Friday, 15 August 2014

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev - Review

Andrei Kurkov is Ukraine’s most famous author and he may be the best contemporary novelist writing in Russian.  His books are translated into beautifully simple, elegant English and ‘Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev’ has just been published by Random House. 

Kurkov’s first language is Russian and his novel, The Good Angel of Death, does a good job of lampooning Ukrainian nationalism.  However he is also a fervent supporter of the ‘Maidan’ protesters who overthrew President Yanukovych, in Kiev.

His diaries are an enjoyable, partial account of events in Ukraine between November 2013 and June 2014.  Kurkov has little empathy for countrymen who did not support the violence in the capital which deposed Yanukovych.  Nor does he include in his book any of the atrocities committed by nationalist militias, some of which are still taking lives in the Donetsk region, where the new regime is not generally accepted. 

Although he expresses some concerns about the conduct of Pravy Sektor neo-Nazis, he does not really acknowledge the darker aspects of Ukrainian revolution.  The only hint is an aside about his son, who disapproves of Maidanistas attacking the police and is ostracised by his classmates as a result. 

Still, this is a likeable and readable book.  It discusses the politics of the crisis in Ukraine,  but it also describes banal incidents of family life which take place against the backdrop of emerging civil war.  We read about Kurkov’s daughter using rising inflation as an excuse to demand more pocket money, for instance, or his son refusing to be parted from a tablet computer, while hiking up a Crimean mountain.

Ukraine Diaries is an entertaining personal account of a contemporary conflict, written in the capital, by an enthusiast for ‘Maidan’.  Although the author travels around western Ukraine as the war unfolds, his ‘dispatches’ do not come from the eastern and southern regions where the bulk of the killing takes place. 

He is fairly unabashed about his depiction of Russia as authoritarian and backward, while he sees western Europe as a model for a hopeful future in Ukraine.   He is boundlessly cynical about the motives and claims of the Kremlin and pro-Russians, yet incredulous that there might be any misconduct by the new regime in Kiev.

To his credit, Kurkov seems not to have cleaned up his observations with the benefit of hindsight.  The emotions provoked by events appear immediate and authentic.  He has also left in several predictions which proved to be inaccurate, in particular, insisting that 'there won't be a civil war', and quite a bit of overblown instant analysis.    

It is more enjoyable, for me at least, to read a well written book, like this, making an argument with which I don’t agree than a badly written book articulating a more amenable perspective.  Simply because Kurkov writes so beautifully, I thoroughly liked his diary.

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