JAN WILM: I’d like to begin by asking if you to speak about the complexities of Ukrainian literature with regard to language. You write in Russian; are your novels also translated into Ukrainian? Do many of your colleagues among Ukrainian writers also write in Russian?
ANDREY KURKOV: My novels are published in Ukraine both in Russian and Ukrainian. Sometimes the print runs in Ukrainian are larger than those in Russian because Ukrainian-speaking readers in Ukraine read more and are more curious. Also, because the state purchases books in Ukrainian for libraries. Books in Russian are usually purchased for libraries with sponsors’ money and with money from the local budget. There are many writers in Ukraine who write in Russian or write in both languages at the same time. I also write non-fiction in Ukrainian, but novels only in Russian. Also in Ukraine there is literature in the Crimean Tatar and Hungarian languages, and in Gagauz.
Russian is “your” language. I put the word in quotation marks, as I’m never sure that one possesses a language, but that we are rather possessed by it. Yet Russian is not only the language of your parents, but the language of your art. What does it mean to you in particular to write in Russian today?
It doesn’t mean anything out of the ordinary. I write in my native language. Some people like it, some don’t. Ukraine is a country of free people and everyone has their own opinion. Some may say that everything that is written in Russian in Ukraine belongs to Russian literature, others think differently. From time to time I am overcome by feelings of shame for Russia, and because of this I do not want to speak loudly in Russian. There have already been three waves of transition from Russian to Ukrainian in the country, when writers who previously wrote in Russian began to write in Ukrainian. Now there is a new reaction to Russian aggression, and again some are switching from Russian to Ukrainian.
Perhaps some Ukrainian writers wrote in Russian for both aesthetic as well as economic reasonds, since there used to be a market for Ukrainian literature written in Russian in the country of Russia. What does the war mean to Ukrainian writers economically in that regard?
It is economically more profitable to write in Ukrainian now. Russia does not need books by Ukrainian Russian-speaking writers. For Ukrainian speakers, there are many awards, grants, opportunities to participate in various projects. Russian speakers used to be helped by Russian foundations, but in reality they just wanted to use Russian-speaking authors for political purposes. And all this is long in the past.
I assume that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will put people off the Russian language. What does this imply for Ukrainian literature — and Russian literature?
Now Ukrainians have a huge hatred for everything Russian. Some Ukrainians also have hatred for the Russian language, but this does not affect the Russian-speaking Ukrainians on the streets of cities and villages. Although there has been much more discussion about the need to switch to the Ukrainian language. There will be less Russian spoken in the future, I have no doubt about it. And it is unlikely to become the language of a national minority. After all, Russian in Ukraine is a social phenomenon. It is not associated with Russian culture, nor with ethnic Russians. This is a relic of the Soviet Union, the lingua franca of interethnic communication. This is the language of the streets of big cities. It is not studied, it changes and loses vocabulary, it becomes jargon. But still it will remain and, in the end, will become a sign of the speaker’s weak education. The Ukrainian language has become fashionable among modern youth. The Ukrainian language is returning to the territories from which it was driven out for 200 years. And it is alive and growing very quickly. Russian is spoken mainly by the older generation.
You have spoken about the war being a disaster for Ukrainian culture. I wonder if you could speak a bit more specifically about the effects of the war on Ukraine’s literary culture?
The war has been going on in Ukraine for eight years now, and it has changed literature. Literature is no longer romantic and apolitical, as it was before 2014. Now we have two literatures: one is traditional, but it also has become more militant, and the second is completely new, “military,” created by war veterans in the Donbas region. There are about 400,000 veterans in Ukraine. And after this war there will be even more. They write about the war, they have opened their own publishing houses, they themselves sell their books via the Internet — and sometimes they sell more than traditional writers, because the community of veterans is very active.
I was very moved to read in one of your pieces in The Guardian that people in Ukraine sheltering in the metro are setting up makeshift cinemas underground. Could you speak about the value of literature to people during these times?
Unfortunately, it makes no sense to talk about the significance of literature during the war. Now few people read and few writers write novels. But later, there will be a great need for literature about this war, so that people can decide for themselves: what was this unexpected and cruel aggression of Russia?
Together with Ukrainian PEN you have called for a boycott of Russian culture-makers who are supportive of Putin. German PEN has disagreed with the boycott and claimed that the problem is Putin, not Pushkin. But then again, Pushkin isn’t exactly a supporter of Putin. Could you explain exactly what should be done, particularly with regard to literature? What can readers do?
It’s up to individuals to decide what they should do. We live in a democratic world and cannot burn books. Both Russia and Norway have published Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It is read by those who love Hitler and by those who consider him a monster and want to understand how German fascism arose. For me, Russian cultural and literary figures who publicly support Putin or even just remain silent are accomplices in crime. They don’t exist for me. I understand my colleagues who demand to ban all Russian culture and literature. I understand them better than the representatives of the German PEN, who now want to seat Ukrainian and Russian writers at the same table so that they talk about the resumption of contacts after the war. There will be no such meetings during the war. And there probably won’t be later. Maybe in 20 years there will be meetings with those Russian writers who opposed Putin and his policies. But they cannot represent Russia, they are in the minority. When I was 11 years old, I had to choose a foreign language to study at school. The choice was between English and German. I told the teacher that I would never learn German because the Germans killed my grandfather Alexey. This was 27 years after the end of World War II. I learned German when I was 36 years old.
A war is a tragedy for every party involved — in a very unequal measure, of course. But I wonder what will happen to Russian culture in Ukraine. Can it survive? What will be the place of Russian literature in post-war Ukraine?
Russian-speaking Ukrainian culture will survive and nothing will happen to it. But there will be no Russian culture from Russia in Ukraine. For a very long time. It will be treated in the same way as the music of Wagner was and is treated by many Jews.
Rereading Death and the Penguin recently, I was struck by the bleakness and darkness with which you draw Kyiv, and in light of the attacks on the city this has new resonance. But in your work as a whole, Kyiv is a city of bleakness, of surreal events, but also of tenderness, of beauty and of comedy. May I ask about your thoughts on Kyiv as a literary city?
It is a beautiful and eternal city. I have lived in it almost all my life and I love to return to it after trips. My last departure was caused by the war, and I left Kyiv in the hands of the people who remained in it. I feel guilty. But I will return and I will continue to write about Kyiv and its people and history.
In The President’s Last Love, you set your story a few years in the future, which I think was a wonderful touch. What was it like for you to see some of what you anticipated in the book (almost) come true?
I regret that what I foresaw has become a reality. I did not want to predict tragedies and problems, but everything that is happening today has been logically developing for a long time before our eyes and with our tacit consent. Putin has always said that the main tragedy of his life is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, in order to revive the Soviet Union, he is killing thousands and thousands of people, destroying cities. I could not predict or foresee these horrors. But Putin’s desires and plans were always clear. And the whole world just watched as he approached their realization.
In your novel Grey Bees, the bees are a wonderful symbol for culture, I think. When Sergey transports them across the country and through regions of conflict, he is symbolically also becoming a bee, laboring tirelessly, weathering all sorts of storms, and cross-pollinating and connecting people and places. Maybe this is a childish question, but let the child speak: What is the role of literature to help Ukraine weather the storm of the war, and who among the writers will have enough hope and strength to become cross-pollinators in the healing process?
Ukraine now needs not writers, but readers. First of all, foreign readers who will read books about Ukraine in order to understand Ukraine and Ukrainians, in order to understand this war. Everyone is now in solidarity with Ukraine, but only with the name of the country and with the level of resistance against Russia. Few people know Ukrainian history, and this is very important. Without this, dialogue between Ukrainians and the world is impossible. And it is very necessary. Especially now.
Let me come full circle and ask a very big question directly: Are you hopeful about the future?
Yes, I believe in a happy European future for Ukraine. And I don’t believe in Russia. Russia destroyed itself by creating collective Putin. Russia will now look for a second Putin to replace the first. And then Russia will look for new enemies, whom Russia will blame for its troubles. Although the main enemy of Russia is Russia itself.