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Ukraine's Zhadan wins German Peace Prize

June 27, 2022

The Ukrainian writer, poet and musician Serhiy Zhadan has won the 2022 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for documenting the struggles of his compatriots caught up in a brutal war.

Serhiy Zhadan wearing a gray t-shirt
Serhiy Zhadan writes on the frontlines of the Ukraine warImage: Haus für Poesie/gezett/IMAGO

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association has awarded the 2022 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan.

"We honor this 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," said the award's jury.

In his novels, essays, poems and lyrics, Zhadan has especially reflected on Russia's initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, depicting how ongoing war has destroyed people's lives in the region.

He employs both "a poetic and radical tone" to also reflect on "how the people of Ukraine defy the violence around them, striving instead to lead independent lives rooted in peace and freedom," the jury added. 

'A person cannot live only with war'

In the city of Kharkiv near the Russian border where he lives, Serhiy Zhadan has been conducting poetry readings in an underground subway station serving as a bomb shelter.

"A person cannot live only with war," said Zhadan from the shelter in April. "It is very important for them to hear a word, to be able to sing along, to be able to express a certain emotion."

Writing in Wartime - when words fail

Born in 1974 in Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, the novelist, poet, essayist and musician sets his stories primarily in the city of Kharkiv and in eastern Ukraine.

Though he was raised in a predominantly Russian-speaking environment, he writes in Ukrainian.

He studied literature, Ukrainian and German studies at university in Kharkiv, and in the 1990s published his first poems and became ingrained in the cultural life of Ukraine's second largest city by organizing literary and music festivals.

In 2004, Zhadan's debut novel "Depeche Mode" was published in Ukraine (the English edition was released in 2013), wherein he depicts the upheavals associated with the post-Soviet era in his homeland.

In 2014, he received the Ukrainian BBC's Book of the Decade Award.

Having been involved in the pro-European Maidan protests of 2013, Zhadan's latest novel, "The Orphanage" (Ukrainian edition, 2017; English edition, 2021), reflects on the war in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine after 2014 — an area that is the focus of the Russian invasion today.

The story of a teacher who must negotiate the fog of a war zone to collect his nephew from school, the novel is an allegory for an apocalyptic Ukrainian borderland forever under threat of Russian aggression. 

"The Orphanage" won the top prize for translation in German at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2018. 

Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan has written over a dozen books of poetry and seven novelsImage: Maksym Kosmenko

An artist and activist

In addition to writing, Zhadan has translated poems by Paul Celan and Charles Bukowski into Ukrainian, and writes songs and sings for rock bands. His group Sobaki v kosmosi (Dogs in Space) toured through the Ukrainian war zone and played for the soldiers after Russia invaded Crimea and Donbas in 2014.

He has also helped organize humanitarian aid for the people caught in the crossfire.

Today, he continues to rescue people from war-ravaged neighborhoods, distributes aid supplies and organizes concerts in embattled Kharkiv.

He talks often of the importance of victory for Ukraine. "Defeat of the Ukrainians would mean that most of us will simply cease to exist," he told DW in April.

Though his writing is known for its surreal elements and ironic tone, his experience in war zones has imbued his work with journalistic and documentary-like accuracy.

In winning the coveted Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, Serhiy Zhadan follows in the footsteps of the 2021 winner, Zimbabwean filmmaker and author Tsitsi Dangarembga.

The €25,000 ($26,500) prize will be awarded at a ceremony on Sunday, October 23 in Frankfurt's Paulskirche.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.