A novelist takes the pulse of Kiev's Independence Square — and remains hopeful

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.
They have to deal with bitter cold in Kiev, but today, protestors in Ukraine's capital have a little something to show for it. Ukraine's prime minister resigned, and the country's parliament repealed the anti-protest laws it had passed earlier this month. Both moves are major concessions by embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych. Some protestors cheered, but many are refusing to budge from Kiev's Independence Square, and they're not leaving any time soon, saying Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov. He's a frequent visitor to the protest encampment.

Andrey Kurkov: I was there yesterday, and actually every evening in the last three days.

Werman: Does that mean you're one of the protestors yourself, or you're just there for interest?

Kurkov: No, I was there in the beginning, listening to the speeches from the stage of the Independance Square. I talked to people, I took lots of photos.

Werman: The demonstrations have really affected daily life in Kiev. And you're having conversations with the protestors, how has this all changed your mood?

Kurkov: I'm a natural optimist; I always believe that everything will end up well. And now I think also everything will end up well, I don't know when. But the thing is that actually the mood of protestors changed a lot, and their psychological state changed a lot. And now, I think, you cannot just stop protests by decision of opposition leaders who anyway don't have much respect among the protestors, who spent already two months on the Independance Square. So people probably need now more help of psychologists than decisions of politicians.

Werman: So how, precisely, did the protestors' mood change? Where is their kind of collective head at, right now?

Kurkov: In the beginning, everybody was ready to be photographed, to talk, to express their views. A lot of people learned on [?] how to express their views, and actually, they understood better the Ukrainian politics. But now, after the first violent clashes, which left two protestors dead on Hrushevsky Street, people stopped talking there. And actually they prefer not to answer question, and sometimes they feel like in a hostile environment. Those whom I met and whom I saw yesterday, for example, morning. I mean, they seemed very gloomy and not sure about the future, the immediate future.

Werman: So what do you think should happen now? Continue protesting until the president steps down? And since you're a natural optimist, you said so, which way is all this headed?

Kurkov: Well, the president will not step down. He can promise early presidential elections, but that will mean that probably elections will be run six months, nine months from now. Of course, the protests will not last that long. The other thing is if there is a new coalition government. Any opposition leader, who will agree to work in this government, will be anyway under President Yanukovych's supervision, which means that actually his political career will be in danger. He will be a collaborator. There is a problem, actually, to find independent, professional personalities who are not so much engaged with mister Yanukovych, and not so much on the side of leaders of the opposition.

Werman: As you know, the battle for Ukraine right now has often been described as a tug of war between Russia and the West for influence in Ukraine. Interestingly, you're a Ukrainian novelist, but you write in Russian. Can you tell us why?

Kurkov: Well, I'm ethnic Russian. I'm one of approximately 12 million ethnic Russians who are living here, who are citizens of Ukraine. My parents came to Leningrad when I was two years old, now I'm 52 years old. So I spent in Kiev 50 years. And I speak Ukrainian probably much better than many Ukrainian politicians, because I wanted to learn this language. And I feel I'm a patriot of Ukraine. I'm a political Ukrainian, not ethnic Ukrainian. But of course, I mean, the language causes a lot of problems, and for many years I was not accepted as a Ukrainian writer because I write in Russian.

Werman: I mean, it is kind of confusing. It's--you're an ethnic Russian, a political Ukrainian, as you say. I mean, do you find yourself, in Ukraine, constantly negotiating your own identity?

Kurkov: I am asked about my identity on a daily basis. Ukraine is a multinational state. We have half a million of Crimean Tatars, among them about 80 writers who write in Crimean Tata language. And their books are not translated, neither in Russian or in Ukrainian. So we have unknown in [?] inside the country, and for the Ukrainian intellectuals, it is always not part of Ukrainian literature. So the country has a long way to go before the country assumes its identity as a multinational state.

Werman: Yeah, I mean, isn't that kind of what this battle is all about, that identity of Ukraine?

Kurkov: Yes, but I mean, this is the clash between two mentalities, actually. More pro-European mentality, or more democratic mentality, and the mentality of people who are still not detached genetically from their Soviet past.

Werman: Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov, in Kiev. Thank you very much.

Kurkov: You are very welcome.