Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov: a book review

This is a novel that should appeal to those who have been closely following the war news from Ukraine. It is set in “the grey zone” of towns and villages that are situated between the Russian and Ukrainian lines in the Donbas, where details of residents still trying to live there have been reaching our newspapers.
Remarkably, this novel was published in Russian in Ukraine in 2018. The war, of course, had begun in 2014. The writer, a native Russian-speaking Ukrainian, went on holiday several times to Crimea and visited the grey zone four times while gathering material.

A bee-keeper in the grey zone

The hero, Sergeyich, is a bee-keeper who lives in a little Donbas village. Everyone else had fled the war, but he carries on along with one other inhabitant, Petro, in another street. Shops have closed and there is no electricity. Shells whizz over their gardens, and every so often some building is hit, like the church which was bombed earlier. Sergeyich then took the church store of candles for his own use (having previously donated his beeswax to the priest). The story starts in the winter, snow outside, coal stove inside, and dwindling food stocks.

Two villagers allied to different fronts

One night Sergeyich received an unexpected visit from a soldier from the Ukrainian front, who had been watching him with binoculars. He offers to recharge his phone and also to post letters for him. He also receives a visit from Petro with an unknown guest, who turns out to be from the separatist, Russian-controlled front. So this sets up the comedy of two villagers both trying to survive their war-time predicament but allied to different fronts.

But it is not only comedy: the unknown guest turns out to be a sniper operating from their village and Sergevich passes on the information of his location to the Ukrainian side. But this is almost passed over as a point in the plot, amid all the other incidents of struggling to survive. Sergevich decides he will risk a drive to the next village as he craves fresh eggs. To his surprise, this village has electricity and a functioning postal service.

Living in the forest with his bees

Then, as spring thaws the ground, he decides that he must take his bees somewhere else, away from the shelling. So he puts six hives on his trailer and, having taken the advice of the Ukrainian soldier, gets out via the checkpoints on the separatist side and back into Ukraine. He then spends some weeks living in a forest with his bees, selling the honey in exchange for food. And he has a dalliance with a local girl who cooks delicious borscht. But this idyll is put to an abrupt end. The funeral of a local man killed in the war is taking place, with the custom of all inhabitants turning out to kneel in respect as the cortege passes. Sergevich does not kneel in time, nor does he attend the full funeral service like everyone else. Shortly afterwards, two men turn up at his forest camp, one of them dangerously aggressive, smashing his car windows. It was time to leave.

Russian checkpoint

He decides to drive south into the Crimea, where he has the address of a Tartar bee-keeper he had met at a bee congress. This means interrogation at Russian checkpoints again. They wanted to know about the exact location of his village in the grey zone, and also about his smashed car windows. They then call in journalists to cook up a story about how badly he had been treated on the Ukrainian side, but they finally let him through, the journalists even donating some money to fix his window.

In Crimea and faced with grey bees

In Crimea, once he had located his friend’s farm, he was able to settle in for the summer camping out with his bees. But his friend was not there. He had gone missing. This part of the novel touches on the murky politics of the Tartar population in Crimea, exiled by Stalin but brought back in the 1950s, but still despised by Russian racists. The bee-keeper reluctantly becomes involved. Finally at the end of summer, he decides to return to his village in the grey zone, but he has to get rid of an infected hive first, full of grey bees. Symbolic of the war?

Heroism carrying on through war

There are many attractive features of this novel. First, for readers in rural Kent, will be the descriptions of life in rural Ukraine, trying to carry on through war. There is something heroic about the bee-keeper’s determination to do his best for his bees despite all the circumstances, similar to what we are reading about the Ukrainian farmers’ determination to plant their crops this year. Second is the Kafkaesque bizarre incidents where the normal becomes oddly impossible because of the war. The border posts are both heartbeat moments of the plot as well as illustrating the ridiculous procedures of false borders.

False borders but shared culture

The sense of false borders is my most abiding memory of this novel. Perhaps because the writer is Russian-speaking (born in Leningrad in fact) his book shows the humanity of both sides, as well as their shared culture. Vodka on all special occasions! Although the book is from the Ukrainian side (Kurkov now lives in Kyiv) and the persecution of Tartars is prominent in the plot, it does not demonise all Russians. They let him through borders for humanitarian reasons and Russian journalists collect money for his car repairs. The Ukrainian bully who smashed up his car turns out to have been mentally disturbed, not representing the abiding prejudice of that village against people from the Donbas. One feels all these people ought to be able to live together peaceably.

Does this civil war in Ukraine, where one side is supported by an imperial power, have similarities with Irish history? That would be the subject of another article, by someone more acquainted with Ireland than I am.