Andrey Kurkov, author of the bestselling novel Death and the Penguin, writes about the ongoing turmoil in his country, the protestors braving bullets and abductions, the influence of Putin on the government, and the fate of Ukraine itself

Translated from the Russian by Amanda Love DarraghOn 22 January, Ukraine’s national Day of Unity and Freedom, two demonstrators were shot dead in the centre of Kiev. They were not killed with rubber bullets, like those the Berkut riot police have been using to fire on protestors, but with regular bullets. One appears to have been killed by a sniper’s rifle, the other by a pistol. On the same day Ihor Lutsenko – the son of Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the opposition – and Yuriy Verbytsky, a well-known mountain-climber and scientist from Lviv, were abducted from hospital by a group of individuals wearing civilian clothing. Both Euromaidan activists were taken outside the city and brutally beaten. Ihor was lucky – he survived. He managed to make his way to the nearest village, where local residents took him in and called the emergency services. Yuriy Verbytsky was found dead later that evening in a nearby forest.Meanwhile President Yanukovych recently signed decrees awarding honours to politicians, civil servants and public figures in connection with the Day of Unity and Freedom. The majority of the recipients were quietly delighted. Only Patriarch Filaret, head of the Kievan Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and a Crimean politician representing Vitaly Klitschko’s UDAR party refused to accept an award from the hands of the president while those protesting against him were being ‘awarded’ rubber bullets and live ammunition by the militia and other government forces.The political crisis in Ukraine is approaching its denouement, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to have a happy ending. It is hard to imagine that just two months ago Ukraine was preparing to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union in Vilnius. Ukraine was completely different then. Admittedly the country was on the brink of financial collapse, but in spite of this the whole country somehow seemed to be in better spirits. Even in the East and the South – traditionally more pro-Russian regions – civil servants and local politicians, on the President’s orders, had begun to speak in more positive terms about Europe and the European future of Ukraine. But this didn’t last long. In spite of the strained relationship between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Putin decided that ‘allowing’ Ukraine to join Europe was out of the question. He offered Yanukovych $15 billion not only to prevent the country defaulting on its financial obligations, but also to ensure that the Yanukovych would have enough money in the budget to last until the presidential elections in 2015. The great ship Ukraine changed course again, sailing closer to Russia. After three years of promises, Putin finally lowered the price of Russian gas to Ukraine, although the new gas supply agreement includes a clause whereby Gazprom has the right to review or amend the price of gas every three months. Thanks to this agreement between Putin and Yanukovych, the future of Ukraine has been left ‘hanging’ from a gas pipe; hanging alongside it is the future of Yanukovych himself.Two months ago, immediately following the summit in Vilnius – at which President Yanukovych failed to sign documents and even complained that the European Union hadn’t offered Ukraine $15 billion worth of financial aid – the first student protestors began to appear in the central squares of Kiev and Lviv. They came of their own accord, without political support. They began to hold rallies and call for the Ukrainian government to sign the agreement with the EU. They explained that Ukrainian students saw only two possible options for the future: life in European Ukraine, or emigrating to Europe for life. Members of the political opposition appeared only later. Not until after the early hours of 30 November, when the riot police turned up on the main square of the country and began dispersing the student protestors with astonishing brutality. Later that morning the centre of Kiev was inundated with half a million demonstrators, who were there not to campaign for the signing of the EU agreement but in protest against the authorities. Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and the main street, Khreshchatyk, were transformed into a temporary camp for the protestors, who came from virtually every corner of Ukraine. Some came to take part in the protests for a few days, while others moved into the tents more permanently and are still there now. Several thousand people stay through the night. The camp borders are patrolled by security forces, electricity generators operate not far from the tents and numerous small stoves are in use, emitting trails of smoke. I have visited the Maidan camp, as it is known, several times at night and found the atmosphere of ‘permanent revolution’ surprisingly peaceful. The same has been true of the busier daytime rallies, which have featured appearances by politicians, rock musicians, priests and writers. For over a month a Russian travel agency in Krasnodar was promoting trips ‘to Maidan’ and bringing Russian tourists right here, to the centre of Kiev, where they had plenty of fun taking photographs of themselves in front of the tents, the barricades and the political slogans.This peaceful revolutionary time is now over. The fact that it lasted as long as it did is down to the psychological disposition of the Ukrainian president, who trusts no one, is afraid of everything and never mixes with his own people if he can possibly help it. On the same night the Berkut forces were beating up students, President Yanukovych boarded a plane and left for an official visit to China. The Minister of Internal Affairs had evidently promised him that the protests would be over by the time he got back. He was never in a position to keep this promise because the number of protestors grew so significantly, and furthermore protests had also begun taking place in other towns and cities across Ukraine. So instead of rushing home, the President of Ukraine decided to visit President Putin in Sochi. Without calling in on Kiev, which was already under siege by protestors, he planned to set off straight from Sochi on an official visit to Malta. However, the Maltese government decided that they weren’t prepared to host the president of a country in a state of civil unrest. With no choice but to reluctantly return home, Yanukovych found himself under obligation to commit to a round-table discussion with the opposition.Instead, he held a round-table discussion with three former presidents of Ukraine. Four Ukrainian presidents discussing things around a table led to nothing but general ridicule. Then there was another round-table discussion with so-called representatives of the student protestors, during which some cheerful students brought in from the east of the country expressed gratitude to Yanukovych for their wonderful lives and promised that they would always support him in whatever he did. President Yanukovych spent the following two months ignoring the protests. Meanwhile the leaders of the opposition, represented in parliament by three different political parties, tried to come to an agreement among themselves as to which of them would be the main opposition representative. As expected, this problem was resolved a few days ago, albeit temporarily, with former professional boxer Vitali Klitschko taking on the role of official spokesperson. The first meeting between Klitschko and Yanukovych took place in a forest outside Kiev, where the Ukrainian president lives behind a high fence and several lines of armed security personnel. Yanukovych promised to organise negotiations, but this never happened. Tired of waiting two months for the protests to yield results, a hardcore minority of protestors took it upon themselves to throw rocks at members of the militia, who had used lorries and buses to cut off access to the street leading to parliament and the cabinet of ministers.In response the Ukrainian parliament, or rather a part of the ruling Party of Regions faction, used the illegitimate method of simply raising their hands to pass new laws, which effectively revoked freedom of
speech and made all protestors criminals. The President swiftly signed these newly ‘voted’ laws, thereby dividing the country into those who support him and those who are guilty of a crime by not supporting him. Those who speak out against the authorities are branded ‘criminals’, and for them there is no way back: retraction is not an option. According to the new law the three opposition leaders, who met with the President on 22 January, are also criminals. It’s entirely possible that after the forced dispersal of the Maidan camp, which could take place at any moment, not only could the protestors end up in prison but so could opposition parliamentary deputies and the leaders of their parties. Particularly given that one of the laws signed by the president on 16 January is designed to simplify the removal of parliamentary immunity, so that in just ten minutes a previously ‘untouchable’ parliamentary deputy could become an ordinary citizen under arrest.If this should come to pass over the coming days, then it will lead to a partisan war in Western Ukraine against the representatives of the government and the ruling party. This may well lead to the disintegration of the state of Ukraine itself, with the Russian Federation waiting in the wings to make the country’s eastern and southern regions its ‘protectorates’.About the author

Andrey Kurkov, Ukrainian writer and novelist was born in St Petersburg in 1961. Having graduated from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he worked for some time as a journalist, did his military service as a prison warder in Odessa, then became a film cameraman, writer of screenplays and author of critically acclaimed and popular novels, including the cult bestseller Death and the Penguin. His latest novel, The Gardener from Ochakov was published by Harvill Secker last year.About the translatorAmanda Love Darragh studied French and Russian at Manchester University, then spent the following decade working in Moscow and at BBC Worldwide. She currently lives by the sea in Devon with her husband, three children and three cats. Amanda won the 2009 Rossica Translation Prize for her translation of Iramifications by Maria Galina (Glas) and has translated two novels by Andrei Kurkov for Harvill Secker, as well as a number of other novels and short stories by contemporary Russian authors.