Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov review – Ukrainian life turned upside down | Autobiography and memory
AAs a young man, Andrey Kurkov criss-crossed the USSR – on trains, riverboats and hitchhiking trucks – to interview former Soviet bureaucrats. He had read a copy of The Forbidden Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and wanted to know more about the gulag itself. A judge he met confessed to having signed 3,000 death warrants for people convicted without trial. The experience was a lesson for Kurkov in suppressing memory and truth: Members of his own family had endured forced deportations, starvation and decades in camps, but such trauma was never felt. mentioned. For Kurkov – of Russian descent and Russian-speaking but long based in Ukraine – telling the truth has been a mission ever since.
He is best known for novels such as Death and the Penguin and Gray Bees. But after the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he collected a series of dispatches into a book called Ukraine Diaries. Now he’s done the same around this year’s Russian invasion, with journal entries running through mid-July. The epilogue tells us to expect more; he still keeps a diary, sometimes in disbelief (“This new Ukrainian reality far exceeds my writer’s imagination”), sometimes dismayed (“Can I ever not write about the war?”) and sometimes with a pleasant aphorism of samurai in his head (“If you sit on the bank for a very long time, then sooner or later your enemy’s corpse will float past you downstream”).
The diaries start last December, two months before the war, and include things that might not seem relevant: power cuts, Pushkin, Covid, drink-driving, trendy bookstores, school meals and whether Ukrainian is a language more sexy than Russian. But underneath, there is a constant fear of impending conflict. It’s not like the war wasn’t already underway: Kurkov’s 2018 novel Gray Bees, set in the zone between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists, was a reminder of the ongoing hostilities at the ‘is. And he knows what’s to come will be bigger and worse, with “horrors that have no place in contemporary life”.
He was at home in Kyiv when the first missiles hit, before rolling at a snail’s pace to the village where he has a house (“The front was everywhere”) and from there, for another 22 hours, to the refuge more sure about Transcarpathia. He made occasional trips beyond the western border in the weeks that followed, but never for long: “I am staying and will continue to write to you so that you know how Ukraine lives during the war”. The “yous” he is addressing are Western readers, whose governments he hopes will side with his country. Germany is criticized for its reluctance to provide aid and Greece for its dithering. President Zelenskiy is praised but not adored for his speeches. Boris Johnson is not mentioned.
Kurkov’s line about the war as “aging Putin’s last chance to fulfill his dream of recreating the USSR” is familiar. So does his response to the claim that Ukraine is anti-Russian and anti-Semitic: if so, why would a Russian-speaking Jew be elected president with 73% of the vote? What the book offers that international reporting cannot are startling details: Ukrainian farmers sowing seeds – rapeseed, buckwheat and rye – despite the risk of Russian bombing and landmines; an 85-year-old woman taking her rooster with her when she is evacuated and the rooster waking up her exhausted fellow evacuees at 4 a.m.; thousands of people buy tickets to a zoo they can’t visit because they want the animals to be fed; passages about dentistry, gas scams, dolphins and the “days of the little graves”, when people tend to the resting places of their loved ones. War is an ugly tumor, with countless civilian and military deaths every day. But it also offers opportunities: “You can learn to make paskas [sweet bread] in a damaged stove. You can get a tattoo for the first time in your life at the age of 80. You can start learning Hungarian or Polish.
Kurkov draws inspiration from social media posts, phone calls and conversations at the local sauna. He’s the least self-centered of the commentators, but personal things seep through. He doesn’t cry, he says, but sometimes he gets carried away and has lost his sense of humor. He worries about his friends and feels he has no time to waste. “You walk too fast,” complains his Surrey-born wife during their daily walk. Will he ever return to writing fiction, he wonders. “War and books are incompatible,” he says: bookstores have closed and a shortage of paper has hit the publishing industry. Even the filming of Gray Bees, in the Donbass, must stop. Worse still, tonic water is not available in supermarkets, which means he cannot take his evening G&T.
His voice is brilliant but also passionate, never more so than when he laments Putin’s efforts to erase Ukrainian culture and history. Ukraine, he said, “either will be free, independent and European, or it will not exist at all”. This is why the war must be fought, without concession of territory. And he quietly keeps the hope that it will be won.