It is frightening to watch how history is being created: reader’s reception of Serhiy Zhadan’s creative work

pdf:It is frightening to watch how history is being created: reader’s reception

Irina Shymon

Serhiy Zhadan was born on the 23rd of August in Starobilsk (Luhansk region). However the poet’s city is Kharkiv. Zhadan is a peculiar voice of the East, a speaker of Eastern Ukraine. In

his creative work he combines urban highly social lyrics with existential issues of memory, faith, love, building a relationship with death, etc.

Mainly his characters are underclass residents of dormitory districts, common workers from megacities, people without much ambition and illusions concerning this world, in whose routine Zhadan attempts to read some particular sacredness, as though to illuminate their lives from inside. Among other things, the creative work of Serhiy Zhadan is peculiar also because he writes in Ukrainian about the east of the country which is predominantly Russian-speaking.

Undoubtedly, today he is one of the most widely read contemporary Ukrainian authors, especially among young people. From the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity the writer fervently supported Euromaidan, particularly in Kharkiv where it was sometimes even more dangerous than in Kyiv.

In order to understand the underlying motives of Maidan lyrics of Zhadan we should appeal to his texts written immediately during the revolution. The first book about Maidan was the publication “Euromaidan. Chronicle of sensations” (publishing house Discursus), which appeared in spring of 2014. The book consists of essays of 5 Ukrainian writers, including 9 essays by Serhiy Zhadan.

These texts basically are field studies of historical changes in Ukrainian society. They are completely deprived of distance (texts written here and now), and distance, as it is generally known, singles out the most important matters, releases the unnecessary emotions, gives time to comprehend everything that happened and to realize what actually has happened.

But on the other hand, the value of texts written during an event lies, apart from precise facts, in an attempt of direct analysis of an occurence, witnessed, participated or created by the author. In this case, texts are converted to subjective reports.

First of all we should admit that Serhiy Zhadan is devoid of illusions and revolutionary romanticism. He sees both zest for changes and great threats in the events. The author primarily refers to the qualitative shift of generations, to the question of identity, where an accustomed to indulgence Ukrainian tries to become an uncompromising Ukrainian citizen. Serhiy Zhadan, commonly through irony and sarcasm (text “Employers”), is constantly emphasizing the everyday crimes of authorities, to which everyone has been accustomed since long time, however, the revolution gives a chance for enlightenment, for losing civiс illusions, for democratic sobriety.

Revolution as a shift is percepted by Zhadan not through populist slogans on the brink of non-reversion. It is about creating the vision of oneself – we finally turned out to see ourselves in the future just as we wanted and, it appears, as we really can be. In the text “Longest Winter” the writer puts an emphasis on the new Ukrainian identity – the identity of conscious citizens: “We all suddenly occurred to play an unusual role – the role of true citizens with their own position and convictions, ready if not defend these convictions, then at least to claim them”. Looking from the point of later events, this was a premature conclusion, for we just stepped on the path of self-realization and formation of collective identity.

The main achievement of the revolution, according to Serhiy Zhadan, is that it has affected everyone. It forced everyone to choose a certain side, to self-determine. Revolution – as a way out of a comfort zone – is something inconvenient, bizarre. However, in any case, it demonizes a routine, puts hundreds of labels: “Revolution is frightening and staggering, striking and disturbing, it causes fear and suspicion. The point is that it entails interest”.

The writer recollects his native Donbass. He calls it “a land of contradictions”. He is happy that there are alternative views as well, that there are people who have no fear, who are faithful and confident in their different vision of the situation. However, the author has no illusions about life in Donbass. “We should come back here to change something, or rather everything should be changed” says the author with confidence. The subject of East and West is very popular in Ukraine and is full of stereotypes. Zhadan, as a voice from the East, believes that we are truly different, that we have different experiences and memory, yet it is necessary to speak about it. And the first replica of this dialogue is the revolution.

The issue of memory is also important for the author. He wonders how we can live together any longer in one country if we remember everything. In other words the category of memory is more likely to be a separative motive. The Revolution gave us an illusion of unity, Ukrainian collective identity, when people with different past and attitudes to their past understood each other and had a vision for a common future.

Thus, Euromaidan was for Serhiy Zhadan in the first place about:

  • inevitabile qualitative changes, gaining self-confidence;
  • visionality, we saw ourselves in the future;
  • search for personal identification;
  • the issue of collective memory.

In spring 2014 Russia invaded the Crimea. On the 14th of April 2014 ATO launched.

In Zhadan’s work “Luhansk Diary”, which was published last year together with the second edition of «Anarchy in the UKR», the events of the very beginning of ATO are considered.

The title is logical – the matter concerns a diary, describing Serhiy’s trip to Eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, however, the most important is the concluding part of the text – the author’s reflections on freedom. Serhiy Zhadan abstracts away from the events and speaks upon the concept of freedom in general, about its realization, treatment and loss.

Analyzing the entire history of independent Ukraine, the writer remarks that the issue of identity has been replaced by the survival problem. In my opinion it is likewise apt to Euromaidan and the war.

What unites East and West? Longing for freedom or at least fear of losing it. Serhiy Zhadan believes in mutual understanding, a talent to listen when Another person speaks. Neglecting the desire to hear Another person, to understand Another person is where the writer observes the problem of Maidan and a reason for the war. Zhadan’s reflections are very personal (henceforth it is a diary), but now, 18 months after it has been written, matters of freedom and understanding are very timely, and the capacity to hear Another person – has not been yet acquired. We do not hear a neighbor, do not want to hear people from the East, do not hear ourselves.

Real war is also conveyed in the cycle “Why I do not use social networks” in a book of poems and translations “Life of Mary” (the last book of Zhadan for today). It all starts with 10 vers libre. In our opinion this is the main point in this cycle. Each one is a short story of life, which faced the war (a tattoo artist, a Baptist, a chaplain, a spy, a blogger …). Realistic life stories of the inhabitants of the East, where war violates the common order of things, destroys the routine and it self becomes a commonplace.

There remain only the most important matters: of faith, of freedom of choice, of love, death and memory. Serhiy Zhadan personifies his characters; almost everyone has a name, as if the author introduces us to his friends, which makes experiences and problems even more real. He does not separate himself among his characters. He is one of them.

The issue of relationship with death, also personalized, is as usual present in the creative work of Serhiy Zhadan. In the writings of peacetime Zhadan perceived death as a transition, disappearance:

«Your death is hardly a fuss-creator,
just a change of the operator,
and slowly vanishing input calls»

(«Amsterdam Mailman»)

Meanwhile, war makes its own adjustments into the issue of death:

“here no one is waiting for better times any longer.

The quiet silent death is not told among other women by anyone”.


Death is not a natural process any longer, war deprives the nature of its function. Alongside with the war death becomes commonplace, losing any kind of sacredness. The main character of the poem “Rhinoceros” rhetorically asks the author:

«What do I need so much death for?

Where shall I put it?

… Carry it on my back like a gypsy child …».

The collective experience of war is personified, because death concerns everyone.

Thus, memory makes death unbearable.

The category of memory is an essential topic for all texts of Serhiy Zhadan. What to do with memory? How to act when memory expires? How to forget what you have no desire to remember? In earlier texts of the author memory was rather an advantage of the character, something which is always with you, that no one can take away from you. Memory used to be a source of meaning, joy and even some glorification of the past. Nowadays, though, it rather enervates, eliminates vitality.

«what do I have out of memory? Except for disappointment and despair, memory is like a thing, memory is like a catch, it belongs only to whom it belongs».

Memory does not let us reconcile, memory becomes a burden. It constantly reminds us of how “frightening it is to see how history is being created”.

Serhiy Zhadan remains true to himself in a peculiar religiosity of his poems. In the cycle “”Why I do not use social networks”” he similarly introduces Mary, Joseph, Thomas and other biblical figures to the circle of his characters. The conversations about dark forces and the Lord, the meeting of young Mary with the Archangel, Her pregnancy – all these plots of are conveyed as intimately as if it were happening somewhere nearby, in the next door room. Serhiy Zhadan has always known how to individualize God, the concept of «personal Jesus» is close to him, the same way he speaks to God about the war, despair and brutality of life.

From the perspective of current events in the East, Maidan texts seem to be slightly naive, their essence gets smaller, they lose all their revolutionary luster. The structure of the world created by Maidan is being destroyed by war, the metaphorical demons of the Revolution get real. Memories of the revolution are being blocked by hotspot reports from Eastern Ukraine. We need time for these texts.

In all cases it refers to literature being created “here and now”, from the inside, without any chance for distance and reflection. S. Zhadan is faithful to his realism, irony and complicity, both emotional and physical. As a Ukrainian from the East, he loses a share of Maidan expectations, joy for changes. The matters of personal choice and self-identification go to the background, giving way to issues of faith, death and memory.

From a distance in half a year after Maidan, war as a reality once again proved S. Zhadan’s point concerning the absence of a collective Ukrainian identity and collective memory model, for different parts of society think different and remember different things and in different ways. This is often a source of conflict, still the writer sees this difference of memories as a potential source of understanding: “I have always thought that we will be saved by our unlikeness”. However, war has currently aggravated this problem.

It is always easier where there is a clear division into friends and foes, as it was during the Revolution. Contrariwise, the war has blurred these boundaries, added new muddy colours, making everything more complicated. Now it is impossible to disassemble where we express our freedom, where our freedom ends and whether we still have our freedom. The threat to our freedom caused Euromaidan, defending of freedom turned into the reality of war.

Identity, freedom, memory and death are key notions in Zhadan’s texts of Maidan and war periods. War is exaggerating. memory is getting unbearable and death becomes a personal routine for the writer’s characters. Zhadan did not lose his faith, moreover, he did not lose his sarcasm.

We did not have enough time to fully comprehend Maidan literature, nevertheless we are convinced that it does not lose its value even after the war. Plenty of answers to questions concerning our future will be found in these very documents of the revolution. The war, henceforth, led to the information explosion of more images than texts. Is is easier to convey the issue of war in visual than verbal terms. However, Serhiy Zhadan succeeded to depict war in poetry, which once again asserted his mastery and confirmed his status of a civic writer, sensitive to social matters.