In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, Andrey Kurkov writes about recycling. While over 3,000 Russian tanks have been destroyed since the beginning of the latest war in Ukraine, it’s the smaller scrap metal and artillery shell casings that artists have focused on painting for European auctions that have raised money for the Ukrainian military and humanitarian aid. The war offers other opportunities for recycling in the forms of historical figures, renamed places, and myths about national identity. Such are the adaptations of a culture at war, a thoroughly modern war that Kurkov examines through his own understanding of the history that led the Ukrainian people to where they are now.
Kurkov’s new book, Diary of an Invasion, begins with a reminder that “Ukraine has given the world many first-class chess players.” Like these players, he argues, Ukrainians have an intuition for planning several steps ahead because of their tumultuous history. Kurkov’s first entry in this diary is dated two months before the invasion begins, capturing a celebratory moment where anxiety about a possible war is eclipsed by New Year’s wishes for the future. And while Kurkov’s diary entries appear in chronological order, the diary itself is anything but linear. Even if the milestones that mark the war’s escalation lack the calculated logic of a first-class chess player, Kurkov’s narrative moves are that of a grandmaster.
Though Kurkov holds a Ukrainian passport, he was born in Russia. Writing in both Russian and Ukrainian for most of his life has opened him up to criticism from both sides. Ever on the lookout for historical parallels to explain the present, Kurkov has written in defense of writers like The Master and Margarita author Mikhail Bulgakov after members of Ukraine’s national writers’ union called for the renaming of Bulgakov’s family home, which is now a literary museum in Kyiv.
Like Bulgakov, Kurkov moves between cultures and languages. Unlike Bulgakov, who served as a physician in the White Army after the First World War and remained in Moscow until his death, Kurkov remains a proud citizen of Ukraine and an open critic against the kind of cultural homogenization that claims writers and their work for political causes. He knows from history that the lines are never drawn so clearly. The nuance of identity comes up throughout the dozen of his novels translated into English, including Death of the Penguin and, more recently, Grey Bees, which tells the story of a beekeeper from the Donbas who feels increasingly alienated from his own culture amidst the Russian invasion of 2014.
Both of Kurkov’s grandfathers were communists. One died fighting for the Soviet Army in 1943 while the other lived until 1980. Other relatives were sent to gulags. Of his older grandfather’s silence about these relatives, Kurkov says, “It turned out that I was protected from the dangerous past.” Yet, his willingness to interrogate this dangerous past is what informs nearly every one of his detailed descriptions of the people and places caught up in the war happening now.
Part of what makes the past so dangerous is how quickly it can be revised and repurposed to meet the needs of the moment. In one diary entry, Kurkov credits Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago as the impetus for questioning both his own formal education as well as his grandfather’s stories of Soviet dominance. Another entry describes the author’s annoyance with amateur foreign “journalists” and curiosity seekers with fewer than 15 YouTube followers looking for his take on the situation. In contrast to many of his literary contemporaries, Kurkov understands that Putin’s war is being fought at least as much in the media as it is in the trenches and streets of Ukrainian villages.
In recent interviews, Kurkov likens his frequent articles, podcast appearances, and lectures to other non-military efforts that contribute to the multi-dimensional war effort. Rather than limit his diary to documenting war’s isolated horrors, Kurkov counters the killings of women and children fleeing their homes with acts of resistance like an 85-year-old woman who continues baking Easter sweet breads known as paskas in a stove that remains after the rest of her apartment is destroyed by Russian artillery. These defiant acts illustrate how “Ukrainians almost never get depressed. They are programmed for victory, for happiness, for survival in difficult circumstances, as well as for the love of life.” From praising the protective UNESCO designation for Ukrainian culinary traditions like borscht, to winning the Eurovision singing contest, to applauding Ukrainian publishers who find ways to print books despite paper shortages, the diary is a chronicle of triumph in the face of suffering. Even praise for soldiers at the front takes the form of anecdotes like the 23-year-old artillery commander who posts TikTok videos of her crew under the nom de guerre Princeska13.
These anecdotal curiosities prove far more engaging than the close attention given throughout the diary to some of Kurkov’s closest friends and family. Repeat mentions of the author’s brother who lives near an aircraft factory along with lengthy descriptions of the decisions that friends and neighbors have to make attempt to provide the continuity of a story line (Will they get out? Will they stay?) without building upon themselves or progressing in ways that feel like a plot. The real story here isn’t with these characters, but with Kurkov’s own feelings towards how the war he observes is transforming the people and places he knows so well.
If anything, Diary of an Invasion is a testament to the supreme weirdness of its time. Its events, like the historical events Kurkov invokes, will morph into something barely recognizable for anyone reading in the future about his descriptions of people drinking whiskey in Kyiv’s “hipster barber shops” or Stalin’s imposed Holodomor famine of the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians. Whatever the future looks like, the themes are likely to feel uncannily familiar. It takes a true strategist who can think several moves out to see beyond the present bloodshed to acknowledge, as Kurkov does, that “for many people, history has long ceased to be a science and has become part of literature.”
Diary of an Invasion
By Andrey Kurkov
Deep Vellum Publishing
Published April 4, 2023
Joe Stanek graduated from West Point and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He writes about war and military culture.