As well as being Ukraine’s most famous novelist, Serhiy Zhadan is a poet, ska band front man, and political activist. He has been dubbed Ukraine’s “enfant terrible” and compared to writers like Irvine Welsh, Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs. Born in the village of Starobilsk, near Luhansk, the 44-year old Zhadan lives in Kharkiv and his recent writing includes both visceral explorations of the brutal conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army, and beautiful evocations of the landscapes and people of eastern Ukraine. As his country marks the fifth anniversary of the Euromaidan protests that toppled then-president Viktor Yanukovych, The Calvert Journal spoke to Zhadan about language and how Ukraine — and he himself — have changed in the tumultuous years since the 2014 revolution.
What did you do during the Euromaidan protests? I was in Kharkiv where we held our own Maidan. We began organising protests at the start of November and we invited writers, journalists and musicians so we had an intellectual context. We were a sort of mobilisation point: volunteers going to Kiev came through us and we sent on money and supplies for the Kiev Maidan. Everyone today thinks that Maidan was just in Kiev, but there were events all over Ukraine: in Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and many other towns. I was involved in Kharkiv’s Maidan until 1 March when there was a big street fight and I was badly beaten up. My friends got me to a military hospital in Warsaw where I stayed for about a week. Then I returned, but everything had changed: Maidan had ended and the annexation of Crimea was underway.
Screenshot from Wild Fields, the 2018 film adaption of Serhiy Zhadan's novel Voroshilovgrad
How much has your life been shaped by Euromaidan and its consequences? During Maidan, we all lived and breathed everything that was going on around us. From dawn until dusk, if we were not on the streets, we were on Facebook following the news. They were a very special, very strange, three months. But the events of that spring and summer changed everything. Fighting began, and for those who were pro-Ukrainian, everything changed. For me, everything changed. You can’t even compare our reality today with that of 2013. War is, of course, the most important, most significant and most terrible thing that has happened. It defines the rhythm of life, the mood, how you structure your day — and everything else.
Why did you decide to write The Orphanage? Most of the texts I have written since 2014 are about war. That is what worries me, that is how I live, that’s what I am always tracking: a lot of my friends are involved as soldiers and civilians. I have kept a sort of diary, I published articles when I was in Luhansk and Donetsk in April 2014, and I have written poems and short stories. In the summer of 2014, I had the idea to write a big work of prose; a novel. It was important for me to write about civilians: for those people in the conflict area and on the frontline, caught between a rock and a hard place. They are both trying to survive, and define their own attitude towards the war.
To what extent has Ukrainian literature undergone a resurgence over the last five years? It’s a little funny to talk about whether literature has “gotten better”: a football championship can “get better”, a harvest can “get better”, but literature is a living organism and it’s difficult to talk about it in these terms. Literature has become more varied and more intense. If you follow events in Ukraine, you will know that things are not just happening on the frontlines. Ukrainian culture is being transformed — and that is a very important, very painful process.
Is there a greater demand for ‘national poets’ at a time of existential threat? There is a particularly strong demand for culture. It’s not that Ukrainians have become more spiritual, or that everyone wants to read books, but because at critical moments it’s very important see yourself from another angle. It’s like a mirror: you look in the mirror and you see things you like and things you don’t like. It makes it easier to come to terms with yourself.
Do you see yourself as a moral authority? Culture is often asked to do things it is not really ready to do. For example; psychotherapy or teaching. Or when people treat writers as moral authorities. This is not very healthy because a writer differs very little from a tractor driver, locksmith or soldier. To demand more of him is dangerous.
Do you have friends and acquaintances on the other side of the frontline? There are a few people who I keep in touch with. But most of my real friends in Luhansk and Dontesk actively supported Maidan, if not actively took part in organising it. When the separatist movement began, they were forced to leave. There are some people who did not advertise their positions [toward Maidan], and we remain in touch. And I have made some attempts to maintain contact with people who are not completely pro-Ukrainian in their views — but it is very difficult when someone rejects the right of your country, your state, to exist.
Would you ever write in Russian? I could write an article or a column in a newspaper in Russian. I am talking to you in Russian. I have heard Russian since I was a child. But I always write in Ukrainian.
A street scene in Kharkiv. Image: Taras Zaluzhny
The characters in your books speak Ukrainian, but in real life similar people in similar places would speak Russian. Is this a problem? I don’t see any hypocrisy: I am a Ukrainian writer and work as part of Ukrainian literature and I write in Ukrainian. I don’t just write about eastern Ukraine. I have texts about Germany, Poland, and America, and I don’t write them in German, Polish or English — I write in Ukrainian. But of course, there are some technical problems that arise. One feature of Ukrainian culture today is that cities in eastern Ukraine are mostly Russian-speaking, which is the result of a long process of Russification. For Ukrainian writers or directors dealing with this kind of thing, there is a choice between authenticity and artistry. It’s a big challenge and it’s being addressed in very interesting ways. We released a film based on my novel Voroshilovgrad last year and we resolved this problem by making some characters speak Russian, some in Ukrainian and some in Surzhuk, which is a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian.
Can you be called a ‘Ukrainian writer’ if you write in Russian? There is a very lively discussion about this at the moment. Traditionally, Ukrainian culture was mono-linguistic and Ukrainian has been under constant pressure from Russian. Today, things are changing very quickly. For example, the Crimean Tatars: are they part of Ukraine’s literary heritage? There are lots of interesting authors who support Maidan, support Ukrainian independence and don’t support Putin— but who write in Russian. It’s a complicated question, but I am not scared of complicated questions. Ukraine is going through the sort of period where you have to ask even the most difficult, most uncomfortable, questions.
What is your personal position? If a person sees themselves as Ukrainian and if they see themselves as belonging to Ukrainian culture, then they can be a Ukrainian writer.
Zhadan performing with his band, Zhadan and The Dogs. Image: serhiy.zhadan / Facebook
When you look at the presidential election campaigns going on at the moment, do you think Ukraine is changing for the better? I am not one of those people who says that everything is awful or that everything has been lost over the last five years. That’s stupid. I think everything is going in the right direction — it’s just going very slowly. I would have liked for there to be more new faces, new names and new ideas in our upcoming elections. Unfortunately, the line-up is much more conservative than Ukrainian society itself. But politics is a mirror of society, and a society gets the politics it deserves.
Have you ever wanted to get involved in politics? I’ve never thought of doing it myself, but I am always being asked to get involved. It’s a big responsibility. You have to be prepared for all the complications and challenges that come with a life in politics, or it’s better not to get involved at all.
Does Kharkiv feel more like a ‘frontier city’ now than five years ago? Until the start of the war, to all intents and purposes, the [Russian-Ukrainian] border did not exist. It was more in the minds of Ukrainian activists. But over the last five years, it has made itself felt. Despite the fact that many people in Kharkiv watch Russian TV or read the Russian internet, they feel the physical presence of the border. Kharkiv was never a Russophobic city. But it has been disappointed in its neighbour, which it always took as one of its own. Instead, that neighbour turned out to be an occupier, an aggressor, and a not very nice person.
Did you go to Russia often before 2014? Yes. My books were published there, and I had a lot of friends and readers there.
But you haven’t been there since Maidan? I’m on a blacklist. Two years ago, I was arrested and deported from Minsk because Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan are in a customs union and they have a common list of sanctioned individuals. The Belarusian police explained that I was on the Russian blacklist as a terrorist accomplice. So I don’t have much of a desire to go to Russia!
Has your cultural consumption changed? Do you read fewer Russian novels? No, not really. I don’t watch the Russian news. There are some television channels I don’t watch. But, for example, I am re-reading Ivan Bunin. My attitude towards Bunin hasn’t changed! For some Ukrainians, protesting against the war expresses itself in a childish rejection of everything that Russia has ever produced. You can understand that on an emotional level, but I am 45 years old and I have certain principles. There are people who understand exactly what is going on, and if they have Russian passports that does not make them enemies of Ukraine.
You’re often described as ‘left-wing’ - is that accurate? I have never described myself as left-wing but I’m always being told I belong among the left-wingers! It’s all nonsense. Dividing people into left and right in modern Ukraine is not very constructive. I am a citizen of Ukraine who loves his country and tries to help.
Screenshot from Wild Fields, the 2018 film adaption of Serhiy Zhadan's novel Voroshilovgrad
Would you say you were a ‘nationalist’ or a ‘patriot’? I’m not a nationalist. A patriot — yes. I’m a patriot and I love my country, my homeland. But the term ‘patriot’ in modern Ukraine and modern Europe has various connotations. I encounter this in Europe and America, where some members of the public equate ‘patriot’ and ‘nationalist’, or take a ‘patriot’ to be a conservative right-winger. But this is very inaccurate. In Ukraine, ‘patriot’ is a synonym for a person who is on the side of our soldiers on the frontlines — someone who supports our country.
Why wouldn’t you call yourself a nationalist? Because I have known Ukraine’s nationalist movement since the 1980s. I have a lot of friends in the nationalist movement, but the ideas of nationalism do not correspond to my vision of Ukraine. Ukraine is much more complicated, and much less clear-cut.
What are you spending most of your time on at the moment? We are currently recording two albums and working on an opera that will premiere in Kharkiv at the end of the year. As well as that, I am working on two cinema scripts and I have an idea for a novel about 2014. It will be about the start of the war and the critical moment when a person without any particular political opinions must choose a side to take — or whether to take a side at all. For me, that is the most important and the most difficult question of all. Why do people reject their fatherland? What forces them to go over to the side of the occupier?