Over a 24-hour period this weekend, combined Russian-separatist forces attacked Ukrainian army positions in eastern Ukraine 42 times, according to the press service of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) Headquarters. (Link here; map below.) These weren’t random incidents, but intense fighting, particularly in the Donbas region. “In the Mariupol sector, the enemy used banned 120mm and 82mm mortars to shell the town of Krasnohorivka, and the villages of Shyrokyne and Talakivka,” according to the report.
While that’s not as exciting as the latest gaffe from our president-elect, it should arouse a little more press interest than it does.
Here’s the news in more literary form. We’ve written about writer Serhiy Zhadan, the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine, before. (See “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” here, and then a year later here.) In the current New Yorker, Marci Shore writes about Ukraine, and the author whose most recent novel Voroshilovgrad won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland.
Marci reprises the conflict:
On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, unexpectedly declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For many Ukrainians this felt like the end of their future. Hundreds of people, students in particular, gathered on the Maidan, the large square in the center of Kiev, to protest. Around 4 a.m. on November 30th, Yanukovych sent his riot police to beat up the students. He was counting, it seems, on the parents’ pulling their children off the streets. Instead the parents joined their children there. The next day more than half a million people came to the Maidan, insisting, “They cannot be permitted to beat our children.”
“The government has blood on its conscience and has to answer for it,” Zhadan said a few days later, in an interview with the young Polish journalist Paweł Pieniążek. All that winter the stakes, and the violence, increased. …
After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.
Please read her article here, if for no other reason, it dispels the fiction that Ukrainians somehow really in their heart of hearts want to be Russians – a convenient notion that allowed us to turn our backs on Crimea and, increasingly, on eastern Ukraine.
Marci on Zhadan’s novel and its protagonist Herman:
In Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan describes a kind of war zone at the Ukrainian-Russian border near Rostov: men wearing camouflage and balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs, occasionally taking a hostage or two. He describes omnipresent violence at a time when there is no war—a backdrop of brutality, accepted as a given. “You know, before the war, all of these things naturally appeared entirely different: the border with Russia, the army fatigues, the daily readiness for fighting,” Zhadan told me in a letter. “There was no catastrophism in all of that.” (I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)
The balaclavas and Kalashnikovs and the culture of gangsters are connected to bottomless corruption. The word, or rather one of the words, for corruption in Russian is prodazhnost’ (in Ukrainian, prodazhnist’); it means “saleability” and refers to the understanding that everything and everyone can be bought. A peculiar relationship between prodazhnost’, “saleability,” and chestnost’, “honesty,” belongs to the essence of the Donbas. Where there is no trust in the system, trust in one’s friends is essential. Where there is no law, personal solidarity is paramount. And so what is important is not for whom one votes but how one treats one’s friends. Chestnost’ is related both etymologically and conceptually to chest’, “honor.” What is so striking about Herman’s experiences amid the savagery of the Donbas is the absence of duplicity. Voroshilovgrad is an unsentimental novel about human relationships in conditions of brutality in which there is not a single act of betrayal.
Herman is willing to risk everything for his missing brother, for [characters in the novel] Injured and Kocha, for Olga, for spectres of times past, even when this appears to make no sense. While attempting to escape from the biplane guys, Herman finds himself on a private train, where the train’s “authority” gives him some advice: “You’ve got this crazy idea in your head that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch—you’re clinging to your emptiness. There’s not a fuckin’ thing here! Not a single fuckin’ thing.” Yet Zhadan wants us to understand that there is something to stay for. In his prose there is no nostalgia, but there is genuine affection, rough and profound. Even in this brutish habitus, there is trust, loyalty, and love. The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”