AAs Russian shells rain down on Ukraine, the country’s most beloved poet cannot write. The inspiration is there: the story of a schoolteacher who led 10 children away from the front line after being told by the Ukrainian army that there was no hope of escape; old friends from Kharkiv who risked their lives to bring their neighbors to a shelter; or the discovery of mass graves across Ukraine. Over the past 20 years, Serhiy Zhadan has written more than a dozen poetry collections and seven novels; he is also part of the ska-punk group Zhadan and the Dogs.
Now, however, it is impossible to get the ink flowing; Everything is going too fast. “I can’t write poetry or prose at the moment,” Zhadan said in a video call from his apartment in Kharkiv. But the music, in a way, follows the rhythm. “I go to the music studio and together with the band we release songs. It’s therapy. Then we go out and play for our people.
Mention Zhadan’s name in Ukraine and eyes light up. The 47-year-old’s work has long given life a voice in Donbass, a predominantly industrial region in eastern Ukraine, which has endured fierce fighting between the Ukrainian government and separatists backed by Russia since 2014. In his work, Zhadan paints the region where he was born and grew up as one closely linked to Russian culture but which is above all Ukrainian.
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He belongs to a long line of poets playing a crucial role in Ukrainian culture. “Our rulers for a long time were not kings or queens, but poets,” Zhadan says. Serhii Plokhy, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, says many important monuments in Ukraine are dedicated to 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko, who was born a serf in 1814 and later championed liberalization policy for Ukraine. “He is considered the father of the modern Ukrainian nation,” says Plokhy. Writers also played a major role in the country’s independence in 1991, he adds.
Zhadan is part of this tradition of activist poet. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to erase Ukraine’s very existence – he has denied that Ukraine has “its own authentic state” – literature and art take on a new meaning: they can guarantee that the spirit of the country is not lost to Kremlin propaganda.
When news of the Russian invasion first reached Zhadan, he was on a train heading west to Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, for a concert. Zhadan and his six bandmates turned back; they would not abandon the city if need be.
This isn’t the first time Zhadan has felt called to action. In 2004, he established a tent city in Kharkiv during the Orange Revolution, protests that exposed corruption and Russian interference in Ukraine’s presidential election. And during the Maidan revolution – which in 2014 ousted Viktor Yanukovych, an authoritarian Kremlin-backed president – he was one of its leaders in Kharkiv. Zhadan became such a prominent figure in the Maidan revolution that when pro-Russian protesters found him in an occupied government building, they dragged him outside, pushed him to his knees and told him to kiss the Russian flag. He refused and was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized. “I told them to fuck off,” he wrote on his Facebook page after the incident.
These days, Zhadan and the Dogs have rolled up their sleeves to help volunteer efforts and give concerts for people sheltering from Russian bombs in the Kharkiv 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 the Russian assault on Ukraine, Kharkiv has been on the front line. Authorities estimate that more than half of the city’s 1.4 million pre-war residents fled. Key landmarks like the city’s Freedom Square were subjected to heavy bombardment, leaving only burnt-out husks of former grand buildings.
It’s a town that Zhadan has lived in for decades. He was born and raised in Starobilsk, Luhansk region, and grew up speaking a language at home that was neither completely Ukrainian nor Russian, but Surzhyk, a mix of the two. “I’ve loved the language since the moment I started reading,” he says. “I’ve always written different stories and poetry.”
When he moved to gritty, industrial Kharkiv in the early 1990s to study literature at university, he saw two versions of the city. On the one hand, it was the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism – Kharkiv was an early ideological center, home to poets, philosophers and scholars passionate about Ukraine’s national development in the 19th century. On the other hand, Kharkiv was a predominantly Russian-speaking city, just 30 miles from the Russian border and a former capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an “instrument that Russia wanted to use to show that Kharkiv could also be Russian”, he says. This is where Zhadan began producing some of his best-known works.
In 2010, Zhadan achieved international fame with the novel Voroshilovgrad. As in a previous novel, Depeche Mode, Zhadan explored the challenges of growing up in eastern Ukraine and the post-Soviet transition. After the start of the war in Donbass in 2014, his work examined how people in the region were often forced to choose sides between Ukraine and Russia. In his 2017 novel, The orphanage, protagonist Pasha embarks on a quest to rescue his nephew from occupied territory in eastern Ukraine and encounters a cast of characters struggling to come to terms with this new binary landscape. In his 2019 poem, ‘They buried their son last winter’, parents of slain soldier tell narrator they ‘don’t know’ if their child fought for Russian-backed separatists or for the Ukrainian government.
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Zhadan says those who have struggled to choose a side in the past have had a change of heart after seeing Russian brutality up close in recent weeks, from photos of mutilated Bucha bodies to scenes of besieged Mariupol. “The scale of war crimes is so horrific and unbelievable that it’s almost impossible to say it’s not genocide,” he said.
For now, art and activism support Zhadan. When we spoke at the end of May, he had just returned from the reopening of a bookshop in the center of Kharkiv. The next day he was to deliver military vehicles to the front line near the city. Every day, he posts snippets of his experiences to thousands of social media followers. Zhadan is determined that Ukrainian voices will not be silenced.
Nothing he does can stop the fear swirling around Kharkiv, but he’s going nowhere. “At the end of the day, he says, I am a lover of literature and music deeply attached to Ukraine and to my city of Kharkiv.
—Owith reporting by Mariia Vynogradova/London
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