The Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov wrote intensly about the revolution on the Maidan Square almost three years ago – his so-called diaries. Now, with these events at a certain distance, we ask him about the current situation in Ukraine, when Modern Times meet him at home in Kyiv for a conversation.
«All revolutions are gradually commercialised when the violence subsides», says Kurkov. «During the Organge Revolution, shops offered discounts on organge scarfs and clothes, and today you can buy all kinds of emblems from the Donbas volunteer batallion. This didn’t exist during the October Revolution in 1917.»
Kurkov has said that he aged five years during those three winter months three years ago. «I didn’t sleep much, and slept poorly. I used to wake up at night to check the headlines. And to check whether my car was still in the garden, or whether it had been burned or stolen. This constant uneasy sleep makes you nervous. You lose your energy.»
We start our conversation by talking about the Ukrainians who were fighting, and how. «We have idealist Ukrainian nationalists. And radical patriots with violent solutions. And a number of people who absolutely do not want violence», he says. «I think most people were against the violence. It was unneccessary and provoked. The politicians who asked unarmed people to go to a heavily defended Parliament and enter the building, did not go there themselves. They weren’t injured or arrested. When people are stranding still, waiting for change, it can be easy to talk them into taking concrete action.»
The Soviet Union. One story that indicates Kurkov’s mentality as an author and observer, is worth mentioning: In 1967, when Kurkov was six years old, his family moved to an apartment in Kyiv across from the airport where his father worked. Little Kurkov was given three hamsters to play with, because he spent so much time alone at home. The ran around freely, and one day his father stepped on and killed one of them by accident. The boy cared about animals, so he brought a cat in from the street to feed it. But it suddenly ate the next hamster. Then the last, lonely hamster fell down from the balcony and died. «I don’t know if it was suicide or an accident. After this I was certain that people only wrote poetry when they were sad, or that poetry should always be sad.»
Little Kurkov probably learned a thing or two about life at that time, through animals – but did he move from literature to more political topics? «My brother was a dissident who brought illegal literature home. Him and his friends used to lock themselves in the kitchen, drink port wine and make political jokes. He then gave me a book about literary absurdism, so since then black humour has been a part of my books. As a teenager, I learned Polish, and got to know French, English and American literature through this language. Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Otto Weininger and Knut Hamsun were among the thinkers who influenced me. The latter was surprisingly enough published and well-liked in the Soviet Union – surprising, considering his biography.»
Andrey Yurevich Kurkov (b. 1961) is one of Ukraine’s most well-known authors. He has written 18 books. His books have been translated into 33 languages, including Chinese, French, Hebrew, English and Norwegian. His breakthrough came with Death and the Penguin (1996). Kurkov’s books give an ironic, absurd and satirical view on post-Soviet reality. He often points out that he sees himself as a Ukrainian, Russian-language author.
Kurkov’s first novel was published two weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the following social and political urest, he made his first steps towards publishing and distributing his books himself. He borrowed money from friends and published about 75000 copies on his own, which he sold in the street, as well as organizing distribution of the books around Ukraine. According to himself, he was rejected 500 times before finally being accepted by a publisher. In the meantime, he had finished almost eight complete novels. Today, Kurkov is hailed as one of the most successful authors in the Russian language after the fall of the Soviet Union. I ask Kurkov what made him write 18 novels. What deeper meaning has this given him? «I wrote because I had questions that I tried to answer through my novels. The answers could be useful to the reader, as well. I tried to describe how people thought and felt in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. And about Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union.»
Russian or Ukrainian? We continue our discussion by talking about today’s mentality. «Yes, it’s more about different mentality than ethnic differences. There are not only ethnic Russians or Ukrainians here, but several million ethnic Ukrainians with a Russian mentality», says Kurkov and explains:
«You might say that Russian mentality is based on monarchy. Russia loved its Tsar, and was willing to be controlled by one person, by one political party. If they grew very discontent, they might kill the ruling Tsar, but they would still embrace the new one», he believes. «Ukrainian mentality, however, is far more individualistic. Ukraininas are just as open as Russians, but they aren’t as collective. It’s not easy to gather them all under one roof, under one party, and that’s why we have 200 political parties in Ukraine. This is also why it’s impossible to insert a dictator who would be supported in all the different regions. In Ukraine, 10 out of some 42-44 million people are ethnic Russians. Some of them live in the border region, they support Russia and Putin even though they live in Ukraine. Russians who live in Kyiv and Odessa share the Ukrainian mentality. They’re pro-Europe. They don’t want autocracy, but a pulsating country – rather than the cold and stagnant form of politics you find in Russia.»
I ask Kurkov how much Russian language matters. «70 per cent of Ukrainians in Kyiv speak Russian», he replies. «The only official language is Ukrainian But 90 per cent of books sold are in Russian, and 90 per cent of newspapers are available in Russian. And 70 per cent of TV programs on Ukrainian television are Russian. So who is being mistreated?»
Then what does it mean to be pro-Russian? «To be pro-Russian in Ukraine is the same as wanting Ukraine to be part of the Russian empire, because that’s what the Kremlin wants. They want Ukraine to be like Belarus. You know the situation there, with Lukashenko. There is no border between the countries. Russia has also decided to establish army bases in Belarus.»
Are there any political parties working to achieve this? «We have no pro-Russian parties left. The last one, the communists, was excluded after the second Euromaidan. Parties that represent East Ukrainian interests have always had strong bonds to Russia, and been controlled by Russia. But that doesn’t mean that they want to give part of the country to Russia. Politicians who have wanted to do this, have always been a minority, and people who support it passively make up only 2-3 million, perhaps – that is, people who prefer Russain laws to Ukrainian ones.»
The intellectuals. Kurkov himself was born in Leningrad in Russia, but grew up in Ukraine and considers himself a Ukrainian. His English wife stops by, along with their seemingly well-educated son, to say hello. I assume that an intellectual like Andrey Kurkov is more of a cosmopolite that a nationalist. «If you’re talking about ethnicity, my family is from Russia. My father’s family is from the North Caucasus, and my mother’s family is from the Leningrad region in North-Western Russia. My great-grandfather was an Orthodox priest there. My grandfather on my father’s side was a Stalinist.»
In our time, with the growth of nationalist mythology, Ukraine may seem different: «The intellectual scene has always been strong here. Ukrainian nationalism, however, has never been strong. So nationalists, no. We have 26 large minorities, so we are already a cosmopolitan country. I travelled to the Odessa region recently, where I run a project for minority youth who want to learn how to write. In this region, you have Romanian, Bulgarian, Greek and Russian villages. You can’t build a homogenous society in Ukraine with this many languages and nationalities. And this will continue.»
But do intellectuals – that is, people who write, who are more deeply engaged in society – play any significant role in Ukraine these days? Are they being read or heard? According to Kurkov, there are about 15 of them: «We don’t have intellectuals that the man or woman in the street would listen to. We have cult figures like the poet Serhji Zjadan (see Modern Times no. 1, 2016), who was born in Lugansk. Several times a month he went to the front lines and read poems, talked to people, and published books about the situation in Donbas. Perhaps 20 per cent of the population follow him.»
In terms of the wish for a western course – isn’t this mostly about material, economic changes? I ask Kurkov. «To Ukrainians, ‘Europe’ is not the same thing as the EU, it means a civilized society with equal rights, rule of law and without corruption. This is what is expected of new Ukrainian governments.»
If you own a small shop in Ukraine, the police can come in and take what they want without paying
What values drive the Ukrainians? Kurkov explains: «Ukrainians love freedom – they need resepct from the authorities, and that Ukraine is respected internationally. But people haven’t been given respect by the authorities. If you own a small shop in Ukraine, the police can come in and take what they want without paying – and you can’t do anything about it. The same thing applies to apartments. The authorities will change the documents and sell your property! You can fight your entire life to get it back, but you have no guarantee that it will actually happen. This is the situation for ordinary people in Ukraine. They also don’t resepct local authorities, who represent the system. That’s what made people so angry – and what gave the protest popular support when the second Euromaidan began. It wasn not about President Yanukovuch, but about people having been treated with disresepct in Ukraine for the past 25 years.»
I try to burrow deeper into the topic of freedom of respect. It seems like there is something anarchistic about his fellow countrymen? «Ordinary Ukrainians obviously have differing ideas about culture. But our Ukrainian mentality comes from a wish to be independent and self-sufficient. We are a nation of farmers and small-scale businesses. That’s the kind of life people want. If you go to Lviv, for example, you will find 20 different businesses doing different things in the same house – like in Turkey. People want to be independent, they don’t want a boss above them.»
The books. I return to the topic of writing, to freedom of speech. Why did Kurkov write the Ukrainian diaries during the Maidan? «I travelled around Ukraine and talked with people, and every evening I sent a new text to my translators in Berlin and Paris», he says. Diaries are something he’s been doing for a long time: «Yes, since I was 15. I like oral literature, I’ve written poetry since I was six years old. At one point, I started writing down my thoughts in diaries. My first diary starts with me, as a 15 year-old, kissing a girl for the first time.» His mother found it, and added exhortations in red ink. He had to keep his diaries secret after that.
It is apparent that many people are provoked by Kurkov’s writings. «Did you know that my novel The President’s Last Love has been banned in Russia? My books have not been sold in Russia since 2008. The Russians apparently think it’s all right to ban them. But I write literature, not recipes for how to destroy your neighboring countries – like Alexandr Dugin. All these bans on books are just a gesture, it has no effect. You can download the books from the internet, from entirely legal websites. That applies to Dugin’s books as well. The TV shows that were made and banned, are also available on the internet. Culture and information is universal, you can’t ban it.»
I comment that the Ukrainians banned the filmmaker Mikhail Poretchenkov from entering the country. «Yes, but he took a machine gun and was filmed while shooting at Ukrainian forces in Donetsk», Kurkov points out. «Would you welcome him here? There are more than 400,000 Ukrainian citizens on the Russian list, who are banned from crossing the border to Russia.»
I end the conversation by asking how he envisages Ukraine’s future. Kurkov responds: First of all, I hope that Ukraine will have close relations to modern Turkey, to the Baltic countries as well as to Europe. The East-West divide was no conflict line before, and Ukraine has to re-estrablish the cooperation, from Lithuania to Turkey.»