“C’mon, this way,” Serhiy Zhadan said, climbing the stairs of Kharkiv’s Puppet Theater.
We follow the writer’s black cigarette jeans and iconic leather jacket through a maze of corridors, almost running after his lean silhouette deep into the cool darkness of empty seats.
Every theater dreams of untold stories.
We were the only spectators in the theater that day, surrounded by empty seats waiting to be filled by an audience who would one day come to listen to stories about Ukraine’s victory.
Instead, we watched over a scene of cardboard boxes waiting to be sent to soldiers and civilians on the frontline, in the blue light of a broken-windowed theater converted into a volunteer center on Feb. 24.
Sitting there among the empty seats and crude forgotten spotlights, I understood why I had traveled halfway across the country to meet Serhiy Zhadan. There was no other way to meet him than in Kharkiv. It’s his city, after all.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, Zhadan has remained in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, doing humanitarian work and conducting numerous interviews in the city he couldn’t leave behind.
“The war caught me on the train on my way to Vinnytsia for a concert with the band. We learned about it and came back to Kharkiv,” he said.
“We” being “Zhadan and the Dogs” (“Zhadan i Sobaky”), the writer’s rock band founded in 2007, only one of Zhadan’s numerous artistic projects over the years - with literature as his guiding light.
Zhadan looks the part. Only his gray, sleek haircut betrays the passing of time on the 47-year-old writer, easily labeled as Ukraine’s “enfant terrible.”
Writer, poet, musician, humanitarian worker, political activist, Zhadan is on every front, avoiding labels as fast as he walks.
With 12 poetry books and seven novels, his cult status helped put the country’s contemporary literature on the map, especially in eastern Ukraine, where his characters evolve between hallucinated landscapes of war and picaresque quests.
Inspired by the country’s 1920’s avant-garde, and compared to the likes of William Burroughs, his abrasive style cuts to the chase.
“Let’s start by whispering the names, let’s weave together the vocabulary of death,” Zhadan wrote in his 2020 poem “New Orthography,” long before Russia’s invasion began on Feb. 24.
Many words were whispered that day. Among them, one unwavering statement: There would be no Ukrainian literature without Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“If Ukraine wins, there is some future for us,” he told the Kyiv Independent. “If Russia wins, there will be no literature, no culture, nothing.”
Kharkiv was always Ukrainian
Outside, the eerie silence overwhelming Kharkiv, broken only by the distant sounds of artillery, is a constant reminder of Russia’s looming shadow.
The city used to be a vibrant place filled with students from all over the world, taking classes at one of the city’s 38 universities. With its student life and numerous coffee shops and bars, Kharkiv was the “cool” city of eastern Ukraine.
“It was quite a cosmopolitan environment, democratic and open,” Zhadan said. “And now it’s half empty.”
Most of the city center’s windows are shattered, with some buildings blown apart by heavy missile strikes.
The black, burned skeleton of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration stands on Freedom Square as a monument to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s brutality.
The windows are missing from Kharkiv’s Puppet Theater, where Zhadan has established the headquarters of his volunteer organization. Wood panels and black curtains cover the holes for the time being, like a grieving sign of the city’s ordeal.
“The buildings we will rebuild,” Zhadan said.” The worst thing is not the buildings, but those who have died, because we cannot bring them back.”
Zhadan doesn’t have time for art at the moment.
“A lot is happening right now, the last thing I think about now is my art, and I think more about what’s happening in my country and how to help,” he said. “I think reflections and art will take place a bit later.”
Born in now Russian-occupied Starobilsk, near Luhansk, Zhadan spent most of his life in Kharkiv, which stands on the edge of two worlds by its proximity to Russia.
But Kharkiv is not a Russian city, Zhadan said. “Even though Russia is 40 kilometers from here, Kharkiv has always been Ukrainian.”
If Kharkiv was a character, it would be Enei, said Zhadan. “Enei is a Cossack and a traveler who has a light and positive character despite everything happening to him,” he said.
Zhadan was referring to the Ukrainian mock-heroic poem “Eneida” by Ivan Kotliarevsky, a classic in Ukrainian literature published in 1798 that is widely considered to be the first literary work published wholly in modern Ukrainian. In this burlesque parody of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Aeneas is a Ukrainian Cossack.
The poem, which makes Ukrainian school children roll their eyes to the sky, begins with these words: “Enei was a lively fellow/ And quite a Cossack for a lad/ For mischief he was more than mellow/ While courage above all he had” – a good description of Kharkiv in Zhadan’s views.
Kharkiv as a Russian city is mostly a stereotype propagated by Russians themselves, partly supported by (Ukraine’s) own politicians, Zhadan said.
The term “Russian-speaking Ukrainian” doesn’t make sense for Zhadan, as it implies they speak Russian and Ukrainian is a foreign language for them.
Many Kharkiv residents switched to Ukrainian because it’s a marker during this war, an effort Zhadan finds moving as they spoke Russian their whole life.
“Speaking Ukrainian is a marker that you’re a local, and that you refuse the language of the occupier,” Zhadan said.
The switch to Ukrainian is a natural process that gained momentum after Russia’s first invasion of 2014, he said, admitting that Ukraine will always have to fight Russia’s dangerous zone of influence.
“It became clear to Ukrainians that we either fight for our identity or be a part of this post-Soviet empire.”
For Zhadan, the sole fact of writing in Ukrainian is political. By choosing which language to write in, writers indicate their political and ideological positions.
“That’s why even if you write love poems but do it in Ukrainian, you take a certain position in one way or another, it has a political connotation,” he said.
Zhadan predicts this war will divide Ukrainian literature into two periods, pre-war and post-war, but it will take time to see a new opus emerge. “The reality is too close, too bloody, and too rough to easily talk about,” he said.
Culture is deeply intertwined with politics in Ukraine, and Zhadan, involved in politics since the early 1990s, knows this all too well.
He has taken part in every revolution the country has seen since independence in 1991, becoming a prominent voice of Kharkiv’s local Euromaidan in 2014, fighting against the made-up ‘Russian Spring’ manufactured by Kremlin proxies in Ukraine’s Donbas.
He believes writers have a role to play in the fight against Russia’s colonial attitude, by building the country’s identity through art. As mediators, writers can’t stay idle in such times.
“We are a highly politicized society, which is understandable because we’re a postcolonial society and we’re trying to build our own identity to escape the influence of the Russian empire.”
This is what distances Ukraine from Russia, he said. “And Russians know this, which is why from time to time, they try to destroy Ukrainian literature.”
Ukrainian writers paid a hefty price to defend their language, he said, referring to the “Executed Renaissance,” the systematic execution of Ukraine’s intelligentsia by Stalin from the 1930s to 1940s.
In the early 1920s, Ukrainian artists and writers settled in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, making it an avant-garde hub. But Stalin soon cracked down on Ukrainian intellectuals who threatened the dictator’s totalitarian dream of Soviet culture.
Many of these writers and poets lived in the “Slovo” Building in central Kharkiv, a cooperative built in the late 1920s to house prominent Ukrainian cultural figures. Already seen as a threat, the phone lines were tapped and mass arrests ensued. On March 7, the building once again came under attack – this time damaged by Russian shelling.
The campaign to exterminate the Ukrainian intelligentsia culminated during the 1938-1938 Great Purge, with 223 writers being imprisoned or executed.
According to estimates, nearly 30,000 Ukrainian intellectuals were repressed during Stalin’s Great Purge. In 1930, the works of 259 Ukrainian writers were published, but by 1938 only 36 of those writers remained – the rest were executed, exiled, disappeared, or committed suicide.
Zhadan always refers to Russia as “the empire,” a term suiting Russia’s colonial behavior towards Ukraine. For Russians, Ukraine is just a part of Russia, Zhadan said.
“Ukraine is just an appendix, a part of Russia, the same people that for some reason they constantly destroy, and Ukrainians have no right to their own independence,” he said.
“And Ukrainians see a history where they are their own people, an independent nation, who was always opposed to the empire.”
Ukrainians want to build an independent and democratic country while Russians feel quite comfortable in totalitarian conditions, Zhadan added.
The “Executed Renaissance” is just one of many dark chapters in Russia’s colonial attitude towards Ukraine — a behavior Zhadan describes as a clash between two countries that are light-years away over their perception of past and future.
“In their vision of the past, the main role belongs to Russians, as they monopolized the whole memory of World War II,” a distorted vision they still use today to justify the horrors they inflict on Ukraine.
Yet Russia’s invasion showed Ukrainians that they have no other option than to completely disconnect from Russians because any mingling with Russia ends up with the destruction of Ukraine, he said.
“I think Russians have done everything for Ukraine to be destined for its independence and freedom.”
While we were leaving the comfortable darkness of Kharkiv’s Puppet Theater for the city, Zhadan's words reverberated in the city’s windy streets, intertwined with a far echo of his poem:
“To stand and talk about the night
Stand and listen to the voices
of shepherds in the fog
incanting over every single
for an independent Ukraine