Author: Andrey Kurkov
Translated by: Boris Dralyuk
Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing (Dallas, Texas)
Author copyright 2018
First Deep Vellum Edition 2022.
Price: $15.95 (paperback)
In this case, you can at least get an inkling about the book by its cover. Holding it up to superimpose it over the Ukrainian Flag that I fly in my grandchildren’s playground, the cover’s predominant background is a strong azure blue-matching that of the top half of the flag. Inlaid within the cover there is also the golden wheat yellow head of a beekeeper that matches the bottom half of the flag. You can tell that this is the head of a beekeeper because it is covered with the traditional beekeeper’s hat (sans the netting) which is surrounded by hundreds of swarming grey bees. So…this is the story of a Ukrainian beekeeper, and if you’re at all astute you know that Ukraine has been invaded by Russia and that beekeepers are generally fearless, patient people blessed with the purpose of movement, and not easily given to nervous overreaction. Next, notice the author’s copyright date which occurred four years earlier than Russia’s most recent unprovoked attack upon this democratic nation in 2022. In truth, Russia and Ukraine have a complicated and conflicted history that goes back centuries with the most common denominator being that the Russian empire has always bullied this smaller poorer nation, and its current leader, Vladimir Putin, feels that he can continue to do so with impunity. And this he started doing again in 2013 as Russia sought to annexe the coveted Crimean Peninsula and portions of the eastern regions of Ukraine. This story’s plotline centers on the years of 2014 to 2017, well before Putin became the world’s biggest pariah and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rose to the challenge and became undeniably the bravest man and concurrently one of the most charismatic men in the world. It’s important to note that like the majority of recent wars, this war is not turning out as planned.
Andrey Kurkov was born in Leningrad, Russia on April 23, 1961. He writes in Russian but is sympathetic to the suffering of Ukrainians at the hands of his birth nation, and is currently a citizen of Ukraine who had formally identified himself as an internally displaced person (IDP) in 2014. He now lives with his British wife in the capital city of Kyiv. Kurkov’s 18 previous books and numerous television and movie scripts gained him the reputation as a master of dark humor with a bent towards surrealism. His book’s simple title is deceptively coy begging the questions: why the color grey, and why bees?
Grey is commonly viewed as a “neutral color” and one whose many shades are very nuanced, as is the story’s protagonist Sergey Sergeyich who lives in what is known as the “grey zone” that exists between the front lines of the warring Ukrainian and Russian Separatists troops in the small once Ukrainian town of Little Starhorodivkain Eastern Ukraine. The grey zone stretches at various widths for 450 kilometers and Sergeyich has lived his entire life in the hotly contested coal-rich Donbas region. He is 49 years old and living on a government pension that was acquired after he contracted a lung disease due to his job as a safety inspector in the underground coal mines. In his enforced retirement Sergey became a devoted beekeeper to occupy his time and augment his meager income. He is divorced from his wife Vitalina and estranged from his daughter Angelica, who is now 16. Both now safely live in Vinnytsia in the country’s interior far from the fighting.
At the start of the story, Little Starhorodivka is a mess. There has been no electricity for over a year, and nutritious food is hard to come by. All but two of the inhabitants of this tiny town of only three streets with less than 30 houses and one bombed-out church have fled the war which occasionally causes stray artillery fire and assorted misdirected bombs to land a little too close for comfort. The other remaining inhabitant is Pashka who was a childhood adversary but is now by necessity begrudgingly treated as a friend, or as the author oftentimes refers to him as Sergey’s “frenemy.” Their blunt terse conversations with one another leave little doubt in the reader’s mind that each would prefer a different company, but they are stuck with one another, forced to share food, chores, and championship.
Kurkov expertly sets the dreary tone and explains Sergey’s driving motivation early on in the manuscript:
The army had been there for three years now , while the local lads, together with the Russian military, had been drinking tea and vodka in their dugouts beyond Pashka’s street and its gardens, beyond the remnants of the apricot grove that had been planted back in Soviet times, and beyond another field that the war had stripped of its workers, as it had the field that lay between Sergeyich’s garden and Zhdanivka.
The village had been quiet for two whole weeks. Not a shot was fired. Had they tired themselves out? Were they conserving themselves and bullets? Or maybe they were reluctant to disturb the last two residents of Little Starhorodivka, who were clinging to their homesteads more tenaciously than a dog clings to its favorite bone. Everyone else in Little Starhorodivka had wanted to leave when the fighting began. And so they left – because they feared for their lives more than they feared for their property, and that stronger fear had won out. But the war hadn’t made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused, and indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees. But they were wintering. Their hives were lined in the inside with felt and covered with sheets of metal. Although they were in the shed, a dumb stray shell could fly in from either side. Its shrapnel would cut into the metal – but then maybe it wouldn’t have the strength to punch through the wooden walls and be the death of the bees (p. 12-13)?
With the onslaught of spring the beekeeper knows that he needs a safer and more pollen-rich place to release his bees into and plans to transport his six hive boxes to Crimea, camp out on the land, and relax for a few months, quite possibly hit the beaches on the Black Sea. His journey south requires that he interface with participants on both sides of the battle lines: Loyalists, Separatists, the Russian occupiers, and the native Tartars.Sergey’s backup plan is to enlist the help of a beekeeper named Akhtemthat he met at a beekeeper’s convention twenty years prior. Beekeeping is a specialized craft/trade/art and those drawn to it tend to view themselves as belonging to a special fraternity, so Sergey has no doubt that Atkhem will help him because he has no doubt that he would do the same if the situation were reversed.
Towing his bee boxes behind his car Sergey encounters unsettling questioning at several highway checkpoints but is finally able to enter the Crimean peninsula. It seems to be an entirely different world with spreading rows of glistening agricultural crops and sprawling acreages of wildflowers blooming in riotous colors. Knowing that his bees will thrive in this landscape Sergey starts breathing easier and stops outside of the town ofVesele, pitches his tent, sets out his hives, and makes camp.All is calm, and if all goes well he will stay here through the summer. Going into town for supplies he meets Galya a shopkeeper who is a kind woman, plain but not ugly, and romance floats on the soft early summer breeze much like his beloved bees. Not only does Gayla lovingly share her bed, she has the added advantage of being an excellent cook.
Another summer week went by – a week full of humming bee wings and sunshine, a week that included three meetings with Gayla and her borscht, which was cooked over a low heat without regard to time and contained large white beans that first burst between the teeth, then melted away on the tongue. Their dinner that evening consisted of borscht alone, but, of course, she had served it properly, with black rye bread, vodka and garlic. It was Friday, and Sergey was feeling so good in Gayla’s home that he got scared. He was afraid that, after two or three more dinners of this kind, he wouldn’t want to return to his tent any more, where, every night, through the thin shell of his sleeping bag and the rubberized canvas bottom, the earth kept jabbing him in the ribs with its firmness. He would settle in at Gayla’s silently, without asking his hostess for permission. After all, he already knew what she wanted. And her desire for him was perfectly legitimate. Such was the law of nature: all living things want to live in pairs. Except for bees and their ilk (p. 174).
Sergey is more content than he has been in years, ever since his divorce and Russia’s aggression, but an unkind fate intervenes when a local shelled-shocked Ukrainian soldier, chagrined that Sergey has no taste for the war, smashes all the windows in his car and attacks one of the bee boxes.Sergey moves on driving further south while trusting in his backup plan and the solidarity of the beekeeping fraternity, but when he arrives at Athkem’s home he learns from his wife Aysila the harrowing news that his old friend had been abducted by the Russian invaders over twenty months ago. Athkem, Aysila, and their daughter Aisha and son Bekirare nativeTartars, an indigenous people of Turkish descent that have always been oppressed in Crimea, most brutally by those of Russian descent. Their life here has never been easy, and without the head of their household, it has grown immeasurably harder. Aysila allows Sergey to camp on their land and put out his bee boxes alongside Athkem’s boxes that are now being maintained by Bekir. The strength of the beekeeping fraternity is revealed as the respect and friendship grows between him and Athkem’s family to the point where Aysila prevails upon him to speak to her husband’s Russian jailers on her behalf because she knows they would never talk to a Tartar. At first reluctant, Sergey eventually does, and the conversation with a Russian official named Ivan Fyodorovich reveals the contempt and disdain that the occupying Russian’s hold toward what they view as a conquered people.
What do you mean?” Ivan Fyodorovich said. No, no, this isn’t an interrogation – it’s just a conversation. Since you’ve come all this way to see us, why not ask a few questions? Try to understand…You’re a foreigner here. You’ve come from a war zone. See what it says.” He nodded at the monitor, which was invisible to Sergeyich. “Admitted for humanitarian reasons.’ In other words, we took pity on you and your bees,and let you into Russia. So now I would urge you to watch your words…You don’t want anyone to accuse you of base ingratitude.”
“No, no, I’m not complaining – I keep to myself, quite as a church mouse. All I do is look after my bees!”
“Go on and stay then. Keep to yourself. But no longer than ninety days. As for this Akhkem of yours, tell his widow to speak to the police. This case concerns either Crimean Self-Defence or the Cossacks.”
From all he heard, the one phrase that stuck in Sergeyich’s brain was “tell his widow”.A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He stared into the eyes of the office occupant, who had fallen silent. Ivan Fyodorovich’s eyes turned out to be cornflower blue.
“So she’s a widow?” Sergeyich asked for confirmation.
“I misspoke.” Ivan Fyodorovich tried to grin and almost succeeded. “The case isn’t closed. And there are at least two dozen such cases in the hands of the police. But they’re out of our hands. So please be on your way. Here’s your passport (p. 221-22).”
Sergey has experienced enough of this perplexing war to know when he is being fed a heaping helping of word salad and feels that Atkhem has probably been dead for quite a while. He struggles with how to sugarcoat it to his deceased friend’s wife.
Berkir helps Sergey extract his honey with his father’s tools, and Sergey helps Bekir extract his family’s honey. Both achieve an acceptable harvest. There will be enough honey to sell to pay for the trip home as the expiration of Sergey’s ninety-day visa fast approaches. His desire to return home is intensified when Berkir is abducted by the Russians on trumped-up vehicle registration charges and given the choice of enlisting in their military or rotting in their prisons. For her part Aysila fears that some form of persecution of her daughter will be next and petitions Sergey to take Aisha with him when he leaves. Sergey contacts his ex-wife, learns that there is a university in Vinnytsia, and she generously agrees to take the young woman in while also feeling that their daughter Angelica could use the companionship. All appears to be wrapping up as well as could be expected under trying circumstances when fate once again intervenes when Sergey gets a surprise visit from Ivan Fyodorovich and an associate who confiscate one of his hives claiming that the beekeeper had never obtained a permit and that his bees need to be inspected for diseases. Asking around amongst the local fraternity of beekeepers he quickly learns that there is no such thing as a permit and that there have never been any inspections. He knows that intimidation lies at the heart of this and mounting paranoia creeps into his colorful and frequent dream life.Kurkov’s forays into surrealism are readily apparent in Segey’s dream life which is equal parts poetry and bizarre and frequently spurred on to new heights after his frequent ingestion of copious quantities of vodka.
To his utter amazement, Ivan Fyodorovich and his associate return his hive just days before his departure, but this only causes Sergey to become more suspicious as to what they may have done to his bees which all seem to be healthy with the exception that they appear to be grey. His dreams grow increasingly aberrant and ludicrous Why grey bees? Sergey’s unnerving dreamone evening while on the road after seeing Aisha off reveals why.
…Then he stretched out on his back and fell asleep –and almost immediately heard a buzzing. It was loud, and not as soft and as delicateas that made by a flying bee. In his dream, the buzzing came from the hive which the F.S.B. had confiscated and returned, and which now stood apart in the field for some reason. Sergeyich wanted to approach the hive to work out why the bees were buzzing so loudly. As soon as he took a step towards it, the roof rose up and an enormous grey bee, the size of a human being,, crawled out of the hive. It looked round, didn’t notice him, and cautiously set off, on two legs towards the sunflowers – only not the ones that were growing around his sleeping body, but youthful, rowdy ones, whose round faces were lifted up to the sun. Sergeyich followed the bee with his eyes until it disappeared into the sunflowers. He realised he hadn’t paid attention to its wings: maybe they’d been responsible for that loud buzzing?
But the buzzing continued, and another bee crawled out of the hive, then another, and another. All of them followed the first into the sunflowers, hunching over like military scouts on a mission. And at some point Sergeyich realised that they looked grey because they were wearing camouflaged overalls – or maybe not overalls, maybe something like raincoats, but definitely of a military type. They kept crawling out of the hive as if from an underground tunnel, and all moved in the same direction: towards his house in Little Starhorodivka.
Sereyich was frightened. His forehead was covered with cold sweat.
What is this? He thought in his dream. They recruited my bees? Intimidated and recruited them? Now they’re no longer my bees they don’t work for me, and they aren’t searching for pollen. Just then another enormous bee crawled out of the hive, carefully lowered the roof, looked round, and trained its many-pupilled eyes on Sergeyich. It stood there motionless, as if trying to decide whether to approach him or follow the others.
In the end it, too, disappeared into the sunflowers, leaving the dumbfounded beekeeper behind to tremble fearfully in his dream. Sergeyich woke up soaking wet, his T-shirt clinging to his body, his hair clinging to his temples(p.303-304).
For the peaceful beekeeper this was akin to an out of body experience when you consider the music and the magic of the bee hive. The vast majority of the population consists of the sexless workers efficiently going about their specialized tasks without question or complaint. They work tirelessly for the common good of the whole hive, are manically loyal to their queen, and only tolerate the lazy drones for as long as necessary for them to fertilize the queen’s eggs that will guarantee the ongoing life of the species before casting them out before sealing off the hive for winter. Survival – it’s all about survival with the bees.
It was the wisdom of nature that fascinated Sergeyich. Wherever this wisdom was visible and comprehensible to him, he would compare its manifestations with human life – always to the determent of the later… (p. 288).
Sergey is torn because he believes deeply in the instinctive purpose of his bees. He feels for their cause but knows that while causes can be noble – that human nature rarely is.He doesn’t trust the treachery of Ivan Fyodorovich and knows what must be done. He has no other option than to destroy the compromised hive before returning to Little Sytarhorodivka.
Andrey Kurkov is a writer that doesn’t follow the all-powerful MFA formula. There is no dramatically transformative hero’s journey.Sergey Sergeyich was a kind, moral, and peaceful man at the story’s beginning and remains so at the story’s end. There is no enlightening story arcsave to say that Sergey and the reader come to realize the necessity and value of the little kindnesses that are extended to him and that he offers to others because such are in short supply in a time of war. Wars are about power first, and greed second which is monumentally important to someone like Vladimir Putin, and virtually meaningless to a man like Sergey Seregyich.
Kudos to Boris Dralyuk for his skillful translation. This work often goes underappreciated in the literary world, but it is essential to promoting international understanding and empathy amongst the family of man. Many readers shy away from translations feeling that it will be a tough slog to get through them, but that is rarely the case. Expressions and descriptions are different than what you’re used to, but once you get used to the cadence and rhythm of the sentences and the original author’s driving motivations and general vibe, their work can be revelatory and uplifting.Grey Bees most certainly falls into that category.
Like the bees, like the color grey, like Sergey himself, those that choose to remain neutral in wartime see that stance as the most logical path to survival. Live in the shadows. Avoid drawing attention to yourself. Strive to offend no one, with the sad irony being they all wind up feeling offended because of your refusal to take sides. You can’t gain the trust of anyone when you won’t choose sides, and you most certainly don’t get to live peacefully on either one – thus the grey zone that Sergey Sergeyich is heading back to as he draws nearer to returning to his childhood home at the book’s close. What are the odds that his house will still be standing when he gets there? Like the final outcome of this horrible war, everything is uncertain. But I can tell you this: that Ukrainian flag will continue to fly in my grandchildren’s playground until this war is finally over.