Seven years ago, in 2013, Vladimir Putin’s failed attempt to rip Ukraine out of Europe and incorporate it into his “family of fraternal peoples” (that is, his resurrected version of the Soviet Union) ended in revolution. As a result of that popular uprising that would come to be called Euromaidan, the nation’s pro-Russian political elites, led by then-President Viktor Yanukovych, were forced to flee kyiv for Moscow. In 2014, as power passed into the hands of pro-European forces, Russia managed to seize the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and sent officers, volunteers and activists to Donetsk, Lugansk, Kharkov, Odessa and other cities in the east and south of the country with the aim of foment anti-kyiv revolts. Thus began a war that Russia is not willing to end and that revives every few minutes with military personnel and thousands of tons of equipment and ammunition. Putin’s calculations are simple: neither Europe nor the rest of the world will fully welcome Ukraine while its eastern region is mired in permanent war.
And, in fact, the world has largely forgotten about Ukraine and its war, just as it always forgets about “silent” and unfinished conflicts. The front line occupied by Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east covers 450 kilometres. And the “grey area” located between the two sides has the same length, although its width varies between hundreds of meters and hundreds of kilometers, depending on the intensity of the hostilities and the landscape of each specific section. The inhabitants of the towns and cities of the gray area left, for the most part, at the beginning of the conflict; They abandoned their flats and their houses, their fruit trees and their farms. Some fled to Russia, others moved to the peaceful regions of Ukraine, and still others joined the separatists. However, here and there a few stubborn residents remained who refused to move. They did not move from where they were: in the middle of a war, listening to the whistle of the projectiles that passed over them and, from time to time, removing shrapnel from the patios of their houses. Some of these resistance people have been killed, but others have endured in this strange and harsh new reality, in towns that were once densely populated and now remain devoid of life, where shops, post offices and police stations have closed down tight. No one knows exactly how many people remain in the gray zone, in the midst of the war. The only visitors they receive are Ukrainian soldiers and armed separatists, who go there to look for the enemy or simply out of curiosity, to see if anyone is still alive. And the locals, whose main objective is to survive, treat both sides with the highest degree of diplomacy and humble courtesy.
Since the winter of 2015, less than a year after Russia annexed Crimea and the start of the conflict, I have made three trips to Donbas, the eastern region that includes Donetsk, Lugansk and the gray zone. There I witnessed how the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually turned into apathy. I saw war become the norm, I saw people try to ignore it, learn to live with it like a boisterous, drunken neighbor. All this left a deep impression on me, so deep that I decided to write a novel. The book would focus not on military operations or heroic soldiers, but on ordinary people who the war had failed to drive out of their homes.
These people have certain things in common. They always try to go unnoticed, almost as if they had no face, partly so that the war does not notice them. Although in Donbas, land of coal mines and metallurgical plants, things have always been like this. In Soviet times, its inhabitants prided themselves on playing a discreet role in the “great industrial whole”, and the Russians came to coin a special designation for them: “the people of Donbas”, as if they were children of the mines and the piles of waste, without any ethnic roots.
The protagonist of my book, Sergueich, a disabled pensioner and devout beekeeper, belongs to such a “Donbas people”. The winds of fate carry him to the Crimea, where the man hopes to provide a decent vacation for his bees. However, Sergueich’s stay in the south will prove to be an ordeal. As much as he tries, he will not be able to remain completely neutral in the face of the constant oppression suffered by the Crimean Tatars at the hands of the new authorities. His sympathies for that Muslim people raise the suspicions of the Russian Federal Security Service, the notorious FSB, and (perhaps most alarmingly) endanger his beloved bees.
My family and I last visited Crimea in January 2014. Even before annexation, there were Russian flags flying in Sevastopol, everywhere. The second half of this novel is, in a way, my personal farewell to a Crimea that may never exist again. I also don’t know when I will return to eastern Ukraine, or when the conflict will end. Be that as it may, I sincerely hope that the war will leave the inhabitants of the gray zone alone: let it go, and that the honey made by Donbas bees will lose its bitter aftertaste of gunpowder.
Andrey Kurkov. Kyiv, 2020.
Author: Andrey Kurkov.
Translation: Esther Cruz Santaella.
Editorial: Alfaguara, 2022.
Format: softcover (416 pages. 20.81 euros), e book (10.44 euros) and audiobook (19.79 euros).
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