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Impressions Before and After Ukrainian Best Selling Author Andrey Kurkov’s Speech at PEN World Voices Festival (Part I)
When I was in London and Oxford, UK in 2019, I stopped in a bookstore, my favorite haunt as a writer, and saw on a display table Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I was completely unfamiliar with his work. I don’t know why I picked up the book. But in a bookshop’s interesting, curious world of uncertainty and adventure, something aligned. Perhaps because I was close friends with a Ukrainian women years ago when I lived in upstate New York and ruefully allowed time and distance to separate us. In recent years with Putin’s invasion of Crimea, that association often comes to my remembrance, so I bought it, flew with it across the Pond and forgot about it swept up in NYC activities and my writing career, such as it is.
The same curious uncertainty happened to me when I picked up C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters at the NYU bookstore when I was going for my Ph.D. Unfamiliar with the author, it was an association with his last name that prompted me to pick up the slim volume and read it, laughing aloud, then subsequently devouring everything else Lewis had written. (I will probably do the same with Kurkov after hearing him speak at the World Voices Festival). For me bookstore display tables are all about serendipity and whimsy picking up a book, briefly perusing its back cover, then taking it or putting it back.
Diverted from reviewing plays three or four nights a week when the pandemic shut down Broadway, I watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on my computer (I am not a TV watcher), then stumbled upon my forgotten copy of Death and the Penguin while looking for something else. I read it, and as with The Screwtape Letters, I found myself laughing out loud. Kurkov’s sensibility dovetailed with mine; his irony, inherent black humor and the existential plight of Viktor, the protagonist and penguin Misha his alter ego or avatar that Viktor takes in from the Kyiv Zoo evoked a mixture of emotions. In the novel the zoo gave away its animals to those who could afford to care for them.
Perhaps there is an alignment if we consider what was done with the zoo animals in the besieged northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, as officials attempt to evacuate large predators from the facility and are forced to put down others. Unfamiliar with what happened to facilities like zoos, right after the USSR collapsed, perhaps this was generally done, giving the animals homes. The US rejoiced at the USSR collapse; many did not; it was a catastrophe for those impacted. And what to do with the animals? The metaphor is incredible. Now, with Putin’s war, what to do with the animals in the zoo, especially the large predators? The Russians don’t even want the bodies of their dead soldiers. The Ukrainians are caring for them and for the big cats. There is something to be said for this truth. I’m not sure if it is ugly. It just is.
Though Death and the Penguin takes place in post Soviet Ukraine, in the 1990s, there is always the lurking darkness of the ethos of what “post-Soviet” means, the chaos, the vying for power between factions, criminals and thugs. My Ukrainian neighbor told me the moment the Iron Curtain was down he picked up his family and left. The Russian communists were hovering as were those schooled in thuggery from the KGB oppression units. Displaced, they were looking for a new way to employ their skills. Any moment they might pop up en masse in the future and pull their shenanigans. Turns out my friend was prescient; but he knows the history of Russia’s aggressions against Ukraine from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.
A former member of PEN AMERICA whose membership lapsed, I still receive information. On Facebook I saw the advertisement for PEN America’s World Voices Festival at NYU, my old Ph.D. stomping grounds. The headline piqued my interest: Ukrainian Novelist Delivers Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at PEN World Voices Festival. The stars aligned; I had to attend.
I wanted to hear Kurkov’s comments about Putin’s genocide of Ukrainians and his war crimes. Who doesn’t admire President Zelensky’s heroism in defense of his country, and his standing up to Donald Trump’s blackmail (javelins for dirt on Hunter Biden)? These are events none of us in the US should ever forget. Nor can we forget the hideous impact of Putin’s interference in the 2016 election and installing his US puppet which deceased Representative John Lewis believed was a Putin/Republican/Cambridge Analytica conspiracy.
Since April of 2020 as the pandemic raged, I have asserted in articles (on my The Fat and the Skinny blog) that Putin duped the US into making deals while he was dreaming of his new world order, a Stalinistic communistic empire (Russians have mentioned that communism is dead…yeah, well maybe not) with new gulag jails filled with journalists, protestors, freedom fighters, Alexei Navalny and others like him. Is Communism in Putin’s New Regime designs? Just because the word was “banned” in Russia doesn’t mean it ever left the mind of Putin who Kurkov suggests is so nostalgic for the “good old days” that state TV has even created a Nostalgia channel of old movies, etc. pleasantly reminiscing about the old USSR. Putin is not your kindhearted granddaddy; how Russians negotiate Alexei Navalny, the news blackout, millions of young Russians leaving, leads of Ukraine butchery is mindboggling.
As Kurkov said in his introduction Putin’s War and his truth lies are out of George Orwell. Of course, the puppet presidency of Trump, that no one in the nation was ready for except salivating billionaires, was the same hellish psyops war for the minds of the American people. As Putin does in Russia, Trump did to America. It was out of a surreal GRU playbook. Thankfully, Trump is gone, but Putin is screaming and kicking against the kicks of Biden’s presidency and sanctions. Putin’s attempt to conduct psyops through truth/lies reality to gather communist support for his new regime whether from French loser Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s winner Prime Minister Viktor Orban or other hyper right-wing governments is for truth watchers, a useless endeavor. Regardless of the lies told, the truth is about usurping then consolidating power.
At this point actions speak loudly; justifications are meaningless. Importantly, those who oppose Putin’s criminality and his criminal puppets like Belarus’ Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, the former Ukrainian puppet ousted in the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, or orange puppet Donald Trump ousted by Democratic President Joe Biden are what matters. If Putin opposes the leader or individual, you can guarantee he/she/they are not backed by his criminal enterprise. Likewise, if individuals oppose Donald Trump’s attempt to run for President in the future, they are not supported by his criminality.
in keeping with my compulsion to understand and publicize Putin’s psyops and serial killer behaviors, I have reviewed plays about Russian journalists, like Putin assassinated writer, whistleblower and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. Also, I am enamored of those who have the courage to speak out like Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina. I reviewed her in Burning Doors at La Mama (2017). I spoke to Alyokhina before her performance and praised her for her bravery. She looked at me like her courage was “nothing.” I interpreted her attitude to mean, if you are a human being, you stand for human rights against killers and oppressors. Her performance was riveting; she was amazing in 2017 and is even more amazing in 2022. She escaped from Russia, Friday May 13th, the same day that Andrey Kurkov delivered the lecture at NYU.
Alyokhina had been jailed in Russia six more times since last summer. They put her in for 15 days for truth lies, like Alexei Navalney’s made-up charges. The fabricated “crimes” get them off the streets and shut them up. That messages sneak out from prison is a testament to the fact that there are many who oppose Putin’s tactics, but can only stand against them surreptitiously.
Alyokhina realized the danger she was in when authorities announced that her house arrest would be converted to 21 days in a penal colony (gulag). She left disguised in a food delivery outfit to escape the “woman hunt,” and nearly didn’t make it out. She is 33 years old; she was 22 when Pussy Riot was formed as an anti-Putin protest band. She’s been at this for 11 years and will continue her activism from outside Russia, something devoutly to be appreciated by Putin who has blacked out all media, theater, anything that is a protest, as he vitiates the Russian constitution by dissolving it into tyranny and despotism.
Like Alyokhina, many journalists/activists (including an Independent news organization I covered, Rain) have been forced to flee Russia and continue their news activities from neighboring countries. Putin imposed a 15 year jail sentence for those speaking about the war in Ukraine which he lies about as a “special operation.” He doesn’t want to disturb the remaining passive Russian people into activism against the horror that has been snuffed out in Russian media about the butchery, shelling, bombing, razing of buildings, rapes, murders of innocent civilians: women, children, older men.
Thus, Putin is redefining his “truth” of his war crimes and atrocities. “Special operation” is a euphemism for Ukrainian extinction, cultural eradication, and cleansing. What does war mean for Putin that he truth lies about? Disintegrating Ukrainian’s freedom of choice. Dissolving their sovereignty. After all, they are Russians. So his acts are just examples of Russian brotherly love. Right is left, war is peace, hate is love in the “ministry” (it’s a religion of Putin worship) of Putin’s “newspeak” truth.
“Newspeak” is from George Orwell’s 1984. Its function is to “limit the individual’s ability to think and articulate ‘subversive’ concepts such as personal identity, self-expression and free will. Such concepts are criminalized as “thoughtcrime” since they contradict the prevailing Ingsoc orthodoxy. (English socialism-it should have been Ingcom for English communism).
When you stop someone’s freedom to choose, you are a tyrant; for that there is no justification, unless of course, individuals choose to intentionally or negligently kill you with their plague. Then that’s a consideration for National Security and at the least a charge of manslaughter or negligent homicide.
Interestingly, in his speech Kurkov discussed the curious nature of truth following Arthur Miller’s legacy in his writings standing against injustice and inhumanity to tell the “ugly” truth. With straight-faced irony Kurkov implied truth is without descriptors like ugly or pretty or inconvenient. Stripped away, it is and thus, must be recorded and chronicled. The descriptors are given by the one seeing it; the perspective of the one taking it in. Thus, one can be unemotional seeing or hearing about Russian soldiers’ rape, slicing off tongues, executing civilians, mass graves, burning of bodies, if one is Putin and those genocided are Ukrainians. That is Putin’s pretty truth, but it must be whitewashed, alchemized for the Russian populaces’ consumption, sweetening what is to make it easy to swallow.
I would add that since judgment comes from one’s upbringing and surrounding cultural influences (or brainwashing) in a culture where the ethic and law is “do no harm to others,” and “others” means any race, creed or color, then atrocities warrant censure. In Putin’s truth/lies, soldiers’ atrocities warrant rewards and medals.
Putin’s war and Kurkov’s being shelled the first few days until he left Kyiv, displaced him internally. Peter O’Toole, who was in London around the time of Germany’s bombings during WWII said something to the effect that there’s nothing like being bombed to set your priorities straight. The bombing and war dislocated Kurkov who said during the lecture:
“I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context, novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime. Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.”
“Ukrainians are determined to win,” he said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.”
The Russian people simply don’t have to think about it. Putin has whitewashed the truth, prevented recordings of it, news articles, commentary on Social Media, all of it. Russian state media doesn’t televise or podcast discussions or reports about the butchery and bombings of the dust of Mariupol again and again, as remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians still defy Putin by staying alive and resisting in various basements and the steel plant.
Russians don’t know this. My Russian neighbor in NYC doesn’t know this or swallows Putin’s sugar: the Nazis are being overrun. Thus, Russians are not upset by the “ugly” truth. It doesn’t hurt them. Is that moral? Well, Putin is protecting himself from their fury and protecting them from unspeakable pain and torment. It’s a “good” thing, until they realize when their sons don’t come home, the greatest betrayal in history has happened to them as they have been consciously or unconsciously, wittingly or unwittingly swept up in Putin’s national criminality.
Kurkov’s lecture should have been packed. It wasn’t. However, in the audience were Ukrainians and Russians familiar with Kurkov’s novels, screenplays and his writings as an intellectual and journalist. Kurkov was enlightening. IN PART 2, I comment on his lecture and quote from it.