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Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov on preserving his country's culture during war


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Judy Woodruff: We turn back to Ukraine now through a different lens with a conversation with one of that country's best-known novelists.

Jeffrey Brown talks with Andrey Kurkov about his new book addressing Ukraine's past struggles with Russia, now translated into English at a moment of existential crisis for his country.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Andrey Kurkov is author of more than 20 books, including, translated to English, the novels "Death and the Penguin," and "The Bickford Fuse."

A new novel, "Grey Bees," is set of several years ago in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine amid what was then a simmering conflict, but one little noted by the outside world. A resident of Kyiv, Kurkov spoke to us from earlier this week from Western Ukraine.

In the forward to your new novel, you write that you wanted to give voice to the forgotten people in the east. That was a few years ago. Now the entire country has been invaded. Did you ever imagine this could happen?

Andrey Kurkov, Author, "Grey Bees": No. No, I could never have thought about this, because, I mean, this is Middle Ages, or at least this is the war of 20th century, something like Second World War.

I mean, the methods of German Nazis are very obvious to me in Bucha, in Gostomel, in Mariupol. I have -- never could imagine such a destruction and killing of civilians and just don't caring about the country, the people, the infrastructure.

Jeffrey Brown: The world is, of course, watching the human suffering now, but you have also been speaking about the impact on history, on identity, on language itself.

Andrey Kurkov: Well, now the stake is very high. It is independence of Ukraine, statehood of Ukraine.

Ukraine has its own history, but Russia wants Ukraine to accept the Russian version of Ukrainian history, according to which Ukrainians are actually Russians.

Ukrainian language is different. There are 40 percent of Russian speakers in Ukraine. Many of them are bilingual like me. And Ukrainian language actually is the only guarantee now that Ukraine will stay independent from Russia.

Ukrainians will not accept any more Russian culture or anything Russian because of the atrocities imposed on us by the Russian army.

Jeffrey Brown: You yourself write your novels in Russian. Many Americans may still not understand the interaction between the two languages and how much that's been a part of Ukrainian culture.

Andrey Kurkov: Well, in Ukraine, there were always people speaking Russian and Ukrainian.

And the only official language is Ukrainian, but many Russian speakers do speak and understand Ukrainian. I am a Russian speaker. I am ethnic Russian. Russian is my mother tongue. But I never had problems publishing my books in Russian and writing in Russia and Ukraine.

Now, because of the Russian aggression, and Putin said that this war is against Ukrainian nationalists who are suppressing Russian speakers, I feel ashamed. And I'm prepared actually sort of to give up publishing my books in Russian just as a political gesture.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you see this as having that kind of impact on you as a writer?

Andrey Kurkov: Yes, because Ukrainians and Russians speakers actually in the east, they are killed in the name of the -- defending Russian language by Russian army.

Jeffrey Brown: I can see you use humor in your writing, that you bring out the humanity in difficult situations.

What about now? What do you see as your role as a writer?

Andrey Kurkov: Well, it's impossible to write fiction now.

So I started a novel before the war. And I put it aside. I am writing now only diary, articles about what is happening in Ukraine, essays and trying to inform international audience about the true events happening in Ukraine.

So, I think many writers are doing like me, and they are not writing fiction or poetry. I mean, the time of arts is not now, really.

Jeffrey Brown: And what is it you most want the world to know right now?

Andrey Kurkov: Well, first of all that all the pretexts of this Putin for this war are false.

We are a European free country with a democracy, with a lot of chaos, with anarchy, with over 400 political parties registered in the Ministry of Justice. But, I mean, we are not anything that Putin says.

Jeffrey Brown: Andrey Kurkov is author of the new novel "Grey Bees."

Thank you very much.

Andrey Kurkov: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: And thank you, Jeffrey Brown.

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