Ukraine's Andrey Kurkov on shock, optimism and the resilience of ordinary people
When Russian bombs started falling on Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov observed that the new reality "far outdoes my writer's imagination."
His family joined Ukraine's more than five million internally displaced persons, settling in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, in the far west of the country. There, Kurkov turned to reporting on the war — writing articles, essays and personal diaries.
He draws on those reports in his new book, Diary of an Invasion, which chronicles the lead-up and first five months of the war, fusing the personal, historical and political. It highlights the minutiae of daily life and the small acts of resilience of ordinary Ukrainians.
Kurkov is best known for his 1996 satirical novel, the international bestseller Death and the Penguin. His recent novel Grey Bees explores the war in Donbas in eastern Ukraine — which began in 2014 — through the eyes of a beekeeper living in the crossfire. It won the 2023 National Book Critics Circle award for Boris Dralyuk's translation.
In early 2023, Kurkov accepted a short-term teaching job at Stanford University. He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Mountain View, Calif.
The last borscht in Kyiv
"[On the eve of Russia's war with Ukraine], I was cooking borscht. It's a traditional beetroot soup which has 300 or 400 recipes in Ukraine.
"Ukrainians believe that the borscht was invented in Ukraine because beetroot was so popular. Ukrainians are very fond of cooking and Ukrainian cuisine is very time consuming. Ukrainians have a cult of food in a way: when people compare how Ukrainians and Russians celebrate, they always say that Ukrainians eat more than drink and Russians drink more than eat.
"[But] I couldn't imagine that Russia would bomb and shell all cities and towns in Ukraine in one night. I didn't want to believe it. I had a feeling that something was coming, but I was trying to make this something smaller, less significant, less dramatic and less violent.
I couldn't imagine that Russia would bomb and shell all cities and towns in Ukraine in one night. I didn't want to believe it.- Andrey Kurkov
"My attitude was probably also influenced by the naivety of Europe and the world toward Russia. Europe was always charmed by Russia, crazy about Russia, crazy about the mystical Russian soul, et cetera. Russian culture was so much appreciated everywhere in the world. When you think that one country's culture is so important, you [also] think that it will not do anything wrong. That it will not commit atrocities or war crimes.
"My unpreparedness was also caused partially by the unpreparedness of the world to this kind of disaster."
The power of personal diaries
"At some point, I was writing a diary entry every morning, just like improvising on piano before playing a proper piece. I write mostly about political developments and my life in the context of these political changes that are happening around me and my family.
"I loved reading diaries when I was younger. I found them much more interesting than fiction. It's because of my interest in history; I'm still interested in the events of 1917 to 1920. I remember the diaries of Alexander Blok, the famous Russian poet who was describing a quite horrific life in Saint Petersburg, formerly known as Petrograd, at that time.
At some point, I was writing a diary entry every morning, just like improvising on piano before playing a proper piece.- Andrey Kurkov
"And from his diaries, I was getting the atmosphere of real daily life. From history books, you can understand political significance — and how one thing led to another — but you cannot imagine how people were living through these changes.
"The diaries give you this possibility to feel it as if you are personally witnessing the events."
Animals in my fiction
"As a child I had many pets. Most of my pets actually died tragically, sometimes because of my neglect. I actually started writing because of the death of my hamsters. At the age of seven, I had three hamsters, and when two of them died, I wrote my first poem about the loneliness of a hamster who lost his friends.
"So when I started writing prose, I started to immediately write about animals — I was trying to give them additional life, or compensate them for my neglecting them as a child.
"Animals are natural, unlike people. They are predictable. So I think it's interesting to have an animal together with humans in one story. Animals behave according to their natural instincts — and humans behave according to the situation, their level of morality or their political views."
The power of resistance
"With the Easter holidays, we had huge queues of Ukrainians, at the border of Ukraine, coming back from Europe. It's like 130,000 people entering Ukraine every day for the Easter holidays to be together with their families. And this is incredible.
"People don't want their life and routines to be stopped by the enemy, to be stopped by Russia. Some of the actions of these people are foolhardy. They are unnecessary. We had cases, in the Odessa region, where people went to swim where they were told not to swim — and they died because of the explosions of the mines in the area.
People don't want their life and routines to be stopped by the enemy, to be stopped by Russia.- Andrey Kurkov
"Theatres and restaurants are full in Ukraine. Even in the towns near the frontline, the cafes are working, unless they are destroyed by the shells. So for me, this is a sign of the resistance.
"It is a strong message, I think, to Putin and his people."
Andrey Kurkov's comments have been edited for length and clarity.