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Andrey Kurkov: Серые пчелы (Grey Bees)

This book was published well before Putin’s vicious and illegal attack on Ukraine in 2022. However, in his introduction, Kurkov makes it clear that Putin has been at war with Ukraine for some time. Seven years ago, in 2013, Vladimir Putin’s failed attempt to tear Ukraine away from Europe and fold it into his “family of fraternal peoples” – that is, into his revived version of the Soviet Union – ended in revolution. He goes on to tell us that there is a grey zone in the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, between Ukraine and Russia. Because of the conflict, most people have moved away, some to Russia, some to other parts of Ukraine. Since this happened – at the time when Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 – Kurkov has visited the area three times. This novel is set in Little Starhorodivka, a village in the grey zone. It has two remaining residents.

The focus is on Sergey Sergeyich. He is a beekeeper and that seems to the main interest in his life, apart from surviving. His wife and daughter have long since gone and while he does know where, he has lost touch with them. There is no power, therefore no phone, no TV. He has an ample supply of coal, plenty of candles (beeswax) and has some food and is occasionally supplied by visiting Baptists and, in the course of the novel, by a Ukrainian soldier and people in the next village, who still have power. He still has a car but is reluctant to use it as the roads have been bombed.

His neighbour is Pashka, who lives in another street. Sergeyich has disliked Pashka since school (he is now forty-nine) as he bullied him but the two men, as the only two left, establish a sort of working relationship.

Unlike some other villages, Little Starhorodivka seems to be near the frontline as both the church and community centre have been hit and, during the course of the novel a house near Pashka is hit. Sergeyich also sees a corpse out in the field, which no-one seems to claim.

Sergeyich does have some health problems. He was a safety inspector in the mines and, as a result, got silicosis and coughs a lot. He has a pension but there is no-one to deliver it and nothing to buy. In the spring he plans to take his bees to a warmer climate. Meanwhile, he and several of the others, mutter the line When the war is over….

Sergeyich is pro-Ukrainian, Pashka, pro-Russian. However, Sergeyich lives on Lenin Street while Pashka lives on Shevchenko Street (Taras Shevchenko was a major Ukrainian poet.) Sergeyich decides to swap the street names. This could cause problems for the post but, fortunately, when it finally arrives, the two men deliver the letters.

But Sergeyich is most concerned about his bees and giving therm an outing, where it is warmer and, in particular, there is no noise from shelling (bees are sensitive to noise), so he gets out his trusty Lada, loads up the hives and off he sets.

His journey, inevitably, is not all smooth. He has problems at checkpoints but makes it through and eventually finds a suitable place. A widow who owns a shop welcomes him warmly. A shell-shocked man whose friend has been killed is less welcoming.

He had met Akhtem, a Crimean Tatar, at a beekeepers’ convention and had fond memories of him so sets out to visit him.Crimea, of course, is in Russia by this point and that poses its own problems. The fact that the Russians do not like Crimean Tatars poses further problems. Initially his bees are happy in Crimea but then the pollen seems to be black and his bees seem to be turning grey. Kurkov does not hold back on the police state nature, the racism and brutality of the Russians in Crimea – they even threaten Sergeyich’s beloved bees – but a Ukrainian can clearly survive mere Russians.

He gets into an argument with a Russian woman in Crimea, who justifies the behaviour of the Russians, saying that Crimea has always been Russian. This is, of course, not true. It was a khanate from 1449 to 1783 and the Crimean Tatars are descendants of the Cumans, a nomadic tribe that settled in what is now Crimea after the Mongol invasion of 1237, and other indigenous peoples, and therefore, contrary to what the woman says, it has not always been Russian. But, as she says What happened is what Putin says happened” she insisted. “Putin doesn’t lie.

However, it is now occupied by the Russians and Sergeyich is only allowed ninety days in Crimea so it is time to go home. Maybe life will be more peaceful and normal back home.

This really is a superb novel, quite apart from my obvious sympathies for the Ukrainians. Sergeyich is a man who struggles along but, on the whole, takes things in his stride, concerned only with protecting his precious bees whom we can see as a symbol for Ukraineness and, perhaps, more so, a symbol for the meeting of minds of like-minded, reasonable, sensible people, who wish to stay in touch with and protect their culture, while fully respecting other peaceful and traditional cultures. Kurkov is not so much anti Russia but anti Putinesque Russia, as I imagine and hope most readers of this review and of Kurkov’s novels also are.

Whether you know or do not know much about Ukraine and the background to Putin’s illegal and vicious 2022 invasion, I would highly recommend you read this book to get a view of Ukraine and see why it should very much be a separate, independent state. You will also get a first-class story.

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Folio, Kharkhiv
First published in English in 2020 by MacLehose Press
Translated by Boris Dralyuk