Review: Andrey Kurkov, ‘Ukraine Diaries’


History often seems obvious in retrospect; writing a diary catches it as it runs through the fingers. На русском языке



Maxim Edwards
3 September 2014

Russian forces are in Ukraine, with or without the right epaulettes. History often seems obvious in retrospect; writing a diary, it seems, catches it as it runs through the fingers. Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries, recently published by Harvill Secker, in translation by Sam Taylor, take us from 21 November 2013 – the night of the first rallies on Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence Square) – to 24 April 2014, as the Donbas descended into war; at which point, Kurkov wonders if Ukraine can survive its Victory Day on 9 May?

Andrey Kurkov is modern Ukraine’s most successful international novelist. His 2004 novel The President’s Last Love was a work of clairvoyance, starring a poisoned Ukrainian Head of State and a resurrected Vladimir Putin (after a few years ‘in the wilderness’). His Kyiv was always an absurd, gritty place of subterfuge, scandal, obituary writers, and the occasional penguin. According to arecent report, Yanukovych’s Ukraine was a country where ‘all corruption was carried out within the law’. Kurkov is sometimes described as a magical realist; in a country like this, he’s an absurdist – and a deadly serious one.

For Kyiv residents, the personal, rudely and without warning, has become politicalKurkov has kept a personal diary for 35 years. History is made at the most inopportune moments, especially when living in Kyiv’s historic centre. The sound of colliding sticks echoes through the streets – the self-defence groups are in training. The wind carried the smoke from the Maidan to the Parliament district, and past Kurkov’s flat. The first barricades, he notes, were of packed ice and snow. In mid-February, Maidan protesters were no longer hiding their faces before the cameras; and the barricades were beginning to melt. Kurkov never participates in the protests on the Maidan – he is simply a passionate observer. His life continues, and writing a diary becomes a catharsis – out of suspicion that his life will not continue as before. ‘When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent’, he notes (from the Latin saying, ‘inter arma silent Musas’) – for not only is he wedded to his muse, he is also a father and a husband. He perceptively notes his family’s reactions to the unfolding crisis – the children, after all, have something new to discuss at school. As the Maidan grows, he takes his son paintballing. Kyiv’s stairwells and flat entrances become ominous. The regime’s paid thugs – the Titushki – linger. The city’s commentariat are worried; the writing of his Lithuanian novel, Kurkov complains, is constantly interrupted. These are, after all, the reflections of a literary figure – agonisingly demonstrated as Kurkov shows a picture of himself on his novel as photographic ID. For Kyiv residents, the personal, rudely and without warning, has become political – for Kurkov as a prominent public intellectual, perhaps it always was.

‘If everyone accepts the rules, the poor police officer will find himself bound by them as well'

‘Ukrainians are tired of dreading war.’ This dread weaves through the diary, a dread rendered so mundane that it is at times itself disturbing. Kurkov’s diary is at its most compelling not among the throng of the Maidan protesters, but in its anecdotes of daily life – of Ukraine’s new normal. Numerous entries end with a note on the silence in Donetsk and Luhansk. Crimea is annexed; and the family holidays on its beaches are to become a memory, not a possibility. ‘How vast my country seems!’ exclaims Kurkov ‘Here in Kyiv, I have the impression that all this is happening on the other side of the world!’

Closer to home, he fears for the jobs of the people working at the bread factory, Kyivkhleb; and misses Crimean Tatar belyashi (fried meat in pastry). That Lithuanian novel is still unfinished; and the police have begun to stop cars flying the national flag, wary of the Automaidan. Dmitro Yarosh (head of the nationalist party, Right Sector) is driven around in a car taken from Yanukovych’s collection; and the FSB produce fake Ukrainian citizens – fodder for the Donbas – from blank passports found in Crimea. A travel agency from Krasnodar, southern Russia, organises sightseeing trips to the Maidan. Priests from the Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches debate the scriptural justification for popular uprisings. Meanwhile in Lviv, a bag containing fifty-two new pistols is found in a rubbish bin; the government did order the return of firearms, but had meant that they should be returned to the police. As the relevance of this crisis grows, and reflections on it become wider in scope, one fears that these stories will be lost in the crowd, silenced under the protesters’ chants, and invisible behind their flags.

Kurkov is a thoughtful critic of his country’s condition, and his strength as a diarist is his portrayal of these small stories and anecdotes, as reflections of a wider political crisis. ‘If everyone accepts the rules,’ he notes in his most memorable moral from the Maidan, ‘the poor police officer will find himself bound by them as well. If we don’t accept them, he will maintain the right to take ice creams for his children without paying for them; and so the kiosk owner’s children will grow up hating the police officer.’

Kurkov’s Russian ethnicity does not take centre stage in his recollections

Kurkov is, by his own admission, no political activist, and is unpartisan in his support for the protesters’ general goals. After the disappointment of the Orange Revolution, when the old mechanisms of corruption creaked back into action under Yushchenko, like so many he is disheartened, and speaks more in hope of change than sincere belief in it. On Tymoshenko’s birthday, they chant ‘freedom for Yuliya – but not power!’ Pro-Europeans took to the streets against the corruption of the Yanukovych government, wrote Kurkov, pro-Europeans ‘and others.’ That the phrase seems so anachronistic is very telling – subsequent events have long since conflated the two, for better or for worse. ‘The only essential value,’ he continues, ‘is human lives.’ Vaunted and often ambiguous ‘European Values’ are rarely mentioned.

Kurkov’s Russian ethnicity does not take centre stage in his recollections – perhaps a sign of its irrelevance to many in multi-ethnic Ukraine, home to between 8m and 14m Russians. He is Russian (russky) as opposed to a Russian (rossiyanin); and the grandson of a Red Army soldier who fell in Kharkiv in 1943 fighting fascism.

Kurkov concludes that Ukraine has learnt a cynical lesson from Europe – money matters more than convictions

After the annexation of Crimea, many have written that Russia has lost Ukraine – but what has Ukraine won? For Kurkov, in the entry for February 21, Ukraine has also been the loser, for ‘more than a hundred of its citizens have been killed.’ According to recent UN estimates, that figure (for eastern Ukraine, between mid-April and August) now stands at 2,593. Kurkov writes of a traumatised country – his Ukraine Diaries harbours neither illusions about the tremendous struggles facing Ukraine, nor disillusions about the need for dissent and the Maidan. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and the ‘civil’ in civil war – a word Kurkov feels very important to Putin – has faded away. Kurkov concludes that Ukraine has learnt a cynical lesson from Europe – money matters more than convictions. He believes that this lesson will haunt Europe for years to come. For Kurkov, the Maidan electrified Ukraine, energising its population. Nobody knew exactly what to do with this outpouring of patriotic fervour – the new government had revolutionaries, and it wanted its citizens back. But what do you do with revolutionary energy when the revolution seems over? Perhaps write a diary – that Lithuanian novel may never be finished. As they say in Ukraine, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries is published by Harvill Secker

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