Posts Tagged ‘Serhiy Zhadan’

Ukraine’s national poet Serhiy Zhadan: “I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.”

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, Poland (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

Just back from a busy day in Berkeley, but not too tired to share an article I just discoverd on Serhiy Zhadan in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Steadfast Book Haven readers will remember me writing about Ukraine’s leading writer (poet, novelist, essayist, translator), who visited Stanford a year or so ago, here and here and, in a piece titled “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag, then he told them to…” here.

An excerpt from Amelia Glaser’s article, “Poems for an Uncertain World: On Serhiy Zhadan’s “What We Live For, What We Die For”:

…with the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, the present grew grimmer, and Zhadan’s verse grew more urgent. He has remained in close contact with many who still live in the region, and has written a series of poems in versions of their voices. “Headphones,” from 2015, describes a “quiet drunk” who has stopped watching the news. Instead,

He walks around the city with headphones on,
listening to golden oldies,
as he stumbles into burned-out cars,
blown-up bodies.

The poet in a café…

In addition to writing, Zhadan fronts a rock band, The Space Dogs (Sobaki v Kosmose), which has recently been renamed Zhadan and the Dogs (Zhadan i Sobaki), reflecting the poet’s new status as a household name. Phipps and Tkacz did not include his songs in this volume, but the fact that Zhadan is a public figure, immersed in the contemporary culture he writes about, is very much a part of his poetic persona. Rejecting the ivory tower, the 44-year-old Zhadan — whose boyish face is framed by a punky crew cut — articulates the voices of the crowd.

Much has been written about Zhadan’s street-level activism, about his involvement in the Kharkiv protests during the 2014 Euromaidan standoff. The poet made international news when he was badly beaten by a pro-Kremlin “Titushka,” or rabble-rouser, that spring. But what is striking about Zhadan — who read his work at my home institution, UCSD, two years ago — is his ability to connect with individuals on a personal level. He is direct, engaging, and remarkably patient. As a small group of us shared dinner after the event, a woman at the next table overheard our Russian-language conversation and, when we introduced Zhadan as a Ukrainian poet, asked whether he was a nationalist. Zhadan, who had recently been listed by the Russian government as a nationalist terrorist and arrested for attempting to attend a poetry festival in Belarus, shook his head, then added, “But I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.” He agreed to send the woman some of his writing electronically. I was stunned by his empathy and generosity. But Zhadan, a native speaker of both Ukrainian and Russian who has always written in Ukrainian, has a long relationship with Russian readers, and one that has not always been confrontational. In Russia, his books have been shortlisted for the Andrei Belyi Prize, the “National Bestseller” award, and the “Book of the Year”; he was nominated in 2010 for Russian GQ’s “Man of the Year” for literature, and his work remains important to the Russian literary counterculture.

Read the whole thing here.

Marci Shore on Ukraine: fighting continues, and so does trust, loyalty, and love.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, Poland (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

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.)

voroshilovgradThe 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.”

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan at the end of Europe

Friday, July 31st, 2015
Serhij Żadan

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, earlier this year. (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

We wrote about Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator over a year ago, in a post titled, “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” That’s when the pro-Russian demonstrators broke his skull with bats in his native Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, a place that has the misfortune to be close to the Russian border.

“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 in a story here. “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.”

We were happy to see him appear last week in a New York Review of Books blogpost by Timothy Snyder, “Edge of Europe, End of Europe.” Tim said “What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to – and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue – is what [writer Mykola] Khvylovy called ‘psychological Europe’: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort.” The discussion includes Czesław Miłosz as well:

Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

A happenstance Californian.

Kindred spirit?

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

It rather makes me hanker for a translation. Anyone? Oh well, you can read all of Tim’s article here.

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

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

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.