Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Published by MacLehose Press
Set in the period after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, this book by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov is particularly timely, given the war that is now unfolding in Ukraine.
Sergey Sergeyich lives in Little Starhorodivka, an almost deserted village with three streets in the grey zone in Donbas: a no-man’s-land, caught between the Ukrainian forces on one side, and the separatists and Russian army on the other. Most people have left the villages in this area. But there are those who have refused to go, despite being in the middle of a war between two sides who have “taken up arms against the grey zone, though neither of them gave a damn about it; they were just shooting through it, aiming at each other”.
Sergeyich’s wife and daughter left some time ago. The only other person still living in Little Starhorodivka is Sergeyich’s “frenemy” from his school days, Pashka Khmelenko. Sergeyich’s life revolves around his beloved bees: they are his passion and his livelihood. He trades the honey for food from a nearby village.
The two men have got used to their lives: doing without electricity and with very little food, and living with the conflict on their doorsteps. “[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.”
Pashka has made friends with the separatists and some of the Russian soldiers, who supply him with food. Sergeyich is visited by Petro, a Ukrainian soldier. The two men regularly check up on each other. “Alive?”, texts Sergeyich. “Alive”, responds Petro.
The grey zone does feel grey, a place without colour or life, except for a red dress with a pattern of ants that Sergeyich’s wife left behind. However, the grey doesn’t bother Sergeyich: “Grey can be plenty bright! … I can discern twenty shades of it,” he says. “If I had a better education, I’d come up with a name for each shade, like they were separate colours.”
Then spring comes, and Sergeyich needs to take his bees somewhere where they can gather pollen safely. So he loads up his trusty green Lada, attaches a trailer with the six hives and drives away from the shelling and gunfire. But he cannot leave the conflict behind: it shadows him, in one form or another.
In Vesele, he sets up camp for a while, until he is attacked one night by a shell-shocked Ukrainian soldier. The soldier, like many others, assumes Sergeyich is from Donetsk, occupied by Russian-backed separatists.
At the checkpoint into Russian-occupied Crimea, Sergeyich is interviewed by Russian journalists, who want to use the attack on him by the Ukrainian soldier for propaganda purposes. The interview falls through when Sergeyich mentions the Russian forces on one side of the grey zone. “‘No, that won’t do’”, says the journalist. “‘How could you have Russians over there?’”
Quite clearly, being neutral (and grey) does not mean that Sergeyich will not be noticed. He heads towards the home of Akhtem, a Crimean Tartar whom he met at a beekeepers’ convention many years ago. He thinks it would be nice to renew old ties and, besides, what better place for his bees than with another beekeeper? But when Sergeyich finally gets to Akhtem’s house, he finds that the man has been missing for two years, taken away by the Russian police. He has left behind his wife, son and daughter. Sergeyich sets up camp near Akhtem’s bees, managed now by his son, and gets to know the family. Crimean Tartars are persecuted by the Russians, and Sergeyich finds it hard to stay neutral. But will his involvement make things more difficult for the family? And what did the Russian authorities do to his hive, the one they took away and later returned? Something has changed in the hive, and the bees have now turned grey.
Grey Bees is a political story, told by a man who is essentially an innocent. You see the events through Sergeyich’s eyes, revealing the absurdity of war and the way people—especially the authorities—behave. Why can’t people be more like bees? “‘Stop acting like people!’”, he admonishes his bees. All he wants to do is take his bees to a safer place for the summer and then return home. But the conflict does not allow for any kind of normalcy.
Boris Dralyuk’s translation does justice to the deceptive simplicity of Kurkov’s language. When Sergeyich’s bees start to roam the fields in Vesele, their buzzing “seems to have gone a little quieter, just like a human heart, which pounds like a madman after a run, but then, when the runner stops and crouches down, gradually returns to its normal, infrequent rhythm”.
In his foreword, Kurkov writes about the people still living in the grey zone in Donbas, which he visited. “There I witnessed the fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour.” This made such a deep impression on him that he decided to write a novel about these people who refused to be driven out of their homes.
Grey Bees was published in 2018, and its English translation in 2020. It could not have come at a more pertinent time.