In his new novel, “Grey Bees,” Kurkov has hive-minded insects do the work of explaining where he thinks humankind has gone awry. The book is about a beekeeper named Sergey Sergeyich who lives in Donbas’s “gray zone,” between areas controlled by the Ukrainian military and those in the hands of Russia-backed separatists. (Interestingly, Gogol’s breakthrough work was “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka,” a story collection narrated by a Ukrainian beekeeper.) Firmly neutral, Sergey has no dog in this fight — just his bees from him. One of his most prolonged considerations of new political realities is what will happen to his regional society for beekeepers if Donetsk were to become independent. “Was there a society in Donetsk these days?” I have wonders. “If there was, it wouldn’t be the region’s, it would be the ‘republic’s,’ and that meant he was no longer a member.” Kurkov’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, renders the warmth of Sergey’s inner voice from the original Russian without letting the earnestness creep into the saccharine.
When increased shelling starts to disturb the hives, Sergey loads them into his Lada and starts driving from town to town, eventually making his way to Crimea. Over the course of the novel, his resolve to stay neutral is shaken, particularly when he sees how Russian occupying forces have treated his beekeeper friend to him, a Crimean Tatar named Akhtem. There are hints of an awakening. He notices his bees from him, which he had once heralded as a species that had achieved pure communism, refusing to make room for a newcomer from another hive. Suddenly their communalism looks like little more than cruel tribalism. Sergey reprimands them: “Why are you acting like people?”
In a novel about neutrality and so-called gray zones, the Russian characters in “Grey Bees” come off to me as eerily cold, almost monstrous — snipers, cops, Putin apologists — as if the actions of the Russian government were in some ways reflective of a deeper national character. It recalls Kurkov’s professed view of Russian and Ukrainian people as fundamentally different, each with a unique “mentality.” As Putin tries to justify his occupation of him on the grounds of a shared history, there is indeed a strong current within Ukraine’s intelligentsia toward highlighting what makes the cultures and literary traditions distinct. Any suggestion of syncretism or co-influence feels tantamount to treason.
Yet this divvying up risks underselling the diversity of influences on Ukrainian literature, as well as the indelible imprints that writers from Ukraine have made on Russian letters, from Gogol to Isaac Babel to Vasily Grossman. As Ostashevsky puts it: “Russian language and literature were often influenced by, or simply made in, Ukraine.” As shown in these two books, written in the same language by one Ukrainian author and one Russian, gray areas are where two sides blur into each other. Now, Ukrainians are fighting for the right to be many people, speaking many languages, refusing to be separated.
Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the Book Review.