Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Literature / History

On the Road Again

A journey through the career of Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, winner of this year's EBRD Literature Prize.

For Zhadan the true Ukraine is found on the road, or more often on the rails: "Everything interesting in a country happens at the railway station, and the smaller the station, the more interesting it is"

The Anglosphere took its time to embrace Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, but got round to it eventually. News that he had been awarded this year's EBRD Literature Prize seemed proof enough that his work had finally been read by the kind of people who matter. While the award may be considered a sympathy vote for a country defending itself against a genocidal enemy, it would be exceedingly hard to argue that Zhadan doesn't deserve it: he's been publishing big prize-winning novels for over ten years already, and the only real surprise is why it took us so long to catch up.

As well as one of Ukraine's leading cultural exports, Zhadan also become a symbol of Kharkiv, the city which was an early target of the unsuccessful Russian offensive in the north. Zhadan chose to stay put in the city and help coordinate efforts to keep Kharkiv functioning, while at the same time using his status as a literary celebrity to communicate its plight. Over recent months, Zhadan has become the most widely recognized cultural face of a country whose culture, if we are to believe Kremlin ideologues, does not exist.

Serhiy Zhadan's Facebook page has become a valued rallying point as well as an authentic source of on-the-ground news. His video postcards from Kharkiv are not just a way of showing local defiance, but also a demonstration of the determination to act  - to volunteer where you can, organize transports of food and medicine, maintain morale not only in the city itself but in the wider Ukrainian community outside. In many ways this is a continuation of the work Zhadan has been doing since the start of Russian aggression in 2014, when he became intensively involved in supporting eastern Ukrainian communities on the new front line created by the Moscow-initiated insurrection in the Donbas.

Earlier this March the Polish Academy of Sciences decided to nominate Zhadan for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a characteristically flamboyant gesture from a country that has come to regard the Ukrainian cause as its own. A gesture it may be, but not without with solid artistic ground. Zhadan has had a revolutionary impact on Ukrainian literature, and provided post-independence Ukraine with some of its most canonical cultural achievements. He twice won the BBC Ukrainian service's Book of the Year award (something like the Ukrainian equivalent of the Booker Prize), and one of his novels - Voroshilovgrad - was declared BBC's book of the decade. 

Depeche Mode

Serhiy Zhadan was born in 1974 in the east-Ukrainian town of Starobilsk, within the area known as the Donbas but just outside the territory carved out by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. (As a result of the offensives of 2022, the town is currently under Russian control.) Studying literature in Kharkiv, the city where he has lived ever since, Zhadan first came to attention as a poet, writing in an urgent, energized Ukrainian language inspired by the avant-garde poets of the 1920s.

His short stories and early novels (including the irresistibly-titled breakthrough novel Depeche Mode), rich in autobiographical fragments and social observation, detailed the progress of a Ukrainian generation who went through school during the last years of communism and came of age in the transitional Nineties. His early stories are brilliant snapshots of early adult life, full of references to pop-culture, football, drink, drugs, casual delinquency and occasional violence.  (Depeche Mode the band have little to do with Zhadan's book of the same name - although they do appear in a comic interlude in which a Kharkiv radio presenter describes them as an Irish band influenced by Celtic folklore- a typical Zhadanist example of how popular culture can be both ubiquitous and misunderstood at one and the same time.)

Throughout his twenties and early thirties Zhadan was writing about misfits and subcultures at a time of radical social change, combining a restless anarcho-punk sensibility with genuine compassion for the people uprooted by confusing times. With the numbing stupidity of the communist system giving way to wild capitalism and corrupt party politics, there were always plenty of reasons to preserve one's rebel stance, and few compelling reasons to grow up.

While Depeche Mode established Zhadan as the voice of a generation (indeed he is still frequently referred to as the enfant terrible of Ukrainian literature even though he has long left his enfance behind); his subsequent novels followed the progress of that generation as it entered increasingly serious adult life. His 2012 novel Voroshilovgrad. a modern-day western centred on a gas station in eastern Ukraine; 2014's Mesopotamia, a multi-narrative novel that follows a disparate cast of characters around Kharkiv; and 2017's Internat (published as The Orphanage in 2021 by Yale University Press, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler), dealing with the eastern Ukraine in the wake of the 2014 war, add up to a gritty, compelling panorama of life in Ukraine's eastern borderlands in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Voroshilovgrad (the Soviet-era name of Luhansk, a city that hovers in the background of the novel but which the protagonists never visit) was his international breakthrough, winning the coveted Jan Michalski prize in Switzerland in 2014. Zhadan is also an internationally translated poet, and an alternative rock star, fronting since 2000 the ska-punk band Zhadan and the Dogs in Space (Zhadan i sobaki v kosmosi). Media friendly and socially engaged, Zhadan is also a skilled communicator who comes across as direct, straightforward, and without intellectual pretentions.

"Everything interesting in a country happens at the railway station, and the smaller the station, the more interesting it is"

As someone who grew up in a predominantly Russian-speaking milieu but opted to write in Ukrainian, there was always something unconventional about Zhadan - as if he was deliberately subverting popular wisdom about Ukraine's supposed divisions into a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russophone east. In many ways he is attempting to reinvigourate the modernist traditions of Kharkiv in the 1920s, when the city served as both the capital of Soviet Ukraine and the centre of a vibrant Ukrainian-language culture. Many of Kharkiv's leading Ukrainian-language writers perished during Stalin's purges, their generation subsequently dubbed the "executed Renaissance", a mournful reflection on how much more widespread Ukrainian-language literature might have been had it been left to flourish on its own terms. The residential building where many members of this lost generation of writers lived, the Slovo House, was damaged by Russian shelling on March 6 this year (and duly reported by Zhadan on his Facebook page): a terrifying reminder that the calculated culturecide of the Stalin years is being revisited by the Kremlin's current incumbent. 

There was a huge upsurge in Ukrainian-language literature in the years following Ukrainian independence, although many people found it easy to categorize this as a western Ukrainian phenomenon, driven by intellectual circles in L'viv, Ivano-Frankivsk, or Chernivtsi. As the most talented writer from the "east", Zhadan performed a valuable service in demonstrating that Ukrainian literature wasn't just for the westerners, it was for everyone. He also had a highly-developed ear for contemporary street language, littering his prose with expressions that you didn't normally hear in polite society, in the process fashioning a language that an Ukrainian Irvine Welsh might be able to write in.   It goes without saying that Zhadan works are also read in Russian, with his Kharkiv-based publisher Folio producing editions of his works in both languages.

Train dreams

Zhadan's other great contribution has been to describe better than anyone the vastness and the contrasts of the country he lives in.  Most of his novels and short stories begin with a journey: his characters are constantly on the move, hanging out in railway stations, or waiting patiently at isolated rural bus stops. His first novel Depeche Mode, set in the summer of '93, involves a group of Kharkiv late-teenagers searching for a missing friend while crossing the country by train. In Voroshilovgrad, thirty-something Herman (again the same age as Zhadan when he wrote the book) heads from Kharkiv to his native Donbas to investigate the disappearance of his brother, owner of a gas station coveted by mysterious local businessmen. 2005's Anarchy in the UKR (another book with a killer of a title), is an unorthodox exercise in auto-fiction that sees Zhadan setting off to southeastern Ukraine in search of places associated with the Ukrainian anarchist tradition - notably the provincial town of Hulyaipole, birthplace of the legendary Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno. These narratives are like the quests of ancient myth and legend, Zhadan's protagonists travelling through a variety of landscapes and meeting a variety of people and challenges on the way.

For Zhadan the true Ukraine is found on the road, or more often on the rails. His homeland is a place of vast expanses, held together by long-distance buses and trains. "Everything interesting in a country happens at the railway station, and the smaller the station, the more interesting it is" he writes in Anarchy in the UKR. The gas station in the novel Voroshilovgrad is another of Zhadan's mythical staging-posts on a journey through a vast homeland.

Serhiy Zhadan (courtesy Yale University Press)

Fellow Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych told me a few years ago that he once travelled around with Zhadan by train giving readings in various cities, and gave me an insight into the importance of the journey in Ukrainian storytelling "For many Ukrainians travelling by train or bus takes up a big part of their life. So they don't waste time there; they tell stories, they make friends, they drink together, but most of all they tell stories. They are meeting people that they may not meet again."

Most of the journeys in Zhadan's fiction take place in the eastern Ukraine and the Donbas, and his books are full of evocative descriptions of a landscape characterized by sunflowers, cornfields, grain elevators, pit-heads, and huge cargo trains parked in freight yards.

It is a landscape revisited in Zhadan's most recent, maybe career-defining, novel, The Orphanage, which also uses the device of the quest, with school-teacher Pasha setting out to rescue his nephew Sasha, who is in an orphanage in a part of the Donbas occupied by Russian-backed separatists. The landscape Pasha travels through is no longer one of sunflowers and corn, but a disturbing, apocalyptic region of damaged towns and cowed people. Written in response to the Russian invasion of 2014 an the uneasy ceasefire that followed it, The Orphanage describes a tense, impermanent world of shifting front lines, constant unease, and a fear that can only be overcome by people helping each other in whatever small ways they can. 

Zhadan has himself said that Ukraine's literature will never be the same again after the war. His own poetry, of which he continues to produce at a prolific rate, is increasingly dominated by the pathos and suffering of ordinary people in his native east. But once the guns have stopped and the Russian invaders driven out, the fields of sunflowers and corn will still be there, and Serhiy Zhadan will still be writing about them.

© Jonathan Bousfield

This article is a modified version of a text that appeared in Jutarnji list on April 2 2022.