Everything is gray in Grey Bees. The protagonist, an avid beekeeper from Donbas in eastern Ukraine, is called Sergei Sergeyich, but his neighbor calls him Greyich (a clever translation solution by Boris Dralyuk of “Seryi,” a nickname that means “grey”). The landscape is gray — a mix of snow-covered steppe and abandoned industrial wasteland. Sergeyich’s thoughts are gray: they are made up of nostalgia for his younger days — and even then, as an old photograph reveals, he wore a gray suit — and preoccupation with survival in a war zone. The only flickers of color are the memory of Sergeyich’s estranged wife with her unusual red ant-patterned dress, his green Lada, and his beloved bees. But the memory of his ex-wife fades, the car gets smashed beyond recognition, and even the bees — the only creatures he really seems to care about — eventually turn gray. At least some of them do.
We are used to the color gray being symbolic of the inferior, dull, even shameful. Sergeyich isn’t ashamed of it: he embraces it — he embodies it. And what choice does he have? Sergeyich lives in no-man’s land, the strip of territory between the two warring sides, known as the “grey zone.” He believes that being from the gray zone is better than taking sides; he is not prepared to ascribe the clarity of black and white to those who surround him. Gray is what he knows best — which is why, whenever he’s asked if he’s from Donetsk (a city controlled by Russian-backed separatists), he says: “No, my house is in the grey zone.”
Since the occupation of Crimea and the start of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, around 1.5 million Ukrainian citizens have become internally displaced. Many parts of eastern Ukraine where the fighting is most intense have become almost deserted. People left their homes in search of safety. Nevertheless, Kurkov reveals that the gray zone isn’t really a no-man’s land. “No-one knows exactly how many people remain in the grey zone, inside the war,” Kurkov tells us in Grey Bees, but it’s clear that some do still live there. We get to know two of them pretty well. Apart from Sergeyich, there’s also his neighbor, Pashka, the one who calls him Greyich. Pashka is described as Sergeyich’s “frenemy”: someone you don’t like enough to call a friend but don’t dislike enough to abandon when he’s the only familiar living soul around you.
Pashka and Sergeyich are as different as the streets on which they live — Lenin and Shevchenko streets — their friendship as unlikely as that of a revolutionary Bolshevik who created a communist empire and a serf-cum-poet who strived for Ukrainian national emancipation. Yet, like these streets, which have the only two inhabited houses in the otherwise abandoned village, Sergeyich and Pashka find themselves unable to escape one another, and are thus forced to form a certain gray bond.
The more time we spend in this no-man’s land, the more people we encounter. Among them are the separatists and Russian army men befriended by Pashka, and Petro, a soldier fighting on the Ukrainian side, who is befriended by Sergeyich. These military men have contributed to the turning of Pashka’s and Sergeyich’s home into the gray zone. The friendships they forge with the local frenemies are as fragile as the moments of occasional peace around them. Pashka’s fraternization with the separatists lasts as long as the vodka and scraps of food they hand down to him from time to time. Sergeyich’s camaraderie with the Ukrainian soldier consists of infrequent one-word text messages: “Alive?” asks Sergeyich now and again; “Alive,” Petro texts back.
The gray zone has its special silence. It’s a loud kind, a war-time silence: “[Y]ou didn’t need to strain your ears to make out the sound of distant bombardment, of something hooting and banging, but far away.” Spending nearly half of the book with Sergeyich in his home, we train our ear to listen for explosions, to discern whether the blasts are at a safe distance or dangerously close to his dilapidated house, whether they are tolerable enough for him to sleep right through them or loud enough to frighten his bees.
Kurkov quietly lures us into the gray zone. He paces our stay there so well that when it’s time to leave, together with Sergeyich (who needs to ensure that his bees get their fill of summer undisturbed by shelling), we feel uncomfortable about the journey ahead. We are anxious about losing the familiarity of the predictable grayness in a quest for color. Kurkov makes us realize that Sergeyich’s home — even in a war zone — is a home nevertheless, and no home is easy to leave:
It wasn’t his fault that his home was now in the middle of the war. In the middle, yes, but taking no part in it. No one shot at the enemy from his yard, his windows, his fence, which meant his home had no enemies. Maybe that’s why it was still standing, untouched by all the mines and shells that had fallen on Little Starhorodivka over the past three years.
But leave he must, if not for himself, then for his most valuable possession: the bees. Searching for a good spot to settle temporarily with his hives, Sergeyich stops near Vesele, a town in the neighboring region that literally means “cheerful.” Yet there’s little cheerful about the place: men sit idly drinking at a bus stop, the village shop has infrequent visitors, and locals are suspicious of a man from the gray zone. And if the bees manage to escape the shelling, Sergeyich doesn’t escape the war. Just as he finds a good location for his hives, and enters, albeit reluctantly, into a relationship with a local woman, Galya, his contented stay near Vesele is interrupted by an attack on him — and, more importantly on his bees — by an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. It turns out that being from the gray zone did not mean he wouldn’t be perceived as an enemy by those affected by this war.
Right from the outset of his journey, Sergeyich intends to visit an old acquaintance, Akhtem, another beekeeper he met 20 years ago at a bee-keeping conference and who, he assumes, still lives in Crimea, now occupied by Russia. So, when he leaves Vesele behind, he goes south. Here, too, he feels compelled to inform everyone who notices his car’s number plates that he’s not from Donetsk; he’s from the gray zone. Here, too, he fails to avoid the war. Having arrived at Akhtem’s place, he is informed by the Crimean Tatar’s family that Akhtem has been missing for two years. Sergeyich learns that Crimea, just like his own home, is in the gray zone: between war and peace, between pretend legality and lawlessness. He learns that here, too, trying to remain neutral will not guarantee that you won’t be perceived as an enemy.
Sketching the life of only one family, Kurkov hints at the stories of so many Crimean Tatars who have found themselves forced out of their homes once again. “This land’s been Russian Orthodox since time immemorial! Russians brought Orthodoxy from Turkey, brought it to Chersonesus, back before there were any Muslims,” a Russian woman in Crimea tells Sergeyich, repeating the propaganda broadcast by the pro-Kremlin channels. The myths about “time immemorial” are used to justify human rights violations. An accusation of stealing candles from an Orthodox church is enough to send a Crimean Tatar to jail. Being a Crimean Tatar is enough to generate such far-fetched accusations.
Sergeyich is ignorant about the Crimean Tatars’ customs, while Kurkov’s knowledge of the peninsula, its peoples and traditions, on the other hand, is indisputable. Bejewelled by expressions in Crimean Tatar, which neither Sergeyich nor most readers are able to understand, the passages of Grey Bees set in Crimea are filled with a sense of the loss of a culture we failed to comprehend and to protect from destruction.
Sergeyich might have left the gray zone of Donbas, but even in Crimea he is reminded of home in unexpected ways. He observes the transformation of the village from “enchanting Albat” (the Tatar name) into “the black hole of Soviet Kuybyshevo” (the Soviet/Russian name). The change is brought about by the frequent power outages: with the lights of Albat extinguished, the village is reduced to Kuybyshevo. To Sergeyich, problems with electricity are not new: his own village has had no power for three years. The grayness is thus familiar in more ways than one. Watching Albat/Kuybyshevo, he thinks of home: “Little Starhorodivka comes with me wherever I go. I’m here now, so it’s here too!”
As with his stay near Vesele, Sergeyich manages to make a reasonably comfortable life for himself and his bees in Crimea. He places his hives next to Akhtem’s. He befriends Akhtem’s family who, like Galya, take care of him. And all would be well if it weren’t for external forces that threaten his and his bees’ brief moment of peace once again. The ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who attacked one of the hives near Vesele only left an axe mark on it, without causing much lasting damage. By contrast, the Russian police in Crimea confiscate a hive for inspection, and when it is returned, the bees are not the same. The creatures the beekeeper thought he knew so well now behave oddly and look, well, gray.
The Crimean Tatars’ hospitality toward Sergeyich seems limitless, but the local authorities, ruled by Russia, limit theirs to 90 days. Once that period expires, Sergeyich must leave the sunny peninsula together with his bees, including the suspicious gray ones. On his way out of Crimea, he is reproached by a customs officer, who points out that Sergeyich’s license, registration, and plate are all Soviet: “What, are you still living in the U.S.S.R.?” the officer asks. “No-one told me to change anything. I’ve been driving with them the whole time,” Sergeyich replies. The Soviet license plate stayed valid in the gray zone long after the Soviet Union itself expired.
In the gray zone, “life flowed on. Like a river. What else could it do but flow and flow, until it flowed into death?” Death, like the grayness, follows Sergeyich throughout the novel. In the gray zone, he finds the body of a Ukrainian army soldier, which he tries to cover with snow, to give it a temporary burial until spring. On another occasion, he is summoned to clear the remains of a Russian sniper blown to pieces by enemy fire. Near Vesele he watches the funeral of a soldier who was killed in Donbas. In Crimea, he witnesses the burial of his beekeeper friend. In each of these cases, Kurkov finds the words that capture the horror of the occasion but that also bestow dignity on the dead.
Sergeyich’s passage from the gray zone to Crimea via Vesele and back again is a journey of transformation. In the process, he is confronted with a number of dilemmas that do not sit comfortably with him but that he has to address nevertheless: to go to the police and check on his missing friend’s fate, or avoid the risk of being arrested; to help a young Crimean Tatar woman seek a safer life elsewhere in Ukraine, or not to draw attention to himself unnecessarily; and, ultimately, to let the suspect gray bees into his yard, his gray zone, his war, or not. Worrying what the Russian police might have done to the confiscated hive, he wonders: “[M]aybe they installed some equipment? To spy on me and on our war?” In the course of the journey, Sergeyich rejects some of his bees who, transformed by the experience of brief imprisonment, are threatening to alter the remaining hives. He is able to embrace the war, the very thing he tried to escape, together with his bees. Like the gray zone, it becomes his. Ours.
In one of his vivid dreams, skillfully relayed by Kurkov, Sergeyich sees the bright lights of fireworks:
“What’s this about?” he asked Pashka.
“Victory!” Pashka replied joyfully. “Victory!”
“And who won?” Sergeyich asked, then froze in fear when he saw another rocket explode and rain its little fires down onto him. […]
“Don’t know,” Pashka said. “Doesn’t matter. Main thing is victory — the war’s over!”
“But which war?” Sergeyich repeated in confusion.
Sergeyich wakes up before Pashka can elaborate. Victory is only a dream. The bright lights of fireworks will have to wait. For now, there are only 20 shades of gray. But gray can be plenty bright!
Olesya Khromeychuk is a historian and writer. She is author of “Undetermined” Ukrainians: Post-War Narratives of the Waffen SS “Galicia” Division (2013) and A Loss: The Story of a Dead Soldier Told by His Sister(forthcoming). She is currently the director of the Ukrainian Institute London. You can visit her at her website: www.olesyakhromeychuk.com.