Even newly arrived in London, 1,300 miles away from Ukraine, Andrey Kurkov feels as if he’s in a war zone. His phone – its settings still monitoring the location west of Kyiv where he is based – buzzes constantly with warnings of air raids. Ukrainians have all downloaded these apps. The font and design are the same as our Covid apps. Over the course of our hour-long meeting, a siren blares out three times. How do you get used to that?
He shrugs. “The main thing is that you are tired all the time. Everyone is sleeping badly. Sirens are going off five times a night. You don’t necessarily have to get up and leave the house when that happens. But you wake up and fall asleep constantly and try to decide whether you should leave the house …”
In the beginning, everyone went dutifully to the shelters every time the sirens went off, he explains. But after a while you become blase and you don’t bother: life is too short and you learn to take your chances. “Officially, you’re supposed to go down to the shelters but not everyone does. I guess you could call it Russian roulette,” he smiles.
Over the past month, Kurkov, 60, has found himself in an unusual and unexpected position. As Ukraine’s most famous and successful living writer (he has been described as “the Ukrainian Murakami”) – and the writer most translated into English, not to mention more than 30 other languages – suddenly, he is in demand at the worst time and for the worst reasons. He has invitations to speak all over the world, in person and on Zoom. He has a weekly slot on BBC Radio 4 – Letter From Ukraine, a personal account of his daily life. According to Nielsen Book data, sales of his books in translation in the UK are up more than 800%.
But he has no intention of leaving Ukraine and tells me that he will be returning home in a few days. His English wife, Elizabeth Sharp, a teacher, is there, as are two of his three adult children. They are volunteering: working with refugees, teaching English. They all found themselves surprised at how quickly you adapt to the worst circumstances. “At the beginning, you’re in a state of shock,” he says. “But then you just adapt to it psychologically. I’m not scared of war any more. You just get this sense of fatalism. That what will be will be. And you just have to keep on living and do whatever you can in the circumstances. It does give you this kind of energy. And a conviction that it is possible to fight against a force of evil that is bigger than you are.”
Kurkov does not appear unhappy to be a spokesman for the nuances of an entire culture, and he comes across as optimistic, motivated even. We meet at a cafe in north London, where the owner is very excited to serve someone from Ukraine and wants to express tearful admiration and bestow extra baklava, saying: “The Ukrainian people are an inspiration to us all!” Kurkov beams in response (“I know! My son can make a molotov cocktail! I’m so proud!”), even though this is a conversation he must now endure with every new non-Ukrainian he meets, as will probably be the case for the rest of his life. “I thought I’d lost my sense of humour,” he laughs, “but I was doing a public event last night and I found myself improvising all these sad jokes … Once the adrenaline gets going, you get your sense of humour back.”
Our conversation is in Russian, the language of his parents and of about a third of Ukrainians, because he is tired of speaking English. Russian is – and will remain – the language of his fiction. Before the war, he was known in literary circles as someone who always had something amusing or wry to say – whether about post-Soviet life or life in general. Even now he peppers his Twitter feed about life under Russian bombardment with pictures of his cat: “Pepin the cat is happy. It’s not easy to be happy when you are refugee. Even if you are a cat-refugee.” (Unfortunately his hamster, Semyon – also mentioned in dispatches – died in mid March.)
Kurkov’s novels are playful, embrace the surreal and often feature animal characters. The bestseller Death and the Penguin is about an obituary writer who adopts a penguin called Misha. There is, delightfully, also a human Misha in the book, who is referred to as Misha-non-penguin. His early books had titles such as The Adventures of Baby Vacuum Cleaner Gosha and The World of Mr Big Forehead.
Kurkov’s 2018 novel Grey Bees, had already confronted the conflict with Russia. The book is set in the no man’s land between loyalist and separatist forces in the Donbas region, and follows the plight of a retired official turned beekeeper as he moves his hives to escape to safety.
He tells me his work is most popular in translation in French, German and Japanese, as well as English, and last year he spent most of the year as a visiting professor in the US. “It has always been the case that no matter where I am in the world people are more interested in hearing what I have to say about Ukraine than they are interested in my books,” he says.
When asked what we can do to help Ukraine, his first thought is to recommend nonfiction. “Find out more about Ukraine. Read about our history: Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe; Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine; Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. It’s really important to understand the difference between Russia and Ukraine. If you really want to know about Ukraine’s history and why this is happening, read those books.” Recommending Ukrainian writers is harder, he says. “Our literature is very introverted, inward-looking. It is directed towards those who already understand what is being discussed. Open, outward-looking literature with a universal message is harder to find. That’s more in the direction that I write.” The books that do pass that “universal” test for him include Sweet Darusya: A Tale of Two Villages, by Maria Matios – an epic family saga set in a village on the Romanian-Ukrainian border – and Markiyan Kamysh’s Stalking the Atomic City: Life Among the Decadent and Depraved of Chornobyl (coming out in translation in July) – an autobiographical novel about life in the exclusion zone around Pripyat, told by the son of a Chernobyl liquidator.
These days Kurkov has set the universal aside, along with the new novel he was writing, to focus on analysing the here and now. Since the war began, he has experienced a change of heart about Ukraine’s president. “For me there are two Zelenskiys. The first version – the pre-war Zelenskiy – I did not like at all. I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t like that he surrounded himself with his mates from his previous career, all these people who don’t know anything about politics or about anything, really.” This is said with serious disapproval. “But his role as a war hero … That’s a role where he really excels. The government is functioning. Everything around him is working exactly as it should. I admire that.” Can Zelenskiy hope to stay safe and stay in Kyiv? “Oh yes. I think he will be able to continue that, and to stay in Kyiv.” A glint in the eye: “My only fear is that once the war is over he’ll go back to being the same pre-war Zelenskiy.” Kurkov is keen to emphasise that this criticism is his personal view and not necessarily one that is widely shared. Zelenskiy won 73% of the votes in the presidential elections in 2019.
Surprisingly – given Kurkov’s reputation as a brilliant satirist – Zelenskiy’s comedy is the opposite of a redeeming factor. “He was always popular with people who have a terrible sense of humour and are poorly educated. His humour is like a kind of political version of Benny Hill – if Benny Hill had got paid to make jokes about the politicians of the day.”
What’s his analysis of why this happened now? And what comes next? “The reason this war took everyone by surprise is because so many politicians in the west really wanted to maintain a positive attitude towards Russia for economic reasons. They wanted to trade with Russia. And they didn’t think Putin would do anything to jeopardise that trade relationship. Turns out, Putin spits on any kind of economic reasoning, he spits on thousands of dead soldiers … For him the most important thing is to go down in history as the man who re-created the Soviet Union – ‘He made Russia great again’. But it hasn’t worked out. While he’s not dead, the war will continue.”
He adds: “Putin is old. He is not thinking rationally. He lived underground during the pandemic for the best part of two years. He’s paranoid. He doesn’t like speaking to anyone at a distance of less than five metres. He is terrified of being poisoned, of viruses. He’s been sitting there in his bunker and thinking about what his legacy will be. So this had become his idée fixe. He is obsessed with the fall of the Soviet Union. For him this is a terrible tragedy, which must be reversed. This is his mission. It’s not rational. It’s just how it is.”
Kurkov’s parents died two years ago. They were from a generation that did not need to make national distinctions, because they felt “Soviet”. His father was a pilot, his mother a doctor. He recalls fondly how his mother used her clout at a military hospital to get him a visa when his wife finally accepted his proposal of marriage. (Elizabeth first came to Russia on a student exchange in the 1980s. He proposed to her three times before she said yes.) In some ways he is glad his parents are not alive to see this moment. “A few weeks ago, on Facebook, there were hundreds of posts by people around my age who had lost their parents to heart attacks. All caused by the shock of the invasion. I don’t think my parents would have survived it, were they still alive.”
Kurkov was born in Russia, in what was then Leningrad, and is now St Petersburg. Does he think he will ever return to the country within his lifetime? “Well, I’ll be 61 years old soon. So … No. I’ve crossed Russia out. And Crimea. The newspapers in Russian have written about me as an enemy and a Russophobe. And we’re talking about a place where 80% of the population support Putin. So I have zero interest in visiting. I have no interest in their culture, their history.”
As we’re finishing up, the siren on his phone sounds again. “There it goes. That’s where my wife is …” he says, sadly. But, then, he adds with a wink: “Technology is a good thing. It means you can sleep with the window closed. Because the app will tell you if they’re coming.”