The Freedom Chat: Ukrainian Journalist Andrey Kurkov
“In Ukraine, nobody cares about literature.”
The author of eighteen novels, Andrey Kurkov was blacklisted from publishing any of his works until the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then his writing has become available in sixty countries, and he reports on Ukrainian politics and current events for The Guardian, Time Magazine, and The New Statesman.
This is the full transcription of Sampsonia Way’s fifth installment of The Freedom Chat, which shares the voices and stories of journalists from around the world through video chats. The interview was conducted by Sampsonia Way intern Rachel Bullen. You can watch the video here.
How do you think the ongoing protests and military conflicts in Ukraine are going to affect free speech?
If you’re talking about online media, it’s completely free. We don’t have websites being blocked by the government like in Russia. The paper media is more commercial and there are a couple of political newspapers, which are very oppositional, but I don’t think they have much influence.
The biggest media outlet is TV. During the Euromaidan protests, broadcast of two channels were interrupted by demand of the government but only for a few hours. The government was not sure if they had enough power to control this medium. So we have freedom of press, and it should continue, but it’s difficult to predict anything in Ukraine. At the moment, the tendency is positive, but now everything depends on the presidential elections and then on parliamentary elections, which will probably take place in September or October.
Do you think the rise to power of nationalist parties like Svoboda will have an impact on media freedom?
Those parties are losing their power and influences. The major danger for freedom of speech and freedom of press now lies with [Yulia] Tymoshenko, who wants to become president, because she’s very authoritarian. When she was prime minister she fought journalists who criticized her; creating problems for them and for their media.
You wrote an article in The Guardian saying Ukraine was “too interesting” to leave. Has that opinion changed at all?
I have no plans to leave, whatever happens.
Even after Russia annexed Crimea?
Well it’s worrisome but not a reason to escape. Those who have escaped are mostly the families of the former president and his ministers and people who were not really attached to this country, only to stealing its money.
How are recent events in Ukraine affecting journalism? Is there pressure to cover events in a specific way?
I haven’t come across any kind of instructions or censorship. But at the same time, I haven’t had any requests from, for example, Russian media to comment on the events. Everybody knows my views, so I don’t know what would happen if someone submitted a pro-Russian text to a Ukrainian newspaper.
Do you feel as a writer you have a responsibility to society to tell stories to convey what’s happening?
Well, yes and no. I have always written essays about political and social issues. I am over-politicized. Most Ukrainian writers are apolitical. They don’t write much about today’s situation except for Facebook posts. Now, I’m completely involved in a nonfiction book about the political events in Ukraine, which I started writing in November. Because of this I stopped working on my novel.
You began writing before the fall of the Soviet Union, can you tell me about the differences of writing before and after that?
I started writing in 1978 but couldn’t publish until 1988, so for a long time I was underground. My texts were circulated but not legally published. I was told that because I was not writing Soviet literature, I wouldn’t be published. It was only in Mikhail Gorbachev’s time that I had couple of my short stories published. My first book was published when I was thirty, a few weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then there was no more Soviet Union, so Ukrainians didn’t face that kind of censorship anymore. After that I always wrote and published what I wanted to.
When you were circulating your unpublished texts, were you concerned that you were going to get in trouble for these manuscripts, that they would fall into the wrong hands?
I had smaller troubles. My original manuscripts were stolen. The notepad I wrote in was stolen. Some of my acquaintances were reporting on me, and my father, a member of the Communist Party, was lectured by the KGB about his sons. My elder brother was the real dissident and was arrested once. I was stopped a couple of times on the street by police in plainclothes who gave me “advice” on how to avoid trouble.
After Ukraine’s independence, I was openly followed for three months in 2001, after the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze. I was followed by security officers who wanted to put psychological pressure on me because I was writing too much about the murder for the international press. I was also attacked by the government media syndicate.
How did you respond to that? Did you continue writing or did you have to self-censor during that time period?
I never censored myself. I continued writing, but I was stressed. After I published my account of the events leading up to the Gongadze murder in 2001, I received a phone call threatening that my kids could grow up as orphans. Some of my colleagues have had direct conflicts with police, with prosecutors, etc, but not me. Since 1999, I’ve felt sort of protected by the fact my books are well-known in more than sixty countries.
How would you define Ukrainian literature?
Since the country is so young, we had the first really independent, post-Soviet generation of writers at the end of the 1990s. If you compare Ukraine literature with Russian literature, Russian literature is just a continuation of classical Russian literature and Soviet literature. There was no gap between Soviet literature and Post-Soviet literature. The same writers who became famous in the 1980s are still classics. Russian literature is also an important part of the establishment. In Ukraine, nobody cares about literature. The government or the Minister of Culture has never tried to organize book festivals to promote Ukrainian literature abroad or inside the country. In Russia, a lot of money is spent on Russian art abroad and inside the country, especially Russian literature.
Do you think that will change anytime soon?
Nothing will change. The situation is much worse now because we don’t have a book market. In a country with 45 million people, there are only 300 bookshops among the 600 cities and towns. We now have a catastrophe in the publishing industry, and it will not be improving in the next two or three years.
Now literature is more like entertainment. Literature is a public show. The writers travel around the country giving readings and singing, because a lot of writers are also musicians. Those events are where most book sales happen.
Are there any writers from your country that you suggest reading?
The main problem for Ukrainian writers is getting their books published in English. Apart from me, there’s probably a few books published in America and Canada by other Ukrainian writers. We have very good writers, like Serhiy Zhadan and Yuri Andrukhovych, who are also authors of blogs and political columns. They’re very active in non-fiction.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write?
I’m writing for people who think like me. I never tune my work to somebody else’s ear.