A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of enclaves in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk, PEN Ukraine president Andrey Kurkov made an impassioned plea. “I appeal to all free people of our planet - do everything possible to protect the freedom and independence of Ukraine,” he said. “There can be no free and safe Europe without a free and independent Ukraine!”
The Ukrainian writer’s new novel, Grey Bees, is largely set in this contested region. The central character lives in a village located in the so-called grey zone between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Few remain in this deserted no-man’s land, as most have already fled to other areas in search of safety.
Some stubborn residents, however, refused to budge. They stoically stay on, listening to the whistle of shells overhead, sweeping shrapnel from their yards, and surveying deserted villages with shuttered shops, post offices and police stations.
First published in Russia in 2018 and now translated into English by Boris Dralyuk, Grey Bees isn’t as surreal and dark-humoured as Death and the Penguin, the novel Kurkov is best known for. With its sometimes elegiac and often faux-naif tone, it is, however, a moving account of an everyman’s travails in times of strife and disorder. This type of pilgrim’s progress is one that Kurkov has used before, in novels such as The Bickford Fuse.
Sergeyich, the protagonist of Grey Bees, lives in one of the two habitable streets that remain in the village of Little Starhorodivka. On the other street is another resident known to him from childhood, who has grown to be a vrazhenyatko, “what you might call a frenemy,” as the translation puts it. The book’s first half deals with Sergeyich’s attenuated and solitary life here. Having no choice, he occasionally spends vodka-fuelled evenings with his frenemy, and at other times befriends a soldier, deals with dwindling reserves of coal, and walks to the adjoining village for food and supplies.
A former coalmine safety inspector with damaged lungs whose wife and daughter have left him before the outbreak of hostilities, he lives “as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility”. This responsibility is now centred on his bees, whom he lovingly tends to. With gentle irony, Kurkov creates contrasts between the behaviour of the bees and human beings, between nature and man-made disasters, and between solitude and social conventions.
Soon, Sergeyich decides that the frequent shelling is affecting his bees, and is further struck by the thought that if something were to happen to him, they would be bereft of care. Not wanting to be “the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee-souls”, he packs the beehives onto a flatbed trailer attached to his Lada Estate and sets off on a road trip, leaving behind a war in which he has played no part. He only wants to find a spot “where it was quiet, where the air was gradually filling with the sweetness of blossoming herbs…” From this point on, Sergeyich’s experience is that of a bee in an unfamiliar hive.
On his journey to Crimea, he finds agreeable surroundings and disagreeable people, enters into a relationship with a woman from another village, and exits the same village to avoid being set upon. Travelling further south, he finds himself caught up in an imbroglio involving mistreatment of the region’s Tatars which he tries to resolve with mixed results. Meanwhile, he also has to come to grips with dreams and flashbacks that are increasingly surreal.
Through Sergeyich’s fate as well as the circumstances of those he comes across, the novel paints a picture of people bewildered by goings-on beyond their ken and heroically trying to make the most of unfair circumstances as best as they can. All the while, he tends to his beloved bees, letting them out of their hives to gather pollen and later carefully extracting their honey.
At one point he thinks that people might learn a thing or two about maintaining order from bees. “After all, bees alone had managed to establish communism in their hives, thanks to their orderliness and labour. Ants, on the other hand, had only reached the stage of real, natural socialism; this was because they had nothing to produce, and so had merely mastered order and equality. But people? People had neither order nor equality.”In a foreword to Grey Bees written in 2020, Kurkov writes that on his earlier journeys through Donbas, he has seen war becoming the norm, with people learning to live with it “as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour”. It’s his hope, he goes on, “that it goes away, and that the honey made by the bees of Donbas loses its bitter aftertaste of gunpowder”. Something to wish for as the dogs of war are being unleashed.