When any country becomes headline news and is convulsed by historic upheavals, it is hard to think of everyday life continuing much as before. Yet even in times of war, babies are born and old people die (of natural causes), while those in between fall in and out of love, and meet with professional successes and failures.
The power of Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries, covering the period from last November to this April, lies in the interweaving of the extraordinary and the mundane. In his diary entries, he recounts his views on some of the most momentous events in his country’s recent history but intersperses them with accounts of his daily life. As readers, we live through the Maidan revolution, the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich and the annexation of Crimea. Yet we also learn about the paintballing party that Kurkov organises to celebrate his son’s 11th birthday, the progress of the potato harvest at his dacha, and his trip to the hospital with his mother for her cardiogram tests. In this way, Ukraine’s recent history is made all the more human and real.
As one of Ukraine’s most famous writers, Kurkov has achieved widespread acclaim in the west through his absurdist novels, such as Death and the Penguin (1996) and The President’s Last Love (2007). As he explains in his preface, he has also been keeping a personal diary for more than 30 years and has never before been tempted to publish any extracts. But as someone who lived in an apartment with his wife and three children just 500 yards away from Kiev’s Independence Square, he became witness to the “whirlwind of history”. “From our balcony we have seen smoke rise from blazing barricades, we have heard the explosions of grenades and gunshots,” he explains. “I have recorded this life almost every day, so that I can attempt, now, to recount it to you in detail.”
One of the most striking themes of his diary entries is the difficulty he has in understanding what is happening in his country. It is the job of journalists and historians to construct neat narratives. But Kurkov’s diaries highlight how difficult it can be to interpret the significance of events as they are unfolding. As a man of letters, Kurkov is troubled by his inability to express himself clearly. At times, he admits, he is almost lost for words. And the political turmoil exacts a personal toll: Kurkov writes at one point of feeling as if he has aged five years in three months.
Part of the problem is that false rumours and deliberate disinformation play such a big role in muddying our understanding. The anti-European Ukrainian Choice movement is effective in persuading many Ukrainians that universal conversion to homosexuality is the condition imposed by Europe on Ukraine for signature of the EU association agreement. In February one of the deputies in Yanukovich’s Party of Regions caused a commotion by claiming that US parachutists had landed in western Ukraine and demanding that Russian tanks be sent in to counter them. “I can already see them crossing the whole country, all the way to the western border, searching for American soldiers, and then going home and apologising for the disturbance!” Kurkov notes.
Revolutions may seem like romantic undertakings but, as Kurkov makes clear, they are often bloody, messy affairs that only radicalise people, making political compromise all the harder to achieve. Of the one he is living through, he hears someone say that only florists and candle makers have benefited. The streets are piled high with bouquets of flowers for the victims of the revolution, while the number of candles burned in churches is 100 times higher than normal, he claims. “It’s so that God can see clearly what is happening in Ukraine.”
Another theme of the book is Kurkov’s lament for the souring of relations between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. According to different estimates, there are between 8m and 14m ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. As an ethnic Russian himself, born in Leningrad in 1961, and one who has lived in Kiev since childhood, Kurkov clearly feels this growing antagonism acutely. He recalls how the first member of his family to tread Ukrainian soil was his grandfather, who arrived in 1943 with the Red Army and was killed during the battle to liberate Kharkiv. “He died fighting the fascists, and now I hear the word ‘fascist’ directed at me because I have spoken – and continue to speak – against the generalised corruption organised by President-in-hiding Yanukovich.”
Throughout the diaries Kurkov expresses his increasing dismay about what is happening in Russia. It is almost as though a friend one knows well is losing their mind. Putin appears as the offstage villain, plotting “the restoration of historical legitimacy”, understood here as the reconstruction of the Soviet Union. “I believe such a plan existed, and still exists,” he writes. For Putin, Crimea is like a stolen diamond; he can only boast about it in the darkness rather than presenting it openly as a triumph. But Crimea quickly appears on weather report maps on Russian television along with Donetsk and Kharkiv, and its flora and fauna are included in Russian classifications.
Kurkov’s barely suppressed anger focuses on those who distort what is happening in Ukraine. To one Russian author, Sergei Lukyanenko, who has banned all translations of his books into Ukrainian in protest at Ukrainian fascism, he writes a letter: “I am told you are a fantasy author. It is strange that your imagination is not sufficiently powerful for you to understand that the Ukrainian people no longer wish to live under a system of total corruption, under an illiterate government that leaves behind it nothing but a pillaged and bankrupt country.”
In the afterword to the diaries, written in late June, Kurkov suggests that Ukraine is – as the doctors say – in a stable, but critical, condition. No one can predict the country’s future, he continues, citing the Ukrainian proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!” But he expresses bitterness that the EU, so vociferous in its support for Ukraine at the time of the Maidan protests, subsequently fell silent and walked away from Ukraine, preferring to profit from trade with its larger neighbour. Kurkov may have revised his opinion in the light of the international sanctions against Russia announced this week; here, however, the conclusion is bleak. “Money matters more than democracy,” he writes. “This cynical lesson that Europe has taught Ukraine will inevitably influence the future of my country.”
Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, by Andrey Kurkov, Harvill Secker, RRP£9.99, 256 pages
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor and a former Moscow bureau chief