“Russian writers should put down their pens and sell pizza”
An interview with Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian writer and singer. Interviewer: Zoriana Varenia
ZORIANA VARENIA: Are you writing now? Does the war inspire you?
SERHIY ZHADAN The war does not inspire me. It discourages me, and deprives of my willingness to write. Here and there I do write something, we recorded a few songs with the musicians, I penned a few poems, but overall I am trying to document what I see. Now it is not a good time for creativity.
You organise charity concerts, you are a volunteer, you are buying cars for the Ukrainian army. When doing all that are you a citizen or an artist at the time of war?
I am not an artist at the time of war, I am a citizen. Being a volunteer, helping Ukrainian army and civilians this is what is the most important for me. In addition, there is that artistic component, which – in a way – is a certain therapy aimed at recreating some resources. That is why, from time to time, we are trying to meet with our friends in some studios, play a concert or organize a literary evening, simply not to forget what poetry sounds like.
Many of the interviews that you are giving now focus on politics…
Because journalists ask about politics. There is a certain deformation of the status of Ukrainian literature. The role that is not fulfilled by the politicians gets transferred to the artists and writers. Our politicians are usually irresponsible, not always honest, and do not generate trust. This has been the case since since the 19th century when artists had to be politicians and when the Ukrainian political nation came into being. Or to be more precise, the Ukrainian political language and Ukrainian literary narratives.
It was thus quite natural that a writer who was writing in the Ukrainian language would take not a cultural but political position. Unfortunately, this points to one more problem, namely that many processes have not been completed and that they are still ongoing. This is especially true about the process of forming Ukrainians as a community, which is an active agent and which can build its own state. That is way a part of the society, a part of the civil society, and some of the readers are still directing their questions and needs to writers. What is worse is that these writers are starting to answer these questions. I myself really do not like to be asked about politics.
You come from the Luhansk region. You live in Kharkiv. How was it that right away you started writing in Ukrainian? For your region, it is quite unusual.
Could we say that the Luhansk region is not Ukraine? I come from a Ukrainian family. Ethnically, I am Ukrainian. I learned Ukrainian. Since childhood I have enjoyed reading Ukrainian literature. At that time I was reading the classics, not contemporary writers. That is why for me Ukrainian is my native language, while Russian is foreign. I heard it since childhood, just like all children born in the Soviet Union, could hear it, but for me it was never a native language.
And yet your Ukrainian roots are very important for your work. From a western Ukrainian perspective, both Luhansk and Kharkiv have always been very pro-Russian.
You are talking about stereotypes here, while reality is multi-dimensional. I cannot say that stereotypes do not exists, and to a certain degree they even reflect the reality. However, they also exaggerate as well as the situation that they are used to present may change. In any case, to treat Ukraine’s East as something that is non-Ukrainian or anty-Ukrainian is harmful. It has generated damage in the past and it will in the future if Ukrainians from Central Ukraine or from the West do not change their assessment about eastern Ukraine.
How to overcome these stereotypes?
Personal experiences as well as visits to these areas, being there and talking to people who live there can help us overcome stereotypes. This could help many stereotypes disappear or – conversely – make them stronger. I talked to many of our soldiers, especially those who came to fight in Donbas but are originally from central and western Ukraine. I can see that many of them are here for the first time. They are interested in what it is like here and how people live here.
Some radically change their position and say that of course this is Ukraine: we liberated villages here and people greeted us with tears. But there are also those who experienced some kind of rejection, which could be explained by the fact that there are all kinds of people out there and that people react differently in stressful situations. In this way or another many of our convictions can get verified as a result of direct communication.
Did you ever have any inferiority complex which was so skillfully imposed by the Russians on Ukrainians when they, for example, were referring to themselves as “older brothers”?
I remember Kharkiv at the turn of the 1990s when this city was quite aggressive towards the Ukrainian language. This was generating a discomfort and it seemed that it was easier to compromise with oneself than to transfer to the Russian language. For me it did not take long, because I felt a certain inferiority complex indeed. This was the feeling of being ashamed of myself and my own identity. This was humiliating and I am convinced that no human being should experience that. That is why at a certain point I simply stopped using the Russian language.
Did you ever write in Russian?
No. Maybe at some point in school I wrote a few poems in Russian, but that would be all. I always wrote in Ukrainian and I was always a part of the Ukrainian-speaking community in Kharkiv. But when talking about this complex, I understand how much everything has changed and that now everything is just opposite: if you speak Ukrainian this language is powerful and entitlements. It entitles you to justice, freedom and full dignity.
Why did it happen so late?
We are a highly traumatised society with a very difficult history. Just think of the Great Famine in 1933 and the death of millions of people as well as their mass replacement by those who came here from Russia. We also have very real differences between the East and the West. We experienced harsh repressions, and all these experiences are reflected in our collective memory and thinking.
My grandfather, who is no longer alive, experienced Holodomor. He shared with me his stories. I then realized how strong and deep of a trauma it was for him. And it stayed with him till the end of his life. When he only heard Stalin’s name he was like Pavlov’s dog – I am sorry I am talking like this about a man, about my grandfather, but this is a metaphor – his words would change immediately and you could feel fear in him. It was something that he could not root out. That is why it is so much easier to just condemn many things and it is much more difficult to understand them and fix them. Now, this is what is taking place in Ukraine’s eastern parts. Many people who live there are finding their Ukrainian identity in them. It was in their minds, but they were not activating it. Instead, this identity was buried somewhere on the bottom, underneath another, maybe more comfortable one, namely that of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian who is completely immersed in the Russian culture, uses Russian cultural codes, but at the same time holds a Ukrainian passport and national ID. This, as it turned out, is a very dangerous situation and a very dangerous model of identity. It shows susceptibility to manipulation. And it allows Putin-likes to say “I will come and liberate you”, which indeed means “I will come and destroy you”.
Could the Ukrainian culture exist in the Russian language?
Of course it could. First of all, there are Ukrainians for whom the Russian language is their native tongue. Can we recognize their segment of culture as Ukrainian? What is important here is context.
Today some changes have been made to Ukrainian school curriculum. Russian literature was removed from it, while literary works written in Russian but by people who were born and live in Ukraine remained. This makes sense as should it not have taken place, there would be many questions. How should we treat Gogol? Should we just give him back to the Russians? Just like that? In my view this would be a waste. But there is no Bulhakov in this new curriculum. Mainly because in addition to the text there is context and this context is what matters here.
And what matters is not the place of birth or residence, but the self-positioning of the authors in question. If somebody was born on the territory of today’s Ukraine but never considered himself a Ukrainian why should we drag him to our Ukrainian field? We should also check how many writers we have who were writing in Russian and are still writing in Russian but have very pro-Ukrainian position, pro-Ukrainian views and it would be difficult to accuse them of lack of patriotism.
From an emotional point of view, I understand that a radical solution of this problem, that is a statement that anything Russian which takes place on Ukraine’s territory has nothing to do with Ukraine, will not work. I think that in this situation we should evaluate every writer individually and not talk about an abstract concept of Russian-language Ukrainian literature. The same can also be said about the literature of the Crimean Tatars which is now being created and published on Ukraine’s territory and possibly also works in other languages.
Would you say that your listeners and readers are predominantly young people? Or are these people of different age groups?
In different age groups. However, the literary evenings are mostly attended by young people because this is typical for such events. Older people do not attend them in large numbers as they are not used to them. For young people, on the other hand, this is like a rock concert but that is also why you can have a wrong impression that only young people are reading books.
In your books you write about the youth, as for example in Depeche Mode. You depict their behaviour and the state which is called pochuista. This is book was published long time ago, but would you say that something has changed since then? Is this state still observable now?
The pochuista state has long been gone. I also changed and the things I wrote about 20 years ago changed too. But the readers have not changed. They are young, beautiful and ironic.
Would you say that what you were presenting changed because Ukraine changed and Ukraine got changed because of the war? Is this a change from the times when there was no interest in the world and life before Maidan and the war that started in 2014 and now the invasion?
The society has changed. The state has changed. The society has matured. I can see obvious, strong changes since February 24th 2022. Many people are not noticing them, they are saying that there is stagnation in Ukraine and that nothing is going on and things are only getting worse. In my view this is a very biased opinion.
It seems to us that in Ukraine it is difficult to fight with some stereotypes. For example, Ukrainians get very upset when you start talking about corruption. They say that this not the only topic that should be discussed in regards to their country and that this is not only Ukraine’s problem.
Corruption does not exist only in Ukraine. To a large extent this is also a stereotype which until today was actively spread by Russian propaganda. And to a large extent the world has been looking at Ukraine through this Russian perspective. In one way or another we were seen as part of the Russian world. A country that aspires to have its own statehood, autonomy, but which in fact is one nation, with one language and one territory as well as history with its bigger brother Russia. Looking at Ukraine through this perspective you cannot really understand what is taking place inside it, what kind of country is it and what kind of nation. This is basically a wrong approach. Mainly because when you are looking at Ukraine through Ukrainian eyes, you understand the logic of our independence, the development of our language and our culture, also our church.
Actually, the topic of our church is very up to date. Because of its independence. The truth is that Ukrainians have not started going to church en mass, as they do not go there. But when we announced tomos, that is independent church, it was our victory. This is as if Ukraine’s national football team would have won the World Cup. This meant that the church was ours.
To a large degree Ukrainians were also watching the world through Ukrainian channels, they were subscribing to Russian YouTube channels, watching Russian tv, listening to Russian music, and watching Russian films. We also subconsciously were noticing this vision that we are not fully a nation but a younger brother and that our literature is inferior, our music is inferior and we have no cinema at all. Our politicians are worse and everything is worse in our country, including our military equipment.
And indeed all this made sense. It had foundations, but only until February 24th 2022. On the following day we saw columns of burnt, shitty, Russian tanks which turned out to be of a very poor quality, obsolete and unadjusted to modern warfare. We saw that the Russian Army and the Russian society (as the army is a mirror of the society) is made of rapists and war criminals. Ukrainians lost their illusions in regards to Russia – those who still had some illusions.
Why did this take place in 2022 and not in 2014 when the occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbas started?
Russians very effectively and skillfully manipulated public opinion saying that it was not them who were fighting in Donbas. Kharkiv is around 40 kilometers away from Russia. Those of the city’s residents who live on top level in apartment buildings can see rockets flying from Belograd towards Ukraine. As it turned out many of us had not seen Russia. They did not know what Russia was all about. Instead, they knew Russia telediscs, concerts, fashion films, bloggers, which was all a prism of a false façade. And then it turned out that even this was not Russia. Russia is now tantamount to soldiers who are stealing our fridges. This is the level of today’s Russia – this is its moral, cultural and ethical level. And suddenly this has become visible.
I think that the sole intonation has changed in Ukraine. Ukrainians have come to the realization that they no longer need to ask anybody for permission to be Ukrainians. They do not need to explain to anybody why they are Ukrainians. They simply are Ukrainians and we cannot ignore this fact.
This may sound a bit like an exaggeration, but what is taking place in Ukraine now changes, to a large extent, the political rhetoric of the whole world. The world got simply stuck in the last thirty years of lies that were spread around after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. After much reshuffling, after the victory over communism, the world got more relaxed, accepted many compromises, accepted double standards. Namely, on the one hand we would talk about democracy and freedom and on the other hand, we would collaborate with dictators, close our eyes to human rights violations, censorship, repressions, and mass murders.
It turns out that in the long term this is not maintainable and that evil needs to get stopped, or it will devour you before. And now the rules of the game were about to get changed, but Ukrainians are keeping this evil at bay.
Did you too have this curtain on your eyes when it comes to your attitude towards Russians?
No. Not because I am smarter, better or different. Because I had lots of contacts with Russian culture. I could see what it was from the inside. In reality, it is a very rotten, completely irresponsible group of artists, ready to play a game called culture, which is a part of the totalitarian, chauvinistic machine. And as long as its participants will not draw the right conclusions, they cannot do anything good, and I do not feel sorry for them.
Could we change that?
Germans did. Step by step, with many problems, but they got through the path from the Third Reich, through the German Federal Republic to the European Union. I think that something has changed in this society’s minds. We cannot deny that they have not drawn conclusions from Hitler’s wrongdoings. Russians, on the other hand, did not draw any conclusions from Stalin’s crimes. According to opinion polls, Stalin is still a hero they glorify. For us Stalin is a murder, a criminal, an embodiment of darkness. For the Russians, he is a national hero. And this is because he was a murderer of the Ukrainians.
Do you keep in touch with the Russians?
One wrote: don’t be stupid, give us the city location because we will destroy you all. At that time Facebook was still in Russia, it was the first or second day of the war. He wrote this on his Facebook and a few thousand people wrote that he should go to the same place where Ukrainian soldiers told the Russian ship to go. But one of my friends, I will not give out her name here because I love her and respect her, has – since I have known her and that is 15 years, been very strongly anti-Putin and has always been supporting independent Ukraine. She has not changed at all and she has been faithful to her convictions.
What was the first day of the invasion like for you? Did you feel the oncoming evil?
This was a huge threat and in the first days I did not understand what form will this evil take. How it will enter the world, how it will get implemented. The frontline was very long indeed, Kyiv and Chernihiv were under attack, there was an impression that the country was falling apart. For a moment it was very worrisome as it was not clear how this evil could get stopped.
And then the first small miracle took place. It suddenly turned out that this evil only presents itself as some kind of superpower, which cannot be stopped, while the reality is that it is very weak. And that everything we thought was real, was fictional in fact. All that what took place in Kyiv or near Chernihiv, near Sumy or Kharkiv. They were in Kharkiv on February 24th morning and reached its suburbs. But then they got kicked out. And now they cannot even approach Kharkiv.
You were in Kharkiv when Russian reached its suburbs, right?
Our band had a concert planned for February 24th in Vinnitsya, but when we saw the first rockets in the morning we took the bus and returned to Kharkiv. In the evening we were already in our homes.
And what did you do?
Together with my friends we went to a volunteer centre which we have been supporting since 2016. These were our volunteers who were fighting in Donbas. We met tchem and they gave us weapons. And we started to work. We started to help them.
We brought them some vehicles, equipment, clothes, medicine, food. Later our group expanded and we started to help other units as well as civilians. We did it because in the first days of the war thousands of people had to stay in the metro, basements, and bomb shelters where they did not have enough food, clothing, or anything. We have been continuing this work until today.
Ukraine receives a lot of help, especially from the West.
Ukraine would not survive without the help from the West: without the political support, sanctions, military assistance.
I understand that some European politicians are supporting us, even if they do not want to. I am convinced that some of them would prefer to reach an agreement with Putin, profit from cheap Russian gas and oil. And continue living with such frozen conflict as they have been living since the annexation of Crimea and felt ok about it. They were trading with Russia, were inviting Putin to all kinds of summits, etc. Russia has not been banned from anything over the last eight years.
But Ukrainians have faced a situation in which they will either receive support or get destroyed. If they destroy of 40 million people it will not be only an annexation of Crimea. It will be a crime, a moral crime, an ethical crime, which will not be neutral to Europe’s political system as we know it. It is clear that this crime will change everything. That is why I think many people understood this situation.
I am looking at Poland and it seems to be that the aid that is coming from Poland to Ukraine is sincere. This is an important moment, because we remember what Polish-Ukrainian relations were like in recent years. Suddenly, they worsened dramatically. Putin had to attack Ukraine so that we understood that we are in the same situation.
In Ukraine people have different views about the West, especially western politicians. Each phone conversation between Macron and Putin was generating resent and anger. But overall we can see that the West has not given up on Ukraine.
Worldwide we can see a debate about the Russian culture: should we ban Dostoyevsky or not? What is your take on that?
My position would be the following: ban Dostoyevsky but for 50 years. After that time, if somebody got interested, and I assume nobody would be, we could bring him back. Seriously, how can we now work with the Russian culture? How can we be loyal towards this culture?
This culture has lost its credibility because it was a part of a larger imperial project. To a large extent it did not oppose it, easily serving the purpose of all these chauvinistic discourses. This is a very cynical game. Russian propagandists know what they are doing, are well-organised, have strong structures, and are professional. Russians understand that Putin cannot be a hero that they can believe in. He was not friendly enough before the invasion. Think about the war in Georgia, annexation of Crimea, war in Donbas. Who can trust him? Of course he is not the right person to get promoted. He is not a good brand, one that you would be able to sell. But the Russian culture is a good brand. Even in our country you can hear people say: we cannot blame Pushkin for the birth of Putin. There is some logic to it, but in my view this is a very questionable logic. Russians, the Russian propaganda, the Russian state – they are all using culture as a platform which can help defend Russia, because Russia is not guilty, because not all Russians are bad. Putin is bad, but Russians are good. And they should not be responsible for Putin’s crimes. It is Putin who personally is killing Ukrainians. Look at our ballet and how amazing it is. And now look at our Bolshoi Theatre. And many in the West get convinced.
They are used to the fact that Russian literature is great, Russian ballet beautiful, and that Russians are mysterious. They are not easy to understand and wild. But there is something positive about it all. This romanticism.
Of course this will be used to Russia’s benefit, despite all this horror which is taking place in Ukraine now. That is why for us not to fall into this trap I would block today’s Russian culture worldwide. The writers who are now opposing Putin can go away and start selling pizza. There are so many good professions around the world.
Given what has taken can we expect normal life in Ukraine? Do we have a right to go to a concert or eat out at the time when our boys are fighting at the frontline?
I think it is a good idea to go to a concert and have some fun, and I am serious here, but we should be doing that without any cynicism. It is very important that our culture, unlike the Russian culture, does not get suspended. It is very important no to get detached from a normal pre-war life. The war in an extremely non-normal situation. It misshapes many things.
If we allow ourselves to get completely immersed in the war, we get outrooted from our normal functioning and life, lose our values, we are then risking losing ourselves, burning out and quick loss of energy.
It seems to me that today everybody’s responsivity today – and this is regardless of whether you are at the frontline, a volunteer, or simply continuing your work, whether you live in Ukraine, or temporarily outside it – is to calculate their strength. This war will not end tomorrow or even the day after tomorrow. It will not end any time soon.
We should be mobilised. We should have strength. Because if you disconnect tomorrow, you won’t be present, we won’t have your energy, your weapons. And we may need you to keep the frontline. That is why for me it is totally fine that there are concerts, literary evenings, theatre performances. It is not about entertainment only. It is about values. Culture is a very important element of our identity and we need to understand it. From time to time I come across with an opinion that there should be no cultural activity, no concerts, because our boys are dying at the frontline. Yes, they are dying at the frontline but for the country to exist. Our boys are not dying for us to sit and cry and complain. And this not assistance, but work for the great victory.
I often hear our military personel saying that they really want that everything is ok in our country so that they could return to cities where there are concerts, theatres, open restaurants. And this is not because people will be sitting there and forget about the war, but this is because social life is a complex thing.
And we cannot built it only on pain and suffering. Because pain and suffering are understandable and now understandable, but if someone has nothing else but them that means that something got broken in this person and that this person has lost something.
Our culture is already very much driven by this social need. Majority of our concerts, poetry evenings or anything else, is no longer commercial but serves a charity purpose. We organised a concert in Kyiv with my band Sabaki and we collected 100 thousand hryvnas for our military. Now I have two literary events and I collected half a million. We may not like it, some people may not be able to afford it but at the same time for some reason a thousand people or so can afford to listen to come to listen to poetry and for these people’s money we can buy two or three cars for our army.
Let’s not play victims here. We need to win this war. But we can win it only when we have strength, we are confident and make the right calculations.
How to cope with the fact that people got used to the war?
There is no way. There is some kind of inertia. I don’t even wake up at night for every alarm. People – at the frontline and in other places – simply get used to war. There is nothing you can do about it.
Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian writer, poet, musician, and social activist.
Zoriana Varenia is a political scientist from Ukraine. She currently works with Polish media, including Radio 357.