How Ukraine’s Greatest Novelist Is Fighting for His Country

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On the morning of Feb. 25, the day after Russian bombs began falling on his country, Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s most famous living writer, received a phone call at his home near Independence Square in central Kyiv. The call was from an old friend, a businessman with close ties to the government, who had just got hold of some privileged information: Kurkov, a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin, was on a list of “pro-Ukrainian activists” drawn up by the Kremlin, whose forces could seize the capital in a matter of days. He needed to get out.

As it happened, Kurkov was working on a novel about an earlier Russian invasion, the so-called Soviet-Ukrainian war of 1917-21, in which Ukrainian nationalists, aided by various Western powers, established an independent republic for the first time in their history — only to see it swiftly absorbed into the new Communist imperium rising in the east. The novel, the third in a series of books about this turbulent period, was inspired by a cache of secret-police files, which the daughter of a former K.G.B. officer bequeathed to Kurkov several years earlier. The documents evoked, in granular detail, the terror of life under Russian occupation, as well as its piquant absurdities. Kurkov, a sly satirist in the tradition of Gogol and Bulgakov, was especially delighted to learn about a Russian Underwear Tax, whereby each Ukrainian family was required to donate three pairs of undergarments to the ill-equipped Red Army. The same went for a Russian Furniture Tax, which stipulated that Ukrainian households could possess only as many chairs as there were household members, plus one for guests; the rest were requisitioned.

Now, a hundred years later, as Ukraine found itself besieged once again, Kurkov was forced to abandon his boxes of precious documents in Kyiv. He and his wife, Elizabeth Sharp, an English expat who has lived in Ukraine since their marriage in 1988, had time to gather only a few essentials (food, laptops, chargers) before loading up their car and heading to Lazarivka, a village 60 miles to the west, where they own a country house. They were not the only ones trying to flee that morning, and on the outskirts of town they hit traffic. A couple of miles to the north, Russian forces were bombarding the Antonov airfield, and the sky pulsated with explosions. Normally the drive to Lazarivka takes about an hour; that day, it took four and a half. When they finally arrived, Kurkov felt a sense of relief. He took some groceries round to their neighbors, then came back home to write an article reflecting on the day’s events. He didn’t get very far before his phone began to ring again. It was the same friend who called earlier. Where had the Kurkovs ended up? he wanted to know. The village was still too close to Kyiv, the man said on hearing the answer. They had to keep going.

Diverted from his historical novel by history in the making, Kurkov has been on the move ever since. After the second warning came through, he and Sharp got back in their car and drove to Lviv, in westernmost Ukraine, where much of the country’s intelligentsia and civil society has converged, like balls on a tilted pool table. The couple’s three adult children were spending the weekend there, and a few days later the reunited family moved once more, this time to a city in the Carpathian Mountains, near the border with Slovakia, where a contact had offered them the use of her pint-size Soviet-era apartment. In the ensuing weeks, the place became a headquarters of sorts, from which Kurkov and his family have opened up their own cultural front in the resistance to Russian aggression. While Sharp and the children, all of whom are British citizens and thus ineligible to be drafted, spent their time working with refugees, Kurkov dedicated himself to chronicling and contextualizing the war for foreign audiences, a task he has performed with prodigious zeal. Hardly a day goes by now without a new article, radio broadcast, television appearance or public lecture.

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