Andriy Kurkov is climbing the literary ladder to much acclaim, regularly appearing in Ukrainian news and in the European press after another of his novels becomes a best-seller in another European country, or upon receiving more awards and accolades. This year, he made headlines for winning a reader’s prize at the Festival of European literature held in the French town of Cognac. However, more important than the prize was the festival itself – with the Ukrainian taking centre stage as special guest. Working with a great team over the last three years to arrange Ukraine’s participation in the festival, the results were tangible: “There was a Ukrainian flag in every village of Poitou-Charentes province! In addition, for several months before the festival all the libraries of the province were promoting contemporary Ukrainian literature translated into the French language.”
It’s fair to say that in securing a spot at the festival, the Ukrainian team achieved something in terms of promoting Ukraine that neither the government nor the country’s politicians can match. It’s “cultural diplomacy”, as Kurkov calls it, and is important as it “eliminates the fear of anything foreign; it shows that people of different countries have similar problems and people everywhere are alike”.
Kurkov’s brand of cultural diplomacy is something he has been conducting successfully for the past 20 years, telling uniquely Ukrainian stories to Europe and the world. I presume it’s a difficult task, especially if you take into account the political context of Ukraine and its negative image in the world lately, though Kurkov says Europeans support Ukrainian culture regardless of the political mess in this country: “They understand that politics is temporary, while culture is something that remains if not forever, then much longer than politics. So promoting Ukrainian culture brings hope that Ukrainian politics will also change with time.”
In between writing – on average, Kurkov publishes a new novel every year – he finds time to travel both around the world and within Ukraine meeting with readers. However, a recent trip to western Ukraine had a real impact on Kurkov. While western Ukrainians are avid readers of his work and eager to engage with the writer, Kurkov says he’s noticed an alarming change in their psyche recently: “The artist Tetyana Horyushyna and I were travelling in the Ternopil region for meetings organised by an opposition candidate. I was surprised to see so few people turn out to meet us, especially since these are such small villages where nothing ever happens. Even more surprising was to hear that people had been threatened they would be fired from their jobs if they did attend. And they obeyed!”
As for people from the East, the writer says they still prefer safety in numbers: “They lack individual traits – they feel comfortable only being part of a group.”
East Meets West
The one thing that traverses the divide between eastern and western Ukrainians is politics. In the course of our interview, Kurkov admits people from the west and the east unite only in hate towards the country’s authorities. However, it is fruitless, it is a cause that does not lead to change: “Popular cultural phenomena such as Okean Elzy or VV have much more powerful potential to unite people,” says the writer. “Ukrainian politicians need to have a higher IQ than their colleagues in Europe, because they need to devise policies that satisfy people in both the west and the east of Ukraine, so far politicians don’t seem to understand that.”
Kurkov is himself also a sort of uniting influence with readers in all parts of Ukraine, although he admits his demographic is an older generation and they are not very active Internet-users. For the younger generations, Kurkov conveys messages in his novels, one of which can be found in his latest book The Gardener from Ochakov. The main protagonist of the novel travels between today and the year 1957 – the reason he employs this literary technique in the novel is partially because young people don’t understand the context of Soviet times: “One has to know and understand the period of the Soviet UNI0N to appreciate what we have now. You’ve never experienced the phenomenon that was Komsomol squads,” Kurkov tells me, “when certain party activists had the right to cut the hair of a hippie upon meeting him on the street, or cut up a pair of jeans to prevent youngsters from wearing American clothes. You see, now, even with the Party of Regions, modern Ukraine is a thousand times better than the Soviet UNI0N!”