It was about 16 years ago, in the days when I worked in a small office for a local charity. One of my two colleagues was a woman originally from Ukraine. She was always fun to be with, sent me New Year text messages long after I had left the charity and at lunch times we laughed together and talked about her home country over a shared jar of gherkins. This connection prompted me to read my first Andrey Kurkov novel, Death and the Penguin. This is the Ukrainian novelist’s best-known book and I was immediately hooked by his surreal, dark humour about life in post-Soviet Ukraine. Since those days I have gradually read every single one of Kurkov’s novels and although these are fiction, with each book I connected more and more with Ukraine and followed the ups and downs of this eastern European country. When it was published in English, I also read his Ukraine Diaries, which covers his observations of the pro-European protests of 2013 and the impeachment of Yanukovcyh in Kyiv as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine.
When we travelled around Hungary and Slovakia a few years ago I wondered if we should venture into Ukraine. I navigated our Blue Bus to the border and we took a walk and gazed across the lush Slovakian countryside to Ukraine but decided time and logistics were against us. I wondering when or if I would get there. The photograph at the top of this blog post is one of our campervan on that Slovakian road and my mind has wandered back to that place regularly since the 24 February 2022 as I imagine how much busier it is today as Ukrainians flee the war in their country and seek safety in Slovakia and other neighbouring countries.
The last Andrey Kurkov book I read was Grey Bees. If you get chance, get hold of this most recent of his novels and take yourself to Ukraine. My own mind often spends time with this country I have never visited. I listened to the news of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 with horror, shocked that there were few consequences for Russia, and I followed the news of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Grey Bees takes readers on a road trip with an elderly man and his bees, driving from an almost deserted village in the Grey Zone, the no-man’s-land between loyalist and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, to Crimea. It is a mythical novel, well observed and full of humour, humanity, hope and, of course, sadness.
As readers know, I enjoy travel and exploring new places. Being on the road is where I am happiest but I know that this happiness comes from a position of security. My privilege is boundless, not only is no one forcing me to leave my home, I always choose to leave, but I also know my home will most probably still be there when we return. I am certainly privileged in owning two homes, although only one of them has wheels! Watching the current destruction of Ukraine by Russia is heartbreaking. I can only bear witness as I have no words to add to the voices of the people of Ukraine who are speaking out against the invasion, fighting for their country and sharing their day-to-day experiences in war time. My Twitter feed is populated by tweets from Ukraine and cats, and occasionally Ukrainian cats! I want to stand side-by-side with the people of Ukraine and help them all I can but, beyond making donations, I feel helpless. I am proud of the swift reaction by Ukraine’s neighbours to give shelter to the refugees. I have so many friends and family who would not be here if the UK had not given refugees shelter in the past, including my own partner whose dad escaped from Poland after the Nazi invasion. I am deeply ashamed of the lack of care the UK has for Ukrainian refugees at the moment and I hope we find our kindness muscle very soon.
I am counting my blessings, feeling grateful for all the privileges I enjoy and I may be quiet on the blog for a little while as I have nothing to add. Slava Ukraini!