They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…


Get better soon. (Photo: Maciek Król)

Last weekend, pro-Russian demonstrators attacked the activists who had occupied a government building in Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine.

As they were striking him with bats, the writer Serhiy Zhadan said they told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. “I told them to go fuck themselves,” he wrote on his Facebook page.  Then they beat him up good.  He was hospitalized later that day, and photos of his face covered in blood circulated online.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

The incident has shaken up Russians as well as Ukrainians.  In a statement, the Russian PEN Center said:  “We are observing a severe noetic crisis, akin to what was described by Orwell: the meanings of the words ‘peace,’ ‘war,’ ‘fascism,’ and ’democracy,’ ‘defense,’ and ‘invasion’ are shamelessly warped.”

Zhadan is a poet, novelist, essayist, and translator – the leading countercultural writer in Ukraine. His works have been translated into German, English, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Russian, Hungarian, Armenian, Swedish, and Czech. In 2008, the Russian translation of his novel Anarchy in the UKR made the short list of the National Bestseller Prize. It was also a contender for “Book of the Year” at the 2008 Moscow International Book Exhibition. He also recieved BBC 2010 Book of the Year for Voroshilovgrad. His novel Anthem of Democratic Youth has been adapted for the stage and is being performed at the Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theater in Kiev.

His most recent book, The Invention of Jazz in Donbass, is work of magical realism that sounds like it’s earned the title. According to Sally McGrane’s article in the New Yorker:

letters-from-ukraine-3In the book, a yuppie type living in a large Ukrainian city is called back to his small eastern-Ukrainian hometown to take over his brother’s gas station. His brother has disappeared—he may have emigrated to the Netherlands, but no one knows for sure. Running the gas station (where fending off corrupt oligarchs is part of the job), he finds that, to his surprise, he is proud of the place he is from—that it is unique, possessed of its own dignity and beauty, no matter how depressed it may be. (Depressed it is: at one point, the narrator is invited to play with his old soccer team in a match against a nearby factory. Only after the game ends does he realize that his entire team was composed of ghosts—friends who had died as the result of crimes, accidents, or alcoholism.)

He’s back in the hospital; his jaw never healed property. Read the New Yorker story here.

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