Russia: Boris Johnson says Putin would be ‘crazy’ to use nukes
He might have lost some of his fanbase in the UK, but Boris Johnson remains a beloved hero to the people of Ukraine, according to the embattled country’s most acclaimed living author. Andrey Kurkov is in London to promote his new book, Diary Of An Invasion, and it is a source of regret that his packed, short schedule does not include a meeting with Britain’s former PM.
“He is probably the number one foreign personality of the year. He’s appreciated, he’s loved,” explains Kurkov. “When he resigned there were lots of jokes on Ukrainian Facebook saying we should ask Boris to come and be our Prime Minister.
“Without British and American help, there is no doubt Ukraine would have fallen. He should come more often to Ukraine… every visit boosts morale.”
Here we have learnt to take the Johnson gift for PR with a pinch of salt, but there is no doubting the author’s sincerity. Even UK critics admit the former PM acted quickly and effectively in the wake of Russia’s invasion on February 24 – sending weapons, ammunition and humanitarian aid, and sharing intelligence.
Eight months on, despite almost worldwide condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s actions, the fighting remains vicious and vast swathes of Ukraine are without water or electricity.
While many experts believe this switch to attacking infrastructure means the Kremlin is no longer confident of victory, the war’s longterm impact has condemned Europe to soaring energy bills, looming recession and fears of nuclear exchange.
Nato may have been re-energised and EU cooperation strengthened, but no one knows how Putin’s war will end, which makes Kurkov’s poignant book all the more important, telling, as it does, of the devastating impact on ordinary people.
On the evening of February 23, the author was cooking for guests in his Kyiv apartment. “I hoped Putin would not disrupt our dinner. He did not. He decided to hit Ukraine with missiles at 5am this morning,” writes Kurkov dryly. “The war also started in the Donbas.”
Boris still remains a popular figure with the Ukrainian people
Two days later, Kurkov, 61, and his English wife Elizabeth had loaded their car to head west to Uzhhorod on the Slovakian border from where he has been writing, commentating and raising funds to defend his country.
Despite the destruction, morale remains good, he says. His 25-year-old daughter recently returned to Kyiv from London to join her brother, and is now looking for a job.
Best known in Britain for his top-selling novel Death And The Penguin, though he was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Kurkov is a proud Ukrainian so is well-placed to understand how Putin’s war has severed the two countries’ once strong cultural and emotional connections.
“We started talking every day, probably from November or December last year, about whether the war would come or not,” Kurkov says. “I was sure there would be an escalation – that Russia would go for the whole of The Donbas – but not an all-out war.
“President Zelensky was telling us to prepare for May picnics and barbecues, and blaming the US for creating panic.” So why does he think Putin has done this? “He is getting old and he had too much free time during the pandemic when he was alone somewhere in the bunker,” he adds.
“He was under the influence of this philosopher, Alexander Dugin, an advocate of the Eurasian policy (which considers Russia to be closer to Asia than Western Europe) based on anti-Western values.
“I think Putin wanted to be put into the history books as someone who made Russia great again. In The Donbas, people were thinking he was going to restore the Soviet Union but he was more interested in restoring the Russian Empire because it was bigger and not Left-wing. My guess is that his next victim would be Moldova and Lithuania, then maybe the other Baltic States, Poland and so on.”
The war in Ukraine made Kurkov switch from fiction to non-fiction writing
So, if Ukraine had fallen – as it might have, had Volodymyr Zelensky not refused America’s offer to move him to safety with the inspirational words: “I need ammunition, not a ride” – would we now be talking about fighting in the Baltic?
“It would be happening over time,” insists Kurkov. “We had the accession of Crimea eight years ago and now this new escalation. But he doesn’t have much time left, he could speed up the plans.”
Surprisingly perhaps to a British audience, he is not an unalloyed supporter of Zelensky, whose leadership has won worldwide praise, drawing comparisons to Winston Churchill. Although he does believe the president has proved himself under fire.
“He is doing what any president should do in a country that is under attack. I didn’t expect him to be that good. I didn’t vote for him,” he states.
But then, Ukraine is a country of many shades of political opinion – there are some 400 registered parties – and this rampant individualism, Kurkov says, is at the heart of the nation’s steadfast opposition to Russia.
“Russians have a collective mentality,” he explains. “They used to have one tsar and he was the symbol of stability. For them, stability is more important than freedom.
“For Ukrainians, freedom is more important. That’s why there was never stability in Ukraine. It was not part of the Russian Empire until 1654. It was a state run by Cossacks and the military who would elect their leader. A general meeting would decide who would become headman. Then a few days later, some of them would intrigue against the newly-elected guy and try to overthrow him.”
Kurkov is most famous for writing fiction. His novels have been translated into 42 languages. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, he felt unable to continue.
“From day one I stopped writing fiction. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but reality. So, when I was asked to comment about events, I started speaking on radio and television then writing about what was happening.”
The first volume of his Diary Of An Invasion begins on December 29, 2021, with “Goodbye Delta! Hello Omicron!” – if only Covid was all Ukraine had to worry about – and ends in early July, before the recent successes of Ukraine’s army, to whose soldiers Kurkov has dedicated the book.
“The army is now the most trusted institution in Ukraine,” he says. “Something like 85 percent of Ukrainians believe in the army and only 60-something percent believe in Zelensky. The army is more important than the presidential office.”
As well as examining the invasion from a civilian perspective, as you might expect from a novelist, Kurkov’s book is filled with vivid and impossibly poignant descriptions of life during conflict.
Early in March, the bakery that makes his favourite bread – a “soft, brick-shaped loaf” – is hit by Russian fire. “I have been sever write thinking about that Makariv bread for several days now – remembering the taste,” he writes. “Only now, while remembering, I sense the taste of blood on my lips, like when I was a child and someone split my lip in a fight.
Makariv bakery was bombed on Monday by Russian troops. The bakers were at work. I can imagine the fragrant smell that surrounded them the moment before the attack. In an instant, 13 bakery staff were killed and nine were injured. And the bakery is no more – Makariv bread is a thing of the past.”
Kurkov with his book, Diary of An Invasion
His poignant entry for March 24 reads: “More and more children are travelling on their own towards Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – with small backpacks and notes sewn into jackets, on which are the phone numbers of their parents, the names of the children and the addresses of the people whom the children must reach.
“Many families also travel with other people’s children, trying to make sure that all the seats in their cars are occupied. Every empty seat in a car going to the west of Ukraine is a life that was not saved.”
Today he says: “From the beginning of March until June, I was regularly crossing the border by car to organise fundraising events in London, Vienna and Norway. I frequently saw groups of children without parents taken across the border by Ukrainian officers and passed to the Slovakian authorities.”
Equally alarming, he recalls: “The Russians took Ukrainian children to summer camps and they were not returned. On Russian media, I read that a group of Ukrainian kids were taken to a Russian town and were making jokes about Putin, so the Russians started ‘re-educating’ them.” He pauses: “I wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t happening.”
Later he describes the absurdities of red tape: people receiving reminders about gas meter readings and payments for homes that have been obliterated by missiles.
Kurkov – who knows 10 writers fighting in the front lines – can recall the Soviet Union but says that for the latest generation of Westward-looking young Ukrainians, Russia is as distant as Poland or the Czech Republic.
“I spent half my life in the Soviet Union but I haven’t found anything interesting in Russian culture for many years,” he says. “Russia is a huge country without a single moral authority. There is only one authority, Putin, with everyone else in line.”
Diary Of An Invasion is available now at Express Bookshop
He believes it is possible to force the Russians back to the borders, but not to stop their bombs. He warns: “If the war is not over by next summer, it will drag on for several years until Putin is dead. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it will end, those fighting for power are just like him.”
As for a possible coup, he adds: “Putin is from the KGB, he is very well protected. He has made the two Russian secret services – the FSB and GRU, the Army intelligence service – fight each other, the typical behaviour of a dictator. The truth is, nobody’s happy there. In reality they have already lost the war. They can still destroy Ukraine, but the war is lost.”
Despite everything, Kurkov remains optimistic. People might not be reading books, he says, but they buy them to support publishing. Similarly, they have bought tickets to zoos they cannot visit, so the animals can be fed, and crowdfunding campaigns pay for everything from armoured cars to bullet-proof vests. It will take at least two generations – 40 years or more – to rebuild Ukraine but the hatred for Russia may never subside, he says.
“Ukraine has lost probably 50,000 people already – 30,000 in Mariupol alone – so in every village there are now widows and orphans. This hate will not disappear.”
Kurkov remains grateful for British support from No 10 down. “I was in Banbury (Oxon), and I talked to a British-Polish lady and her English partner who set up a humanitarian hub in the defunct Debenhams to collect help and are running lorries to Ukraine,” he adds.
“My wife is English and it makes me feel very proud.”
Diary Of An Invasion by Andrey Kurkov (Mountain Leopard Press, £16.99) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832.