Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Grey Bees

Andrey Kurkov

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Grey Bees

Title: Grey Bees
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 313 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Grey Bees - US
Grey Bees - UK
Grey Bees - Canada
Les abeilles grises - France
Graue Bienen - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Deep Vellum
  • Russian title: Серые пчелы
  • Translated by Boris Dralyuk

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B+ : very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/2/2020 John Thornhill
The New Yorker . 25/4/2022 Keith Gessen
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/4/2022 Jennifer Wilson
TLS . 5/2/2021 Uilleam Blacker

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Grey Bees, his strange and mesmerising new novel, Kurkov describes this in-between conflict zone, trapped between Ukraine and Russia, frozen between war and peace. (...) In spare prose, Ukraine's most famous novelist unsparingly examines the inhuman confusions of our modern times and the longing of the warm-hearted everyman that is Sergeyich for the rationality of the natural world." - John Thornhill, Financial Times

  • "Kurkov's translator, Boris Dralyuk, renders the warmth of Sergey's inner voice from the original Russian without letting the earnestness creep into the saccharine. (...) In a novel about neutrality and so-called gray zones, the Russian characters in Grey Bees come off to me as eerily cold, almost monstrous -- snipers, cops, Putin apologists -- as if the actions of the Russian government were in some ways reflective of a deeper national character." - Jennifer Wilson, The New York Times Book review

  • "Sergeyich is an eastern Ukrainian Everyman. He is supremely practical. (...) If, in the gray zone, people get along and help one another despite inhabiting a denuded, post-apocalyptic landscape, Crimea turns out to be the opposite. It is literally a land of honey -- Sergeyich's bees thrive there -- but the threat of the state hangs over everything. (...) Grey Bees, although grounded deeply in the disturbing reality of war, sometimes has the feeling of a fable. (...) Grey Bees is a gentle, sometimes ambivalent book about a conflict that had its share of moral complexity. Reading about it now, one feels transported to a more innocent time." - Keith Gessen, The New Yorker

  • "Translated by Boris Dralyuk with sensitivity and ingenuity (.....) It is the painful question of when a damaged home becomes untenable that hangs over Kurkov's novel." - Uilleam Blacker, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Sergey Sergeyich, the protagonist of Grey Bees, lives in Little Starhorodivka, a village in the 'grey zone' of the Ukrainian Donbas, the no-man's land between the fighting forces of the Ukrainian military and the separatists fronting for Russia. The village has completely emptied out, its inhabitants all fleeing, save for Sergeyich and one other local, Pashka Khmelenko. There are snipers around, and the occasional shelling, but, exercising some caution, the two remaining inhabitants manage to continue with their lives here -- if in fairly limited fashion. There hasn't been electric power for ages, nor any mail delivery; there are of course no shops open.
       Sergeyich is approaching fifty; he's been on a disability pension since he was forty-two, after working as a safety inspector in mines, but he's in reasonably good shape. He was married, and had a daughter, but his wife left him and moved far west, to Vinnytsia. As for the most recent disruption to normal life:

But the war hadn't made Sergeyich fear for his. It had only made him confused, and indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his sense, except for one: his sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees.
       Sergeyich has six hives, and the honey they produce is useful as an alternative to money, as he is able to barter for food and other goods. In better times he had also offered sessions on a 'bee-bed', atop the hives, the gentle vibrations of the bees abuzz underneath calming and providing some health benefits. One of his customers had been the governor of Donbas -- the future and then disgraced president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych --, who generously rewarded Sergeyich for the service.
       Sergeyich and Pashka have an uneasy relationship, longtime enemies who, in this new situation, grudgingly look out for each other -- though mostly still keeping to themselves. They don't live in complete isolation. There are occasional visitors -- Sergeyich befriends one soldier, who helps him out by charging his phone, for example -- and they can travel to the nearby villages when they need to buy (or trade for) something. There are also always reminders of the nearby conflict: the shelling in the distance (and occasionally closer to home) or, for example, the dead soldier Sergeyich spies lying in the snow not far from his home.
       Sergeyich even still has a car, and eventually he decides to head for Crimea -- the part of Ukraine illegally (re)appropriated by Russia in 2014 -- as a sort of outing for his bees and also to try to reconnect with Akhtem, who had been Sergeyich's roommate at a beekeepers' conference a quarter of a century earlier. It's something of an odyssey, with Sergeyich a curiosity for those he encounters as a man from the no-man's land in the Donbas. It's an ambiguous status -- people are never quite sure which side he stands on -- but then Sergeyich is, in many respects, of a different world -- demonstrated, not least, by his ancient Lada, which still sports a Soviet license plate. With his license and registration still from Soviet times as well, he is at one point even asked: "What, are you still living in the U.S.S.R. ?" And, in some senses, -- especially the blurring of any meaning to the local would-be borders -- he is.
       Akhtem and his family were Tartars, locals who were infamously deported en masse from Crimea under Stalin. Sergeyich connects with Akhtem's family and sets up his hives there. Here as elsewhere he remains peripheral to the local community -- camping in a fairly isolated spot -- but he witnesses the type of harassment the Tartar family is subject to from the authorities (and inadvertently contributes to their problems with a gift he leaves on their doorstep).
       At one point, when Sergeyich points out to a local that the Tartars have a long connection to Crimea, she protests vehemently, parroting Russian propaganda about how: "This land's been Russian Orthodox since time immemorial !" She's convinced -- after all:
"When Putin was here, he told the whole story -- this is sacred Russian land."
     "Well, I haven't looked into the history," Sergeyich shrugged. "Who knows what happened ?"
     "What happened is what Putin says happened," she insisted. "Putin doesn't lie."
       Sergeyich deals with a variety of officials, from military checkpoints to the border to then the local authorities in Crimea. Even as he is generally treated well enough, there's always a sense of menace in the air, the arbitrary power of the authorities, with their potential to completely upend his life -- as they do with Akhtem's family -- all too obvious. Near the end of his trip, they even come and insist they have to inspect his bee hives, taking one of them with them for a closer look; the consequences of this are a nice last dark touch to the story.
       The functional community of the bees repeatedly stands in contrast to the human communities Sergeyich moves in -- though on a smaller, usually individual scale he finds and gives considerable support where needed. Only near the end does he shake his head at his bees:
     "Why are you acting like people ?" he asked the bees bitterly. But they had already returned to the hive, and so didn't catch his words.
       Grey Bees is a melancholy tale of a simple life. Despite how extreme his situation in Little Starhorodivka is, Sergeyich putters along, going through all the motions of normalcy, even as he has been cut off from even basics such as electricity (and with it television, or the ability to readily charge his phone). His experiences on the way to Crimea, and then in that Russian-occupied zone, are eye-opening in a variety of small ways, while also revealing how life goes on everywhere regardless, people making the adjustments to somehow get by, regardless of the conditions.
       Sergeyich's interactions with individuals, from Pashka to Galya, a woman he meets on the way, to even then his ex-wife, make for the heart of the novel, a wary sort of cautiousness to all of them, but the basic human longing for connection still very clear. The bees are a nice touch too -- not too front and center, but the low-level care and attention they need the kind of obligation that helps keeps Sergeyich focused. And, of course, the communal activity of the bees contrasts nicely with the much more discordant interactions among humans all around him.
       Sergeyich's experiences over the course of the novel are mostly of the fairly simple sort, and Kurkov wisely stays mostly away from the overtly political, Sergeyich very careful as to how he positions himself. Still there are a few nice bits strewn in with a bit of a sharper edge, notably Sergeyich's decision to switch the names of the streets he and Pashka live one, the: "only two proper streets in the village -- one named after Lenin, the other after Taras Shevchenko". (He notes that place-names are being changed throughout Ukraine, so why not here as well ?) And, of course, there's the poor deluded Crimean who maintains: "What happened is what Putin says happened", which reverberates even more disturbingly in 2022 after that pint-sized, puffed-up Russian Hitler launched his criminal large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
       Grey Bees is a typical Kurkov novel, grey and melancholy and wistful but not maudlin, and even charming, despite the harsh environment it is set in. With its focus on Sergeyich, it captures the conditions in this small corner of the world during this time exceptionally well -- though of course now, in 2022, when full-scale war and large-scale destruction has been imposed on it by Russia it's no longer anything even like this. Ironically, the current horrific conditions accentuate the nostalgic feel that also pervades the novel, the sense of a better time and possibilities out there, if only the local populations chose not to be so much at odds with each other -- something that is only the most a distant fantasy right now.
       A nice piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 April 2022

- Return to top of the page -


Grey Bees: Reviews: Other books by Andrey Kurkov under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Andrey Kurkov (Andrej Kurkow, Andreï Kourkov, Андрей Юрьевич Курков) was born in Leningrad in 1961 and now lives in Kiev.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2022-2023 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links