Editor’s note: We first “met” Andrey Kurkov in February. The acclaimed Ukrainian novelist wrote a piece for us on the eve of war from his native Kyiv. His observations then were from a capital on edge — learning about self-defense and the locations of bomb shelters — but a population living life and spending its days as if war were a remote possibility. One month into the war, Kurkov shared profound reflections on the invasion, the Ukrainian resistance and his own personal odyssey.
Now, two months after the war began, Kurkov has written again for Grid. His reflections are — like his well-known novels — a mix of pathos and dark humor.
We hope that at the three-month mark, there will be better news to share.
Over the past two months, I’ve developed a new habit: First thing in the morning, I check the weather forecast. Why? Because when I see that it is raining or snowing in the war zone — in my homeland — I know that the Russian army cannot move quickly and that the mercenaries from Syria and Lebanon, brought to Ukraine on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders, are feeling cold and uncomfortable.
It is, I admit, a strange habit — looking up the weather and hoping for rain and snow. But it is hardly the strangest thing to have happened over the past two months, since Russia invaded my country.
Perhaps the strangest thing has been the Russian campaign itself — confused and compromised by the weirdness of the Russian military leadership. For them, this is not a war. It is — weirdly — a “special operation.” They continue to cling to this alternate reality, even as we hear of Russian soldiers doing whatever they can to get out of going to the front lines. No doubt they are aware that this is in fact a war, one in which, over the past two months, their chances of losing have only increased.
And yet Russia refuses to come to its senses. In fact, as it struggles, Putin and his commanders are resorting to all kinds of weirdness. Take for example the case of the Donetsk Philharmonic Orchestra. These are musicians in the area where Russian separatists have been fighting for years and where Putin is now concentrating his “special operation.” Local reports say that they were summoned to hold a concert for the Russian military, but when they arrived at the venue, their instruments were taken away. Instead, the musicians were handed assault rifles and asked to put on military fatigues. No, they weren’t being asked to stage a play. They were being conscripted and deployed to Mariupol, the southern port city that has been under siege for a month now. And where, among thousands of others, the Donetsk orchestra’s pianist Nikolai Zvyagintsev was killed earlier this month. He was 38 years old.
The fate of his fellow musicians is unclear, as are the circumstances of Zvyagintsev’s death. Was he also forced into fighting in Mariupol? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that his piano will never sing again.
It is one of the countless tragedies of this war — sorry, “special operation” for my readers in the Russian establishment, who continue to behave in other weird ways. They are for instance going slow on prisoner exchanges. Both sides claim to have detained hundreds of enemy soldiers. The Ukrainians have been calling for prisoner swaps. Some have taken place. But the Russians do not seem to be in a hurry to reclaim their men.
I put this down to their generally odd — or rather, destructively odd — behavior. But perhaps this is one of those areas where fantasy — the Russian fiction that this isn’t really a full-scale conflict, with mass death and prisoners of war — is colliding with a cold and hard and horrific reality. Only the other day, a Russian politician called for a law that would forcibly take the blood of captured Ukrainian prisoners to treat wounded Russian soldiers. This is a practice that was used by Adolf Hitler during World War II. Blood for German soldiers and officers was taken from concentration camp prisoners. Why would such a brutal proposal be needed if the reality was a simple and well-organized “special operation”?
What Putin and his generals cannot mask is how their war has already changed the reality not just for Ukraine but also for Russia.
For years now, Russia has been facing a population crisis. It simply does not have enough people. Russia’s population has shrunk from more than 148 million in the early ’90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to around 145 million — and projections suggest it could drop below 140 million by the end of this decade. Fewer people marry, fewer women want to have children, and now this war will make Russia’s demographic problems that much worse. People will be less likely to have children when the nation’s economy has been battered by sanctions, and thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of young men will never come home from the war. And young men were already in short supply in what is a rapidly aging country.
On the other side, a different population crisis. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country. More than 10 million people — myself included — have left their homes; more than half that group has crossed a border to another country. Will all these millions ever return? Can they, as Russia destroys their homes? The war has fortified Ukraine’s spirit and its determination to maintain its freedom and its pro-European course. People are standing shoulder to shoulder to resist the aggressor. But too many have had no choice but to leave. This includes an entire generation of Ukrainian children. As their fathers and uncles and aunts fight, they have been driven out with their mothers and grandparents.
How many will return? I do not know, but I fear that many won’t be able to come back.
In other words, in addition to all the other tragedies of this “special operation,” both countries are losing their most precious commodities: their youth. This is a reality. And it will impact everything — the economy and culture and health of both nations — for years and years to come.
This will be one of the longest-lasting effects of Russia’s campaign: a brutal and bloody remaking of two great countries, all because a group of men in the Kremlin refuse to snap out of their weird and destructive fantasies.
I must go now — to check tomorrow’s weather.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.