October 7, 2022
How Ukraine’s Greatest Novelist Is Fighting for His Country

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.

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