There’s a war on, and Sergey Sergeyich is worried about his bees. He’s one of only two human inhabitants left in Little Starhorodivka, a two-street village in the grey zone between the Ukrainian and Russian lines. It’s 2014, Russia has seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and there’s fighting all up and down the line dividing the pro-Russian separatist “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk from the rest of Ukraine. Sergeyich just wants to get through it all in one piece, along with the six beehives he’s got overwintering in the shed behind his house.
Who exactly is fighting where and for what are questions of less concern to him. His world has shrunk to the confines of his house and garden—and even the garden isn’t safe now, abutting fields under surveillance by snipers. His wife has left him and decamped to the district capital with their daughter, and these days his only companion is a “frenemy” across town, his adversary since elementary school. He gets by, just barely—bartering his honey for other foodstuffs in the next town over, and occasionally taking naps on his “bee bed” (a mattress placed atop the six hives) when he’s feeling out of sorts.
Around Sergeyich’s struggle for survival, which eventually sends him on the road in search of safer bee pastures, Andrey Kurkov has built a gripping story and universe. A major Ukrainian writer with ten previous books out in English translation—including the international bestseller Death and the Penguin, published by Vintage in 2001 in a translation by George Bird—he is not nearly as well known in the US as he deserves. Grey Bees shows him to be a master storyteller at the top of his game.
While describing Sergeyich’s activities—an almost meditative catalogue of repeated gestures and little life tasks—Kurkov allows glimpses of the war to intrude around the edges, above all once Sergeyich relocates, first to a larger village controlled by the separatists and then to Crimea itself. Each time, he winds up confronted against his will by physical violence arising out of wartime politics—violence directed first at himself when an out-of-control traumatized former soldier attacks him and smashes all the windows of his van, and then at a Tatar family he’s befriended. We also see how a basic economy of simple objects reveals an entire underlying web of social and political issues. Take, for example, the beeswax candles he sells to a church and later reclaims from its bombed-out ruins. They give him light during long nights without electricity, but spell doom for his Muslim friends: The candles he brings as a gift become a pretext to force a young man to join the Russian army in punishment for their alleged “theft” from a local church.
Kurkov handles the book’s solemn argument—how war destroys everyone’s lives—with a light touch and gently ironic humor that comes through beautifully in Boris Dralyuk’s translation, which alternates lush lyricism with wry humor. Noting “the ringing of bee-wings” amid the morning’s sounds, Sergeyich reflects that he “wasn’t merely the owner of an apiary, after all—he was the representative of the legitimate interests of its bees.”
Kurkov’s prose throughout the novel is characterized by a compelling, meandering quality that shows us the shape of Sergeyich’s thought patterns, which often take a decidedly philosophical turn despite all his resolute practicality. In particular, he is attuned to the slightest variations in the behavior of his bees, such as the intensity of the buzzing emanating from their hives. If the book contains some threads of optimism, they are spun around the notion that it still might not be too late for humankind to learn from the animal world, in which each creature knows how best to survive. This even applies to politics, as Sergeyich muses “that people might learn a thing or two about maintaining order from bees. After all, bees alone had managed to establish communism in their hives, thanks to their orderliness and labour. Ants, on the other hand, had only reached the stage of real, natural socialism; this was because they had nothing to produce, and so had merely mastered order and equality. But people? People had neither order nor equality.”
Sergeyich is a survivor if there ever was one, but he inhabits a world of ruins. Only in his dreams does he catch glimpses of peace, as in one in which his frenemy shows up to let him know the war is over. “Which war?” dream-Sergeyich asks. “The future war,” his frenemy replies, which disquiets even as it comforts, suggesting that the war currently tearing their waking world apart will be followed by yet another. The book is full of dreams, and unlike most dreams one finds in novels, they are among the book’s most appealing passages.
Again and again, the most ostensibly simple exchanges in the book telescope to reveal moments of unexpected historical depth. When Sergeyich expresses his admiration of the beauty of an “extraordinary mountain” in the lush Crimean landscape, his Tatar host surprises him with her matter-of-fact response:
“Mangup,” Akhtem’s wife uttered sweetly. “That’s where my grandfather hid, under the Germans. The Soviet soldiers caught him after the war. They shot him over there, near the Kadyrov clinic, where they treat drug addicts.”
This landscape of devastating historical memory is also a landscape of practical action; death and healing intersect on the grounds of this clinic where treatment continues even as the war continues to kill and maim. But far from offering a saccharine vision of potential future peace, Kurkov calmly shows us man’s brutality to man (and bees) with an almost fatalistic shrug.
The dreams—and the brief moments of friendship and conviviality Sergeyich enjoys while on his journey—offer needed respite, because the book is also filled with cruelty. The deception and deceit increase the closer he gets to the Russian motherland—whose boundaries are quickly advancing westward as more and more territories are occupied. Eventually Sergeyich’s bees join him in suffering violence at the hands of the Soviet intelligence agents in Crimea, when they impound one of his hives under the pretext of needing to confirm that he hasn’t surreptitiously brought diseased bees with him into the Russian-controlled territories with the terroristic intention of infecting local apiaries. The “grey bees” of the book’s title—the uncanny, mysteriously altered bees restored to him just one day before his visa for the Russian-controlled territory of Crimea is set to expire—are emblematic of the complexity and ubiquity of war zone violence. How can he save his human friends if he cannot even keep his bees safe?
All he can do by way of resistance is argue his case over and over to the people he meets along the way. But often he finds himself confounded by misinformation. At one point in Crimea he finds himself in conversation with an angry shopkeeper who disputes his claim that his Tatar friends have rights to their own ancestral lands:
“When Putin was here he told the whole story—this is sacred Russian land.”
“Well, I haven’t looked into the history,” Sergeyich shrugged, “Who knows what happened?”
“What happened is what Putin says happened,” she insisted. “Putin doesn’t lie.”
And so this novel, first published in Russian in 2018, feels like an eerie foreboding of 2022 and the endless violence, and gaslighting around violence, this year has brought.