Ukrainian society is closing into “cosy ghettos”, says Serhiy Zhadan – but the writer and activist thinks that there are still ways in which dialogues can be opened up with people in the occupied territories. Speaking to Yevhen Grytsenko of the journal Korydor earlier this summer, he described how Ukrainian cities and cultures might in future coexist within one country.
Yevhen Grytsenko spoke to Serhiy Zhadan on June 14. His interview was translated into English by Natalia Ivanova, and has been edited for clarity. Editor’s comments appear in square brackets.
Zhadan’s new poetry collection Tampliyery (“The Templars”), published by Meridian Czernowitz, is due out August 23.
Portrait by Valeria Shevchenko.
Yevhen Grytsenko: Ukrainian society lives in diverse realities: one person is resigned to the logic of military necessity, another believes in democratic change. For others, the only way to survive is to adopt a logic that is extremely narrow and petty. Perhaps, at times like these, such things are inevitable. But conflicts constantly occur between these different logics.
Serhiy Zhadan: And everyone is trying to deny each other. But in a normal situation, these different logics would have accommodate each other. It’s important to understand that if the front line had collapsed two years ago, we would have had neither change towards democracy, nor a quiet, narrow life. It’s strange that people don’t understand that.
I often face accusations that I allegedly support the war – or vice versa, that I’m all for peace with the separatists. But I certainly neither support peace with the separatists nor the continuation of the war.
I’m absolutely for maintaining the independence of Ukraine and restoring its national borders. In this situation, in my opinion, the only possible option is to support the Ukrainian army, which actually inhibits further aggression.
But this is hard to explain, as people usually see the world in black and white. And if you deviate from the general line, which is very straight and simple, then you acquire shades of gray, and cease to fit in.
It’s rare that people traveling into the ATO zone, to provide assistance, help both Ukrainian soldiers and local residents suffering from the war. Is doing this a basic principal for you?
No, why do you say that? There are, of course, purely military volunteers – but as far as I’m concerned, I just deal with the volunteer movement, especially [the part of it made up of] Kharkivites. It’s very natural for them to load a bus and go to orphanages and hospitals first, and then to military units. For the volunteers I communicate with, it’s all a similar thing, one big problem which they are trying to solve.
Right now my friend is picking up a lorry for a military unit from the border [between Ukrainian-controlled territory and that occupied by Russian hybrid forces], then Sobaki [“The Dogs”, Zhadan’s band] and I will fill it with toys for one of the boarding schools in Luhansk Region.
Can reconciliation, and the development of patriotism or a sense of national unity, occur in a society at the same time?
That won’t be easy. Patriotism suggests a rather simplified definition of the enemy; anyone may become an enemy. We need to define what we mean by patriotism. It’s hard to unite a society under the slogan “Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!”
A type of nation-building where it would be comfortable for all citizens – such a thing could unite, but I realise it would just not be interesting for most patriots. It’s a shame those points – that would have not have to be divisive, but which could be unifying – are not emphasized.
It’s much easier for most people to be in a state of intransigence, constant opposition of themselves to someone else. This is understandable: a war is going on in the country; there are both external and internal enemies. The fifth column is extremely strong and obvious here, it is not even concealed.
But at the same time, in the fight against the enemies we often forget about finding potential allies in our struggle.
“The necessity and impossibility of dialogue”
In one of your [newspaper] columns, you stressed that there should be a clear and detailed position, both civil and legal, on the issues of the occupied territories.
Perhaps there is such a position, but I neither see nor feel it. There is not even an attempt to understand people who stayed on the other side of the border. And so society decides to treat those people as potential or actual traitors. Whereas I think of them and treat them as hostages trapped by the current situation. Of course, there are people who openly provoked this carnage, fighting against Ukraine, but it seems to me it’s quite wrong to blame all civilians.
And have you worked out how you would define “collaboration”?
If a person works for the enemy, he or she is a collaborator. But, again, it is important to understand what is going on there. In the occupied territories schools and kindergartens continue to operate, and naturally teachers work in them. The flags of so-called “breakaway republics” are flying above these schools and kindergartens. They have new programs that contradict our accepted interpretation of the war, and history in general, and that falsify around these things.
But to automatically regard all teachers at these institutions as traitors and to treat them as such would not be wise in my opinion. I do not want to speak as a Donbas advocate, an advocate of those people – it would sound like populism. But if it is possible, I try to listen to the other side. If people are not holding weapons, I am prepared to talk to them.
What did the Kharkiv debates [a debate held in December 2015 concerning the future of the Donbas] demonstrate?
They showed a fatal unwillingness on the part of Ukrainian society to talk to those who are on the other side of the front. Everything degenerated into speculation and misinformation; the debates were interpreted as an attempt to give in to the separatists. But there are records of these debates in which it’s stated that the Donbas is a part of Ukraine and the borders must be restored. But none of that mattered, as they were interpreted to signal that there was an attempt at reconciliation with the separatists.
It reflects upon us rather badly. For people who were normally accustomed to thinking forward to the future, the idea of a debate became something they wouldn’t talk about. It’s a shame, because sometimes we’ll face the situation where we need to talk, and it would appear that we are not ready to do this.
I’m not talking about fraternising with and offering amnesty to militants. But we are de facto citizens of one country with those who live there [in the occupied territories] and do not take up arms. The residents of the occupied territories still hold Ukrainian passports; they are allowed to enter the unoccupied territory. We forget this, and many people prefer to take a position of closure. It’s a typical Ukrainian ghetto syndrome, when you close yourself off in your comfort zone: you don’t let anyone into it and you don’t leave it yourself.
How might this process develop?
I see no point in such things in the form of conversations with so-called “opinion leaders”. All this just ends up in politics and propaganda, and it’s never constructive in its current approach and form. Most of the “intellectuals” are, I suppose, just not ready to hold such conversations. Perhaps such things take a while; some political decisions should be made. But the fact that we should keep in touch with our fellow citizens on the other side of the front is obvious for me.
Therefore, it is necessary to seek a different format [for dialogue], that will be distant from politics and ideology. It should be something like assistance to certain social groups and to children.
I know some people on the other side of the front, and I realise that every day of this war really separates us from them and them from us. This artificial conflict turns into a real ideological one. Blaming all Donbas residents in this war, calling them traitors, not being in contact with them – we confirm the Russian ideological thesis about the civil war in Ukraine.
Have you ever feared that because the need to articulate the necessity for reconciliation is often marginalized in our society, you would no longer be listened to on other topical issues?
I have never positioned myself as a moral or sort of civil authority, I just have my position and I consider it desirable to voice it. You repeat it again – I never talked about reconciliation, that is, about reconciliation with terrorists. I’m talking about other things.
Was it all about dialogue [for you]?
Yes, it was. And if you recall the debates with Olena Zaslavska, it was actually quite a difficult conversation. It was not a dialogue of friends, [it was one between people] who had been divided by the incomprehensible front line, and who now [even after debating with each other] still say the same things as three years ago [which is to say, presumably, that they have yet to reach any agreement]. All of this was much more complicated, though no-one had changed his or her position [the points of view of the debaters grew more complex, though they didn’t shift their positions].
I was not interested in some kind of artificial fraternization – which was the distorted understanding of the situation that the media continually conveyed. It was about the need to keep in touch and talk, to not let the citizens go. It was about the need to speak out, to clarify our positions. It’s a pity that so many people still do not understand this, because such an approach seems constructive to me.
“The contrasts of the Donbas”
Is the “Donbas identity” disappearing in the liberated territories?
The so-called “Donbas mentality” is quite artificial, and [is/was] needed only to create the [possibility of a breakaway] enclave and use its electoral and economic resources. I always emphasize, the Donbas is heterogeneous. It was inhabited by different ethnic and social groups, a place where everything is mixed up, as in the proverbial “melting pot”.
My homeland is northern Luhansk Region. Historically it was Sloboda Ukraine. These are agricultural areas in which attitudes are almost identical to those found in Kharkiv. The attitudes in the industrial areas are completely different. Within these is Mariupol – which is a very complicated city. On one hand, attitudes are changing there; people are looking for a new identity. On the other hand, the proletariat, which is often of a pro-Russian mindset, works in its huge monster enterprises. In the towns that were first liberated, like Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Rubizhne, Siverodonetsk, and Lysychansk, there are many activists of a pro-Ukrainian mindset. They are trying to do something, to influence power and society. But at the same time they also face strong resistence.
These are the features of the Donbas. During its journey from Starobelsk to Luhansk, our military reported that the villages on one side of the road were inhabited by Ukrainians, who offered food. But a village on the other side was inhabited by Russians who gave away their positions. The distance between these villages is one or two kilometers. For me it is one of the metaphors of the Donbas.
Here is another one. Ukrainian commandos on the Russian border near Luhansk told the following story: entering a village, the locals blocked the streets and did not let them in. And now – they tell them that if the military were to try to leave, they would block the street not let them go.
Much now depends on Ukraine, and [yet] the country often behaves with levity, wastes time, neglects opportunities. [In the parts of the occupied and former occupied territories] where the military, public bodies and volunteers are working with local communities, that’s where changes are happening (I am not afraid of the word “work”). We are not talking about forcing people, putting them under pressure to go to meetings, but about normal communication and real help. And [on the other hand] in those areas where they treat locals as potential collaborators, nothing but blind resistance arises.
Statistics gathered before the war began suggested that national identity did not play a key role in the east of Ukraine. Is this changing now?
Yes, many people at first wondered who they were. It turned out to be a thorny issue. The Maidan has not become a point of re-evaluation and identification because the majority of people in the East were not against the Maidan. They did not mind. They had their Maidan and their anti-Maidan, but these were marginal. And with the outbreak of hostilities and aggression, this issue has become really important and painful for the majority of those people. I had such a situation with my father. He did not understand the Maidan, but as soon as the war broke out, he immediately began to perceive it as being between Ukraine and Russia, without any “separatism”.
What is your attitude to current attempts to give weight to the language issue?
The only official language is Ukrainian. At the same time it is very important not to give the Kremlin a monopoly on the Russian language. A really historic event is taking place nowadays. As soon as the Kremlin started its aggression against Ukraine, Russia had begun to cause a situation in which Russian-speakers were fighting against [other] Russian-speakers. As far as I remember, this had never happened before in the history of Russia.
And it knocks out a very important trump card from the hands of Russian imperialism that this [Russian] is the language [of most Eastern Ukrainians]. It seems to me that in this situation, Ukraine must show more initiative and intercept these ideological weapons. For example, many Russian-speaking writers who support Ukraine live here, and to push them out of the cultural and information space is unwise and unhelpful. Yes, the traditional Ukrainian literature is monolingual, but today there is a somewhat different reality. And it can [either] be ignored, or it can be used to your advantage.
By what means can Ukraine exist as a united country?
A society should be created where everyone would feel comfortable and protected. I do not mean home comforts, but these should be included as well. Obviously, a society with adequate social standards would be more united than one experiencing economic deprivation, and shattered by conflict. But I am also referring to civil rights and the law, which [ought to] work for everyone. These are the things that unite us more than slogans, monuments, and the rewriting of history. This is quite a difficult process, especially because such ideas are obscured in plain sight. But nevertheless it is the most realistic option.
And what about the various regional identities?
We are really different in many ways. This reality cannot be ignored and must be taken control of. The Donbas, Crimea, and Galicia are very different from each other. But Bukovina [also] differs from Galicia, or [then there is] Zakarpattia, which is unlike anything else. And we should also mention Central Ukraine. All this could be interpreted as being at a major disadvantage in trying to assimilate everything, redesigning to[wards] a unified national model. I think it’s happening now to some extent. But this difference can also be used as an advantage: as a thing that makes us a bit richer, a bit more universal. But people are scared of it now.
In the East people are still scared of Galicia, and vice versa, and this lack of confidence makes people vote for different charlatans and crooks who really do not care about any identity or ideology: whether they are nationalists, or the Democrats, or supporters of Russkiy Mir. They [all] only need to pay their sponsors’ money back.
“Clinging on to our cities”
During the presentation of The Life of Maria you visited almost all Ukraine’s major cities and described your impressions. Is it true that Ukrainian cities are re-acquiring their distinctive characteristics, and that these are starting to become more clearly expressed?
It’s not so much about the cities as a whole, but about some groups of people in every city, whom we can discuss. There is little going on at a governmental level. There are exceptions of course, like Odesa, which was seen as a platform for testing various “progressive” things – but note, it has ceased to be perceived in this way.
Let’s consider Kharkiv, where we still have the odious mayor Kernes. This is ostensibly the evidence that nothing has been changing and the power of revenge is fully entrenched there.
But something interesting is happening in each city due to the private initiatives of individuals or groups. It is really great to deal with them and to watch them. There are cities which provide more such initiatives and these can affect or influence things. [But] we’ll still have to wait for something new to come from public initiatives. The Ukrainian state, in the form in which it was created and exists to the present day, is just not capable of any global, systemic transformation.
Many of the characters in your texts cling to their towns, districts and lands, and they never leave them. And according to statistics, 60-70% of Donbas residents have never left their regions. But, most likely, it is a problem that people from one region have no idea how people live in all the others?
This is a huge problem. And this so-called “Donetsk outlook” was formed in many respects by the fact that people lived in such an enclosed space. They [politicians] created such a Donbas for themselves [for their own benefit] and began to stuff it with different ideologies. For instance, the post-Soviet discourse, commonality with Russia, the rejection of Western liberal models, a cautious attitude to Kyiv and mandatory confrontation with Western Ukraine. All of the above have taken place and have worked in some way.
In autumn 2013, in this “isolation’ of Donetsk, we created the project “Deep Dream” with the director Virlana Tkach. We recorded a few dozen interviews with young Donetsk residents and asked them to tell us about their dreams, and their attitudes to their city. They were from various backgrounds and professions, including computer programmers and football fans – in short, ordinary Donetsk residents. And all of them with one voice told of how they love their city – how magical and unique Donetsk is. Only two people said they wanted to leave it. And here is one more specific thing – most of them had been to few other places in Ukraine, especially in the West. All of this is very revealing.
Is the experience of the borderland important for you, especially if we talk about the Ukrainian East?
For me, in this regard, Kharkiv is very interesting because it is multinational and it’s not just about Ukrainians and Russians. Kharkiv is a very powerful center of migration, both legal and illegal. Students from many countries come to study here: Turkmen, Kazakh, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Africans. There is this unconscious and situational pattern of coexistence by many different ethnicities and cultures.
Kharkiv is just a model of a tolerant city in the long run. Of course, I understand that the word “tolerance” sounds like something offensive and humiliating for many people today, but it is necessary to call things by their proper names. In spite of a few incidents of racism and xenophobia, which, I suspect, were sometimes instigated by the authorities, Kharkiv is tolerant of different skin colour and language. And all these communities coexist peacefully. This is an important and interesting experience.
Borderlands are often talked about not only as a place where we experience the co-existence of different ethnic groups and cultures, but also as somewhere conflicts can erupt at any time. There are bitter experiences in both the Balkans and the Donbas. [So] it is probably not that straightforward in Kharkiv.
Borderland experiences do not mean rejection of your own identity or the transition to the enemy’s identity. What is going on in the Donbas, it is not the result of natural developments, but of the technology that has been installed in the local environments and realities. It worked there but it did not work in Kharkiv. Anyway, the fact that it worked in the Donbas is more like happenstance. There are no grounds for the creation of these “republics” – [at least] I have not seen them and can’t see them presently. This is an artificial technology developed in the Kremlin, and implemented by Russian weapons and Russian mercenaries, whom the locals have joined.
“Working with memory is painful”
You’ve written a lot about Kharkiv and Sloboda Ukraine – one might say that you created a mythology of these territories. Has the memory been transformed there as a result of the revolution and the war?
Working with memory is very painful. Let’s say you are sixty, and you have been sure throughout your life that Marshal Zhukov was an outstanding military leader. Then you are shown facts about his attitude to the Ukrainians, about his combat operations, that would right away [make him seem] not seem so brilliant. It’s very difficult to accept such things. They are going to dismantle the monument to Zhukov in Kharkiv, people are trying to deal with it somehow. It’s hard. I’m not saying that we should leave these people alone and not touch anything – that is also a dead end. It is obvious that we should put things from the past in order; we should present history fairly.
It is about memory in every way. It’s remarkable to see how people cling to these monuments to Lenin. More than anything, it’s such an irrational fear: you can do whatever you want, just do not touch the monument. And of course, they know very little about Vladimir Ilyich, but it’s rather memories about the stable past, when they or their parents lived. It is some sort of a comfort zone, of which they are afraid of being deprived. And to understand that distortion of memory that we are talkng about, people should make an effort to step out from this comfort zone.
Has the process of “de-communisation” begun such a public dialogue around history?
I cannot see it. It distorts the very concept. I’m all for de-communisation. Because you cannot move forward with your head twisted round. You cannot reconcile Stalin’s history and the Holodomor [the “terror-famine” inflicted on Ukraine in the 1930s] in one conception, and [the experiences of] those he evicted to Siberia and Soviet “stability”. It is necessary to decide whether [it is] Holodomor, or Comrade Stalin. And this is the very issue around which you can achieve a compromise. This is not the kind of stuff for which it is necessary to take up arms. This dialogue should be carried out carefully and wisely. But I can’t see it at all.
Don’t you think that this process of the break with the totalitarian past is one-dimensional? That is, in many ways it is important to carry out the process of de-OUNization [getting rid of the ideology and symbols of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists]?
Nowadays any criticism of the National Liberation movement, whether [that of] 1917 to the 1920s, or the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN)–Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA), would be treated as anti-state immediately. Try to talk about it on a serious level, [and] you would be counted as an adherents of Russkiy Mir or an agent of the Kremlin. [The fact that this is the case] is also an unhelpful distortion of the debate.
“The trauma of war”
Many say that [your] novel Voroshilovgrad has lately become relevant again as a result of the war in the East. And the world will soon see a screen version of it. What and where would you like to be the emphasis and focus of the film, and what would you not like to see in it?
It’s hard to say, because Natalka Vorozhbit is finalizing the screenplay now. The director of the film, Yaroslav Lodyhin, and I approached the film adaptation several times – we both even had the idea to film [it as] a series. We wanted to describe events up until the summer of 2014. Actually, everything was supposed to start with the fact that the Ukrainian army liberated the town [of Voroshilovgrad, in Luhansk Region], and the main characters of the book ended up in a basement belonging to the Security Service of Ukraine. A detective tries to figure out who was fighting whom. We were interested in finding out which of them could be on whose side [which would be “pro-Ukrainian”, and which “pro-Russian”]. But we turned away from this idea, and the current script will be as close to the book as possible.
Voroshilovgrad will hardly explain much concerning the present war. Personally, I do not like it when they say that the war was predicted in it [the book]. It was quite the opposite.
How to write about the war? Are you more interested in individual, or collective experience?
The position of the individual is much more important for and closer to me, because talking about people as some sort of crowd has never been appealing. The war affects each individual. First of all, I try to see the face and hear the voice of a distinct individual. But [I] don’t hear “the voice of the Donbas” – it is just not possible.
Your next book of poetry will be called Tamliyery (“The Templars”).” Why did you choose that title?
It’s a metaphor for people of war. The Knights Templar emerged during the Holy Wars, they were drawn on during those wars, and they were respected. When the war was over, these people suddenly became useless; they disturbed everyone and were soon sidelined as part of the structure. I would not like that our front-line generation was taken hostage by PTSD and became totally unneeded behind the front line.
There is another powerful metaphor in your new text: “The trees of the gray zone are blooming”.
I intended to show that the gray zone [the “no man’s land” surrounding the occupied territories] continues to live. It is still waiting for the return of people, although there are only trees and dead bodies there now. All these dead zones have become like that as a result of the war, but the war will come to an end and people will certainly come back – as we cannot give up our territories, we cannot give up our dead.
Perhaps every writer wonders whether death in war is in vain or not.
If you say that it is not in vain… in this way, you say that people died for a reason – although you yourself were not there and did not die. It is rather a cynical statement. It is difficult to justify every death, every ruined life. So in this case we should not convince ourselves that everything is not in vain, but just keep doing positive things. Press on and keep defending the values that are important for you, and that people died fighting for.
Yevhen Grytsenko’s interveiw with Serhiy Zhadan was enabled by the support of Olena Rofe-Beketova, and by Korydor’s crowdfunding campaign. This English-language version was edited by Joe Plommer. The original Ukrainian version can be read on Korydor’s website.