Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s pre-eminent contemporary author, visited Vancouver on June 1st to talk about his most recent books and to discuss the on-going situation in Ukraine.
Kurkov’s body of work includes 19 novels, 9 children’s books, and 20 documentary and tv/movie scripts. He has been translated into 37 languages.
Currently lecturing in the Slavic Studies Department of Stanford University in California, Kurkov was a special guest of the Vancouver Writers’ Festival and Upstart & Crow Book Store.
The session featured Kurkov in conversation with Nathan VanderKlippe, international correspondent for the Globe and Mail.
Kurkov’s award-winning 2018 novel Grey Bees is set in the “Grey Zone” between the Ukrainian military and the separatist forces of the Russian invaders and their Ukrainian-Russian sympathizers of the Donbas region.
In the fictional village of Starhorodivka only two elderly inhabitants remain: Sergey Sergeyich, a beekeeper whose affinity is with the Ukrainians, and Pashka Khmelenko, who prefers the Russians. They have known each other all their lives.
“I wanted to write about people who found themselves in the war without taking part,” explained Kurkov, who before beginning the novel traveled the entire 450-km front line.
Kurkov read an excerpt from his latest book, a work of non-fiction entitled Diary of an Invasion. It is a collection of his writings, broadcasts, and personal journey entries from the time just prior to the Russian invasion of Feb 24, 2022, through to the several months following the invasion.
“‘The shelling goes on continuously and the children keep playing in the yard,’ said a friend from Kharkiv during a telephone conversation. ‘The people are tired of being afraid.’”
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been severely bombarded by the Russians and has suffered significant damage.
“With the drones and rockets and explosions, at the beginning there was fear, then came anger, then hate, and now … irritation,” said Kurkov.
He added that on the day of his Vancouver visit (June 1st), ten Russian missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defences over or near Kyiv. Three people were killed by a fragment from a missile that had been destroyed, including a mother and her nine-year-old daughter.
It was with a degree of bitter irony that Kurkov noted that June 1st was the International Day for the Protection of Children. “On this day, they killed a child.”
On April 3, 2023, the United Nations reported that 501 children had been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian military action. “This is another tragic milestone for Ukraine’s children and families,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.
In responding to questions from members of the sold-out audience, Kurkov touched on the importance of language and its fundamental connection with cultural identity.
One attendee spoke of the importance of French to the people of Quebec, of the various dictionaries and school-based language programmes in many small and isolated northern First Nations communities aimed at language preservation and cultural identity, of the Irish Gaelic taught in the schools of Ireland.
“Ukraine is a multicultural nation,” explained Kurkov. “The Hungarian-Ukrainians speak Hungarian and feel connected to their Hungarian culture. So too the Romanian-Ukrainians.”
“But it is different with Ukrainian nationalists who speak only Russian. They do not feel connected to any sort of Russian cultural identity or tradition. The language is solely a vehicle for communicating with one-another.”
Gord Yakimow is an occasional contributor to New Pathway / Ukrainian News newspaper. He lives in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, approximately 100 km east of Vancouver.