New fiction sheds light on the scars of war in Ukraine

In his new novel, “Grey Bees,” Kurkov asks hive-mind insects to explain where he thinks humanity has gone wrong. The book is about a beekeeper named Sergey Sergeyich who lives in the “grey zone” of Donbass, between areas controlled by the Ukrainian military and those in the hands of Russian-backed separatists. (Interestingly, Gogol’s breakthrough work was “Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka,” a collection of stories told by a Ukrainian beekeeper.) Firmly neutral, Sergey has no dog in this fight – just his bees. One of his longest musings on new political realities is what will happen to his regional beekeeping society if Donetsk becomes independent. “Was there a society in Donetsk these days?” he is asking himself. “If there was, it wouldn’t be for the region, it would be for the ‘republic’, and that meant he was no longer a member.” Kurkov’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, captures the warmth of Sergey’s inner voice from the original Russian without letting seriousness creep into saccharine.

When increased shelling begins to disrupt the hives, Sergey loads them into his Lada and begins driving from town to town, eventually heading to Crimea. Over the course of the novel, his resolve to remain neutral is shaken, especially when he sees how the occupying Russian forces have treated his beekeeper friend, a Crimean Tatar named Akhtem. There are hints of a revival. He notices that his bees, which he had once announced as a species that has reached pure communism, refuse to make room for a new arrival from another hive. Suddenly, their communalism looks like little more than cruel tribalism. Sergey scolds them: “Why are you acting like people?”

Credit…via Andrei Kurkov

In a novel about neutrality and so-called gray areas, the Russian characters in “Grey Bees” strike me as oddly cold, almost monstrous – snipers, cops, Putin apologists – as if the actions of the Russian government were at some respects reflecting a deeper national character. This recalls Kurkov’s view of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples as fundamentally different, each with a unique “mentality”. While Putin tries to justify his occupation on the basis of a common history, there is indeed a strong current within the Ukrainian intelligentsia to highlight what distinguishes cultures and literary traditions. Any suggestion of syncretism or co-influence amounts to betrayal.

However, this sharing risks underestimating the diversity of influences on Ukrainian literature, as well as the indelible imprints that Ukrainian writers have left on Russian letters, from Gogol to Isaac Babel via Vasily Grossman. As Ostashevsky says: “Russian language and literature have often been influenced by Ukraine or simply made in Ukraine”. As these two books, written in the same language by a Ukrainian author and a Russian author, show, the gray areas are where the two sides merge. Today, Ukrainians are fighting for the right to be numerous, speaking several languages, refusing to be separated.


Jennifer Wilson is an essayist at the Book Review.

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