From “The New Yorker”
March 8, 2014.
The Abuse of Ukraine’s Best-Known Poet
“Friends, with me everything is okay,” read the message posted on Facebook by Serhiy Zhadan, Ukraine’s most famous counterculture writer. A few hours earlier, photos of his face, covered in blood, had circulated on the Internet, and friends and fans were worried. He described his injuries: “Cuts on the head, eyebrow dissected, concussion, broken nose suspected.”
On Saturday, pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the regional state administration building in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is in the northeastern part of the country, not far from the Russian border. In the city’s central square, protests against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was closely aligned with Russia, had been taking place every day for three months. After protests in Kiev in late February became increasingly violent, with government forces shooting into crowds, Yanukovych fled the country; soon after, Kharkiv’s pro-Russian mayor and regional governor disappeared. Last weekend, locals who are against the country’s turn away from Russia came out in force to counterprotest. They were joined by agitators who many observers suspect were bussed in from Russia. (As in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, pro-Russian forces are not always who they say they are.) Armed with bats, the pro-Russian demonstrators attacked the mostly college-age activists who had occupied the building on Freedom Square.
One of the occupiers was Zhadan, who lives in Kharkiv and has thrown his energy behind the city’s protests. As the attackers were hitting him, the writer said, they told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. “I told them to go fuck themselves,” Zhadan wrote, on his Facebook page.
The pro-Russian toughs probably didn’t recognize Zhadan, who was hospitalized later that day. But Zhadan, who turns forty this year and has a boyish look, with floppy hair and large, thoughtful eyes, has long been an admired and influential figure in Ukraine. “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, said of Zhadan’s role in current events. “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.” Zhadan’s raucous poetry and poetic novels depict post-Soviet working-class lives in his country’s rust belts; in his imagination, Ukraine’s vast, rolling, sparsely peopled steppes and historically shifting western border are part of the country’s vital essence rather than a point of weakness. He also fronts a popular ska band, Dogs in Space. “He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star,” said Chernetsky.
Born to a working-class family (his father drove a truck) in a small town in eastern Ukraine, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian, which he says is a political act in itself. In the Soviet era, Russian was considered the language of literature and philosophy, while Ukrainian was thought of as a second-rate peasant language. Despite the healthy contemporary Ukrainian-language literature scene, this bias lingers. His poems are wild and funny, while reflecting the pain of the economic collapse that devastated the country in the nineteen-nineties, following Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. One poem, “Leavetaking of the Slavs,” is about two endearing hoodlums’ grand plan to steal cell phones (“Life lets you pull it apart like an accordion; I’ll pull in this direction; you pull in the other,” one says to the other); another poem, “Donbass Mushrooms,” describes the regrets of a macho pump-factory worker (“We were the élite of the proletariat”) about his post-Communist career growing hallucinogenic mushrooms. “He sees himself as a voice of the underprivileged,” said Chernetsky.
Zhadan counts a wide range of upstarts, from the American Beats to Rimbaud, as his influences. In the nineteenth century, the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko pioneered what would become a tradition of politically minded poet/prophets, a tradition in which Zhadan follows. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, he organized a tent city in Kharkiv where protestors lived for about two months. Zhadan, who considers himself a peaceful anarchist, is proud of Ukraine’s anarchist tradition, which stretches from the Ukrainian Cossacks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Makhnovia, a semi-official anarchist republic that existed from 1918 to 1921 in a region just north of Crimea. (One of Zhadan’s travelogues, “Anarchy in the UKR,” documents a trip from Kharkiv to Makhnovia.)
Zhadan first became well-known as a poet. But after spending a year in Vienna, he began writing novels. His first, “Depeche Mode,” published in 2004, has been described as “ ‘Trainspotting,’ but set in early-nineties Ukraine.” “I was satisfied with the country in which I lived, the amount of shit that filled it,” explains the book’s narrator, recalling his early teen-age years under Communism. “I understood that I could very well have been born in another far worse country, with, for example, a harsher climate or an authoritarian form of government ruled not simply by bastards, like in my country, but by demented bastards. … For the most part I was satisfied with everything.”
“You must understand, in eastern Ukraine, people are still in shock,” Zhadan explained recently, on a German news program, talking about why residents of the area are protesting. “In the nineties, the industrial and the agricultural economies collapsed entirely. Now that there’s some degree of stability, people are afraid of losing what little they have. That’s why they’re willing to put up with corruption.”
Zhadan has found a robust audience outside Ukraine. His work is popular in Germany. (“Maybe there’s not enough drinking in contemporary German-language novels,” reads one German book review. “How else can you explain that, in our books, so seldom do you find such vitality, such insanity, and such poetry?”) Perhaps more surprisingly, he is also popular, in translation, in Russia. “A lot of Russian critics brush over the Ukrainian specificity of his work,” said Chernetsky. “They consider him a post-Soviet writer.” (In an e-mail, the Russian novelist Lyudmila Ulitskaya said that Zhadan’s beating has caused a great deal of protest among Russians, and referred me to a statement released by the Russian PEN Center, which reads, in part, “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.”)
In Zhadan’s most recent novel, “The Invention of Jazz in Donbass,” Chernetsky sees a work of magical realism that has much in common with other post-colonial writings from around the world. In 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.)
Now, Zhadan is back in the hospital—his jaw has not been healing properly. But, he wrote in an e-mail, the beating has not deterred him. “It’s very simple,” he wrote. “I don’t want to live in a country of corruption and injustice. I, like millions of other Ukrainians, would like to have a normal measure of power. A dictatorship is not normal, and people who don’t protest injustice, they have no future.”
Photograph by Maciek Król.
Original Link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/03/the-abuse-of-ukraines-best-known-poet.html