“Writers and publishers are patrolling Kyiv with weapons” – Andrei Kurkov

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The outspoken Ukrainian author, who writes in Russian, captures the defiant spirit of public resistance to the invasion of his country by an aggressor out to achieve the fantasy of re-creating a lost geographical empire as a last gasp legacy of Putin, in an exclusive online interview allowed to Mathrubhumi weekend edition

Surveillance footage shows a missile hitting a residential building in Kyiv on Feb 26, 2022, in this still image taken from a video by Reuters

Hope your family and you are safe, Andrei; could you describe fleeing the invasion?

We all are fine, having managed to sendback our daughter who lives in London. Three days before the onslaught on arrival in Ukraine, she went with our sons and their friends to Lviv on holiday the day before the warbroke out. She crossed the border into Slovakia from Uzghorod. This was our main concern, especially my wife, Elizabeth’s. Now, our sons, Theo and Anton, who are British passport-holders are making themselves useful to the Ukrainian Army and refugees. Yesterday, they were making camouflage nets. Today, March 1, 2022, they are looking for information on the territorial army.

People of Kyiv resemble your characters in Grey bees: ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. What do you expect of them?

The spirit is high and I am very proud for Ukrainians who showed the world that they are ready to die for freedom and independance. For Ukrainians freedom is more important than stability, for Russians just the opposite. Everyone is trying to do something to defend the country or to help refugees. I did not expect such involvement of ordinary people to defendour country, to the extent of taking up weapons. Many of my friends and colleagues volunteered for the army or joined the ranks of the territorial forces. The Kapranov brothers - writers and publishers - are now patrolling Kyiv with weapons in their hands. I am sure that Ukraine will be able to defend itself from Russian aggression.

Drone picture of a residential building destroyed by shelling in the settlement of Borodyanka in the Kyiv region, March 3, 2022 | Reuters/Maksim Levin

The people in your book want to survive. They even enjoy hidden pleasures, such as candies, the odour in a church or watching TV. Could war in places like Donbas become a sort of banality, a part of quotidian life?

I don’t think so. In Donbas until five days ago it was still sort of semi-frozen war. You cannot freeze war of this size with 3,000 km of frontline. For residents near the front line, war has become ordinary. They are only afraid if a bomb falls near their house. I would not want such a thing to happen all over Ukraine. Nor do I want this to continue to happen in the Donbas, but Putin really wants war. He will offer peace and Russian slavery instead, but the Ukrainians will not agree to this.

Has there been a real grey area, a zone between pro-Russian and Ukranian army that you knew before writing the book?

Of course, the length of real grey zone in Donbas is the same as the length of frontline – 430 km, with dozens of villages stuck between positions of warring sides.

A destroyed Russian Army all-terrain infantry mobility vehicle Tigr-M (Tiger) on a road in Kharkiv Feb 28 | Reuters/Vitaliy Gnidyi

What is Putins endgame as far as Ukraine in concerned?

Putin wants to incorporate Ukraine into his new ‘dream’ USSR. Before dying he wants to bequeath the legacy in the form of a new Russian Empire. He wants to annex Ukraine like he annexed Crimea. He wants to recreate the Russian empire and ‘return’ the lands that once belonged to it. Realizing that the Ukrainians do not want to be part of the ‘Russian world’, he decided to destroy them. Therefore, rockets and bombs are pulverising residential buildings in Kharkov and Zhytomyr; therefore Russia is shelling Kyiv from Belarus with ballistic missiles.

A lot of analysts believe that Ukraine should have become a part of NATO, some time after 2015. Was this a lost opportunity?

Yes, it was. Then, it wouldn’t have given Putin motivation. He decided that if NATO and EU doesn’t want, then it is Russia up to them to take it. Ukraine should have been accepted into NATO back in 2008. But NATO did not trust us and did not want to take responsibility for the security of my country. Nobody wanted a quarrel with Russia. Politicians in Europe, the US and the leadership of NATO did not want to irritate Russia. I am sure that if Ukraine had joined NATO earlier, this war would not have happened.

What was the situation in the days prior to the invasion? Did people fear about the escalation of violence?

There was calm and sixty per cent of Ukrainians were sure there wouldn’t be a war. Before the war, the situation became more tense every passing day. Russian politicians in those fateful days publicly switched to the language of criminals. It was evident that they were inciting the Russian people to hate Ukrainians. Most Ukrainians, especially the oldergeneration, did not fully believe that Russia would attack Ukraine.

A charred Russian tank is seen in the Sumy region, March 7, 2022 | Irina Rybakova/Press service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces

Have you been able to write literature these days?

No, I have put literature aside until peace reigns. Now I describe what is happening and write articles for various publications. Also, as the president of the Ukrainian PEN Center, I participate in the work of my colleagues, helping foreign journalists, holding online discussions in English to inform the world about the situation here.

Andrei Kurkov participating in a channel discussion as part of his endeavour to inform the world about the situation here” | screen grab

Is there Ukrainian literature on the siege by Putins Russia; like novels or poems that narrate the war in Dombas?

Yes, since 2014 there have been two literatures in Ukraine: ordinary and military. Military literature about the Donbas is mainly written by veterans of this war. These are novels, memoirs and diaries. Some of the books written by volunteers and the military have become bestsellers. More than 300 books have been published about the war in Donbass. A fewer than a dozen have been published about the annexation of Crimea. But until 2014, politics was outside the pale of literature in Ukraine. That time has passed and will never return. Now Ukrainian literature will always be politically engaged.

(English original of the article published in Malayalam in Mathrubhumi weekend dated March 13, 2022)

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