[I decided to read this 2018 novel, translated into English in 2020, in three sections. I wrote about what I had read in each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
11 March 2022
Chapters 1-25 (of 74)
This novel is set in Ukraine in 2017, and it was recommended to me by a friend who had been reading it just before the Russian invasion of the country began a couple of weeks ago. It’s very strange to read it now, as Putin brings to a violent end the ‘forgotten’ war that had been going on for something like eight years. The steady, near-impossible existence described in the novel must have gone now, but it had some years yet to run as Kurkov was writing. The ‘grey bees’ of the title might be those kept in six hives by the main protagonist, Sergey Sergeyich, but they are also Sergey himself and the only other man left in a small town after all the other inhabitants have left. Life, as Sergey’s musings on his bees makes clear, is a precarious thing that needs to be constantly nurtured, and he at least—he can’t vouch for Pashka, the other man—wants to keep the town alive simply by remaining there. Almost the only colour ever mentioned in the first 100 or so pages of the book is ‘grey’. But Sergey has a dislike of anything ‘flashy,’ as he calls it, and knows that grey things can be fully alive. His hibernating bees are proof of that.
After something like three years of living in the ‘grey zone’ in southern Ukraine, where Russian-backed and Ukrainian-backed armies fight battles whose purposes remain a mystery to Sergey, another winter is coming, painfully slowly, to its end. Sergey knows that the early signs of spring in late February do not mean that there will be no more falls of snow, but they are to be welcomed anyway. His dogged acceptance of the elements, of the inevitable turning of the seasons, of the sounds of artillery that are so familiar they have become ‘fused into silence’ are all a part of what his life has become now. He has no electricity, no wife or daughter since they left when most of the others did, and only a vague sense that the war will end eventually because wars always do. And little enough else.
Inevitably, there’s a lot of nostalgia in Sergey’s thoughts. He had a job as a mine inspector, then a pension after he developed lung disease—an affliction he pretends to himself isn’t too bad really. The doctor assessing him for his pension was definitely on his side, he remembers, after he gave her a three-litre jar of honey. He remembers with pride the visits made by the strong-man governor, who wanted to try out the technique of lying on a mattress placed on his hives. Sergey seems to have no understanding of the politics of either how this man came to power, or how his removal came about through a popular rebellion against his Russian-backed regime. He remembers the generosity of his gifts, hundreds of dollars and the huge pair of mother-of-pearl shoes he used to wear. Sergey is no politcal thinker.
Pashka, the other man, is not his friend. At a scaled-down level—everything is at a scaled-down level—this is how the Ukrainians always live. There’s something inevitable—that word again—about the fact that Sergey can’t really remember the quarrel that led to the animosity, and that it hardly seems to matter any more. Now, he and his childhood enemy have to rub along, because what else can they do? When Pashka’s windows are blown out by an explosion nearby, Sergey helps him find replacements from a house whose inhabitants are definitely not returning. It’s partly simple kindness, but it’s also pragmatism. In this freezing weather, Pashka will have to stay with him until the job is done, and one night will be enough. The incident helps, a little. Pashka offers a little more than he would otherwise, like a loan of his binoculars—there’s a dead soldier in a field above them, and Sergey wants to scout out a way to cover up the body—and one or two foodstuffs he seems to have enough of.
And it’s this, the fact that Pashka sems to have plenty of supplies and is careful not to let Sergey see beyond the kitchen door, that starts to make Sergey suspect him of collaborating, or worse. Is he the sniper who has been causing such a problem? (Sergey has found an improvised dugout in a garden some houses away.) Why is Pashka so keen to bring a Russian to celebrate Veterans’ Day at Sergey’s house—and how did he get hold of two bottles of decent vodka? It makes Sergey uneasy, and he pays them back after some drinks at his house by sending them away with vodka that is definitely not the good stuff. The reader knows no more of Pashka’s doings than Sergey does. It’s perfectly possible that his suspicions are unfounded—but it’s typical of this kind of ongoing conflict that nobody feels they can trust anybody.
This level of mistrust is a recent thing between them, and Kurkov seems to be moving things on in other ways, too. Petro, a friendly Ukrainian soldier, has spent an hour or so with Sergey, and has charged his phone. Before this, Sergey had felt a degree of indifference towards the Ukrainian army—this isn’t called the grey zone for nothing—but Petro seems genuine enough. Sergey has also managed to partially bury, and completely cover, the body of the dead soldier, and has retrieved a back-pack full of sweets the man had been carrying. Later, having walked to the nearest town a few kilometres away—and where there are still supplies, and power—he discovers the soldier had pretended to be Santa Claus, and the sweets had been for the children. He can’t stop thinking about this, and makes another trip that same evening to tell them Santa Claus couldn’t make it, and had sent him with the sweets instead.
These are small-scale, human stories to suit the scale of the lives caught in a picture that’s much too big to comprehend. In that nearby town, Sergey had watched news on TV that makes little sense to him. Why do the new Ukrainian leaders want to change the Soviet-era street names? What motive do they have for bringing about all the other disruptions to ordinary people’s lives? He doesn’t know…. But he also doesn’t like whatever he suspects Pashka of doing for the Russians, doesn’t like the supplies of food and drink he seems to have access to. When he discovers Pashka to have been out for hours, and not returning, he breaks into his house—but only to make sure Pashka’s clock doesn’t stop. What would they do without it?
What can he do? He doesn’t know…. But he can perform a little act of his own, swapping the name of Lenin Street, where he lives, to one honouring the Ukrainian national poet. Pashka can have Lenin Street, and he’s delighted by the change. Of course he is. And, at the point I’ve reached, Sergey has decided to telephone his estranged wife, living far inside the country and well away from his grey zone. But when she replies, he says nothing. When she phones him back after he’s hung up, he lets it ring on until it stops—and, somehow, he can still hear it ringing in his mind.
The turning of the year from winter to spring doesn’t happen smoothly. Listening closely to the hives, Sergey begins to detect the bees emerging from their hibernation. He thinks about the moment when he will open up the sealed doors so they can happily return to their work, as he always thinks of it. He thinks of them with affection and respect—theirs is the most efficient of all possible societies, every action needed for the bees’ survival performed adeptly and with no complaint. Kurkov never makes a big thing of the metaphor that’s staring us in the face, but Sergey’s love of the orderly conduct of the hive chimes with his nostalgia for a time when his life was like that, and so was everything else in the country. He isn’t such a fool to believe his own rose-coloured memories, but the contrast with this new time is brought home one night….
He is shaken awake by a huge explosion nearby. It seems that the sniper’s nest not far from Pashka’s has been hit—until it transpires that it was no artillery hit, but a huge mine that had been placed there. It had been Sergey himself who had pointed the place out to the Ukrainian army (probably to his new friend Petro, I forget). It seems that the sniper had been the Siberian that Pashka had brought round that evening to celebrate Veterans’ Day… and now, quite quickly, everything about this war is uncomfortably close. An ordinary man like himself can’t help but be involved, whether he likes it or not. And, very quickly, he comes to a decision. It isn’t for his own sake, if we are to believe Sergey’s own thoughts, but for the sake of the bees. How on earth can they do their work with a war going on around them that seems to be getting closer all the time? He needs to take the hives to a more peaceful zone.
Which is what he does. He has a reliable old warhorse of a Lada—it never fails to start when he turns the engine over, even in the depths of winter—and a flat-bed trailer. Once the six hives are secure, and he has packed everything else he needs to make camp somewhere—he seems to have done this plenty of times before—he’s on his way. He’s travelling through a country that’s fighting a war on its borders, but the journey is no odyssey. In fact, the ordinariness of it all comes as something of a surprise, to this reader at least, after Sergey’s three-year No-man’s-land existence. There are checkpoints on the roads, and some of the soldiers can be brusque and over-keen, but he never has any problems. The only thing he constantly has to explain is where his village is. No, he says, not Donetsk but in the grey zone….
Sergey is away from home through all these middle chapters and beyond but, once he has arrived near a particular town, he stays. This first stopover takes him to early summer, not many chapters from the point I’ve reached, and he only leaves when an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD after his experiences in Afghanistan smashes all the windows in his car. Before that, he had been getting along very comfortably. On his first day in the new town he had got talking to the woman running a shop, and she’s keen to help him set up his hives and gets him to sell his honey to her. She is Galya, a widow, and is obviously keen on this new man in the place. She brings him food at his camp, then invites him to eat at her place…. After a delicious meal she tells him he mustn’t drive back, having drunk so much. The police around there are just itching to catch drunks, however carefully they might be driving…. He stays.
Days turn into weeks, spring begins to turn to summer, and Sergey begins to wonder if he might stay and make a life with Galya. It’s definitely what she wants, and for a time thinks about it. Why not? He hasn’t seen his wife for three years, and his daughter has spent her teenage years without him…. But I don’t think it’s ever more than a fantasy. He’s very loyal to his own town—‘I’m from the grey zone, little Starhorodivka… the grey zone never attacked anyone’—and thinks about what he’s left behind. He even worries what Pashka would do if left completely on his own. And he sometimes thinks of his wife, following a tiny bit of contact with her before the end of the winter. That abortive phone call came after some postcards had arrived in a one-off visit from the postal service, and he had shown Petro (I think) an album containing some photos of her and his daughter.
A couple of incidents make him realise that he isn’t going to be staying. A local soldier has been killed in the fighting, and the town is going to pay its respects to mark the return of the body. Galya is keen for Sergey to be seen in attendance, but he thinks it wouldn’t be a good idea. Nonetheless, he goes to stand with her by the road as the coffin makes its way towards the cemetery. He finds the marks of respect far too much. There have been funerals in his own region, but none of this elaborate outward show of grieving. As everybody kneels, Galya expects him to do the same… which he does, eventually. But his reluctance has been noticed. Galya seems to understand that he doesn’t want to go to the wake after the funeral, but he has never felt so out of place before. He feels a new uneasiness…
…which, it transpires, he is right to feel. Two men arrive at his campsite at night, and this is when the war veteran with PTSD decides that people like Sergey are responsible for the soldier’s death. The other man is calmer, and seems to have placated his friend—until they both hear the sound of the Lada’s windows being violently smashed. He’s about to go further than that, taking aim with Sergey’s axe at one of the hives. But he is stung in the eye, and his friend has to take him away.
This is no good. Long before making this first stopover, Sergey had been thinking about making contact with an old beekeeper acquaintance in the Crimea, someone he’d first met at a convention years before. So, much to Galya’s regret, he packs up and goes. It’s a trickier drive than the one in spring, because as far as the Russians are concerned, he’s enterng a part of Russia now. The checks are more stringent but, luckily, when he explains the damage to his car the soldiers treat him more humanely. At the actual border there’s the most difficult checkpoint yet, and he wonders if he will get through. But one official seems keen for hm to tell his story to some journalists, and we wonder whether they will use this for their propaganda. It seems we will never know, but at least the journalists are grateful. They club together to collect enough money, they say, for him to repair the damage to the car.
He has the telephone number of his friend, Akhtem, and he rings it. His wife Aisylu is surprised. Doesn’t he know that her husband has been missing for two years? She invites him to come anyway, and meet the family. Sergey had always known they were Tatars, Muslims, and it has never seemed important to him. But, at his newly set-up camp—her son Bekir had helped him—Sergey starts to think about his own family. His own wife has been gone for a long time, and he doesn’t ever think seriously about living with Galya. Instead, alone at the camp, he starts to think of his car and his bees as all the family he has. Aisylu and her son and daughter are friendly, but nonetheless he is surprised one evening when she asks him to help them make inquiries about Akhtem. The question stuns him, and he is surprised at how scared he is by the prospect. He recovers quickly enough, but he makes an excuse and leaves. In his tent, he wonders what he has done with his image of St Nicholas the Wonder-worker. He feels a little lost.
Chapters 48-74—to the end
As so often with Sergey, he lets himself be guided by his better nature. He finds St Nicholas, and decides he will put himself on the spot, almost literally. He will ask the authorities if there’s any news about Akhtem. Bekir drives him to a faceless official place in Sevastopol, and the experience quickly becomes as nerve-racking as any that he’s had at military checkpoints. The man dealing with him looks like a soldier despite his suit and tie, and takes away his passport and papers. The man, a Russian, had and seemed full of suspicions about why a foreigner might be asking questions about a missing Tatar. He takes the papers away for long enough for Sergey to start worrying whether he is in trouble, and when the man does eventually return he offers no help. The missing man’s widow needs to go to the police, he says, then pretends the word ‘widow’ had been a slip of the tongue. Sergey doesn’t feel good about what he’s going to have to tell her, or Bekir waiting outside.
This final part of the book, almost all of it set in or near the same Crimean town, is a different take on what war feels like on the home front. Akhtem’s family, like everybody, are just trying to get by, and at first Sergey envies the way they are able to take the trappings of normality for granted. But he comes to realise that by comparison with his own life in the Grey zone, the Tatars have to live with far more uncertainty. And, as these chapters progress and the beautiful Crimean summer goes from June to August, it gets worse still. First, only two days after Sergey’s near-interrogation at Sevastopol, Akhtem’s body is returned to the family home and soon there is a Muslim funeral. After it, Sergey keeps his distance—except he secretly leaves some of his church candles by the door so they don’t have to use the cheaper kind in their vigil.
But they like this non-Muslim man who treats them completely normally. In fact, of course, Sergey has never met any Muslims before, and knows nothing of Russian attitudes. In a short time, he had become a friend, often eating with them and sharing his expertise with the bees. It’s the give and take of ordinary life, and none of them pay any attention to any supposed differences. When the honey needs to be extracted and sold, Bekir helps, and is able to sell Sergey’s honey for him…. But then the war intervenes again, and Bekir is arrested on trumped-up charges. He’s in possession of Orthodox Church candles—and when Sergey explains to the police where they came from, he’s told Bekir was also driving his father’s car without the owner’s permission. And so on. Some chapters later, when Sergey finally has to leave—all the Russian officials he meets count the number of days he’s been in Russian territory—there is still no sign of Bekir.
Without Kurkov saying a word, we realise it’s just one of the many family tragedies that Russian takeovers lead to. We also realise that Bekir doesn’t need to have done anything wrong for the Russians to look for ways to make him disappear. Sergey has a brief but stark lesson in Russian attitudes when he finds another beekeeper to help him repair and then load up the hives on to his trailer. The man’s wife knows Sergey has been spending time with Tatars, and isn’t impressed: ‘“they don’t respect Russian authority. So the people in charge will probably make ’em go back to their Uzbekistans and such… That’s where they should of stayed, anyway… What did they have to come down here for?” “Well, this is their land,” the beekeeper offered timidly. “The hell it is! …This land’s been Russian Orthodox since time immemorial! Russians brought Orthodoxy from Turkey, back before there were any Muslims. It was later that the Turks sent in the Tatars, along with their Islam. When Putin was here, he told the whole story – this is sacred Russian land.”’ Later, she tells him that Putin never lies….
It’s the first time Putin’s name has been mentioned in the novel, and it isn’t pleasant. We know all about his hold on information from more recent events, and I’m not just talking about since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The way this woman talks chimes terrifyingly with what we now hear every day. The combination of the strongarm tactics that lead to the disappearances in this novel and the impossibility of Russians learning anything except from government sources are exactly what is going on in Russia now. What is happening in Ukraine is an obscene extension of it.
The traumas suffered by Akhtem’s family are the outcome of historical forces on the largest scale. But most of Sergey’s story is on a smaller scale, and his final experience in the Crimea is his own little taste of Russian methods. The soldier in civvies who had interviewed him in Sevastopol arrives unexpectedly one night to show him how the Russians deal with anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their bureaucracy. He and his driver take away one of the hives, pretending that the correct inspections have not taken place. For some days, Sergey worries whether it will be returned in time for his deadline for leaving—it’s another taste of the constant anxieties brought on by the occupiers—but, finally, it is brought back. The bees inside seem strange, docile at first, then unsettled. They swarm for no apparent reason, and he has to retrieve them from a tree-branch. In the final day or two before he leaves, he begins to wonder whether they are even the same bees as before. Aren’t these a greyer colour? (And what are the implications for the book’s title? Is it the Russians who are the grey bees after all?)
He puts his doubts aside, gets the hives loaded, and says his goodbyes. He’s taking Aisha, Akhtem’s daughter, over the border into Ukrainian territory. She needs an education in a safe place, and Sergey has phoned his ex-wife to ask for her help in finding her a place in her university city. Like his inquiries in Sevastopol, it’s another of his routine kindnesses. He never thinks beyond the level of everyday humanity, because why would he? But…
…the story of his experience of Russians isn’t over yet. After he and Aisha have been through the tiresome bureaucracy of the border crossing and she is safely on the right train, he drives off towards home. Better the devil you know, I guess—Kurkov doesn’t need to have Sergey putting it into words—but he isn’t home yet. He’s taking that hive of strange bees, and he wonders if it’s a different sort of invasion. Are the Russians trying to contaminate the Ukrainian bee population? He decides to check them again, opening up the hive completely. And he finds a grenade. Once, last winter, Petro had given him a grenade and Sergey had immediately forgotten where he had put it. And now, whether it’s the same grenade or not, he decides it can be useful. He isn’t going to take the bees, and he isn’t going to leave them to infiltrate this bit of Ukraine either. He uses the grenade to blow up the hive.
Realistic? Plausible? It doesn’t matter. Sergey is a wide-eyed Everyman, and his journey has become both darker and more emblematic as it has gone on. Galya, the widow he had met in the spring, has made it plain that she would be very happy for him to make their relationship permanent, but he isn’t going to do that. It’s as though all he can picture is life as it was before. When this novel was written, it might have been possible to imagine that his home, and even life with his wife and daughter, could return to some sort of normality. He’s going home to be in time for the donation of coal by the Baptists in his town. If normality isn’t an option, then at least he can return to the new normal of life in the grey zone. Pashka phones him, and they talk about his return. It’s an amicable enough exchange, and Pashka tells him he’ll be waiting. ‘Well,’ as Sergey thinks, ‘at least someone’s waiting for me.’
In a time of war, he has to make the most of the tiniest comforts.