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Ukrainian Author Andrey Kurkov: Russia’s War Is Targeting Ukraine’s Culture, History & Identity

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We speak with renowned Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, president of PEN Ukraine, about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now in its third month. “The war looks like the war against Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity,” says Kurkov. He says daily life in Kyiv is “coming back but very fragile” as Russia is said to be preparing a second attempt to occupy the capital.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds into its 78th day, we’re joined by the renowned Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov. He is the president of PEN Ukraine, usually based in Kyiv but currently here in the United States. He’s set to deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture Friday at the PEN World Voices Festival here in New York. His novel Death and the Penguin was an international best-seller, and his 2018 novel, Grey Bees, was just released in April in English here in the United States. It’s set in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where in 2014 rebels loyal to Russia declared independence for the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Andrey Kurkov, welcome to Democracy Now! You’re here in the United States. Your country is under siege. Can you talk about what is happening, not only the horror that we’re seeing today, but specifically the attack on culture of Ukraine?

ANDREY KURKOV: Hello. In fact, actually, the war started practically with the destruction of the museum of famous Ukrainian primitive artist Maria Prymachenko. This museum was situated in Ivankiv, a small town near Kyiv. And while it was burning, the local inhabitants were running inside the museum to bring the paintings out and to save them. And now many paintings of Maria Prymachenko are in private houses, and people are waiting for the museum to be restored after the war to return them.

Actually, also in the beginning of war, one of the best translators from ancient Greek, Olexander Kislyuk, was killed by Russians in front of his house in Bucha. Ukrainians can read Aristotle, Thucydides and other ancient Greek writers and philosophers in translation in Ukrainian, thanks to him. But now, actually, he is gone, and his last translation remained unfinished.

We have several poets and writers dead. We have over 20 journalists killed by Russian army in Ukraine during these 78 days of war, including one American reporter. I think he was from Fox News, and he was killed in Irpin, near Kyiv. His colleague was very heavily wounded.

In fact, the war looks like the war against Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity, because a bit later, probably two weeks after the beginning of the war, Russian military destroyed the archives of regional KGB in Chernihiv city. And these dossiers had documents about repressions against Ukrainian people of culture and Ukrainian politicians and Ukrainian nationalists, which were so called because they were thinking about independent Ukraine in the Soviet time.

The last blow to Ukrainian culture was actually the destruction of the museum of my favorite writer and philosopher of Ukraine from 18th century, Gregory Skovoroda. And this was a single missile coming from afar to destroy the museum, which was situated near Kharkiv in a village with no military installations and no detachments of Ukrainian army base. So, there is no doubt exactly the museum was the target of this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Andrey, you’re based — normally based in Kyiv. And could you talk about what you’re hearing — first of all, what the situation was like when you were last there, and then also what you’re hearing from family and friends about what the situation is now on the ground?

ANDREY KURKOV: Well, many people are coming back to Kyiv, although it remains a very dangerous city. And the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, says that the second attack of Russian army, second attempt to occupy Ukraine and occupy the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, probably is coming, because Putin is not going to give up. But still, even embassies are reopening — not reopening, in fact, actually, in Kyiv, but the diplomats are back, diplomats of more than 20 countries, including American diplomats.

The situation in daily life is almost normalized, apart from the fact that there is no petrol and people are using bicycles. So, I mean, there are problems with petrol everywhere in Ukraine, because 25 regional depots of petrol and diesel were destroyed by Russian missiles. There are lots of problems like this. But people are trying to restore the destroyed suburbs of Kyiv — Bucha, Vorzel, Hostomel and, of course, Irpin. So, I mean, life is coming back, but it is very fragile. And it’s clear that the war is not over, far from being over, of course, because, I mean, the fighting is going on, and the Russians are advancing slowly on the eastern front in Donbas area and in the south of Ukraine near Kherson and Mykolaiv.

But my friends are — many friends didn’t actually leave Kyiv. Because we left Kyiv on the second day of the war. We, with my wife, actually, had to go first to the village next to Kyiv and then to Lviv, because our children, our three children, were there on holidays. And our daughter Gabriella lives in London, so we had to send her back, which we managed to do two days later. But many friends stayed on.

And even one of my publishers stayed on and was working under shelling on the manuscript of a young writer from Berlin. The manuscript was one of a novel which is called Porcelain Doll about home of family violence. And he was doing this actually knowing that there is no publishing anymore. There is no chance he will print this book in the nearest future.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Andrey, could you talk about what we know of the Russian response to the war — that is to say, Russians in Russia? You’ve said that 80% support Putin, but in the early weeks of the invasion at least, there were lots of protests, with many thousands arrested. What do you get — what sense do you have of what the perception of the war is now in Russia and support for Putin?

ANDREY KURKOV: Well, I know that many people who disagree with Putin, they are leaving Russia. It is quite difficult to leave now, because there is no connection by plane with Europe, so they are going via Turkey, via United Arab Emirates, via Finland. But it means that, actually, people, if they disagree with Putin, and they are leaving the country, so the percentage of people who support Putin increases. Actually, this was the official information from Russian news agencies that 80% of Russian citizens support Russian policy in Ukraine. I don’t know how true it is.

But it is also the fact that on the 4th of March, more than 500 Russian writers, including the head and the board members of fake Russian PEN Center, signed a letter, open letter to Putin, to support him in the military aggression in Ukraine. This letter was published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the main literary weekly of Russian Federation. And next day, actually, another letter was published, open letter signed by the professors and students of Saint Petersburg University. So it reminds me, actually, of the Soviet campaign either against academician Sakharov or against the West. And Russia today reminds me, actually, of the Soviet Union of 1970s, maybe even 1960s.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Russian language and the use of it in Ukraine, in your own writings, and writers choosing to switch now to Ukrainian who might have been writing in Russian? I also heard, by the way, a member of Pussy Riot just left Russia, dressed as a food delivery person. She escaped. But in terms of resistance in the cultural world. But if you can talk about that issue of the Russian language and culture in Ukraine, and your book Grey Bees, that was just released in the United States, that takes place in Donbas?

ANDREY KURKOV: Well, I do write in Russian. I’m ethnic Russian. I was born in Russia, grew up in Kyiv. I spent actually 60 years out of my 61 in Ukraine. And I am not ethnic Ukrainian, but I’m citizen of Ukraine. I am politically Ukrainian, as probably the majority of Ukrainians now. Ukraine is a multicultural society. But Russia was always using Russian language as an instrument of politics, and now the instrument of war. So, I mean, I have also problems, psychological problems. I don’t feel comfortable writing in Russian. I still write fiction in Russian. I write nonfiction in Ukrainian. I know many writers who changed from Russian into Ukrainian, and there will be even more of them. But also, Ukrainian literature is written not only in Ukrainian and Russian; we have writers in Crimean Tatar language, in Hungarian language in Transcarpathia. So, I mean, it is multicultural society which was always tolerant towards Russian-language literature in Ukraine.

And we should — I mean, I should mention that Gogol was a Ukrainian writer, who made Ukraine fashionable among Russian aristocracy and who brought lots of Ukrainian words into Russian literary language. Russia appropriated him because he was writing also in Russian, because Russians were educated, and Ukrainians actually had lots of problems because of the tsarist government, because in the 19th century, for example, 40 decrees were signed by different Russian tsars to ban the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian language was stopped from being developed, and it was kept alive by a dozen of Ukrainian intellectuals who were still writing books in Ukrainian, although they didn’t have many readers.

My book about Donbas, Grey Bees, actually, it’s about life in the gray zone of Donbas. This gray zone doesn’t exist anymore. It was a strip of land 300 miles long, because it was along the frontline — actually, inside the frontline, the strip of land between positions of Russians and separatists on one side and Ukrainian army on the other side. And the width of this strip of land was from 300 meters to five kilometers or seven kilometers. And in this land, which was no man’s land, there were dozens of villages, and lots of people remained there without electricity, gas, running water, without access to food, without access to medical help. So, when I was writing this book in 2017, it was already fourth year of the war. And we had about 200 books written about war in Donbas, but all these books were about the war, about the battles, combats, about soldiers and separatists. And not a single one was about civil population suffering. And I wanted to give voice to people, to civil population, to people who remained in their houses, and the war came to them and interrupted their traditional life. The main character is a beekeeper who finds himself in the gray zone. And in the beginning of the war, he defends his bees, his six beehives of bees, dreaming, actually, of the time when he can take them out the war zone and organize holidays for the bees, so that they could collect pollen on the fields not ruined by bombs and not covered with burned gunpowder, which makes honey bitter if the bees collect pollen on battlefields.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Andrey, finally, how do you see this war coming to an end?

ANDREY KURKOV: Well, it’s difficult to imagine the war being ended while Putin is alive. And, of course, I mean, in case of his death, there will be definitely a very serious struggle in the Kremlin, between several groups of army generals and oligarchs, who will take power. So, I think, my personal view, that only if Russian oligarchs, because they are sovereign, so to say, more than the generals — only if they take over control of Russian Federation, the war will be stopped, and it will be easier to talk to Russia after the war. If it is army generals, FSB generals or GRU secret service generals who come to the control of Russian Federation, I think there will be more problems for Ukraine, and not only for Ukraine but also for Moldova, for Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, for Poland and for other neighboring countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrey Kurkov, you’re here in the United States. A final word to the people of the United States?

ANDREY KURKOV: I want, actually, to ask Americans to take more interest in Ukrainian history and Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian life, because everybody knows a lot about Russian history and Russian culture, but apart from the word “Ukraine” and the slogan “Be brave like Ukraine,” ordinary Americans don’t know much. And there are wonderful books to read, wonderful nonfiction books, like one by Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands; Anne Applebaum, Red Hunger; and a book by Canadian professor and writer Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe. When you read this book, you will understand better the history of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, and you will also understand that Ukraine was not under Russian rule until 1654.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrey Kurkov, we thank you for being with us, one of Ukraine’s most well-known authors, the president of PEN Ukraine, usually in Kyiv, but he will be in New York on Friday night, speaking to us now from Detroit, but he’ll be in New York for the PEN World Voices Festival and is delivering the 2022 Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on Friday at 6:30 at NYU Skirball Center. It will also be online. We will link to all the details.

I’ll also be moderating a forum on Saturday at noon as part of the PEN America World Voices Festival that’s called “Dispatches from the Margins: Writers in Exile.” That’s noon at Judson Church. We’ll put all details online.

Next up, we’ll speak with Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. He won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Black writer to win the award in 30 years, since Toni Morrison, and the first Black African writer to win the prize since 1986, since Wole Soyinka. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a moment.

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