Kurkov continued to write his article on the plane, and by the time we got to Charles de Gaulle, it was over. He was staying in a hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens. When we got there, in the pouring rain, a little after 11:30 a.m., someone from his French editor, Liana Levi, was waiting at reception to escort him to their neighboring offices, where the battery was planned. afternoon interviews. 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 almost seven of the last 48 hours. You wouldn’t have known. In front of a full house on the second floor, Kurkov pleaded, in French, for the Ukrainian people with his usual dynamism. Distressed sighs and bitter laughter rumbled through the hall, whose walls were adorned with scathing anti-war caricatures by French and Ukrainian artists: Putin at the head of an empty conference table under a slogan inviting him to eat excrement; an insecure-looking Putin exposing his genitals, accompanied by the words I have balls (“I have balls”).
Kurkov was there to discuss the war, but because “Grey Bees” had recently appeared in French, the event doubled as a conference on the book. Four years ago, when the novel first appeared in Ukraine, it was timely; today it is already historic. The story takes place in 2017, three years after Putin sent his forces to the Donbass region, where, unlike the center and west of the country, Soviet nostalgia continues to run rampant. The Russian calculation was simple, Kurkov says in a preface to the book’s English translation: “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 literally caught in the middle of this bitter conflict. The 280-mile-long front between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces is separated by a narrow strip of territory known as the “grey zone”. Most of its inhabitants fled at the start of the war. Sergeyich, a retired mine safety inspector, stayed behind and is now one of only two remaining residents of the village of Little Starhorodivka. “If every last person left, no one would come back,” he reasons. As shells whistle overhead and supplies run out, Sergeyich seems to be thinking of only one thing: beekeeping. It used to be a hobby, but now it has become something more. In the absence of family and community, his hives give him meaning. “He had to maintain his health not only for his own good, but also for the good of the bees,” writes Kurkov. “If anything were to happen to him, they would perish in all their multitude – and he simply could not afford to become, whether by his own will or not, the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee souls .”
Sergeyich doesn’t just care about his creatures; he admires them. The order and cohesion of the hive reminds him of the Soviet era. Despite all its hardships, life then had meaning. Today there is only chaos and confusion. A Russian-speaker, Sergeyich dislikes having the name on his passport written in Ukrainian (like “Serhiy Serhiyovych”) and dismisses the Dignity Revolution as “all that nonsense in Kyiv”. He also admires Yanukovych, the ousted president (who enriched himself and his family through massive public spending), as someone you could “understand and trust, like an old abacus.” In other words, Sergeyich seems like a familiar contemporary figure, the kind of yellowish middle-aged man who complains about free speech when told he can’t call women “broad” anymore. In other circumstances, he might have been a Trump voter or a Brexiteer. As things stand, he appears to be a likely candidate for reabsorption into the Russian hive.
Kurkov wants to tell a different story though. Sergeyich finally decides it’s time to leave the village when he notices that his bees are producing bitter honey – the burnt gunpowder has contaminated the pollen they collect. Packing the hives in his battered Lada, he travels first to the nearby region of Zaporizhzhia, then to Crimea, where he intends to visit an old friend, Akhtem, whom he met on a beekeeping convention years earlier. Akhtem is a Crimean Tatar, a member of the indigenous Muslim minority, that Russia has persecuted since he annexed the peninsula in 2014. When Sergeyich arrives home, he learns from Akhtem’s wife that he has been taken into custody: she has not heard from him for almost two year. Sergeyich is by nature apolitical, but as he asks the authorities for information about 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’s hard to think of an American novelist from the cosmopolitan centers who has done the same with a rusty MAGA supporter.
During the question-and-answer session that followed his speech, a young compatriot asked Kurkov if he planned to write a novel in Ukrainian. He didn’t, he said politely but firmly. Later that evening, at the obligatory four o’clock dinner, where Kurkov showed no sign of weakness, he told me how irritated the question was. Its subtext was clear: if you didn’t use the Ukrainian language, you weren’t really Ukrainian. Plus, it seemed to lack 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 befriends a Ukrainian soldier who makes periodic visits to his home. In Zaporizhzhia, a shocked veteran of the Donbass war gives his Lada an ax, believing him to be a separatist, and yet this does not prevent Sergeyich from forming a romantic relationship with one of the locals. An Orthodox Christian, he must overcome an instinctive mistrust of Akhtem’s observant Muslim family, though he eventually comes to be devoted to them.