In another exclusive dispatch from Ukraine, Andrey Kurkov describes the atmosphere of tension and surreality in Kiev and Crimea, the schizophrenia of the political situation, and the ominous absence of birds before the arrival of war
At five o’clock on the morning of Tuesday 4 March, I was expecting the start of World War III. Five o’clock was the time that Putin had scheduled for the storming of Ukrainian military units in Crimea. The Ukrainian troops were given a choice: the surrender of their weapons and themselves or the start of military action. I am proud that Ukraine’s soldiers and officers didn’t surrender. In fact, like the participants in EuroMaidan, they were prepared to die. But there’s always one traitor and this one was the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Navy, who had gone over to the Russian Army on the very day he was appointed. There’s no need to worry about him. He’ll get a Russian passport and pursue his career in the Russian Army. He may even become a State Duma deputy or a member of Russia’s upper house Federation Council. Russia needs people like this. Ukraine does not.A little later that same day, at around ten in the morning, there was a report that Yanukovych had died of a heart attack. The report has not been confirmed and so Russia now has two high-ranking traitors: Rear Admiral Berezovskiy and ex-President Yanukovych, who has asked Putin to conquer the Ukraine that kicked him out. For all my love of fantasy and surrealism, I feel helpless in the face of Europe’s most recent history.Meanwhile, it was foggy outside. A thick, milky fog. At seven in the morning, a man of around sixty, too lightly dressed for the weather, entered the little square on the opposite side of the road. He crumbled a bread roll on the edge of the square where there are always dozens of pigeons. This time, he sprinkled the crumbs onto empty ground. There wasn’t a single pigeon anywhere around. I was astonished, checked out the surrounding area from the window and was satisfied there were no pigeons. Just for a moment, I thought this was a very bad sign. After all, I still didn’t know that the war hadn’t started. Another ten minutes, however, and the pigeons turned up, and a normal, peaceful morning in Kiev got under way.I still can’t believe all the troubles are over. And this despite the fact that I’ve always been an optimist. I’m still trying to understand what’s been happening over the past few weeks and is still happening now. I have no questions about anything to do with EuroMaidan. The present reality of Russian-Ukrainian relations, however, is a sad conundrum. While Russian troops were smashing navigation equipment at the Ukrainian airbases they had seized and blockading Ukrainian military units, the Ukrainian government, its legitimacy not recognised by Russia, was transferring payments for gas to Gazprom almost every day. Ukrainian goods passed unimpeded through Russian customs even though, before the start of military action in Crimea, every day had brought new problems for Ukrainian exports to Russia. Perhaps the permutations of politics sometimes resemble both schizophrenia and a sophisticated mind-game at one and the same time. So far, I haven’t a clue. Although, the simplest explanation of what’s happening could be a highly rational and dispassionate policy on the part of Ukraine’s new leaders, carrying on ‘as normal’ while preparing for the worst-case scenario.Still, while the political experts write about politics and politicians, writers write about life. And it’s the little things that make up life. The other day, en route to see my Kiev publisher, who lives, like me, in the centre of Kiev, I noticed two state traffic police cars and several police officers armed with AK assault rifles at a crossroads near Kiev University. And this ‘little thing’ lifted my mood. I’ve only seen police officers in central Kiev a few times in recent days. They were patrolling the streets with People’s Self Defence representatives. No, Kiev has not descended into chaos. Life seems entirely normal and only the appearance of the occasional passerby in a flak jacket suggests that getting back to normal is still some way off.One evening recently, on March 3, I visited my publisher at home. We were eating, drinking and trying to talk but the conversation was constantly being interrupted and a deadly silence would ensue. The publisher, Petr Khazin, kept trying to put the TV on so that we could follow the news but his wife and I wouldn’t let him. The black box of the disconnected TV set psyched us out too. We already knew about the Russian troops’ ultimatum to Ukraine’s military units. We knew about the assault set for five in the morning. That must have been why all our attempts to talk about peaceful topics were doomed to failure. When I took the same route home past Kiev University, the armed police officers and their patrol cars had gone. The streets were dark, damp and quiet. I went to bed at two in the morning and woke again at six to find out whether the war had started. As it turned out, it hadn’t. I rushed to give my children the good news but they already knew. They’d been up earlier than me – to find out whether they had any future in Ukraine.
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 translator
Melanie Moore has been translating Russian in all its forms for more than 25 years. Her translation of The Little Man by Liza Alexandrova Zorina was published by Glas earlier this month. She also translates from French.
To find out more about the situation in Ukraine, and the poetry and literature of the country, English PEN, the Dash Cafe, the British Ukrainian Society present the work of Ukrainian poet Ihor Pavlyuk. Ihor’s work paints an extraordinary and complex picture of Ukraine and we will use it as inspiration to begin a conversation about the country today. Featuring the haunting and soulful music of Olesya Zdorovetska and a panel chaired by Dash Artistic Director Josephine Burton with Journalist Annabelle Chapman, translator Steve Komanyckyj and Ihor himself, this will be a celebration of Ukrainian voices that can gives us a unique perspective on the current political situation.