Poet Serhiy Zhadan on Fighting for Ukrainian Culture
s Russian shells rain down on Ukraine, the country’s most beloved poet cannot write. It’s there. The tale of a teacher who led 10 children out of the frontline after being informed by the Ukrainian military there was no way to escape. Friends from Kharkiv risked everything to bring their neighbours to safety. And the finding of mass graves throughout Ukraine. In the past 20 years, Serhiy Zhadan has written over a dozen books of poetry and seven novels; he’s also part of the ska-punk band Zhadan and the Dogs.
Now, though, it’s impossible to get the ink to flow; everything is happening too fast. “I can’t write poetry or prose right now,” Zhadan says during a video call from his apartment in Kharkiv. However, music keeps on going. “I go to the music studio, and together with the band we get some songs out. It’s therapy. Then we go out and perform for our people.”
Mention Zhadan’s name in Ukraine and eyes light up. The 47-year-old’s work has long given voice to life in the Donbas, a predominantly industrial region of eastern Ukraine, and one that has endured fierce fighting between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists since 2014. Zhadan depicts the area where he was raised and is intertwined in Russian culture. But, he insists that it remains Ukrainian.
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The poet is one of many who have played an important role in Ukrainian culture’s history. “Our leaders for a long time were not kings or queens, but poets,” Zhadan says. Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, says that many important monuments in Ukraine are dedicated to the 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, who was born a serf in 1814 and went on to champion political liberalization for Ukraine. “He is considered to be the father of the modern Ukrainian nation,” Plokhy says. Writers also played a major role in the country’s achieving independence in 1991, he adds.
Zhadan belongs to this tradition of activist-poets. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to erase the very existence of Ukraine—he has denied Ukraine has “its own authentic statehood”—literature and art take on new meaning: they can ensure the country’s spirit is not lost to Kremlin propaganda.
When reports first reached Zhadan about Russia’s invasion, he was on a train heading west from Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, for a concert. Zhadan and his six bandmates turned back; they wouldn’t abandon the city in its hour of need.
It’s not the first time Zhadan has felt called to action. Back in 2004, he established a tent city in Kharkiv during the Orange Revolution—protests that called out corruption and Russian meddling in Ukraine’s presidential election. And during the Maidan revolution—which in 2014 drove out Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-backed authoritarian President—he was one of its leaders in Kharkiv. Zhadan was a very prominent figure during the Maidan revolution. Pro-Russian protestors found him in an occupation government building and dragged him outside. They pushed him down to the ground, then told him to touch the Russian flag. After refusing to kiss the Russian flag, he was beat so badly that he had to be admitted in hospital. “I told them to go f-ck themselves,” he wrote on his Facebook page following the incident.
These days, Zhadan and the Dogs have rolled up their sleeves to help with volunteer efforts and perform concerts to people sheltering from Russian bombs in Kharkiv’s metro. Usually dressed in black skinny jeans and a biker jacket, Zhadan spends his days in a flurry of activity across the city, organizing cultural events and fundraisers for Ukraine’s war effort. Since the early days of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Kharkiv has been on the front line. Authorities estimate that over half of the city’s prewar population of 1.4 million have fled. Key landmarks like the city’s Freedom Square have been subjected to heavy shelling, leaving only burned-out husks of once grand buildings.
It’s a city Zhadan has called home for decades. He was born and raised in Starobilsk, in the Luhansk region, and grew up speaking a language at home that was neither completely Ukrainian nor Russian but Surzhyk—a mixture of the two. “I’ve loved language since the moment I started reading,” he says. “I always wrote different stories and poetry.”
He saw two sides of Kharkiv when he first moved there in the 1990’s to study literature. On the one hand, it was the birthplace of Ukrainian nationalism—Kharkiv was an early ideological center, home to poets, philosophers, and scholars who were passionate about Ukraine’s national development in the 19th century. Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking majority, located 30 miles north of Moscow and the former capital city of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an “instrument Russia wanted to use to show Kharkiv could be Russian as well,” he says. Zhadan began to create some of the most famous works from this place.
Zhadan achieved international fame with his novel “The Night of Zhadan” in 2010. Voroshilovgrad.Like in an older novel. Depeche Mode,Zhadan looked at the problems of growing up in Ukraine, and also the post-Soviet transition. Zhadan’s work focused on the fact that Donbas residents were frequently forced to choose between Russia or Ukraine following the start of the conflict in 2014. His 2017 novel is The OrphanagePasha, the main character sets off to rescue his nephew from eastern Ukraine’s occupied territories. He is confronted with many characters that are trying to reconcile with their new binary world. In his 2019 poem, “They buried their son last winter,” the parents of a slain soldier tell the narrator they “don’t know” whether their child fought for the Russian-backed separatists or the Ukrainian government.
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Zhadan believes that many who tried to decide which side they would support in the past are now more open to Russian brutality after being exposed to it in recent weeks. These include photos of Bucha’s burned bodies and images from Mariupol’s siege. “The scale of the war crimes is so horrible and unbelievable, it’s almost impossible to say this is not genocide,” he says.
Zhadan is currently supported by art and activism. In May 2012, Zhadan had just returned to Kharkiv from opening a new bookstore. Next day, he would be delivering military vehicles near the city. Each day, he shares snippets of his experience to thousands upon thousands of social media followers. Zhadan believes that Ukrainian voices should not be silenced.
Nothing he does can stop the fear swirling around Kharkiv, but he isn’t going anywhere. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I’m a literature and music lover who is deeply committed to Ukraine and my city of Kharkiv.”
—WIth reporting by Mariia Voynogradova/London
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