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The Rock Star Poet Playing Concerts to Ukrainians Sheltering Underground From Russian Bombs

7 minute read

As Russian shells rain down on Ukraine, the country’s most beloved poet cannot write. The inspiration is there: the tale of a schoolteacher who shepherded 10 children away from the front line after being told by the Ukrainian military that there was no hope of escape; old friends in Kharkiv who risked their lives to get neighbors to a shelter; or the discovery of mass graves across Ukraine. In the past 20 years, Serhiy Zhadan has written over a dozen books of poetry and seven novels; he’s also part of the ska-punk band Zhadan and the Dogs.

Now, though, it’s impossible to get the ink to flow; everything is happening too fast. “I can’t write poetry or prose right now,” Zhadan says during a video call from his apartment in Kharkiv. But music, somehow, keeps up. “I go to the music studio, and together with the band we get some songs out. It’s therapy. Then we go out and perform for our people.”

Mention Zhadan’s name in Ukraine and eyes light up. The 47-year-old’s work has long given voice to life in the Donbas, a predominantly industrial region of eastern Ukraine, and one that has endured fierce fighting between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists since 2014. In his work, Zhadan paints the region where he was born and raised as one intertwined with Russian culture but that is, first and foremost, Ukrainian.

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He belongs to a long line of poets playing a crucial role in Ukrainian culture. “Our leaders for a long time were not kings or queens, but poets,” Zhadan says. Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, says that many important monuments in Ukraine are dedicated to the 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, who was born a serf in 1814 and went on to champion political liberalization for Ukraine. “He is considered to be the father of the modern Ukrainian nation,” Plokhy says. Writers also played a major role in the country’s achieving independence in 1991, he adds.

Zhadan is part of this activist-poet tradition. At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to erase the very existence of Ukraine—he has denied Ukraine has “its own authentic statehood”—literature and art take on new meaning: they can ensure the country’s spirit is not lost to Kremlin propaganda.

When reports first reached Zhadan about Russia’s invasion, he was on a train heading west from Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, for a concert. Zhadan and his six bandmates turned back; they wouldn’t abandon the city in its hour of need.

It’s not the first time Zhadan has felt called to action. Back in 2004, he established a tent city in Kharkiv during the Orange Revolution—protests that called out corruption and Russian meddling in Ukraine’s presidential election. And during the Maidan revolution—which in 2014 drove out Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-backed authoritarian President—he was one of its leaders in Kharkiv. Zhadan became such a prominent figure in the Maidan revolution that when pro-Russian demonstrators found him in an occupied government building, they dragged him out, pushed him to his knees, and told him to kiss the Russian flag. He refused and was so severely beaten that he was hospitalized. “I told them to go f-ck themselves,” he wrote on his Facebook page following the incident.

These days, Zhadan and the Dogs have rolled up their sleeves to help with volunteer efforts and perform concerts to people sheltering from Russian bombs in Kharkiv’s metro. Usually dressed in black skinny jeans and a biker jacket, Zhadan spends his days in a flurry of activity across the city, organizing cultural events and fundraisers for Ukraine’s war effort. Since the early days of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Kharkiv has been on the front line. Authorities estimate that over half of the city’s prewar population of 1.4 million have fled. Key landmarks like the city’s Freedom Square have been subjected to heavy shelling, leaving only burned-out husks of once grand buildings.

It’s a city Zhadan has called home for decades. He was born and raised in Starobilsk, in the Luhansk region, and grew up speaking a language at home that was neither completely Ukrainian nor Russian but Surzhyk—a mixture of the two. “I’ve loved language since the moment I started reading,” he says. “I  always wrote different stories and poetry.”

When he moved to gritty, industrial Kharkiv in the early 1990s to study literature at university, he saw two versions of the city. On the one hand, it was the birthplace of Ukrainian nationalism—Kharkiv was an early ideological center, home to poets, philosophers, and scholars who were passionate about Ukraine’s national development in the 19th century. On the other, Kharkiv was a majority Russian-speaking city, just 30 miles from the Russian border and a former capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an “instrument Russia wanted to use to show Kharkiv could be Russian as well,” he says. It was here that Zhadan started to produce some of his most well-known work.

In 2010, Zhadan reached international acclaim with the novel Voroshilovgrad. As in an earlier novel, Depeche Mode, Zhadan explored the challenges of growing up in eastern Ukraine and the post-Soviet transition. After the war in Donbas began in 2014, his work looked at how people in the region were often forced to pick a side between Ukraine and Russia. In his 2017 novel, The Orphanage, the protagonist Pasha sets out on a quest to save his nephew from occupied territory in eastern Ukraine and is met with a cast of characters who are struggling to come to terms with this new binary landscape. In his 2019 poem, “They buried their son last winter,” the parents of a slain soldier tell the narrator they “don’t know” whether their child fought for the Russian-backed separatists or the Ukrainian government.

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Zhadan says that those who struggled to pick a side in the past have changed their minds after seeing Russian brutality up close in recent weeks, from photos of mutilated bodies from Bucha to scenes from besieged Mariupol. “The scale of the war crimes is so horrible and unbelievable, it’s almost impossible to say this is not genocide,” he says.

For now, art and activism sustain Zhadan. When we spoke in late May, he had just returned from reopening a bookstore in central Kharkiv. The next day he was due to deliver military vehicles to the front line close to the city. Every day, he posts snippets of his experiences to thousands of followers on social media. Zhadan is determined that Ukrainian voices will not be silenced.

Nothing he does can stop the fear swirling around Kharkiv, but he isn’t going anywhere. “At the end of the day,” he says, “I’m a literature and music lover who is deeply committed to Ukraine and my city of Kharkiv.”

With reporting by Mariia Vynogradova/London

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