The story behind the Expectations cover

I am sometimes asked why my book has a great big gold cross on the cover, over the top of a burial mound in the background. It is a beautiful minimalist design, by Nanni Goebel from Mooimind Studio in Dusseldorf. When we were discussing options for the cover, Nanni suggested the image of a burial mound in the flat Crimean landscape. This appealed to me very much, it encapsulated the whole central idea of the book, the idea of expectation - of fortune.

You see, these burial mounds are above all famous for the elaborate gold that was buried alongside the Scythian king whose tomb it was.

I suggested placing the title of the book in gold letters at the base of the mound where the treasure would be found. Nanni countered this with a suggestion of a beautifully minimalist gold cross - X marks the spot. As a second piece of symbolism, X is also used to mark a border. And Ukraine is famously a 'borderland'.

This is more than just a mere matter of treasure hunting. One of Chekhov's best-loved short stories, called Fortune, is all about Scythian treasure, a burial mound, and what it signifies for the hopes and aspirations of Russians - or Ukrainians.

The whole of the story consists of two shepherds idling away the hours chatting as they contemplate one of these Scythian burial mounds in the empty steppe. The elder shepherd dreams that one day he will find happiness in the form of a crock of Scythian gold treasure:

"“And, grandad, what will you do with the treasure when you find it?”

 “Do with it?” laughed the old man. “H’m!…If only I could find it then.…I would show them all.…H’m!…I should know what to do.…”

 And the old man could not answer what he would do with the treasure if he found it. That question had presented itself to him that morning probably for the first time in his life, and judging from the expression of his face, indifferent and uncritical, it did not seem to him important and deserving of consideration.

 … what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic, fairy-tale character of human happiness."

According to Herodotus, as part of the funeral rites the Scythians strangle one of the king's concubines and put her body in the grave too, as well as his cup-bearer, his cook, his groom, his servant, his messenger, some of his horses, and some golden cups. A year later fifty of the king’s attendants are also strangled and mounted on stakes on fifty dead horses as a ghostly guard around the tomb. Archaeology later proved that Herodotus' description was pretty much accurate.

Chekhov's short story is not just a contemplation on the meaning of happiness and fortune, it is also wonderfully evocative of the connection between man and the landscape - of the quietness and vastness of the flat steppe and the mounds that form the only large features rising out of it. Visually, this is really what excited me too - the connection between individuals and the landscape. It is a central theme of much of Russian literature - including Dostoyevsky and the "podchennichestvo" (back to the soil) movement, or Stravinsky and the Adoration of the Earth.


Ruslan, outside Arkadia night club Feodosiya, Crimea

In Feodosiya, a genteel resort with retired artists strolling along the seafront with lapdogs, like a post-Soviet parody of Chekhov's Yalta (and indeed, Chekhov did frequent Feodosiya) the old central cinema has been turned into Arkadia nightclub. Feodosiya in the ancient world was the Greek city of Kaffa.

A babushka is selling sunflower seeds from a sack on the street outside the club. While I take the portrait of Ruslan, who was passing by, I ask the sunflower seed seller hopefully whether this conversion from cinema to nightclub reflects a general downgrading of culture, some kind of symptom of a general malaise in society: "Not really, it was a rubbish cinema anyway”.

Ruslan, outside Arkadia night club, Feodosiya, Crimea