Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov | Book Review

Grey Bees by the great Ukrainian writer, Andrey Kurkov has become one of my all-time favourite books and its protagonist, one of the most beautiful solitary characters I have encountered in literature, Sergey Sergeyich is someone I would love to set off on a journey with across free, independent Ukraine one day. I cannot express how much I love this book. If you want to learn more about Ukraine, as well as to better understand the cultural and ethnic diversity of this land, including Crimean Tatars, I would highly recommend you get a copy of this novel. It is not a book about the war as per se; it is a book about those souls affected the madness of the war and misinterpretation of the history as a foundation for human rights violations.

Grey Bees is a set in the period after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. The novel explores the life of ‘an ordinary’ person caught amid the terror of war, the consequences of the military activities, and political repressions on the individual life, small communities, families, and ethnic minorities.

It is a story of silence, solitude, melancholy, simplicity of life, and isolation caused by the war where people carry on living, existing, in so called ‘Grey Zone’, no man’s land in this border between Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatist republics. Those villages in Grey Zone have been deserted by most people with exception for a few who decided to stay in their homes. People living in this kind of places belong neither here nor there; these places do not only exist in Donbas but also across the world.

In addition, Grey Bees is a tale examining the meaning of identity, ‘home’ and belonging amid war.

It poses a question of when a damaged home stops being a home one wants to go back to. For many, home even in Grey Zone is a home, nevertheless. The identity is also discussed at length in the book, or rather the perception of the identity in terms of how we do or do not identify ourselves contrasted with the way others perceive us depending on their own background.  

The novel captures the life of a sensitive, warm-hearted everyman, Sergey Sergeyich, in a small corner of the world, drowned in a sea of confusion of our superficial reality, being so much in opposition to the order of the natural world he wants to live in accordance with. Sergeyich always seems to stay on the peripheries of the community and observes it from the distance. The reader looks at the life of those living in Grey Zones of the war-torn Donbas as well as occupied Crimea through Sergeyich’s emphatic eyes. In the village where he lives and then throughout his journey from Donbas to Crimea, he is frequently faced with many moral dilemmas in terms of the importance of his values that he must address.  

This is a parable where our modern world is juxtaposed with the natural world of bees and ants, in favour of the animal world, which is organised, cooperative and highly functional. The world of human power struggle, on the other hand, is deeply dysfunctional, cruel, artificially divided, and illogical. At some point, Sergeyich asks himself why people can’t just behave like bees, and he grows anxious when he sees that some of his bees previously confiscated by the Russian authorities show the behaviour like the one seen in people.  

Grey Bees is a story about different shades of greyness that we encounter in our daily life. Everything in Grey Bees is grey, both literally and metaphorically: Sergeyich’s house, the landscape he inhabits is the industrial wasteland, the harsh environment with snow covered desolated steppes, his memories of grey nostalgia, his day-to-day existence, no clear lines separating good and evil, friends and enemies. The only colour in Sergeyich’s life is his green Lada and his bees; but even them, his car and some of his bees, turn ‘grey’ in the end as a direct or indirect result of the war and political events around him.  

In addition, Grey Bees explores the importance of human connections, mutual understanding and cultural as well as ethnic diversity.  

The novel centres on a 49-year-old Sergey Sergeyich, a beekeeper, a retired mine safety inspector and one of two inhabitants of Little Starhorodivka, the village in Grey Zone of Donbas. He is one of the greatest introvert characters, a beautiful, solitary, and sensitive soul, living in accordance with the surrounding natural world and its changing seasons. He is the only person left on his street. There is another one, Pashka, who lives in the next street. Sergeyich did not like Pashka since their school years, but the situation has forced them to establish some sort of relationship.  In their village, there is no power, no TV, no telephone; therefore, they both rely on each other in their own peculiar way. Pashka is visited by pro-Russian separatists, and occasionally helped by them with food supplies. Sergeyich, on the other hands, befriends the Ukrainian soldier who helps him out by charging his phone and throughout the novel they both check on each other with simple text: Alive? 

As the summer season approaches, Sergeyich becomes most concerned about his bees and giving them space far from noise caused by shelling. He decides to set off for Crimea not only to find a safe outing for his bees but also to find Akhtem, a Crimean Tatar who was Sergeyich’s roommate at a beekeepers’ conference twenty-five years earlier. On his way to Crimea and in Crimea he meets many characters, who see him, a man from the no-man’s land with rather ambivalent feelings as they are never sure which side he stands on. 

In search for a good spot for his bees, he stops near the small town of Vesele, where he strikes a friendship with a lovely woman, Galya but the rest of the locals are suspicious of people from Grey Zone like him. Sergeyich enjoys his stay there and relationship with Galya until the attack on him and his bees by an ex-Ukrainian soldier suffering from PTSD. Being from Grey Zone and friendship with the Ukrainian soldier did not mean automatically that Sergeyich would be treated well by everyone.  

Following this event, Sergeyich continues his journey to Crimea. Once there he finds out that Akthem has been gone missing for the last two years. During his stay there, he learns more about Tatars and their culture. Sergeyich is aware that Crimean Tatars have suffered a lot in the previous decades, especially during Stalin’s rule when 200 000 Tatars were forcibly deported which amounted to ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. During his time in Crimea Sergeyich grows close to Akhtem’s family and decides to set up his hives next to Akthem’s. Sergeyich is a witness to the constant harassment and subjugation of the Tatar community by the Russian authorities. At one-point Sergeyich points out to a local woman that the Tatars have lived in Crimea for long time, but she repeats Russian propaganda: 

“When Putin was here, he told the whole story — this is sacred Russian land. (…) What happened is what Putin says happened.”  

Even though Sergeyich is treated well by the Tatar community as well as officials and local authorities, there is always this anxious atmosphere as he never knows how the ones in the power or from the other communities will react to him – a man from Grey Zone. There is also this strong focus on the importance of the ‘right’ documents in order to get through the checkpoint or to get something done. This right papers in combination with the right identity can mean peaceful, almost trouble-free existence during the time of war and political repression.  

There are many female characters throughout the book who always seem care for Sergeyich and symbolise the emotional strength during the times of the profound suffering caused by the war.  The novel also evokes strong feelings of sadness for the loss of the Tatar culture, and it shows the importance of the Tatar community as an integral part of the Ukrainian diverse society.  

Grey Bees allow the readers to observe the reality from the point of view of everyman, Sergey Sergeyich. We as readers witness trough his eyes the absurdity of war, propaganda, and senseless loss in all the spheres of life.

This book has become very dear to me. Grey Bees is an ode to the lost simplicity of life and to all the solitary emphatic souls caught amid the horrors of the senseless suffering inflicted by people on their fellow human beings.

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