Serhiy Zhadan shines at a front-line literary festival meant to defy Russian bombs.
Kharkiv has been on the front line since the first bombs started dropping all over country. Ukraine’s second biggest city, with a population of more than 1.4 million before the war, is only 50 kilometers from the Russian border.
Heavily Russified since the 17th century, the Russians expected to walk in, be greeted with flowers, and re-embrace the city into the Great Russian fold. What they didn’t expect was fierce resistance from day one.
The city was founded as a Cossack fortress in 1654, built over a previous settlement. While the Cossacks had just established an alliance with the Tsar, the feeling that their northern neighbor was encroaching on their freedom-loving ways created tension immediately.
In the 1920s, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Kharkiv was a hotbed for Ukrainian culture. Now the city is again at the vanguard of a veritable cultural rebirth.
As testimony to this surge in creativity, the “Fifth Kharkiv” literary festival took place – off line, in person – from Sept. 23 to 25. Since the city is still subjected to sporadic bombardment, those who wanted to participate had to register. They later received an email or text revealing the address: an art center conveniently located in a basement. “Go through the black door.”
The festival was organized by Ukraine’s best-known contemporary author, Serhiy Zhadan, a Kharkivite who is also the front man for a rock band, Zhadan and the Dogs. “Precisely because Kharkiv is constantly in the line of fire, it is very important for the city to experience a full life, so that it does not live in fear,” Zhadan said.
Each day started with a panel discussion among intellectuals: the first day about the past, focusing on the city as the stomping ground of 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda; the second day about Ukraine’s current cultural and political situation, with the war still raging; and then the third day a close-up look at Kharkiv itself, which has again risen up to lead the vanguard of Ukrainian culture.
After some heady discussions, came the poetry readings or, as on the first day, the opening of an exhibition of artwork from the Aza Nizi-Maza art school for children.
To wrap up the evenings before curfew forced everyone back home, there were musical performances with bands such as Kozak System, Ukie’z and, of course, Zhadan and the Dogs.
I caught the second day of the festival. The discussions included one with entrepreneur Pavlo Haidai, CEO of Avtologistika, a logistics and IT business, who is now fighting with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He summed it up in no uncertain terms: “Kharkiv is the center of a cultural rebirth of Ukraine like no other city. Cultural figures stayed side by side with the fighters.” When asked how the country might deal with the inevitable trauma of deaths and maimed youth, his response was stoic, with more than a tinge of hope: “Creativity is generated by trauma: It’s the source of possibility for art.”
Later in the afternoon a panel discussion with philosopher Vakhtang Kebuladze, who teaches at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University and Tetyana Oharkova, a literary scholar from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Oharkova couldn’t make it to Kharkiv, so she appeared on a TV screen set up on a pile of empty ammunition boxes. The talk addressed the issue of how to deal with the preponderant influence of Russian literature on both Ukrainian writers and Slavic Departments at universities throughout the world. Ironically, this discussion was being held in a basement bomb shelter next door to the “Kharkiv Academic Russian Drama Theater named after. O. S. Pushkin,” as the theater was originally called.
While no one was calling for an outright cancel campaign, they all recognized the need for Ukrainian writers and artists, especially in heavily Russified areas like Kharkiv, to claw their way out from the ruble of Russian culture and rid themselves of as much superfluous and/or toxic detritus as possible.
Zhadan, who was moderating the discussion, is a case in point. He came to notoriety with the novel Voroshilovgrad (the Soviet name for Luhansk, near which he was born). In the novel, he depicts the mind-boggling squalor of post-Soviet society in Ukraine’s rust belt with majestic flights of lyricism and darkly magical realism. However, he does it all – even the down-and-dirty dialogues with drunk hooligans – in a pure, revitalized literary Ukrainian (curse words included), which you would never hear on the streets because that part of Ukraine is still thoroughly Russified.
It’s as if Zhadan’s poetry and prose were a consciously directed middle finger at the linguistic legacy he experiences all around him, a middle finger charged with the magic of poetry’s transformational power. He intends to turn the literary consciousness of his home turf – everything from esoteric discussions about metaphysics to idiotic wisecracks at a gas station – into something gloriously Ukrainian, even though we all know that’s wishful thinking, for now.
The talk also addressed the reluctance outside of Ukraine to see the war as part of a globalized conflict. “Europeans aren’t aware yet,” Kebuladze said. “Maybe they suppress it. They still think they can keep it regional.”
He described what was happening in Ukraine now as part of a “global tectonic shift” that would change geopolitics and culture. “Life will be bad, but it will be interesting.”
So how can Ukrainian artists, writers and society break out from under Russia’s weight? Kebuladze insisted that one crucial element is irony. “We make fun of them, and they hate it.” Indeed, one cultural aspect of this war is the avalanche of humorous memes on social media.
After the intellectuals, the poets took the stage. Tetyana Vlasova and Dmytro Lazutkin recited verse saturated with a fascinating mix of love, laughter and uncontained rage, such as Vlasova’s scathing dialogue with Pope Francis calling on Ukrainians to die peacefully.
Then came the music. The organizers needed to rush the performances so everyone could get home before the 10 p.m. curfew.
Even the music was testimony to Ukraine’s organic way of simultaneously exulting both Western culture and its own deeply rooted folk tradition. Singer-songwriter Serhiy Vasyliuk, now in uniform and fresh from the front, did a few acoustic numbers. Ukie’z, a trio from Kyiv, played a repertoire of well-known Ukrainian folk songs to haunting arrangements that mixed Celtic, Appalachian and blues elements with acoustic guitar, violin, blues harp, and even a banjo for one number. Between songs they engaged in a sort of cabaret banter that was often as funny as the stand-up comedian acting as MC.
Finally the highlight that many of the hundred or so mostly young Kharkivites had been waiting for: an intimate gig with their hometown band after a successful European tour fundraising for the UAF. For those unfamiliar with Zhadan and the Dogs, imagine hard-driving punk-influenced rock with a swinging horn section and beat-inspired lyrics. Students, soldiers and aging hipsters all danced to the high energy pulse – angry, irreverent and loving every second of their resistance.
I had to leave before the encore to get home before curfew. The streets of the boarded-up city were totally dark due to the blackout rules. You needed your phone’s flashlight so as not to trip over the curbs. The afternoon rain had stopped and the sky had cleared: more stars than I’d ever seen in any city, stars to the soundtrack of a blaring air raid siren.
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