A recent selfie of Kurkov outside Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Photo: Andrey Kurkov
As his journal covering the Russian invasion is published, Andrey Kurkov tells The Big Issue about the enduring optimism in Ukraine and how he sees the endgame playing out.
The Big Issue: You compare the Ukraine conflict to a game of chess. Is this a game that was going on long before the rest of the world started paying attention this year?
Andrey Kurkov: Three hundred years at least. The first decree against Ukrainian identity was signed by Peter the Great. The Ukrainian language was considered a peasant’s language. When I was growing up in Kyiv in the 1970s, if somebody spoke Ukrainian, he would be considered either an educated person from the village or a nationalist.
Did we overlook the importance Ukraine plays in all of our lives, especially when it comes to food?
Nobody thought about this in Europe. Actually, not many people thought about Ukraine at all. After the Soviet Union collapsed, in people’s minds, there is Russia and nothing else exists. Russia was pushing this image, that it is inherited from the Soviet Union.
For example, everybody knows Russian classical literature, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. Classical Ukrainian literature was never translated. Today, people don’t understand that Ukrainian culture is separate.
Where does Mikhail Bulgakov [author of The Master and Margarita] fit in?
Bulgakov was born in Kyiv and lived until he was 20-plus not far from my house. He is a Russian writer from Ukraine. But the magic that you find in his books comes from the Ukrainian tradition, not the Russian tradition. In Russian classical literature there is almost no humour, no magic. There is fatalism.
This is the difference. Russians are fatalists and Ukrainians are optimists. They don’t give up, Ukrainians. Russians give up. They just say OK, we cannot protest, we will accept Putin, we will accept war. If we are sent to the war we will go and fight. And Ukrainians, if they are unhappy, they organise protests. In Ukraine, politicians are afraid of civil society. In Russia, so-called civil society is afraid of politicians.
Is normal life possible in Ukraine at the moment?
Actually, in Kyiv most of the cafes are working and they are full. After the explosions of missiles in October, people started reacting to the air raid sirens. Before that, they would remain in the cafes drinking coffee, now they’re rushing to the bomb shelters, but then they still go back to the cafe.
My friend yesterday was walking on the street next to mine, one of the most beautiful in Kyiv, Yaroslaviv Val, during the siren. People were rushing from the cafes and only one place remained open and working, the beauty salon. And the lady was doing a manicure for a client. And they decided not to go because, I mean, this is a process. You cannot interrupt this process.
You write that in recent months, every country in Europe has taken on a human face. What does our face look like?
The most popular politician in Ukraine until today is Boris Johnson. He was the most outspoken about helping Ukraine and we received many times more military help than from European countries like France or Germany.
Very slowly it’s improving. [Emmanuel] Macron and [Olaf] Scholz realise how serious the situation is not only for Ukraine, but for the whole world. Because Putin is forgetting about his first statements where he said he was coming to defend Russian speakers.
When he came, he killed 20,000-30,000 Russian speakers in Mariupol. Now he’s saying that this is the war against the collective west, just on Ukrainian territory. He is lying to Russians that the army is fighting not with the Ukrainians, but with mercenaries from all these European countries and America.
The whole of Russia isn’t stupid though. Do they just accept there’s nothing they can do?
Officially 80-plus per cent support Putin and I think after 20 years of anti-Ukrainian propaganda, there is a sincere hate for Ukrainians. Many people believe Putin and his narrative. Even the mothers of killed Russian soldiers, they are saying that well, they died for the right cause. They were defending Russia.
You mentioned Boris Johnson who seemed to fly and meet Zelensky for a photo op every time he was in trouble here.
For Ukrainians it didn’t matter because most don’t understand what is happening in Britain. For them it was the fact that some politicians are coming regularly to Ukraine, and sending weapons to Ukraine, it means that they are on Ukrainian side and it means they are heroes.
Are you a fan of Zelensky?
No. I didn’t vote for him and I will not vote for him in the future. But I appreciate what he is doing from the first day of the war. He is a good speaker. He has good speech writers and he delivers his messages in a very efficient way. So during the war, I don’t have much reason to criticise him. I had a lot of reason to criticise him before the war, now I’m waiting for the war to be over.
In some ways, having the freedom to criticise political leaders is what the fight is all about, right?
Yeah. Ukraine is a very democratic country with a good pinch of anarchy. Everyone has his or her own opinion and is ready to be as loud as possible about what they think.
You write that your biggest fear is losing a sense of optimism. How do you try to avoid that?
Thank God, I’m supported by people’s creativity. Every problem provokes new jokes. And this makes me feel that everything is fine, that society is healthy. I mean, when everybody was afraid that Putin would use nuclear weapons there was immediately a wonderful joke that I laughed at and I stopped thinking about nuclear weapons: A Ukrainian is asked whether he is ready for the nuclear end of the world. And he answers, of course I am ready and I have plans for six months afterwards.
Back to the chess game, what are the next few moves over the weeks and months ahead?
Well, I’m very disappointed that Putin is not dead yet. But I have no influence over it. Of course, winter slows everything down. So there will be accumulation of forces on both sides and fighting will resume actively, probably in March. The experts think that the war can be over by the summer. If [Putin] is not gone, he is becoming weaker and weaker. There will be – I’m not sure whether a coup d’etat or not – but something will be happening in the Kremlin, probably over winter also. Because if the war goes longer than the next summer, it will become a passive war. Along the frontline 2000 kilometres long, Ukraine and Russia will have to keep half a million soldiers there, which will stop economies of both countries. So logically, the war should be over, if not by the summer, then maybe immediately after. But we’ll see.