A Great Writer from Ukraine

Andrey Kurkov

Eight years ago, I came across a strange book that I fell in love with. It was by a Ukrainian author who was born in Leningrad (1961) and writes in Russian. Death and the Penguin (1996), his first novel translated into English, became an international bestseller. According to Wikipedia:

The novel follows the life of a young aspiring writer, Viktor Alekseyevich Zolotaryov, in a struggling post-Soviet society. Viktor, initially aiming to write novels, gets a job writing obituaries for a local newspaper. The source of the title is Viktor’s pet penguin Misha, a king penguin obtained after the local zoo in Kyiv gave away its animals to those who could afford to support them. Kurkov uses Misha as a sort of mirror of (and eventual source of salvation for) Viktor. Throughout the story, Misha is also lost, unhappy and generally out of his element, literally and figuratively. One of the striking themes of the novel is Viktor’s tendency to go from justifiably paranoid appraisals of his increasingly dangerous position to a serene, almost childish, peace of mind.

From then, I went on to two other novels and a nonfiction work:

  • Penguin Lost (2005), a sequel to Death and the Penguin
  • The Case of the General’s Thumb (2000)
  • Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev (2014)

I am currently most of the way through my favorite of his works: Grey Bees (2018) about a gentle Russian beekeeper who lives in a mostly deserted village in the contested “Grey Zone” between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Donetsk “People’s Republic,” formerly part of Ukraine. During the course of the story, Sergey Sergeyich travels between zones and tries to survive the fragmentation and confusion that occurs because of Putin’s desire to rebuild the Russian empire as it was. And this was before Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

It is not possible to read this book without falling in love with the author’s gentleness in spite of the world falling to pieces around his ears.

Through Russian Eyes

Russian Troops in Ukraine

If you were old enough in 1962 to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, you will recall that feeling of dread about the world possibly ending in a nuclear holocaust—within mere days. That showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev was all because Russia had supplied Cuba with missiles to be pointed at targets in the United States.

Today, I had the unique experience of seeing the war in Ukraine through Russian eyes. I am a member of the European History Meetup Group which gets together several times a year at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library in Hollywood. According to Bronislav Meyler, the Ukrainian-born moderator of the group:

Let’s kick off our next program with a discussion about Russia/Ukraine historic relationship. The program will try to focus on the last thirty years of relations between the two states. Historical perspective will not be excluded just for the simple fact that the two nations shared (and still share) almost one thousand years of common history.

The fact that this meeting was held almost in the center of the Russian community in Los Angeles brought a number of Russian-Americans to attend. It is interesting to see how Russians think of the NATO threat. They view the nearness of NATO in the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia; Poland; Slovakia; Hungary; Bulgaria; Romania; and Turkey much the same way we viewed the threat of Russian missiles less than a hundred miles from the United States.

Where the Russians view NATO as a monolithic threat, I see them as a relatively disunited group that would have insuperable difficulties agreeing on where to eat lunch. But the threat of Ukraine, which has been tied in historically and culturally with Russia since the 17th century, possibly joining NATO was for Putin possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It is always valuable to see the other side’s point of view.

So I Goofed

Putin at Kremlin 2022 Victory Day Parade (Reuters)

I had thought that Vladimir Putin was going to make a major announcement at today’s Victory Day celebration in Moscow. In fact, other than making a number of the usual comments regarding the United States and NATO, Putin did not make any major announcements. He did not declare victory. He did not declare war. He did not brandish his nukes.

He is still keeping tight control over Russian media. By now, most of his people know that he his fighting Ukrainian Neo-Nazis that have threatened Russian security (by not wanting to be invaded?).

In a way, all he is doing is doubling down on his mistakes. Is he waiting for an elite Spetsnaz team to assassinate Zelensky? Does he think he could win by converting all of Ukraine to microscopic rubble?

At some point, I still suspect that Vlady will reap the whirlwind. But when or how is not something I can venture to guess.

Victory Day?

Gosh, I Hope No One Throws a Firecracker at Them

Monday, May 9, is the anniversary of Russia’s winning the Great Patriotic War—or, as we know it, World War Two. The news media have been speculating for weeks that Vladimir Putin will make some sort of announcement of victory tomorrow. Or, he just might decide to declare war on the “Neo-Nazis” that have been depriving his troops of anything approaching victory.

There will, of course, be a big military parade. But does Putin have enough working tanks and armored personnel carriers to impress the crowds on Red Square? I am eager to see what that madman plans to do for an encore.

I have young friends who for the first time in their lives are afraid of a nuclear confrontation. There may be one, but only on a small scale because it would cause widespread outrage around the world (but not in Russia). Perhaps Putin has more to fear than my young friends. His Ukraine invasion made the Rodina (Motherland) look not only bad, but downright cheesy. It would be no surprise if the FSB replaced Putin with a new stooge and put Vlady in a psychiatric nursing home “for his benefit.”

That’s the way things are done in Russia.

A Gas Station with Nuclear Weapons

Was this the same Russia that manhandled the Nazi menace at Stalingrad, Kursk, and all the way back to Berlin? Stalin was no more a sweetheart than Vladimir Putin, but I feel that—after some initial losses—he made better wartime decisions.

In an interview with Salon.Com, Colin Clarke had the following assessment of the war in Ukraine:

One of the big stories I see, in terms of international relations and diplomacy and statecraft, is the concept of great power competition. With that language we are thinking about the United States, China and Russia. The war in Ukraine shows us that Russia does not belong in that conversation anymore. Russia is not a great power, it’s essentially a gas station with nuclear weapons. The Russian military has performed so poorly, far worse than anyone could have expected, including many defense planners in the United States, who built the Russians up to be 10 feet tall.

We must never forget, however, all those nuclear weapons. Granted that most of their ICBMs may be pretty dodgy, but even one or two direct hits on a major U.S. population center would be truly horrifying. Living in Southern California as I do, I am sure that L.A. would probably be one of major targets of the Russian nuclear warheads.

Doubling Down

Russian Troops in Ukraine

The term comes from the card game Blackjack when a player doubles the bid in exchange for one more card to be drawn. Politically, it means to become more tenacious, zealous, or resolute in a position or undertaking, particularly if it is risky. It seems to be ever more common, as if everyone is deathly afraid of backing down, even if the road ahead is full of traps.

I have made a number of mistakes in my life, but I have rarely been persistent in my errors. True, I might have become a soulless millionaire instead of a mere survivor. But, in my book, surviving is a good thing.

For people like Vladimir Putin or Donald J. Trump, surrender is never an option. Trump may well wind up in prison, and it is entirely possible for Putin to be forcibly escorted out of the Kremlin. But for the time being, they will remain resolute as if they were immortal and all-powerful—which they aren’t.

Escalation

Russian Fuel Dump at Belgorod in Flames

The war in Ukraine just escalated. Two Ukrainian helicopter gunships flew 25 miles (40 km) into Russia and blew up a Russian fuel dump. It was yet another embarrassing moment for the Russian military, which neither detected nor prevented the incursion.

I only hope that none of the helicopters were of American manufacture, which would give Putin the opportunity he needed to say that the Ukrainians were just acting as a proxy for NATO. Of course, he could say that even if the helicopter attack had never happened. It’s one of those irksome imponderables involving the thinking processes of Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky keeps saying that, if peace negotiations with Russia do not take place, it will be the beginning of World War Three. It is a sobering thought: If that happens, millions will die, myself included. I happen to live in one of the prime nuclear target areas, namely, Los Angeles.

Pundits keep referring to the search for an “offramp” from the war. Given Putin’s stubbornness and bloody-mindedness, I cannot see how the war would end. Or rather, all the options I see are rather grim.

They Were Expendable

Photo Taken by New York Times Photographer Tyler Hicks

If you were to fight in one of America’s wars and happened to die, your next of kin would be informed; and your body would be flown back to the U.S. for burial. Apparently, if you are one of the 15,000 Russian dead in Ukraine, the existence of your body is an embarrassment to Vladimir Putin, who would just as soon say to the parents and family that their Ivan or Dmitri is “missing” and leave it at that.

That way Russians who believe the lies that Putin is slinging would not be surprised at the large number of dead bodies filling trucks and trains heading to cities and towns across the Motherland. The Russian dead serve only to make Putin look as bad as he really is.

Now imagine how that makes the Russian troops invading Ukraine feel. They know it’s a war. They know that Putin is lying through his teeth. The morale of the Russian Army must be at low ebb, such that I would not be surprised there isn’t some sort of mutiny like the one that occurred on the front lines during World War One while the Russian Revolution of 1917 was taking place.

Yes, I know that Putin is evil. But to that I will also add that he is stupid and is likely to be overthrown.

By the way, the Ukrainians are collecting bodies of the Russian dead and using facial recognition software to identify them and notify the families themselves. I saw this news item on BBC’s website today. Oh oh.

To Whom Is Putin Answerable?

Did you ever wonder what happened to the old Soviet KGP? Apparently, it went the way of the Cheka, the NKVD, the OGPU, and the MGB. It just changed its name to the FSB (ФСБ in Cyrillic) or Federal Security Service and it continues its usual depredations on the Russian people.

Do you remember what happened to Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962? He was sent to do gardening in the Ukraine and replaced by Brezhnev and Kosygin. I do believe that Vladimir Putin is risking the same sort of coup by the FSB and other Russian state security services—all because he squandered Russian resources in a madcap attempt to take over Ukraine.

Putin comes from the Russian state security services. He was a top officer in the KGB and spent time heading up security in East Germany. So he knows that the main threat to his rule over Russia is not the voters, not the oligarchs, not even the military, but actually the Federal Security Service (or Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации) and its allied agencies. They made Putin, and they can just as easily unmake him.

Consider the following actions which make Russia look bad in the eyes of the world, and particularly in the eyes of the FSB:

  • Putin assumed the invasion would be met by welcoming Ukrainians bearing candy and flowers, and not stinger missiles and Molotov Cocktails.
  • After three weeks, the ground invasion has stalled.
  • Some 5,000 Russian soldiers are dead—twice the number of American deaths in 20 years fighting in Afghanistan.
  • The Russians are unable to supply their advance units with gasoline, food, trucks, tanks, or ammunition.
  • Putin has reportedly asked China for help in quelling the Ukrainians.
  • There are rumors of Putin employing mercenaries from Syria and elsewhere to shore up the depleted ground forces.

In the end, Ukraine may fall to the Russians, but only at an exorbitant cost.

Putin: Required Background Reading

If you really want to understand what Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine, you should read about what he did in Chechnya shortly after he attained power. Anna Politkovskaya was a brilliant Russian journalist who was unafraid of speaking truth to power. She wrote a number of criticisms of Putin that were so to the point that he had her murdered in front of her apartment in 2006.

Oh, there was a murder trial, to be sure. And Putin, in true Caligula fashion, tsk-tsked at the crime. (You can read his lying words here in a post I wrote eight years ago.) Several people were sentenced, but they were no doubt thugs who had outlived their usefulness to the Motherland and were disposed of to protect the presidente.

Anyhow, this is the book I recommend you read. It is called A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. I doubt that it is still in print, but you can likely find it in a good library or order it on the Internet from a used book site like Abebooks.Com or Addall.Com. What Putin is doing to Ukraine now is what he did to Chechnya in the First and Second Chechen Wars.

If you are hoping that the bloodletting will end soon, don’t bet on it. When things don’t go his way, Mr. Vladimir thinks nothing of widespread rapine and destruction and certainly doesn’t care what YOU may think.

I was thinking of adding a picture of Putin, but you surely know by now what that ugly mother looks like. I would rather honor Anna Politkovskaya because she was brilliant, brave, and fearless. Not to mention beautiful.