Video by Jan Hennop
Brutal reality stopped internationally acclaimed Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov from writing fiction, so he instead tells the story of the Russian invasion to the world.
The 61-year-old, famous for his Russian-language satirical novel “Death and the Penguin,” has become something of a traveling cultural spokesperson for Ukraine’s war effort.
Her willing smile belies the fatigue resulting from criss-crossing European and American literary festivals to discuss her new non-fiction work, “Diary of an Invasion.”
“It’s my contribution, it’s actually my duty,” Kurkov told AFP in an interview at the Crossing Border festival in the Dutch city of The Hague, fresh from Germany.
“I’m on the western front, not on the eastern front. The eastern front is very dangerous, the western front is less dangerous, but I think it’s also important.”
As troops from Kyiv advance east and south, Kurkov says his job is to “explain to Western audiences what they don’t know and don’t understand about Ukraine.”
Exempt by age from the travel ban for Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60, Kurkov had an “exhausting” travel schedule to promote the book.
His vivid and heartbreaking diary paints a picture of life in Ukraine from December, when war threatened, until July.
From his family’s flight from Kyiv to stories of survival under siege and grandmothers carrying their roosters on trains, Kurkov reveals often surreal details.
That same absurd eye created the novels that have been translated into over 30 languages.
They include ‘Death and the Penguin’, a post-Soviet classic about an obituary writer and his flightless pet bird, and 2018’s ‘Grey Bees’, about the last two men of an eastern village. war-torn Ukraine.
But his most recent novel – the third in a series of historical mystery novels set in Kyiv in 1919 – has remained stuck on page 71 since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
“I can’t write fiction now because I only think about what’s happening in Ukraine,” he says.
When not at home, Kurkov keeps up to date with the situation through friends and family – his British-born wife and two of his three adult children stay there.
Life has “normalized” since the invasion with cafes and restaurants reopening and beauty salons being “very busy”.
But the recent Russian missile attacks on Kyiv had changed the mood again.
“People get angry, they are irritated by the power cuts of course. But they don’t back down.”
The novelist says he also wants to show Ukraine as a historical and independent country, not just part of the former Soviet Union.
“The Ukrainians have never had a Tsar, they are very opinionated. The Russians prefer stability to freedom and the symbol of stability is the Tsar — and now they have Tsar Putin.”
In the paper, he portrays the war as an existential struggle, saying “Ukraine will either be free, independent or European, or it won’t exist at all.”
Kurkov – who was born in the Leningrad region of the Soviet Union – also reveals the personal cost, saying he feared that if Russia conquered Ukraine he could become part of a generation of “executed perpetrators” like in the 1930s.
“Any Ukrainian intellectual who is active is in danger, that’s clear, so you have to accept that,” he said when asked if he fears for his safety now.
Kurkov has in the meantime decided not to publish his books in Russian until the end of the war – although he may again afterwards so that other minority Russian speakers in Ukraine do not feel “cancelled”.
The writer is not shy about expressing his opinions on the larger political situation.
Western support is “still there” but he notes fewer Ukrainian flags in European cities because “support has become a bit commonplace, trivial”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a bit crazy”, says Kurkov, estimating the likelihood of him using nuclear weapons at “10-15%”.
He also has choice words for billionaire Elon Musk, who has made controversial proposals to de-escalate the war, including recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea.
“Well, Elon Musk is an alien. He has nothing to do with reality, especially with Ukraine,” Kurkov said with a smile.