tend to their loved ones’ resting places. War is an ugly tumor, with countless civilian and military deaths every day. But it also provides opportunities: “You can learn to bake paskas [sweet bread] in a damaged stove. You can get a tattoo for the first time in your life at the age of 80. You can start learning Hungarian or Polish. “
Kurkov draws on social media posts, phone calls and conversations at the local sauna. He’s the least self-absorbed of commentators, but personal stuff does seep in. He won’t cry, he says, but sometimes wells up and has lost his sense of humor. He worries about friends and feels he has no time to waste – “You’re walking too fast,” his Surrey-born wife complains on their daily stroll. Will he ever get back to writing fiction, he wonders. “War and books are incompatible,” he decides: bookstores have closed and a paper shortage has hit the publishing industry. Even the filming of Gray Bees, in the Donbas, has to stop. Worse still, tonic water isn’t available in supermarkets, which means he can’t have his evening G&T.
His voice is genial but also impassioned, never more so than when deploring Putin’s efforts to erase Ukrainian culture and history. Ukraine, he says, “will either be free, independent and European, or it will not exist at all”. That’s why the war has to be fought, with no concession of territory. And he remains quietly hopeful that it will be won.