Two weeks before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the novelist Andrey Kurkov was at home in Kyiv, having a tough time imagining a war. Although the build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border had, for months, unnerved the West, sending diplomats and oligarchs out of the country, life in Kyiv otherwise felt mostly normal. As Kurkov wrote for the New Statesman at the time, “While the oligarchs were flying abroad, my friends and I were looking for a place to have Sunday lunch.”
Now, four weeks into Russia’s devastating war, life no longer feels normal but Kurkov still hasn’t fled Ukraine. “I mean, I suggested [that] my wife and children leave, because they are British citizens, but they decided to stay,” he tells me via video link from western Ukraine. His daughter, who lives in London but was visiting Kyiv when the war began, has since left the country. But he himself never considered it. “We are based in Ukraine, and I don’t want to leave the country.”
An award-winning novelist, Kurkov was born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1961 and came to prominence for his darkly witty novels, which he wrote in Russian. His best-selling novel, Death and the Penguin, published in 1996 and translated into English in 2001, follows a Kyiv writer named Viktor, and his pet penguin Misha, whom he had rescued when Kyiv Zoo closed down. Fans of Kurkov couldn’t help think of his novel following reports in early March that the real Kyiv Zoo had been forced to create makeshift bomb shelters for the animals as the conflict drew closer.
“The war is destroying all spheres of life – physical life, [but also Ukraine’s] buildings, architecture, history, culture.” Does he think artists have a particular role to play in a time of war, particularly when so much is being destroyed? Not really. “I don’t think, actually, that art has a huge role. The army has a role; politicians have a role,” he says. “I don’t think people in Mariupol now are concerned with art during the war.”
Yet Kurkov concedes that some artists and writers are trying to do important “work that can convey a message to the outside world”. One could include him in that group: Kurkov is also known as a journalist and a commentator, and he has long been particularly sharp in his criticism of Vladimir Putin. (He has said he’s been told he’s now on a Russian “wanted list”.) Since Russia invaded, Kurkov has been writing steadily – not fiction, but dispatches on the war, filing scenes of both tragedy and absurdity.
As the president of PEN Ukraine, a non-profit dedicated to protecting authors’ freedom of speech, he has also been monitoring the number of Ukrainian writers, poets and translators who have been killed. On Sunday 20 March, he tweeted about the translator Olexander Kislyuk, who he says was killed by Russian soldiers near his home in Kyiv. “Ukrainian art will have difficult times to find replacements for many of the artists who are killed or will be killed or will disappear,” he tells me.
But he believes the conflict will shape Ukrainian culture in other ways too. “I think the war will also create a new tendency in Ukrainian art,” he says. “After 2014 [and the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia], Ukrainian literature became much more militant than it was before. I cannot imagine it can become even more militant now. But probably the other arts will – paintings and drama and films.”
Since we are speaking about film and storytelling, I ask him what he thinks of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s actor-turned-president; Kurkov has been critical of him in the past. “I never would vote for him. I was very unhappy about many of his decisions [before the war]. But I mean, now, he is the right guy for Ukraine,” he says. “There is some kind of stability factor… and the president is actually doing his job 24 hours a day.”
Kurkov, like many people in Ukraine and across the West, has also come to appreciate the benefits of having an actor in the role of president at this moment, along with a team who can craft a message. “I don’t know who is [Zelensky’s] speechwriter, but this person should be awarded a prize – a literary prize, maybe the Nobel Prize?”
But he realises the limits of Zelensky’s – and Ukrainian – appeals when it comes to ending the war. “I don’t see a unified European response to the crisis. And in some cases, one can be appalled by, for example, the decision of Israel now to cancel visa-free travel for Ukrainians but to give visa-free travel for Russian citizens. So I mean, it’s impossible to say that all the world is behind Ukraine.”
While he says that Ukrainians appreciate the response so far from the US and the UK, the country still needs more in terms of military material in order to combat Russia’s assault. He also feels real anger that more wasn’t done in the months and years prior to the war. “The European Union was very naive,” he says. “[Angela Merkel] just treated Putin as some kind of nice pet who would not do evil things.”
All of those illusions have now been dispelled, both across the EU but also, perhaps more radically within Ukraine. “There is a feeling that this war will last as long as Putin is alive. Because he doesn’t want to stop, he doesn’t want to give up,” Kurkov says. In just a matter of weeks, he suggests, the bonds between Ukrainians and Russians have been irrevocably broken.
“The country which was fighting the Nazis became the Nazis for Ukrainians. Bombing maternity clinics and theatres where people are hiding is not something actually you can forget. You can’t just push this aside.”