My thanks to Deep Vellum Publishing for a review copy of this book via Edelweiss.

Grey Bees by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, originally published in 2018 and in this translation by Boris Dralyuk in 2022, is a quiet and subtle look at the Ukrainian conflict (before the current invasion), through the eyes of the gentle and likeable beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich, yet impactfully putting across a picture of life—in the grey zone, amid the combatants, amongst the Tatars—with its attendant complexities, absurdities, violence and injustices.

The book takes us to the small village of Starhorodivka in the grey zone between combatting Ukrainians and separatists. While the village itself is not being directly shelled, there is shelling around and nearly everyone has left. But Sergey Sergeyich, who used to work as a mine inspector but was retired disabled (with silicosis) at 42, has chosen to remain. Now 49, he is a beekeeper, who lives with his six hives in his house on Lenin Street, with no electricity or post and limited supplies (either brought to the village by the Baptists or arranged for by himself exchanging his honey for supplies in the next village), living a quiet life. He doesn’t concern himself with the war, nor has it made him fearful

the war hadn’t made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused, and indifferent as to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility.

The only other person in the village is his childhood enemy, Pashka. But being the only two left in the village, they begin to interact, and while irritations persist, things start to change and a friendship begins to develop. While their village isn’t directly in the line of fire, there is the occasional interaction with combatants (including one who befriends Sergeyich) and casualties witnessed or heard.  

As the weather begins to change, Sergeyich decides to take his bees away from the sounds of the war (even though these have for himself by now become part of the norm, ‘fused into [his] silence’) and travels first to Ukrainian territory and later to Russia occupied Crimea where he looks up a Tatar whom he had met at a beekeeper’s conference years ago. As he travels, borders must be crossed and checkpoints faced, each requiring papers and an interview, throwing up not only Sergeyich’s position being from the grey zone (neither belonging here nor there) but also lurking dangers leaving one wondering whether he will safely reach his destination. On the first leg of his journey, he finds a small (mostly) friendly village, outside which he sets up camp and releases his bees, but when a former combatant suffering shell shock attacks his vehicle (after the funeral of another soldier lost in the conflict), he must move on. In Crimea, he finds stunning natural beauty and peace, but these contrast with the life of the Tatars themselves who face constant injustice and persecution. And while Sergeyich doesn’t see himself as concerned with the war, he ends up becoming more involved than he would like to, all the same.

Grey Bees makes for a surprisingly enjoyable reading experience, as while ‘enjoyable’ is not a word I would use for a book that deals with conflict and persecution, the lens through which we experience everything (Sergeyich’s story) makes it so, for it brings with it a gentleness, warmth and comfort (and a thread of humour), a large part of it perhaps because of his own character—he is warm hearted, well meaning, and tries to help everyone (not for instance being able to sleep when an unknown combatant lies dead in the fields visible from his home, and going out in the freezing night to at least cover him with snow). Those he encounters too are for the most part warm hearted and helpful, the Tatar family for instance, extending every hospitality despite their own continual and increasing troubles. But this warmth and good feeling all around doesn’t mean that the realities of war are not gone into; while they mostly take place on the sidelines or in the background, they are very much there. Once in Crimea, this becomes more centre stage—the persecutions faced by the Tartars, disappearances and forced recruitments into the army; the venom and racist attitudes that have spread among some sections. And the danger for Sergeyich himself starts to become more apparent and frequent as well—there were so many moments I had my heart in my mouth, hoping Sergeyich would come through a specific situation safely.

Nature too is central to the novel in more ways than one. There are Sergeyich’s bees of course who mean everything to him, and they happy hums make him a happy man. But he reflects too on their lives and their wisdom, and how it contrasts with man’s own attitudes and actions.

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 detriment to the latter.

The beauty of nature and the peace and calm they bring in him (most so in Crimea when he is camping outside the village) in themselves also stand in contrast with the conflict itself as also the injustice and persecution.

he tuned his ears to the colourful sonorous silence of the world around him, the now silent flying-crying creature suddenly forgotten. Into this silence were woven the whisper of foliage, the breeze’s breath, the buzzing of bees—all tiny sounds that constitute the peaceful silence of summer.

Another aspect that is explored time and again in the book, is silence itself.

Silence of course is an arbitrary thing, a personal aural phenomenon that people adjust for themselves.

Different kinds of silence are experienced at different times—that of the snow when you stare at it long enough, for instance. Sergeyich’s ‘peacetime silence’ soon converts to his ‘wartime silence’ as he becomes accustomed to the distant shelling (its sudden disappearance turning the atmosphere heavy instead of light). From the silences of peace like outside amidst nature to silences which unsettle and or seem portents of things to come, to the different forms it may take in conversation, I thought the book’s exploration of it had me considering its different facets as I hadn’t ever before.

While on the one hand, Grey Bees explores (and reveals for people like me who didn’t know so much about the background) some of the complexities of the conflict that has only further heightened in the past year or so but has been continuing for some time now and many of the realities of life in some parts of these territories, on the other it also manages to remain a heart-warming story of likeable characters (particularly our central one) whom one roots for all through. A book which I for one, was very glad I finally read.

Favourite thing I learnt: That there are such things as bee beds—beds made over hives on which people lie down/sleep as bees’ vibrations have healing properties. I’d never heard of this before but there seem to be places offering these facilities.

Interesting food: The central Asian meat stuffed pie, samsa, which looks and appears rather like the Indian samosa; of course, the latter are fried, while the former baked in a tandoor, and the popular version of the latter is usually stuffed with potatoes, not meat though there are meat versions too.

Book details: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2022; 360 pp; edition reviewed: Kindle ARC


14 thoughts on “Book Review: Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, and translated by Boris Dralyuk

  1. Kurkov has a way of explaining to the rest of us what’s happening in his country in an entertaining way. I remember being impressed by Death and the Penguin when it was first translated over twenty years ago. This one’s on my tbr pile and I really must get around to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just skimming your review of this for now as I have a copy of the book to read and would rather not know too much about it beforehand. That said, I can see from your closing comments that you got a lot out of it, which is good to know! Like others here, I enjoyed Death and the Penguin when I read it several years ago. Kurkov has such a talent for addressing political issues in an engaging, humorous way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a great way to learn more about life in Ukraine. I like books about bees as we have a bee hive in the back of our yard. They are such interesting insects.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bees are rather amazing little creatures. A friend has recommended a nonfic title The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck which turned out to be a very interesting read indeed reflecting both on the wonder that they are but also on humans themselves.


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