Andrey Kurkov: A message from a besieged country | Ukraine

March 6, 2022

I never thought so many things, so many horrible things could happen in a week.

On February 24, 2022, the first Russian missile fell on Kyiv. At five in the morning, my wife and I were woken up by the sound of the explosion. It’s hard to believe that the war has already begun. That said, it’s already obvious, but I don’t want to believe it. You have to get used to the idea that the war has already begun. Because from that moment on, the war determines how you live, how you think, and how you make decisions.

We decided to leave the village 90 kilometers (56 miles) away to our house. I checked Google Maps and found that the road from Kyiv to the west in the direction of our village is open. We packed, pulled food from the fridge and freezer, loaded it into the car, and hit the road. But when we got to the west exit of the city, the traffic was motionless. Among these cars, there are many license plates from other cities: Dnipro, Zaporozhye, Kharkiv, and even Donetsk and Luhansk. I realize these drivers have been on the road for at least two days. You can see this in their pale faces, tired eyes and the way they drive.

Andrei Kurkov. Filmed in London earlier this month. Photo: Andy Hall/The Observer

On the way, my wife called her friend Lena, a music teacher at the Kyiv Art School, and asked if she would like to go to the village with us. Lena couldn’t decide. Then she said yes, she would come with her son. They walked to the curb and waited 20 minutes before we reached the meeting point. They weave between trucks and buses, get to our car, and strap themselves to the back seat, suitcases and everything. The car is full now.

The journey to the village, which usually takes an hour, took four and a half. We drove around abandoned, wrecked cars, gazing at the guns and tanks set up to defend Kyiv. We see a lot of military equipment going both ways on the right side of the highway, usually used by cars bound for Kyiv. Very few people are heading in that direction now.

My heart hurts. No one said a word. I turned on the car radio and we listened to the news ahead. The front line today is 3,000 kilometers long, the length of the border between Russia and Belarus. Kharkiv and Mariupol were bombed, and hundreds of tanks entered Ukrainian territory from several places, including Crimea. Ballistic missiles fly over Ukrainian cities in Belarus. The news didn’t calm us down, but it did distract us from the traffic jam.

When I got to the village, I turned off the radio and everything went quiet. There were no explosions or gunshots. The birds sang and cheered the arrival of spring. We bring things into the house and make tea. I set up my desk, opened my laptop, and a friend from Kyiv called me and asked, “Where are you?” I told him. He advised us to go west immediately.

A woman in Kyiv prays on the day Putin announced a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Daniel Lear/AFP/Getty Images

The day before the war began, our children, including our daughter who had flown in from London, went with their friends to Lviv, a beautiful city in western Ukraine. They want to visit the cafes, museums and medieval streets of the old center. We decided to join them. The 420 km journey took 22 hours. The length of traffic jams varies from 10 miles to 50 miles.

We find our children disoriented and sad. Not far from the house they rented, I noticed a gun shop. It’s still closed, but there’s already a line up ahead. There were men, young boys and girls queuing up for opening hours.

I realized I didn’t call my brother or my two cousins ​​before leaving Kyiv. I got through my brother easily. He said he was sitting at home listening to the explosion. I didn’t get through to my cousins. I wonder when I can see them again.

On April 19, the Makarif Bakery Factory was bombed.
On April 19, the Makarif Bakery Factory was bombed. Photo: Alex Shafferman/Getty Images

March 8, 2022

In rural Ukraine, there is a long tradition of putting lots of bread on the table and eating it with butter and salt or dipping it in milk.

At the store in our village, we would buy our favorite Makarif bread—a soft, white brick-shaped loaf. It is baked at the famous Makariv Bakery in the town of the same name, 20 km from our village. Occasionally, you can find this bread in Kyiv, but only in small corner shops, not in supermarkets.

I’ve been thinking about that macarif for days – remember how it tastes. Until now, in the process of reminiscing, I can feel the taste of blood on my lips, like when I was a kid when someone broke my lips during a fight.

In fact, the Makarif bakery was bombed by Russian troops on Monday. The baker is working. I can imagine the fragrant smell that surrounded them in the moment before the attack. In an instant, 13 bakery employees were killed and nine injured. Bakeries are gone – Makariff is a thing of the past.

March 9, 2022

We now live in an apartment in the Transcarpathians west of the Carpathians. I went to the key shop again this morning. There are four of us but we only have one set of keys. We need to make at least two more sets, but have no key blanks available. This is a new shortage that is common throughout western Ukraine. The towns are full of refugees. They are welcomed into homes, provided with rooms and apartments, and settled in hotels and schools. But most of them need keys.

Women and children on a bus fleeing Kyiv after the invasion.
Women and children on a bus fleeing Kyiv after the invasion. Photo: Emilio Morenati/Associated Press

This apartment was given to us by a retired lady named Larissa who is a relative of our friend. She went to live with her daughter and didn’t even get food from the fridge. She told us to eat by ourselves. The apartment was like my late parents’ apartment – like a Soviet-era museum. Two rooms, a kitchenette, toilet and bathroom. There was no heating or hot water at first. The day before Ukraine was attacked, the boiler failed. At night, the temperature reaches -1C or -2C. We left most of our warm clothes in Kyiv.

In fact, we didn’t really think about what to take away. We thought we would go to the village, not far from Kyiv, and be back soon. I think that’s always the case at the beginning of a war.

March 24, 2022

More and more children are traveling alone to Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – arriving with small backpacks and notes sewn into their jackets with the parents’ phone numbers, the child’s name and the address of the person the child must go to.

Many families also travel with other people’s children, trying to make sure all the seats in their cars are occupied. Every empty seat on a car bound for western Ukraine is a life not saved.

Romana Yaremyn poses at the bookstore she runs in Lviv on April 20 as hundreds of books are evacuated from her bookstore and publishing house in embattled Kharkiv.
Romana Yaremyn poses at the bookstore she runs in Lviv on April 20 as hundreds of books are evacuated from her bookstore and publishing house in embattled Kharkiv. Photo: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

March 30, 2022

When we became refugees, we left all our books in Kyiv. Now, since my first wartime trip to Europe, I’ve received some more books – gifts from my British publishers. I am wondering when I will be able to bring these books home and add them to my library.

Nothing is published in Ukraine right now, and I can’t imagine how many books Ukrainians read. I don’t study, although I try. War and books are incompatible. But after the war, books will tell the story of the war. They will repair its memory, form opinions and stir up emotions.

In Mariupol and other cities in the south and east, bookstores were destroyed along with their books. In other cities, they’re just shut down. When they open again, it will mean peace has come to Ukraine. When a bookstore reopens in Mariupol, it will mean more.

April 4, 2022

Most of the writers, intellectuals and artists now congregate in Lviv, a city that has long been the cultural capital of Ukraine. There, the bookstore was open, but there were few customers. Instead of writing books, writers now write news columns, radio shows and participate in information projects. Some stayed in Kyiv and wrote about life during the war from there. There are those who join the army, and there are those who no longer join the army—those who died on the front lines.

The Kalush Orchestra celebrates Ukraine's victory in the Eurovision Song Contest.
The Kalush Orchestra celebrates Ukraine’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. Photo: Rolf Klatt/Rex/Shutterstock

May 18, 2022

For the third time this century, Ukraine has won the Eurovision Song Contest again. Each of the country’s victories in this game has come after a historical upheaval. I want to believe that this year’s victory will be the last in years. I don’t usually watch the Eurovision Song Contest and I missed this one too, but I’ve heard the winning song and I love it. Above all, I love the solidarity of Europeans who voted for Ukraine.

For days, Facebook in Ukraine had been boiling over the joy of the victory. Ukrainians joked that Putin woke up on Sunday morning shocked to hear Ukraine had won. It took him a while to realize that Ukraine won Eurovision, not the war – not yet.

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