In his new book, a version of the diary he has been writing since Russia invaded his country last February, the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov writes, among other things, of soup. It is July and on the cultural front, where fighting with Russia has also been “very active”, there is at last good news for Ukraine: Unesco has just registered the culture of Ukrainian borscht as part of its intangible heritage. Kurkov, like the rest of his countrymen and women, is thrilled. Apparently, the world disagrees with Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, who has repeatedly tried to defend Russian borscht from the “encroachment of Ukrainian nationalists”.
Kurkov is a good cook and on the night of 23 February, it was ruby-colored borscht, made from beetroot and garnished with sour cream and dill, that he was preparing for a group of visiting journalists at his apartment in Kyiv (in Ukraine, there are said to be 300 different ways of making the dish). His guests would never taste the result. At five o’clock the next morning, he was woken by three loud explosions: Russian missiles had hit Ukraine; the war had begun. By 1 March, he and his English wife were living hundreds of miles away in western Ukraine, their lives suddenly and very painfully changed. “I could not imagine that [my] happiness could be destroyed so easily,” he says of finding himself an internally displaced person (until recently, half of Ukraine’s population were IDPs or refugees). “I thought my happiness was not material, but a state of mind, like the energy arising from eye contact with another person.”
Kurkov’s diaries, extracts from which he has broadcast on the BBC and published around the world, make the early days of the war vivid for the reader. He writes stirringly of the notes people begin leaving in their cars offering lifts to the border; of his sudden longing for the comforting sweetness of honey; of the cigarettes required to bribe Russian soldiers at checkpoints in the east. Here are the kind of stories you don’t see on the television news: a description of the evacuation of dolphins trained to work with autistic children from Kharkiv to Odesa; of the doll talismans (known as oberig or “protectors”) that Ukrainians knit and transport to the front along with warm socks; of the rise of the TikTok star Tetyana Chubar, a tiny, blond, 23-year-old divorced mother of two, who is the commander of a self-propelled howitzer.
But for him, those first strange and frightening weeks already feel like a different age. So much has happened since. His family – he has three grown-up children – has returned to Kyiv now, the city having opened up “like a beehive” once again and henceforth he is on the road, crisscrossing Europe, taking full advantage of the fact that, at 61 , he is permitted to travel (Ukrainian men younger than 60 are not allowed to leave the country, on the grounds they may be required to fight). France, Germany, Norway, Iceland: everyone wants to hear him speak and he’s happy to oblige. He doesn’t expect to be back in Ukraine for weeks.
Today, though, he is in London, en route to a family wedding in Oxford, and he has somehow made time to come my house for tea. What do the strangers he meets most want to know? I ask, ignoring the fact he has a mouthful of cake. They have two questions usually, he says. First, they need him to explain why Putin became – suddenly, in their eyes – so aggressive. Second, they want to know why the Ukrainians have resisted so fiercely.
And how does he answer? He disagrees slightly with those who talk of Putin’s imperial ambitions. “It’s his hatred for Ukrainian society that lies behind his aggression,” he says. “The Ukrainian mentality is the opposite to the Russian mentality. In Russia, the Soviet idea of collective responsibility is still there – people are loyal to the government and they live in expectation of things like nepotism –whereas in Ukraine, people are individualists. They have opinions they want to defend. There are over 400 political parties registered at the ministry of justice in Ukraine.” He laughs. “Basically, Russians are monarchists and Ukrainians are anarchists.” And this is why they’re fighting so hard. If the war has strengthened Ukrainians’ sense of nationhood, they are also motivated by the fear “of living in the Soviet Union again… Russia is an authoritarian state and people in Ukraine are used to freedom, to being able to protest if they’re unhappy.”
Kurkov is best known for his 1996 novel Death and the Penguin, a book that has been translated into more than 30 languages. When the war began, he was hard at work on a new novel, but he hasn’t touched it since. At first, he was too distracted and he missed his library, left behind in Kyiv. Then he started writing his diary, the phone began ringing and he found himself too busy being a voice for Ukraine out in the world: “It’s a big responsibility. I wish there were more like me.” But there are also, he knows, things he can say that might sound hollow if they came from a non-Ukrainian. Take culture. He believes that it is never more important than in a time of war, offering as evidence for this the fact that no sooner had the conflict started than Kyiv’s metro platforms were being used as free cinemas. “People cannot live without it,” he says. “It gives meaning to a person’s life. It explains to a person who he or she is and where he or she belongs.”
However, this territory is complicated, too. Like millions of Ukrainians, Kurkov, who was born near Leningrad, is a native Russian speaker and part of the fascination of his book lies in its accounts of the struggle for identity within the country, something the war has made more vexed. Ukraine has, for instance, demanded that Russian culture be boycotted. But while many younger Ukrainians are enthusiastic about this idea, older people are more conservative. The council of the Pyotr Tchaikovsky conservatory in Kyiv, the country’s national music academy, recently met to discuss whether it should be renamed after the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko – and eventually decided against. Meanwhile, an opera-loving friend of Kurkov’s wept at the thought of not being able to ever again to hear Eugene Onegin at Kyiv opera house.
Does he worry about such divisions? A little, yes. “I compare it with my perception of German culture as a boy. In 1973, when I was 12, I had to choose a language to learn at school. I stated I would never learn German, because they had killed my grandfather. Until I was in my 30s, that was an enemy culture. It wasn’t justified, but … Russian speakers make up 40% of Ukraine. The country will stay divided linguistically. But I hope, when the war is over, that it won’t be felt on the streets.”
Even the young, however, are infinitely more patriotic than before. “My daughter is a British citizen. She was working in London when the war started. But in August, she gave up her apartment, and moved back to Kyiv, and she has started speaking Ukrainian to me for the first time in my life.” Not that there is work for her in Ukraine. The economic situation is dire, and he wonders how many of those who’ve left will never return. “It’s difficult to generalize about the mood. But a lot of refugees are not optimistic. I would say at least half don’t want to go back – either that, or they’ve nowhere to go back to. Those from the Donbas are pessimistic. Even if it is freed, it is destroyed.” Optimism, he says, is limited mostly to the west of the country, where people are both more defiant, and more politically engaged. Is he optimistic? (We’re speaking before Ukraine’s amazing gains in the east – of which, more later.) “I think the war will definitely go on into next summer at least. It depends on the death of Putin, and then on who takes power, because there are at least four different possibilities there.”
What does he mean? Is Putin likely to die? (Rumors abound over the President’s health.) “While he’s alive, the war will not be over. But Russia is not winning, and that should have an impact on his health … ” He casts me a knowing look. “I’m not in intelligence, but I think there’s fighting going on [behind the scenes] in Russia. These strange suicides are important. They’re not accidental.” (He is referring to, among other incidents, the recent death after a “fall” from a Moscow hospital window of Ravil Maganov, a senior oil executive whose company had criticised the Russian invasion.) The elite generals and the FSB, the successor to the KGB, would, he believes, like Russian aggression to continue. But the oligarchs may have different ideas: “If the oligarchs corrupt all the generals, I think the war can be stopped very quickly. The oligarchs are suffering. They want to get back to Nice and Cannes. They want their yachts.”
What about the part played by Europe? President Zelenskiy’s wife has told us that inflation and rising gas bills are a small price to pay if they mean freedom for Ukraine. “The role of Europe isn’t crucial, but it’s almost crucial,” he says. He notes that France and Germany have not yet delivered the military help they promised (though pressure is now mounting on Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor). “Without Britain and America, we wouldn’t be where we are.” The last time he was in the UK, Ukrainian flags were everywhere; this time, there are far fewer around. “I hope people aren’t going to start displaying Russian flags as they worry about their bills,” he says, with a smile. The west should remember that Russian agents are good at stirring dissent favorable to their country: “Yesterday, 70,000 pro-Russian demonstrators were on the streets in Prague.”
In Ukraine, people have their own daily battles, even those living in relative safety. The paper shortages publishers fought with at the start of the war have at last eased. But others continue. In his diary, Kurkov records his frustration that no tonic water is to be found anywhere in the country. “The open bottle of gin that stands in the apartment … has lost all meaning,” he writes. Are things any better on that score? He laughs. The bottle of gin joined him on his road trip, and it is now almost empty. “I asked my friend in Kyiv to find out if they have any tonic yet … Wait a moment. I’ll message him and check.” He looks at his phone. He shakes his head. “No, no tonic.” And now, having been reminded of his travels, he gets up to go. “Come to Kyiv,” he says, as he leaves. “We love visitors, and I’ll make borscht for you.”
A week goes by, and all the news is suddenly of the miles and miles of territory Ukraine has liberated in the east, and of the Russian army’s hurried departure. So I send him a message, and a couple of hours later – he was finishing off his column for a Norwegian newspaper – he calls me from somewhere in Germany. Even by his standards – Kurkov has a smile that could light Saint Sophia Cathedral – he sounds happy. “I’m very excited,” he says.
Two nights earlier, in France, he had been about to go out to a restaurant when his phone rang. “It was a journalist, asking me if I had heard anything about a coup d’etat in Moscow! Obviously, I’m very disappointed that turned out not to be true, but never mind, this is good news. It’s still too early to make predictions, but Ukrainian spirits are high. Everything has changed, and very quickly.” I tell him that in London, people are using the word retreat. “Ah, well,” he says. “But the Russians are proud; they won’t use that word, and so in Ukraine we have invented a new military term for them. This is a negative advance.” He laughs heartily, and says goodbye. Time to get back on the road.