Andrey Kurkov: dispatches from a country under siege | Ukraine

6 March 2022

I never thought that so many things could happen in a week, so many terrible things.

On 24 February 2022, the first Russian missiles fell on Kyiv. At five in the morning, my wife and I were awakened by the sound of explosions. It was very hard to believe that the war had begun. That is, it was already clear that it had, but I did not want to believe this. You have to get used psychologically to the idea that war has begun. Because from that moment on, war determines your way of life, your way of thinking, your way of making decisions.

We decided to leave for our house in the village 90km (56 miles) away. I checked Google Maps and saw that the way out from Kyiv to the west, in the direction of our village, was open. We packed, took food from the refrigerator and the freezer, loaded it into the car and hit the road. But by the time we had reached the western exit of the city the traffic stood motionless. Among the cars there were many with number plates from other cities: Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and even Donetsk and Luhansk. I realised that these drivers have been on the road for at least two days. You could see it in their pale faces, in their tired eyes, in the way they drove.

Andrej Kurkov. photographed in London earlier this month.
Andrej Kurkov. photographed in London earlier this month. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

On the way, my wife called her friend Lena, a music teacher at the Kyiv school of arts and asked if she would like to come with us to the village. Lena could not decide. Then she said yes, she would come with her son. They went out to the road and waited for 20 minutes before we reached our meeting place. They made their way between trucks and buses to reach our car and bundled themselves into the back seat, suitcase and all. Now the car was full.

The journey to the village, which usually takes an hour, took four and a half. We drove around abandoned, wrecked cars, peered at the guns and tanks set up for the defence of Kyiv. We saw a lot of military equipment driving in both directions on the right side of the highway, usually used by cars going to Kyiv. Very few were moving in that direction now.

It was hard on my heart. No one said a word. I turned on the car radio and we listened to the news from the front. The front today is 3,000km long, the length of the border with Russia and Belarus. Kharkiv and Mariupol were being bombed, hundreds of tanks had entered the territory of Ukraine in several places, including from Crimea. Ballistic missiles flew from the territory of Belarus at Ukrainian cities. The news did not calm us, but it did distract us from the traffic jams.

When we arrived at the village, I turned off the radio and all became quiet. No explosions or gunfire. Birds sang, rejoicing in the coming of spring. We brought things into the house, made tea. I set up my desk for work, opened my laptop and then a friend from Kyiv called me and asked: “Where are you?” I told him. He advised us to go immediately further to the west.

A woman in Kyiv prays on the day Putin announced the ‘special military operation’ in eastern Ukraine.
A woman in Kyiv prays on the day Putin announced the ‘special military operation’ in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

The day before the start of the war, our children, including our daughter who had flown in from London, had gone with their friends to the beautiful city of Lviv in western Ukraine. They wanted to visit the cafes, museums, the medieval streets of the old centre. We decided to join them. The journey of 420km took 22 hours. The traffic jams varied in length, from 10 to 50 miles.

We found our children disoriented and sad. Not far from the house they were renting, I noticed a gun shop. It was still closed, but there was a line of people in front of it. There were men, young boys and girls in the queue, waiting for opening time.

I realised that I had not called my older brother or my two cousins before leaving Kyiv. I got through to my older brother easily. He said that he was sitting at home, listening to the sounds of explosions. I did not get through to my cousins. I wonder when I will see them all again.

The bombed bread factory in Makariv, 19 April.
The bombed bread factory in Makariv, 19 April. Photograph: Alexey Furman/Getty Images

8 March 2022

In the Ukrainian countryside, there is a long tradition of having plenty of bread on the table and of eating it with butter and salt or dipping it in milk.

In our village shop, we would buy our favourite Makariv loaf – a soft, white, brick-shaped loaf. It was baked at the well-known Makariv Bakery in the town of the same name 20km from our village. Occasionally, you can find this bread in Kyiv, but only in small corner shops, not in supermarkets.

I have been thinking about that Makariv bread for several days now – remembering the taste. Only now, while remembering, I sense the taste of blood on my lips, like when I was a child and someone split my lip in a fight.

The fact is Makariv bakery was bombed on Monday by Russian troops. The bakers were at work. I can imagine the fragrant smell that surrounded them the moment before the attack. In an instant, 13 bakery staff were killed and nine were injured. And the bakery is no more – Makariv bread is a thing of the past.

9 March 2022

We’re now in an apartment in Transcarpathia, west of the Carpathian Mountains. This morning I went to the key shop again. There are four of us, but we have only one set of keys. We need to make at least two more sets but there are no key blanks available. It is a new kind of shortage, one common throughout western Ukraine. The towns are full of refugees. They are welcomed into homes, given rooms and apartments, settled in hostels and schools. But most of them need keys.

A woman and child on a bus fleeing Kyiv after the invasion.
A woman and child on a bus fleeing Kyiv after the invasion. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

This apartment was given to us by a retired woman named Larissa I have never met before – a relative of our friends. She went to live with her daughter and did not even take food from the refrigerator. She told us to eat it ourselves. The apartment resembles the apartment of my late parents – it is like a museum of the Soviet era. Two rooms, a small kitchen, toilet and bathroom. There was no heating or hot water at first. The day before Ukraine was attacked, the boiler broke down. At night, the temperature goes to -1C or -2C. We left most of our warm clothes in Kyiv.

In fact, we did not really think much about what to take with us. We thought that we would go to the village, not a great distance from Kyiv, and would return quite soon. I think this is always the case at the start of a war.

24 March 2022

More and more children are travelling on their own towards Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – with small backpacks and notes sewn into jackets, on which are the phone numbers of their parents, the names of the children and the addresses of the people whom the children must reach.

Many families also travel with other people’s children, trying to make sure that all the seats in their cars are occupied. Every empty seat in a car going to the west of Ukraine is a life that was not saved.

Romana Yaremyn poses in the bookshop she runs in Lviv on 20 April, among hundreds of books evacuated from her bookshop and publishing house in embattled Kharkiv.
Romana Yaremyn poses in the bookshop she runs in Lviv on 20 April, among hundreds of books evacuated from her bookshop and publishing house in embattled Kharkiv. Photograph: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

30 March 2022

When we became refugees, we left all our books in Kyiv. Now, since my first wartime trip into Europe, I have some books again – gifts from my English publisher. I’m wondering when I will be able to take those books home and add them to my library.

Nothing is being published in Ukraine now and I cannot imagine much reading going on among Ukrainians either. I don’t read, although I try to. War and books are incompatible. But after the war, books will tell the story of the war. They will fix the memory of it, form opinions and stir emotions.

In Mariupol and other cities of the south and east, bookshops were destroyed along with their books. In other cities they were simply shut down. When they open again, it will mean that peace has come to Ukraine. When a bookshop opens again in Mariupol, it will mean much more.

4 April 2022

Most writers, intellectuals and artists have now gathered in Lviv, a city that has long been the cultural capital of Ukraine. There, bookstores are open, but customers are few. Instead of books, writers now write news columns, broadcast radio programmes and participate in informational projects. There are those who have stayed in Kyiv and write from there about life during the war. There are also those who have joined the armed forces and there are also those who are no longer – those who were killed at the front.

Kalush Orchestra celebrating their win for Ukraine at the Eurovision song contest.
Kalush Orchestra celebrating their win for Ukraine at the Eurovision song contest. Photograph: Rolf Klatt/Rex/Shutterstock

18 May 2022

Once again, for the third time this century, Ukraine has won the Eurovision song contest. Each of the country’s victories in this competition has come in the wake of historical upheaval. I want to believe that this year’s victory will be the last for many years. I don’t usually watch the Eurovision and I missed this one too, but I’ve listened to the winning song and I like it. Most of all, I like the solidarity of the Europeans who voted for Ukraine.

For several days now, Ukrainian Facebook has been boiling over with the joy resulting from this victory. Ukrainians joke that Putin woke up last Sunday morning and was horrified to hear that Ukraine had won. It took him a while to realise that Ukraine had won the Eurovision, not the war – not yet.

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