With this post I begin my stated attempt to get to grips with what is happening in Ukraine. To that end, I have been reading Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries – a highly readable account of life against the background of the Euro Maidan revolution. This was an uprising which began in November 2013 and was named after Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Ukraine’s Independence Square where thousands gathered to protest.
At that time, politics in Ukraine was wracked by great divisions over whether the nation should seek closer economic ties with Russia or with the EU. There were anti-government parties and pro-government parties, rather too many to list. Later on in the protests there were pro-government mercenaries to be added into a volatile mix. The main opposition party had been led by Yulia Tymoschenko who at that time was in prison on trumped up charges but still had many supporters.
I have recorded this life almost every day… a life spent waiting for war. A war that, as I write these words, seems terribly close, closer than ever.
Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine Diaries
Kurkov writes about his own life during this period with remarkable detachment considering he had 3 young children and it must have been extremely difficult. For example:
Monday, 2nd December: The maidan held firm. There was no police raid. At 2.30pm I had a meeting with Gaby’s form teacher, Galina Petrovna. We had tea at the French bakery on Yaroslaviv Val Street.”
Thursday 6th March: Still no war this morning. It is awful to think that those words may have no meaning tomorrow or the day after. But, today, all is calm in Kiev.
Ukraine Diaries was published in 2014 and yet the Ukraine people have been on the edge of, or in the case of the eastern regions of the country, in the middle of a forgotten war, for years.
An excellent essay appeared on the history of this mayhem ‘Who Controls the Past?’ written by renowned historian Simon Schama (Financial Times, 7/8 May 2022). Schama writes:
“Bad history can kill. Those who butcher the truth may end up butchering people. Every day, the news from Ukraine says as much.”
“You would think what with existential calamities – ecological and biological – bearing down hard and fast on the world, that even the most empire addicted, power-ravening despot would have better things to do than wage war in the name of hystorical myths and fables.”
Yes, you would think so! But everyday our news screens tell us differently.
Schama goes on to elucidate exactly where the ‘myths and fables’ that are driving Putin’s war of aggression upon the people of Ukraine, originate from. It is a long and complex piece, moving back and forth through time and I will not attempt to paraphrase any more than to say that the historian relates Putin’s ideas backwards in time to ancient tribal grievances and forwards to the collapse of the Soviet Union and what he terms post-Maidan Ukraine, which is a nation that predominantly wishes to align itself with the EU.
Bad history can kill. But once it has reached that stage, as matters now have in Ukraine, to those millions of people displaced and suffering it makes almost no difference whether the reasoning relates to one crazy idea or a different crazy idea. The suffering is still the same.
Sometimes fiction can give a better perspective, certainly a better humanitarian perspective, on war that non-fiction. By the same author as Ukraine Diaries, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees is just such a book. Grey Bees was published in 2018 but it could have been written last week. Particularly as in today’s newspaper there is an account of the last child in a Ukrainian village – a young boy – trapped along with other members of his family in a basement beneath a ruined medical centre, a few miles from Kkarkiv.
This novel is set post the maidan uprising that came to be known as “Euromaidan” that Kurkov wrote about in his non-fiction work Ukraine Diaries mentioned above.
Russia has annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and threatens all the cities in the Eastern region of Ukraine. Donetsk is the front line in this war between Ukrainian troops and ‘pro-Russian separatists’. They grey zone is the name given to the zone between the two sides. Most of the inhabitants of the villages in this grey zone left at the start of the conflict. In Kurkov’s novel, it is not a young child or a family, but two men who remain behind.
One is Sergeyich, a retired miner separated from his wife and daughter, who lives alone with his bees in a crumbling house in a village called Little Starhorodivka. The second man is the only other resident of this otherwise empty village – Sergey’s old ‘frenemy’ from schooldays, Pashka. Pashka’s house is ‘one street closer to Donetsk than Sergeyich’. From both their houses in the village the two men can hear shelling and bombardment. Suffice it to say it is an uncomfortable existence, both physically and mentally. They have had no electricity for three years and food is in constant shortage.
Sergeyich decides to give them a break – his bees that is. Stressed bees don’t produce honey. He lives in an exchange economy so Sergey needs his honey. Basically this lovely novel is a road trip with added bees and despite the sombre subject matter, I found it delightful. To travel anywhere during a war is not a straightforward matter:
“If it weren’t for the bees, he wouldn’t have gone anywhere; he would have taken pity on Pashka and not left him all alone. But bees don’t understand what war is. Bees can’t switch from peace to war and back again, as people do. They must be allowed to perform their main task…to which they were appointed by nature and by God: collecting and spreading pollen.”
Of course there are unsettling moments, particularly nearer the end. Sergey is, after all, a Ukrainian from the ‘grey zone’ having to pass border patrols in which neither side is particularly empathetic or helpful. Whatever else you lose you don’t dare lose your papers. The atmosphere of risk is deepened when Sergey tries to help a woman whose husband has been ‘disappeared’. The book shows us not only the physical deprivations of living in a war zone but the massively heightened levels of risk awareness that become necessary; minute to minute chances of making a disastrously wrong decision.
Here writ large is the serendipitous nature of war; the roulette wheel chances of who survives and who does not. “No-one knows exactly how many people are living like this”, Kurkov writes in his introduction to Grey Bees. “Their only visitors are Ukrainian soldiers and militant separatists. And the locals, whose chief aim is to survive, treat both sides with the highest degree of diplomacy and humble bonhomie.” The numbers of such ruined lives must have increased many times over the last months.
This is an author I must read again.