Serhiy Zhadan: “Donbas is more about revival than ruins”

The Ukrainian writer and poet shares his views on cultural policies and politics in Donbas.

Kateryna Iakovlenko
27 October 2020, 12.01am
Serhiy Zhadan
Фото: Дмитрий Чирик/Facebook.

Writer, poet and musician Serhiy Zhadan is known as an advocate of Donbas in Ukraine. Thanks to Zhadan’s work, many people have come to know this eastern region of the country - with its working men, slag heaps, steppe and love of freedom where, as one of his poems puts it, “everything that passes through your conscience beats in time with your heartbeat”. Zhadan’s 2010 novel Voroshilovhrad, titled after the old Soviet name for the city of Luhansk, was seen as a manifesto of Ukraine’s 1980s and 1990s generation.

In the spring of 2014 Zhadan was an active participant in Euromaidan support rallies in Kharkiv,. Since the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, he has given frequent concerts and performances on the front line and its nearby areas. He is now busy co-writing a book with graphic novelist Pavlo Makov entitled A Permanent Place of Residence, dedicated to Kharkiv.

Kateryna Iakovlenko spoke to Serhiy Zhadan about Donbas today, humanitarian politics and Kharkiv’s special history.

Many friends who moved from the Donbas and Luhansk regions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have told me that they were experiencing the same feelings as they had when the war began in 2014; their experience of packing an emergency bag then helped them now. Can the skills, knowledge and experience that displaced persons have used to see them through traumatic situations or difficult times help other people as well?

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That’s a difficult question. I don’t think this experience is constructive or that it can teach others. It’s more likely to be able to warn people. I think that in 2014 many people didn’t realise what was going on in Donbas, what was happening to the people who found themselves in the middle of a war zone. Public discussion of their experience might help us resolve future conflicts and better understand what happened in 2014.

However, when we talk about the experiences of displaced persons, refugees and people who have been in combat zones, we need to understand that these are always individual experiences. If you haven’t been in a cellar that’s being hit by rocket fire, it’s unlikely you’ll really grasp what people who’ve been there are telling you.

Someone who has actually been at the front line as a combatant, paramedic or volunteer always has their personal impressions and understanding of a situation. This view differs from that if you only know war from watching it on TV. It’s a personal connection to history. And war is, unfortunately, such a horrific and dramatic thing that simple empathy is insufficient.

Over the last six years, there have been numerous cultural initiatives and projects in Donbas. You yourself are a frequent visitor to the area. Could you compare the development of cultural initiatives and humanitarian politics between the start of the war and today?

I remember Donbas before 2014, and it was then a pretty passive region in terms of cultural and humanitarian initiatives. There was very little going on, as the political situation determined what was happening in public and cultural life in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas. It was impossible, for example, to even contemplate organising a festival, creating cultural platforms or holding any kind of activities in towns and cities with populations of 100,000-150,000. This all changed in 2014, when these were liberated from pro-Russian groups and the Ukrainian state returned.

These two regions - Donetsk and Luhansk - have since had massive investments, efforts and other resources poured into them, and this has had obvious results. Today, Donbas is way ahead of other regions of Ukraine, it’s cultural life is more interesting and intense. Some people may regard this as somewhat paradoxical, but they forget one simple fact: our country has hardly any cultural life outside its regional centres. There are some events, tied to an official cultural calendar, but otherwise it’s just a question of isolated initiatives from individuals, social organisations and so on.

At the same time, Donetsk and Luhansk regions could serve as an example to the rest of Ukraine. There is plenty of room for improvement there: the development of a network of libraries and cultural spaces, the creation of bodies that could organise cultural initiatives. These are really interesting examples that can work for the future. This may not produce immediate results (and looking at electoral trends in Donbas, it’s clear things haven’t changed much over the last six years), but if you look at real people, rather than figures and percentages, you can see a real difference.

We can really see a large number of people, both young and, what’s even more interesting, old, who have become actively involved in local public and social life. These people have realised that they can have some influence and do something which isn’t necessarily connected to government bodies: this often a matter of private funds, private investments or self-organisation.

What influence has internal migration had on these processes? Your native city of Starobilsk, for example, is one of the places where a lot of displaced people have moved from other towns and cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

That’s certainly the case to some extent. In places such as Starobilsk, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, or for that matter Mariupol or Severodonetsk, some of the changes are down to the initiative of people who have come from elsewhere. But this isn’t the rule – many initiatives have come from local residents. It feels as though people have simply woken up, looked at the options, seen what could happen and gone to work on it.

Just now, we were involved in a festival in Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region, and run by young people who live there. They had an idea and asked us [the Zhadan and Dogs group - ed.] for support. We have also become very friendly with young people from Avdiivka, who at some point also got organized and ran a festival, Avdiivka FM. We’re friends with the,, run events and invite interesting people. The last time we were there was at the end of June, before Constitution Day, when we held a small festival with musicians, actors and politicians and had a very interesting time.

What sort of initiatives - state organised or public and private - are more effective in Donbas?

For me, the best thing is a combination of public initiative and state support, because it works in opposition to the state – this mix of strategy and tactics goes back to before the war, when many of us didn’t want to have any connection with the state, since it wasn’t always effective and required a certain loyalty to politicians. A combination of public initiative and state support, however, produces an effective result.

I feel it’s very important that Ukrainian citizens don’t regard their government as something alien and potentially inimical. This doesn’t always work – our government sometimes has its own reasons for a certain distancing and still isn’t easy to work with – it’s still pretty inert. It’s a machine that hasn’t been set up for our time. There are people who want to, and could do something, but there are also government mechanisms that have not, unfortunately been modernised and often operate to exclusively reproduce the state.

The Ministry of Culture is in a constant state of reform and transformations…

It’s good that changes are happening, and it’s not just the Ministry of Culture is changing, but the Ministry of Education too.

For example, a new educational programme called “The New Ukrainian School”, which we actively support, has appeared, and we believe it is an important and serious development. We also work with the Ministry of Culture: the previous government launched an important programme entitled “The Ukrainian East”, where writers, musicians and actors from various Ukrainian cities visited Donbas and performed for both civil and military audiences – sort of agit-brigades.

I found this important and useful both for audiences and performers. People could go there and feel their belonging to what is happening in Ukraine and support their fellow-citizens. It’s a good exercise and we are now in discussions with the Donetsk and Luhansk cultural authorities about reviving it. Politics is, of course politics, governments come and go, and presidents change; but there are things that it’s important to save and support. In other words, it’s less a question of political sympathies and party loyalties than an attitude to state institutions. It’s what historian Timothy Snyder often talks about: it’s very important to support institutions, because governments change but citizens need to feel they are protected and supported by their country. So I feel the correct road is to support constructive ideas and programmes.

You have said in previous interviews that the problems of Donbas are not unique. The region’s lack of cultural initiatives, mobility and social security are also present in other regions. So here I’d like to mention the hackneyed call to “understand Donbas”. Don’t we divide society when we use it?

I absolutely agree and am always talking about this: we shouldn’t single out Donbas, we shouldn’t demonisze it, we shouldn’t think of it as different. In fact, all our regions, our whole country needs to be heard. I prefer to talk about “hearing Donbas” rather than “understanding Donbas”, as well as “hearing the Slobozhanshchina” [the country’s northeast] or “hearing the Odesa region”. I feel we aren’t a “talking society” and we need to have ourselves heard.

This is very often the reason for the many neuroses and actions that puzzle us afterwards. Take, say what happens after every election, when the public suddenly take an unexpected step in the direction of one politician or another. This is partly because the Ukrainian public simply feel unheard; people can’t see any reaction or attention from the government or the politicians.

But is the public itself ready for this dialogue?

The public is ready, but the politicians are not. Our politicians have no practice in understanding, the philosophy of a normal public dialogue when it’s necessary to talk to the voters not just during pre-election periods, as they make promises to them and hand out packs of buckwheat, but make a real effort – seem really interested, make contact, be prepared to hear people and carry responsibility for what you promised.

Over these six years, the media have seen Donbas as a shorthand for ruins – houses and roads destroyed by war. Is this not leading to even greater stigmatisation of the region?

I would talk not so much about culture, as about economics. There are considerable risks, of course: Donbas is a very specific region in both the social and economic senses, which means there are many questions about its future. Talking about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of closing down mines doesn’t mean seeing the region in negative terms. It’s more a question of economic bases and mechanisms. It’s better to leave economists to do the talking, and not poets.

You talk about ruins, but for me Donbas (at least the part governed by Ukraine) is less about ruins than revival. Since 2014 we see roads being repaired and kindergartens, schools and libraries being built and restored. It is a region where you see people working all the time. Even now, when you drive into some villages around Donetsk on our side, you see workers laying asphalt. You arrive in a village and its school has been renovated, new windows put in and the roof retiled. I’m not idealising anything. I perfectly realise the size of the existing problems, but this isn’t the only place you see them. So, once again, is the glass half-full or half-empty?

I think that over the last few years the country has moved forwards, and a lot has been done and is still being done. The inertia of the government, despite its supposedly fundamental negativity, still has, however paradoxically its positive sides. Because if some government building programme is initiated, it works. There was, for example a road repair programme, which is still working, and, as a result, there is now a splendid asphalt road between Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol that wasn’t there two years ago.

At the start of the war there were a lot of provocative questions being asked about the identity of residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. What role does culture play in forming this identity?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical Ukrainian identity. The identity of someone born in Zakarpattya is little different from someone born in the Poltava area. Historically, culturally and linguistically it is a matter of slightly different experiences and roads. I think that our identity is still in the process of formation and development. It’s clear that it consists, in the first place, of the question of whether you recognise the existence of an entity called Ukraine and attach yourself to its Ukrainianness, or reject it and go down some other road. There’s a very clear dividing line, lying on the surface.

I think that it was very important for the Luhansk and Donetsk areas in the spring of 2014, when many people were asking themselves about their citizenship and affiliation to this country for more or less the first time – and felt, also for the first time the real threat of losing it. For many people, this was a defining moment. It certainly didn’t make these people Ukrainian nationalists – many of them didn’t even switch language from Russian to Ukrainian, although many speak surzhyk. But a really serious shift did take place: people more or less for the first time began talking seriously about a conscious political choice. And the fact that the northern Luhansk area unanimously chose the official Ukrainian side and supported the army and volunteers seems very telling to me – it refutes certain myths about eastern Ukraine as a fundamentally anti-Ukrainian region.

Kharkiv, the city where you live, is rather unusual. There were a lot of political and public clashes at the start of the war. How has it and its citizen’s views changed over these years?

In my view, Kharkiv is indeed a rather ambiguous and specific city. We can talk about “commercial Kharkiv” (or “market Kharkiv”, if you like). I don’t attach any negative to that meaning, but be as it may we have the Barabashov Market, the largest in eastern Europe. But Kharkiv also has 300,000-400,000 students, as well as being a centre of the intelligentsia, intellectuals and science and scholarship.

It has changed, I think to the same extent as other big cities. In 2014 many of residents were, one way or another, forced to make a choice. Kharkiv supported Ukraine, and I think that was an objective thing. But I’ve just said “Kharkov supported Ukraine” as though Donetsk and Luhansk didn’t. I repeat that those cities were deprived of choice – the choice was made for them, and unfortunately some of us have shifted the responsibility for this onto the people who live there. Each of us obviously has to carry a certain responsibility, but, once again I believe that it’s very important here to understand the whole complexity of those events that took place in the spring of 2014 in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Do you feel that a process of explanation of these processes is taking place now?

Some real attempts at serious, impartial and non-political discussion of what happened are taking place, but they are rare voices and single discussions. Everything, as a rule, boils down to propagandistic cliches that oversimplify the issue.

You and artist Pavlo Makov are co-authors of a book about Kharkiv. Tell me about this project.

Yes, they are selected poems from between 1993 and today. Makov will also exhibit his artistic work beginning from the 1990s. It’s a kind of joint retrospective.

I’ve always been interested in collaborating with either artists or musicians – it gives a different unexpected result every time. I’ve known Pavlo Makov for a long time and am very fond of him – he is one of my favourite artists and one of the most interesting graphic artists of our time. I’m in constant contact with him, and I feel that the two of us see Kharkiv in quite a similar way, although in a stylistically different form and embodiment.

Now that we’ve mentioned continuity, tell me a little about young writers and poets from Donbas – who they are, what they write about and how they see Donbas.

Young poets and writers are growing up there and will obviously continue to write. I find it very interesting how people have been writing about Donbas after visiting it for the first time – our soldiers, for example. There is a large amount of veterans’ literature and it’s often people who have visited these cities for the first time and been there for the first time at the start of the war. It’s a pretty complex vision. It’s undoubtedly very subjective: a man who goes into battle is hardly likely to talk about it in balanced terms – he’s more likely to be emotional and expressive. But I feel that it’s very important because it’s direct witness. For me, all this veteran prose is perhaps the most interesting stuff out of everything written about this war.

From the point of view of literature or anthropology?

Not so much as literature, as a fact of some kind of civil, public reaction to what was going on. In principle it’s an attempt to speak about what we didn’t say in a war context: about how we can co-exist within regions, how we can see our country for ourselves, and how we react to some simple things. And these are not just about Donbas. We talk about Donbas, forgetting that nothing is going on in neighbouring areas of the Kharkiv region – no festivals, no powerful events – only singular initiatives.

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