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Serhiy Zhadan: Ukraine's rock star poet

Torsten Landsberg
October 23, 2022

As a symbol of resistance against the Russian invaders, the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan is awarded the 2022 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Serhiy Zhadan. Man with a microphone.
Serhiy Zhadan uses a "unique language" to give a vivid portrait of reality in Ukraine, stated the jury of the awardImage: Christoph Hardt/Panama Pictures/IMAGO

Serhiy Zhadan is often described as one of the most important voices in contemporary Ukrainian literature. By documenting the struggles of his compatriots caught up in a brutal war, the author has become a symbol for his home country since February 24, 2022.

The 48-year-old writer and musician is now receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, an award he sees as a gesture of solidarity.

"I am very grateful that the organizers have decided to give the prize to Ukraine this year," Zhadan told DW's Kultur.21 magazine. "I don't feel personally vindicated as an author, and I don't want it to be related to my personal ambitions — I see the award as a sign of support for Ukrainian literature," he said.

'A connection with normal life'

He said he wasn't quite aware of how meaningful culture is when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. "You don't feel like writing a poem" when you see dead civilians in the street, he added.

When soldiers on the front lines and doctors urged him and his band to play in hospitals, Zhadan, who will also receive the Hannah Arendt Prize in December, realized how incredibly important it is for such cultural activities to take place, "that literature, theater, music take place, because that creates a connection with normal life."

His band, Zhadan i Sobaky (Zhadan and the Dogs), offering a mix of rock, ska and punk, played for people sheltering from the Russian attacks in subway stations. 

The band's current European tour aims to raise the spirits of exiled Ukrainians. "On stage, it's actually quite normal," Zhadan told DW. "We know that it's important for people to experience community, to not let the connection break." During the concerts, he said, there is a hint of normalcy.

What the West did not want to see

Serhiy Zhadan was born in 1974 in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.

He studied literature, German and Ukrainian studies in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, and has a PhD in Ukrainian futurism.

In the 1990s, he published his first poems and helped organize literary and music festivals.

Zhadan has published 12 volumes of poetry and seven works of prose. Although he grew up in a predominantly Russian-speaking environment, he writes in Ukrainian.

His 2014 book "The Invention of Jazz in the Donbas" won several awards, and BBC Ukraine chose it as the Ukrainian Book of the Decade.

The German version of the 2017 novel "The Orphanage" received the Translator's Prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. In the book, Zhadan, who took part in the pro-European Maidan protests in 2013 and was beaten up by pro-Russian separatists, reflects on the war in the Donbas after 2014, telling the story of a teacher who picks up his nephew from school in the contested terrain, an allegory for an apocalyptic Ukrainian border region threatened by Russia.

Zhadan often points out in interviews that the West did not want to see what Ukrainians had long been aware of — the war did not begin in February 2022, but back in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and areas in the Donbas.

Chronicler of everyday life

"Literature can be a very accurate and honest chronicle, an instrument Ukraine uses to try and make itself understood," Zhadan told DW.

The writer stayed in embattled Kharkiv in the east of the country after the February 24 invasion. About 140,000 people in the city are in need of aid, according to a recent UN report. Zhadan has been helping distribute food, collecting cash and in-kind donations, moving people out of the city and supporting the Ukrainian military.

On social media, he started writing a diary of sorts, documenting where he went and whom he crossed paths with in the city. Some of the entries have been published in the book "Sky above Kharkiv."

"Every cent from us, every good deed and generous gesture lays the foundation for future victory," he wrote about a photo showing a car someone donated.

'Unequivocal humanitarian stance'

With regard to a peace prize being handed to an author who supports his native country's military, he stresses that he is "not a supporter of war." Zhadan says he wants nothing more than this war to end.

However, he adds, people who demonstrate against the Ukrainian army are basically urging it to surrender. "And I see what happened to Ukrainians in the territories that had no Ukrainian army — there, the Russians left behind mass graves."

The jury of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade praised the Ukrainian author and musician "for his outstanding artistic work as well as for his unequivocal humanitarian stance, which repeatedly motivates him to risk his own life to help people affected by war and thus to call greater attention to their plight."

In his novels, essays, poems and lyrics, Zhadan "uses a unique language that provides us with a vivid and differentiated portrait of the reality that many of us chose to disregard for far too long."

The jury concludes that Serhiy Zhadan reveals how Ukrainians "defy the violence around them, striving instead to lead independent lives rooted in peace and freedom." 

Serhiy Zhadan receives the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on Sunday, October 23 in Frankfurt's St. Paul's Church.

This article was originally written in German.