Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Grey Bees,’ a novel by Andrei Kurkov

5 January 2021

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Grey Bees by Andrei Kurkov. Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk. 352pp ISBN-13: 9780857059369 (MacLehose Press, London, 2020)

Andrei Kurkov’s latest book is about war and bees. In it, he speaks with the distinctive voice with which he came to prominence over twenty years ago when his post-Soviet novel Death and the Penguin was published.  In Grey Bees, Kurkov uses that gently satirical style to expose the man-made miseries, artificial divisions, cruelties and sheer absurdity of Ukraine’s frozen conflict with Russia that has been going on since 2014.

The main protagonist is Sergeyich, one of just two inhabitants left to fend for themselves in Little Starhorodivka, a village stuck in the grey zone between Donbas, held by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Russia, and the frontline with Ukraine.  The other inhabitant is Pashka, his lifelong ‘frenemy’ (in Boris Dryaluk’s translation), with whom he is forced to rub along now that Little Starhorodivka has been cut off from the grid – no electricity, no mains water, no television.  There are several other characters who turn up in the grey zone, from both sides of the conflict or just trapped in the middle. Their small acts of kindness make one day different from another.  

In his former life, Sergeyich worked as a coalmine inspector in Donetsk, but lung disease forced him into early retirement with an invalid’s pension.  He and Pashka, who have known one another since school, are 47.  They have no one to care for and nowhere to go.  Except that Sergeyich has his bees.

As Sergeyich’s story unfolds, he assumes the mantle of the ‘little man’ of Russian classical literature, of Pushkin’s Evgeny, Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich and the nameless hero of Dostoevsky’s White Nights.  In all of them, the ‘little man’ is driven to a frenzy by the inhuman scale of bureaucracy and red tape through which Russian officialdom tightens the screws of its power.  He is the conscience of the nation and, in Kurkov’s incarnation, Sergeyich’s experiences strike at the very heart of the Ukrainian predicament. 

The bees are the reason Sergeyich did not abandon Little Starhorodivka when the shelling started.  His estranged wife and daughter left for the big city life of Vinnitsya even before the war began and now the bees are his sole responsibility.  Silence, and the sounds of silence, fill his house and keep him company.

“While eating, he kept glancing at the alarm clock. (…) Its soothing tick-tock flowed into the silence of Sergeyich’s home.  This silence was like a huge bottle of thick glass; it held many things and if you brought your ear up to its mouth, you could distinguish those near sounds, but just barely, with great difficulty.  (…) In a month’s time, maybe less, he would release an entire army of bees into this silence.”

As winter turns to spring, Sergeyich becomes increasingly anxious that his bees need new pastures to collect their pollen and make their honey.  He straps his hives on to a trailer, hitches the trailer to his broken old Lada and sets off for the mainland  – Ukraine beyond the front line.  Materik in Russian – seemed the  appropriate word, even though he’d only ever heard it used that way in old Soviet films about polar explorers cut off from the Russian mainland faraway.  Grey Bees is the story of Sergeyich’s strange journey through the minefield of present-day Ukraine and its powder-keg relationship with Putin’s Russia.

As a writer and commentator, Andrei Kurkov is not a neutral voice in Ukrainian politics.  His 2014 publication, Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev, was his bird’s eye account of the Maidan protests that culminated in the flight to Russia of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea.  His only non-fiction book, it is a fierce contemporaneous account of those months in which Kurkov is often at a loss to understand what is happening to his country.

Born in Leningrad in 1961 into a Russian military family, Kurkov is an ethnic Russian who writes in Russian and by dint of that represents all that is best in modern Ukraine – a country where your right to be a Ukrainian is defined neither by language nor ethnicity.  The blurb on the book-jacket of Grey Bees invokes other writers – Kafka, Bulgakov, Murukami, Gogol – in an attempt, one assumes, to establish Kurkov’s importance in the minds of English-speaking readers.  One can only hope that this latest novel confirms his status in contemporary world literature without recourse to other literary giants.  

Kurkov’s voice is both deeply human and sharply satirical, sometimes edging on the surreal.  Early on in the story, back in the days before the war, Sergeyich’s famous bee-bed cure is sought out by the Governor (not named, but clearly Viktor Yanukovich), who arrives with his entourage in the orchard where the hives are kept.  Resting for several hours on a mattress laid out on top of the hives, the Governor lets go of the stresses and strains of high office as the buzzing and warm tremble of the hives seep into his weary bones.  Sergeyich is spellbound by the Governor’s shoes: 

“They were sharp-nosed, exquisite in shape and the colour of mother-of-pearl – as iridescent as the film of petrol on a puddle of water in dazzling sunlight, only nobler by far than petrol.”

Months later, the shoes arrive in a special box as a gift from the Governor and assume a place of honour in Sergeyich’s little house.  When he sets out with his trailer of hives, he has to leave the box and their precious contents behind, but the memory of them keeps him company in his dreams, sometimes as comfort, sometimes as menace.  He leaves Pashka to keep an eye on both the Governor’s shoes and his house. 

Sergeyich’s journey takes him away from the familiar dangers of the grey zone and into what is now unknown territory for him.  First to Zaporozhe, where Ukrainian loyalists interpret his Donetsk car plates to mean he is a separatist ‘terrorist’ and smash all the windows, and then on to the Crimean peninsula in search of Akhtem, a fellow beekeeper with whom he’d shared a room in a hotel 20 years ago at a beekeepers’ convention, and whom he feels sure will welcome him and his bees in his Crimean orchard.  It is through this picaresque journey that Kurkov gives voice to the prejudices and slights, the abuse and threats laid bare by the open wound that is this festering war.  

It starts with the everyday humiliations suffered by Akhtem’s Crimean Tatar family – it turns out that Akhtem himself was arrested two years before by Russian Interior Ministry forces and has not been heard of since.  When Sergeyich tries to help Akhtem’s family, it only brings them more grief and pain. Then he comes up against the system himself, first at the hands of Russian Interior Ministry officials in Simferopol, then from a Russian shopkeeper who denies that Crimean Tatars have the right to live there.  Echoing Putin, she taunts Sergeyich with the claim that Crimea has been Russian Orthodox since time immemorial.  “What happened is what Putin says happened. Putin doesn’t lie.”

For Kurkov, the plight of the Crimean Tatars is perhaps central to what Ukraine aspires to in inclusivity for its citizens.  Under Stalin, in May 1944, the Crimean Tatars were rounded up at gunpoint and forcibly deported to Uzbekistan.  Those who survived were only permitted to return to their ancestral homelands forty years later, under Gorbachev.  And now they’re under threat again from Russians emboldened by Putin’s annexation of Crimea. 

And worse is to come for Sergeyich.  He notices a minivan without windows coming up the track to where his tent is pitched in Akhtem’s orchard.  The men in suits, one of them familiar with to him from the Russian Interior Ministry, insist on taking away one of his hives for a sanitary examination, which, they say, should have happened when they crossed the border.  Sergeyich’s left arm inexplicably becomes numb, as though the confiscation of the hive has rendered it useless.  

A few days later, the minivan without windows returns.  They have brought back the hive; it has passed all the tests.  But from then on, Sergeyich becomes troubled by the hive and its bee colony.  One day, he notices that they have all mysteriously abandoned the hive and left it empty.  He finds a swarm around a nearby tree and carefully, with his old friend’s beekeeping toolbox, gathers them up and returns them to the hive.  

Something has changed since the hive was taken away for inspection: the bees have turned grey and menacing.  Sergeyich begins to regard the hive with suspicion and wonders whether the Russian officials came not to inspect the hive, but to contaminate it. 

For Kurkov, the bees represent a pure community, which puts to shame human attempts to create a just society.  It is as though humans are even capable of infecting the very essence of nature’s purity with their depravity.  When Sergeyich is resting beside the road that will take him through the Russian checkpoints and out of Crimea, he is astonished to see a human size grey bee stepping out from the confiscated hive.  He breaks out in a cold sweat.  The grey bee is followed by another and then another and more and more, all human size and dressed in camouflage, setting off into a field of sunflowers, like military scouts, heading in the direction towards his house in Little Starhorodivka.  He is convinced his bees have been recruited and turned against him. 

Dreams are significant for Kurkov: “It’s through our dreams that God tells us what to do.”  Sergeyich hurries back to his home in Starhorodivka, to his quiet life in the grey zone, where his own kind of silence can reign once again, the kind where “sounds you have grown accustomed to are fused into the silence.  Like the sound of distant shelling…”

The hives and their bees serve throughout to pit the follies of man against nature, and man does not come out well.  Sergeyich’s understanding of bee nature leads him to conclude that bees alone have managed to build communism in their hives, thanks to their orderliness and work ethic.  Yes, they also have their guards to maintain order and protect the queen from foreign incursions, “But people?  People had neither order nor equality.  Even their police were useless, just loafing around by the fence…”   Communism is still an ideal for the beekeeper.  But humans ruined it for people, and now they have ruined it for his bees. 

Grey Bees is a humane and insightful exploration of another war, stoked by Russia on its old borders, that we have all come to ignore.  Boris Dralyuk has provided helpful notes (although I would steer you to Lesley Blanch’s description of imam bayildi, the dish Sergeyich’s Tartar hosts made for him, rather than the bland explanation here).  But what the book really cries out for is a simple map.  Kurkov’s summary of the conflict and its ‘zones’ in his Foreword is succinct but a visual sense of the geography would have been very useful.

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