A Ukrainian Beekeeper in the War Zone
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
A Review of Andrey Kurkov's Grey Bees
The act of reading any novel is a personal experience. Joyce Carol Oates describes it as slipping into another’s skin, another’s soul. Vladimir Nabokov goes to another obvious but overlooked point: readers are not alike. No matter how many accolades or good reviews a novel has received, it will still leave some readers cold. For the novel to kindle our spine, we must have “some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that [we] can neither define, nor dismiss.”
Our relationship with novels seems to come down to chemistry.
Sometimes we close a book before finishing the first chapter, even the first page. Something has repelled us, and maybe we don’t even know what provoked such a reaction. Sometimes we are left without any reaction at all. We skim, fret, find the words to be just that, words, and we soon abandon the book, allowing it to gather dust. We may look at it from time to time on the nightstand and feel an obligation to continue — critics have applauded it — but still we find ourselves unable to shake that resistance.
Then there are those other books.
Maybe a sentence made us catch our breath, not just for its beauty, but for that lightning moment of recognition, that undefinable something that speaks to that something inside us. The character is of another time, another country, not even of flesh and blood, but we recognize something as true and relevant to our own lives. Now we read faster. It is effortless. We forget that we are reading letters stuck together, mere words. We are inside another’s world, and we want to be there. We have learned something new about our life. We have seen some new possibility within ourselves. We are enriched.
I began Andrey Kurkov's Grey Bees slowly, trying to get a sense of Sergey Sergeyich, the 49-year-old beekeeper who lives in the gray zone between loyalists and separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. He receives a visit from his former school rival Pashka, the only other resident left in the village. I had to strain at first not to lose sight of the beekeeper, not to mix him up with his rival, but then I read further to the next scene.
Sergeyich is outside walking through his garden.
“It was almost noon, high time to head back to the house, but that spot on the field, on the rising slope towards Zhdanivka and the Ukrainian trenches, puzzled Sergeyich and would not let him go. A couple of days earlier, the last time he’d gone out to the edge of the garden, the snow-white field had been spotless. There had been nothing but snow, and if you looked at it long enough, you would begin to hear white noise — a kind of silence that takes hold of your soul with its cold hands and doesn’t release it for a long time. The silence around here was of a special sort, of course. Sounds to which you have grown accustomed, to which you no longer pay any attention, are also fused into silence. Like the sound of distant shelling, for example. Even now (Sergeyich forced himself to listen), they were firing somewhere to the right, about fifteen kilometres away — and also to the left, unless that was an echo.”
I cannot even say what touched me so deeply, only that I, too, have walked through a garden I knew well, noticed the silence dotted by the small sounds particular to that area and then that something in the air that made me wonder what was different. I never discovered a body, nor did I hear distant shelling, but the familiar details of that walk, the feeling of it, made the contrast of war so palpable. I felt for Sergeyich, for all those who have found themselves in a war not of their choosing.
For me, that was when I landed in the novel. I continued to read, more quickly now, aware of the soft buzzing, if you will, coming to me from the gentle character Sergeyich, who, stuck living in the gray zone, has one focus: the well-being of his bees.
The beekeeper is a good-natured, creative, resourceful character who resonates at a time when we are witness to heinous war crimes taking place in Ukraine (Mariupol is also in the gray zone) , when nuclear brinkmanship brings us closer to World War III, when failing climate leadership makes us fear the future that awaits our children, when mass shootings have become commonplace, when polarization stunts our conversations with friends and family, when disinformation floats around us like swirling dust, making it difficult to spot common signposts that can guide us back to better ground.
The world is on fire in all respects, it seems, and so it is with no small sense of wonder that we follow Sergeyich as he makes do with no electricity and water, as his tea is interrupted by a shell that lands nearby, as he dreams of spring when he can set up a mattress on top of his bees and let their vibration heal his aches and revitalize his spirit. Scarcity brings another level of joy to tea, a slice of bread, an egg, and a bowl of borscht.
He has no quarrel with Russians, but as he is on the side of the village facing the Ukrainians, he befriends a Ukrainian soldier and comes to care for his well-being. He potters about in his home and does his best to survive in the deserted, shelled village of Little Starhorodivka with only one other resident.
When spring shows its first signs of arrival, and when the shelling makes him worry that his bees will not be able to gather pollen in peace, he jumpstarts his green Lada, says an awkward goodbye to Pashka, and like a Ukrainian Odysseus (sans the genius and the cunning) the beekeeper begins his journey to find a new home for his six beehives.
In Ukraine, he finds a good spot by the forest surrounded by birch, pines, and several oak trees.
The bees approve. During the wait at passport control, their buzz was “tired and despairing,” but now, having gotten situated in their new home,
“their buzzing seemed to have changed … to have grown a little quieter, just like a human heart, which pounds like a madman after a run, but then, when the runner stops and crouches down, gradually returns to normal, infrequent rhythm.”
The beekeeper attracts the interest of Ukrainian shop owner Galya. They spend many good moments together until a Ukrainian soldier suffering from PTSD attacks Sergeyich, smashes the windows of his Lada, and leaves a single faint ax mark on the bottom of one of the beehives.
It is the middle of the night, but Sergeyich packs up the bees and heads to the Crimea, now occupied by Russia. He hopes to connect with Akhtem, a beekeeper he met years ago at a bee-keeping conference. When he finally gets through border security and arrives at the Crimean Tartar’s home, he learns he has been missing for two years.
Akhtem’s wife and children invite him to make a home for his bees near Akhtem’s hives in their orchard, and he does.
He wakes up to a world very different from the gray zone,
“where nature not only serves people but dotes on them; where the sun waits to depart until people have finished their daily tasks; where the air rings with countless unseen bells; where one can be free and invisible; where every living thing — every tree, every vine — has its own voice.”
But it is not that simple. The area is full of intelligence officers from the FSB, and they are keeping a tight control on the Muslim Tartar population. When Sergeyich tries to help Akhtem’s family, he becomes the target. One of the hives is taken by an FSB operative to supposedly check for disease, and when the hive is returned, Sergeyich notices that the bees have turned grey.
His 90-day permit is almost up, and he agrees to help Akhtem’s daughter cross the border back into Ukraine so that she can attend school in Kyiv.
It is finally time to make his way home, but one problem remains to be addressed: his hive of grey bees.
Grey Bees is a timely novel with a story that has enough tension to propel you quickly through the pages, but what is so special about this book is the way Sergeyich moves through the world turned grey with war.
His is an effervescent presence that vibrates with the same purity of spirit as his bees, and this reader at least cannot help but feel soothed and enriched.