The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 brought great joy to my family.
The Soviet Union relocated hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from the contaminated area to new houses in other parts of the countryside. Ukrainians are shrewd. Many families that had lost one home tricked the government into giving them two houses as compensation, and then sold them off at ridiculously low prices. And so that was how my wife and I came into possession of an excellent second home in the country with a garden and a plot to plant vegetables in, and a separate brick shed that was later converted into a real Finnish-style sauna — for only $6,000.
We have lived part time in that village ever since, through the Soviet Union’s fall and Ukraine’s (I am tempted to say “great”) Orange Revolution. We lived there through Yulia Tymoshenko’s defeat of Viktor Yanukovich and ascent to prime minister, and through Viktor Yanukovich’s subsequent defeat of Yulia Tymoshenko and ascent to president. Last month, his judges sentenced her to seven years in prison for abusing power (or disrespecting him).
But in the meantime, many more mundane things have happened in our village. The first person to make our acquaintance there was the village policeman. Once he invited me to a pub that was owned by an acquaintance of his in a neighboring village. We drove there in my car. “Don’t worry, you can drink as much beer as you want! With me in your car nobody will stop us!” he told me.
I understood it would have been simply impolite not to drink in his company, so we had a good binge. The bearded owner came to our table several times and told us about his business plans. At the end of the evening, I noticed that the policeman was not about to pay for the beer we had drunk. I tried to pay, but he said to me, politely yet firmly: “Don’t do that! It’s all right, I have invited you!”
That came to mind a couple of years later, when another village friend told me about his attempt to start selling ice cream. “The business wouldn’t be too bad, were it not for our policemen who always came and took ice cream without paying.”
My village has taught me a lot, so I am glad whenever I can be of some use to it. American readers may not be aware of the special status enjoyed by writers in the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian provinces still believe in the powers of the renowned men of letters.
Thus, the village’s school principal once asked me to appeal to the head of the regional state administration for two or three new teaching positions, so that the school could go up to the American equivalent of senior year instead of stopping at sophomore year. I think this was around 2002, during a very conservative period. At the time, President Leonid Kuchma was being accused of ordering the assassination of a journalist named Georgy Gongadze. Many unpleasant things were happening; obviously, there was not the slightest bit of freedom, be it of speech or of the press. Nonetheless, I did go to the state administrator. He listened and agreed. Everything happened very quickly. The school got its teachers and they treated me to a dinner with vodka. My prestige in the village soared and everybody was pleased, the school kids most of all.
However, after the Orange Revolution, which began in 2004, that state administrator was replaced by a younger “orange” man. Then the villagers came to me with another request. The new administrator had been bribed into selling off the villagers’ communal land, without consulting the village council. I wrote an article for the local newspaper and posted the information on the Internet. Soon after, he was caught red-handed while receiving a bribe and arrested. At first I felt a certain pride and confidence in my powers. Somewhat later it became clear that the administrator had been caught only because he had taken money from several different people, and none of them had ever come into possession of the land.
Years have gone by and the land has not been returned to the village; no one knows who owns it now. However, it must be said that it has not been dug up or carried away. It is still there, spread around the village, covered with woods and wheat fields.
During the presidential elections last year, I was fond of saying that choosing between Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yanukovich was like choosing between a car with no brakes and the brakes with no car. Ukrainians are conservative folk; they did not opt for the car with no brakes. Ms. Tymoshenko has since been thrown in prison, for one reason: if she was not in prison, she would win the next parliamentary elections, and after that the presidential elections as well, and then she could turn around and arrest the politicians who arrested her.
As for our prisons, they are not made of rubber, and their capacity to accommodate additional inmates is not endless. As a man who served as a guard at the Odessa prison way back in Soviet times, I can personally attest to that.
But I am in no position to predict the future. All I know is that the Ukrainians will continue amazing the world by the very fact of their existence, by their flexibility, shrewdness and their ability to adapt to any circumstance. Given the current situation, I find the latter quality encouraging, because as soon as real democracy comes to Ukraine, Ukrainians will quickly grow accustomed to it, life will become civilized, and Ukrainians will turn into law-abiding citizens. Obviously, that is not something that comes naturally to them, but should life require respect for law, they will do it, even if that should run counter to their interests. The authorities must simply create the appropriate conditions.
One thing is certain: in Ukraine, we live surrounded by so many charismatic and anti-charismatic political figures, only the laziest writer could fail to crank out at least one novel per year.
By Andrey Kurkov, the author of Death and the Penguin and The Milkman in the Night. This essay was translated by Steven Seymour from the Russian.