Angrily Experiencing the Best Days of Our Lives

Ukrainian author and poet Serhiy Zhadan writes about resisting corruption and coping with loss in a society that is spiraling senselessly into conflict.

Linda Kinstler | Longreads | June 2018 | 12 minutes (3,116 words)

No one heard the flames when they began to lick the roof of our cabin on Christmas Day. The smoke made no sound as it accumulated on the third floor, first in small whisps, then in thick clouds. In the living room downstairs, our small group was sprawled out on the couches watching the Soviet Christmas classic Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the fairytale film based on a collection of stories by Nikolai Gogol. The stove fire was stuffed with wood, but its raging fire seemed contained. It was negative 26 degrees celsius outside of our mountain lodge, a bone-chilling winter day in the Carpathian foothills of southwestern Ukraine, but inside it was getting hot.

The warmth made us lethargic, so we didn’t notice when the cracks in the floorboards and doors started to glow. When my Russian failed me and the scenes in the movie became too hard to follow, I turned to my copy of Voroshilovgrad, a novel by the Ukrainian writer, activist, and musician Serhiy Zhadan, the bard of eastern Ukraine. The book had appeared in Ukrainian in 2010, and the English translation, by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes, had just come out. Set in Zhadan’s hometown of Luhansk — which was called Voroshilovgrad during Soviet times — the novel tells a very Ukrainian story, one of homecoming and heartbreak, of dashed hopes, of wars and borders, and the relentless return of the dead. Brothers killed in a fire somehow come back to life to play a soccer game; no one sticks around waiting for the future, only for the past.

In America, where everything is disposable and replaceable, where the veneer of safety covering everyday life is thicker, we are taught to run out of a building on fire, to let everything burn.

It was the village locals who first noticed that our house had caught fire — they shouted over to us about the pyre of smoke rising from the roof outside. Two of my Ukrainian friends rushed upstairs with towels and buckets of water hoping they might extinguish the flames, but by then they had already spread too far. “Passports, documents!” one of them screamed. Her command surprised me: in America, where everything is disposable and replaceable, where the veneer of safety covering everyday life is thicker, we are taught to run out of a building on fire, to let everything burn. But I was the only American in the house that day; heeding her order, I turned and ran upstairs.

We collected everything we could and everyone got outside just as the flames began licking the foot of the stairs. From a cottage next door, we watched the fire and its thick plumes of smoke engulf the rented cabin as men from the village ran inside to save its valuable fixtures — out came the TV, the refrigerator, some antiques. I remembered, with some regret, that I had left Voroshilovgrad on the couch downstairs, and thought of how its pages must have fanned the flames.

***

Zhadan’s writing is as combustive as his country. Over the past several years, as Ukraine has absorbed the bloody toll of revolution, annexation, and war, he has emerged both at home, where he is also the lead singer for the ska band Zhadan and the Dogs, and abroad, where new English translations have broadened his readership, as an unsentimental, unyielding voice of the ailing nation. His volumes of poetry and prose are crass and melancholic, vengeful eulogies for a nation on fire. “I will sing of this ruined country, / disintegrating from the poison in its blood, / I will remind everyone who passes by of their guilt, / I will chew the twilight rich with color,” he writes in Mesopotamia, his collection of stories and poems newly translated into English (his prose again by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes, his poetry by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps). Mesopotamia was published in Ukrainian 2014, just after the war over Ukraine’s eastern territories began, just after Zhadan was beaten trying to defend his city from pro-Russian occupiers who had taken control of state property. “I told them to go fuck themselves,” he wrote of the incident on his Facebook page.

Zhadan’s new work is a chronicle of Kharkiv, a blend of gospel and epic dedicated to the city between two rivers, Zhadan’s adopted hometown. Like Mesopotamia before it, Kharkiv is steeped in mystery and industry, in myth and magic. Just as the Tigris and the Euphrates fed the Sumerians, the Lopan and the Kharkiv rivers feed its people. Once the capital of Soviet Ukraine, a center of manufacturing and trade, of literature and art, Kharkiv is the closest metropolis to the front line, an ancient city on the brink.

On the banks of Kharkiv, Zhadan finds his muse. “The greatest danger is hidden in rivers,” one of his characters, a young student named Nastia, remarks in Mesopotamia. “But the most reliable protection is down there, too, because rivers separate friend from foe and partition light from darkness; they protect us from immediate threats and unexpected turns of events.” Nastia carries an icon of Saint Sarah, the servant who guided the mothers of the apostles across the Mediterranean. Like Sarah, Nastia can navigate the seas and save lives, among them the surly male protagonists of Zhadan’s short stories, some of whom are named for the apostles — Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas — and some of whom are Zhadan’s unique additions to the gospel — Marat, Romeo, Yura, and Bob.

These men emerge, through Zhadan’s writing, as the patron saints of Kharkiv. “Spreading love is their vocation,” he writes. “The gods have opened the heart of each of them, making way for both love and hate, setting them up for endless joy and suffering, so all they can do is love and hope, believe and lose faith, wait and never retreat, express their gratitude and profess their views, lose everything they’ve accumulated and start anew, hoping that this time around love won’t betray them, that death will retreat.” But things don’t go their way, and the specter of death never retreats. Instead, they lean into it, examining the dead among them, and arguing over whether death really exists. “The music made me want to die. I got right down to it,” Romeo remarks. “We gravitate toward death — especially someone else’s,” Yura thinks, glancing over at the corpse next to him in his hospital room.

Zhadan’s apostles encounter one another at weddings, funerals, bars, and deathbeds. They bury their friends, their families are threatened, their lovers spurn them and then leave town. They pray for deliverance, and Zhadan imagines the saints soaring overhead, sympathizing with the scenes of loss and lust below. “We are doing everything we can,” they might say. “We would like things to go well for you, but how they go is not entirely up to us, so you shouldn’t rely on us alone… We have our love, but we don’t always use it. We have our fear, and we rely on it more than we ought to. There are two paths in life — one leads to heaven and the other to hell. Those paths often cross, though.”

***

The epigraph to Mesopotamia, from The True History of the Sumerians, Volume I, describes the first residents of the fertile crescent, but it captures the denizens of Kharkiv just as well: “Nobody knows where they came from or why they settled on these rivers, but their affinity for fishing and knowledge of pilotage indicates that they arrived by water, sailing up the rivers, against the current. Their language seemed perfectly suited for songs and maledictions. Their women were tender and defiant, the kind that gave birth to brave children and serious problems.”

On Christmas Day in Ukraine, death knocks at your door. We were eating breakfast when it arrived.

When I first met Zhadan, at a cafe in Kharkiv in the winter of 2015, we discussed some of these serious problems. The war was raging in the east, where Russian-backed separatists had seized control of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatened to take Kharkiv as well. A series of bombings had upended civilian life in the city, but had not yet taken any lives. I asked Zhadan what he made of the events of the last year — the bloody, triumphant revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the war zone in his hometown. “It became clear that it’s very easy to lose everything: all of your freedom, your country, stability, everything that you had,” he said. “But for a lot of people, little has changed…They don’t get why there’s war here, who started it, and why it won’t end.”

I was in town to report on the growing threat of those “terror acts,” having heard about the string of random bombings targeting the hangouts of pro-government sympathizers — but I was also there to visit the city for the first time, to see where my grandmother and her five siblings had grown up, and what became of their home. The more I learned about Kharkiv, the more magical it became, slowly revealing itself as a city of wanderers, vagabonds, and poets. Everyone told me that the bombs had instilled fear throughout the city, yet they hoped, with relentless optimism, that the culprits would never take a human life. It was the middle of winter, and the city was dusted with snow. A professor at the university welcomed me into her home in a courtyard near the opera house, and on my way there, I passed columns stamped with the words “DEFEND KHARKIV” circling the silhouette of a kalashnikov. In the professor’s living room filled with candles, books, and a grand piano, her computer perched on top, we spoke of the bombings. “The fear—it’s not that people will come from outside,” she said. “It’s that the people you work with, who smile at you today, that tomorrow they’ll report you, and you’ll die.”


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She put me in touch with a friend of hers, a local radio journalist, who had agreed to accompany me to report on a pro-Russian protest in Freedom Square the next day, but she did not tell me he was blind. I met him by the steps of the university, where he had been watching the gathering from afar. We exchanged greetings, linked arms, and set off together into the fray, where everyone knew his name. “We’re getting used to the fear,” he told me over coffee afterwards. “We’re getting used to our new conditions. We all understand that this war is not for one year: the physical, moral exhaustion strains your body. But what is there to do? This is a new kind of war.”

A few days later I left the city. Shortly afterwards, the bombs took their first lives. “There’s always / Someone who will remind us about each of our losses,” Zhadan writes in Mesopotamia. “There’s always someone who will not let you be, / Who will pull fear out of your body like weeds.”

***

On Christmas Day in Ukraine, death knocks at your door. We were eating breakfast when it arrived, part of a band of scraggly local boys dressed in costume who had come to perform vertep, traditional Christmas plays, for us. They smelled of alcohol and bread. One dressed as the devil, another as death itself. There were also kings and priests and shepherds; in other iterations of this tradition, one might see boys dressed as Russian soldiers or local politicians. They gathered rather tiredly in our living room and began to sing. We applauded, snapped photos, and released them into the snow-white morning.

I had decamped to the Carpathians with my boyfriend to see a new part of Ukraine, to experience a traditional Christmas celebration, and to meet the young, promising reformers and professionals that made up our friends’ circle. By then it had been three years since the revolution, and while the war was ongoing — the contact line euphemistically called “hot” or “loud” from nearly daily exchanges of bullets and shelling — it seemed like Ukraine might still emerge from the carnage of the past few years with something left to celebrate. Our hosts patiently explained the Christmas rituals to us, we played charades and sipped liberal pours of wine. “May you be warmed by wine someone else opened, / May tenderness fill your careless speech,” Zhadan writes in one of his fine poems at the close of Mesopotamia. That evening, for us, his blessing came true.

The Carpathian mountains have always had a magical air; the region is home to the country’s last shamans, fortune-tellers and soothsayers who carry on an ancient Eurasian tradition. When a group of German journalists visited these shamans last year, one Carpathian molfar, as they are called, cast a spell to protect and preserve the nation. “Just as smoke leaves fire, so shall the enemy leave our borders, today and for all time,” the molfar said, clicking open a lighter to ignite a dried flower.

Instead of averting his eyes from the chaos, instead of leaning away as one leans away from the smoke of a bonfire, Zhadan sticks his head into the flames.

Like the performers who visited us that morning, the molfars of the western mountains guard the traditions of their nation from erasure. In the east, thousands of blind storytellers once wandered the Kharkiv steppe doing the same. These were the kobzari, the moral authorities, whose songs told of the region’s past, present, and future. At the turn of the last century, the kobzari gathered in Kharkiv for the Twelfth All-Russian Archaeological Congress; to the archaeologists, these wandering bards were “living antiquity,” archaeological wonders with legs. The storytellers were fêted, they toured the Russian empire, but there are no kobzari in Ukraine anymore. Some thirty years after that celebratory congress, the bards disappeared.

No one has found evidence for how or why, but Ukrainian sources say that they were exterminated en masse after being called to Kharkiv for another congress; after the proceedings were over, the Soviet secret police showed up, packed the storytellers into train cars that deposited them in a forest outside the city. There, some say, the kobzari were shot, and with their deaths Ukraine’s walking archaeological wonders came to an untimely end.

This is the history to which Zhadan, novelist, poet, activist, and frontman, stands as heir. He is inextricably linked to Kharkiv, the city of so much love and pain that he cannot leave behind. In Mesopotamia’s nine short stories telling of Kharkiv’s gangsters and poets, its wrestlers, doctors, and debt-collectors, and in his angry, lamentful poetry, Zhadan conjures the spirit of the old kobzari, and joins their ranks with his closing lines of verse:

Always returning here to these hills and rivers,
where guards and tax collectors stand at the gates.
Here the evangelists in churches have such dark faces,
like they’ve been in the sun all day picking grapes.

Here the men wear so much gold
that it’s a strain for death to carry them off.
Here the women are touched by such deep fears at night
that they paint their eyes blue.

Here children learn such dangerous trades when they’re young
that they can’t find jobs when they grow up.
So every war for them is like manna from heaven,
since soldiers are laid to rest with flowers.

Trucks from the South bring a plague into the city.
At midnight the beggars count the losses.
As always, it’s my fate to remember everyone
and return here.

***

As we watched the house burn to the ground, my friends and I made mental lists of everything we’d lost. Mostly, it was incidentals — warm clothes, luggage, a few cell phones — but someone had left a computer behind, another had left a Crimean passport (the former more replaceable than the latter). An hour passed before we watched an old fire truck groan through the snow to reach the burning remains, but by then the bus sent by the owner of the house, a local oligarch, had arrived to collect us. The owner put us up at another one of his properties, a hotel near Lviv, where we wrote down the approximate monetary value of our burnt belongings. Our friends hoped the legal system of the newly reformed Ukraine would bend in their favor, that if they were forced to petition for compensation, a fair court would hear their case.

That night, we sat at dinner watching videos of the fire on our iPhones, still wearing our smoky clothes, but not believing that we had lived through the flames. We felt lucky, and we were. It could have been so much worse. “It’s very easy to lose everything,” Zhadan told me. Later, we learned that we would not be getting anything back. The oligarch had the incident written off the books, and as far as the authorities were concerned, the house was empty when the fire broke out. It was as if it never happened at all.

“It’s easy (almost too easy) to read the story of recent Ukrainian history in [the] failed journeys” of Zhadan’s fiction, Peter Pomerantsev writes. But it is also irresistible: Zhadan’s work captures the bitterness we felt at the news of this erasure, a bitterness made worse by the cynicism of low expectations. “Fights without rules — daily wages of the saints,” Zhadan writes. His work goads readers against giving up the struggle to eradicate corruption, urging them not to forget the promises they once hoped would come true. In his verse, this struggle is figured as a boxing match among friends, where the “young apostles fight / against the locals / they consider foreign.” The saints go to battle in the passageways of modern Ukraine, in the political bureaus, checkpoints, gas stations, and clubs, where moral authorities are few and far in between, where death follows closely upon the heels of dishonesty. “Destroy them for their corruption and laziness, / their treachery in every generation.”

There is so much anger, so much death in Zhadan’s work, as in Ukraine itself, where even as so many keep dying from shelling and bullets and mines, some still manage to come back to life. But instead of averting his eyes from the chaos, instead of leaning away as one leans away from the smoke of a bonfire, Zhadan sticks his head into the flames. “Not loving and not forgiving / Not accepting and not believing, / Angrily experiencing the best days / Of our lives,” he writes. Zhadan is unrelenting, in life and work alike. In Mesopotamia, he has written a new kind of legend for Ukraine, one that points the way forward while keeping watch over the past, as all good legends do. In verse and prose, he makes his readers a morbid promise: “This story will have a happy ending that nobody in it will live to see.”

* * *

Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, California. Her writing appears in The AtlanticThe Guardian Long ReadThe New Republicand elsewhere. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky