When I visited Ukraine in July 2016, only one way remained across the Siverskyi Donets River to the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic: a bridge half destroyed by shelling, passable only on foot. From Stanytsia Luhanska, a Don Cossack settlement, elderly people and mothers with young children traversed the bridge, hauling carts of tomatoes and cucumbers to sell on the other side. Those moving in the opposite direction were arriving to collect their government pensions. The wait at the border was a minimum of five hours, and there was no shade. We had to leave Stanytsia by 3:00 PM, when the shooting was scheduled to start again.
Serhiy Zhadan’s 2017 novel The Orphanage is a product of that first phase of the war, when the fighting was confined to the Donbas. It is full of bombed bridges, ruined towns, and residential buildings shelled so that “furniture spills outside, like someone’s guts after they’ve been cut open.” This year Russian missiles have spread these scenes far beyond the Donbas, to Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv. As the Ukrainian military fought to defend Kyiv from Russian invaders, it blew up the bridges into the capital. When the Kyiv suburb of Irpin came under Russian attack, residents fled on foot, crossing the river under a broken bridge; the photos were seen around the world, in all their symbolic as well as documentary power.1 In July, as Russia claimed the entirety of Luhansk province, a news report about the annihilating conquest was illustrated with a photo of a bridge blown in two: all ties have been severed, and the break with the old ways is complete.
The Orphanage tells the story of Pasha, a teacher of Ukrainian in the Luhansk region (his fictional hometown is called “the Station”), as he traverses the contested land between Ukrainian-held territory and regions captured by Russian-backed separatists. He is on a mission to retrieve his chronically ill thirteen-year-old nephew, Sasha, who was placed in an orphanage by his mother. Pasha’s sister works as a train conductor and can’t be bothered to take care of her child. (The eponymous “orphanage” is called an internat in Ukrainian, and it’s a boarding school that’s not just for orphans. In Soviet times, the internat was a place where children could be left indefinitely and free of charge—though in dismal and even life-threatening conditions—while their parents were busy building communism.)
This is a gray, marginal world in which life is punctuated by bursting shells and the ebb and flow of soldiers from either side. The border shifts so often that it’s hard to keep track of who’s in power. Ambient dread gives the novel a dystopian flavor (some have compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), but Zhadan is writing about real life. While school is still in session, Pasha’s classroom is made into a hospital for separatist soldiers:
The wounded are placed right on the floor, in between the desks. Shortly thereafter, Pasha sprints in after them and dismisses the class. The scared kids step over fresh blood and then jostle in the hallway….
The classroom smells of mud and blood, snow and earth.
The landscape is full of sad absurdities that Zhadan captures with his signature jocularity: “You’d see some old-timer hiking all the way into town in the middle of a mortar attack to file some paperwork for his pension. Well, if it comes down to death or bureaucracy, sometimes death is the right call.” Out for drinks, an absent-minded soldier leaves a live grenade on the bar as he digs through his pockets, looking for money to pay his tab.
Born in 1974 in Starobilsk, part of the first generation to come of age after the end of the Soviet Union, Zhadan became famous as a poet in the 1990s. He upholds the tradition, now extinguished in the West, of the poet as both rebellious celebrity and national hero; he wrote his university thesis on the Ukrainian Futurists of the 1920s, whose avant-garde antics might be called proto-punk and who were core members of a distinctly Ukrainian modernism centered in Kharkiv and quickly strangled by Soviet purges of Ukrainian artists and scholars. (The university building where he studied was recently hit by Russian missiles.) Zhadan even has a rock band, Zhadan and the Dogs. He recites his poems to packed auditoriums. After a performance in Warsaw, Marci Shore reported in The New Yorker, “a Polish journalist commented that he had never seen so many young women in the city wearing short skirts in March.” Shore described Zhadan as “racy in a James Dean sort of way.” He has often been called an enfant terrible, though he’s long outgrown the title, and his signature leather jacket is more John Travolta than James Dean.
When he heard news of the Russian invasion in February, he was on a train westward to a concert; he and his bandmates turned around and went back home to Kharkiv. He has remained there throughout the conflict, apparently unconcerned for his own safety and working tirelessly to support the war effort and help civilians. In response to the first phase of the war he created the Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation, which held contests to encourage literary expression among children in the Donbas. Now on his social media accounts he poses, smiling in his leather jacket, with soldiers, pensioners, schoolchildren, and bandmates, announcing charitable donations, concerts to boost morale, readings to raise money for the army. He seems immune to despair.
Zhadan has avoided popular rhetoric about Russian “orcs” or eastern “hordes,” though he supports a recently proposed law to restrict Russian cultural imports, arguing that “our statehood today is found not only in the weapons we fight with, but in the books we read.” A poem published in Poetry in 2019 (in a translation by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin) shows characteristic compassion for a soldier who made a mistake:
They buried their son last winter.
Strange weather for winter—rain, thunder.
They buried him quietly—everybody’s busy.
Who did he fight for? I asked. We don’t know, they say.
He fought for someone, they say, but who—who knows?
Will it change anything, they say, what’s the point now
I would have asked him myself, but now—there’s no need
And he wouldn’t reply—he was buried without his head.
Zhadan’s essential subject, his great love, is eastern Ukraine. In The Orphanage, as in his other works of fiction, he sings of the bleak splendor of the industrial post-Soviet landscape, still recognizable despite the damage done by war. The sky resembles “molten metal that would soon be poured into a mold and made into something useful.” A shrapnel-riddled satellite dish “looks like a sunflower in the morning.” In his 2014 novel-in-stories Mesopotamia,2 one character captures the coexistence of despair and surprising beauty in a place that seems left behind by history:
There was nothing to do in my town except pound beers all day and fuck your brains out all night in the park by the jungle gym, the factories’ white smoke, the workers’ black eyes, and duplicitous raspberry bushes behind the brackish nighttime delta.
Mesopotamia shows the dark sides of post-Soviet life in Kharkiv—addiction, tuberculosis, violent death, rampant crime and corruption—but it also celebrates the reckless joy of young, independent Ukraine. Cognac and lemon, absurd nicknames like Alla the Alligator and Vadyk Salmonella, hedonistic summers at bohemian dachas, love and death rolled into one, a booze-soaked multiethnic picaresque:
I went to a bunch of shady places, stopped by all the basements and burrows…, paid the Arabs a visit, stuck my head into the Vietnamese joint, became best buddies with the guys that worked at the McDonald’s, strolled into the TB clinic and drank, arms intertwined, with the patients, ordered champagne at Health, the local sauna, lost consciousness in a dark basement across from the synagogue, regained it at a family restaurant…by chasing milkshakes with herbal liqueur, asked for directions at the pizzeria, died from cognac fumes in a bar run by some Georgian dudes, and resurrected myself with some Madeira in an empty supermarket.
But that was before the war. The Orphanage is a journey through the underworld, recalling Dante and the Greek classics. Pasha, exhausted and terrified, thinks that “it’s as though somebody’s pumping souls out of the city. And those souls are black and bitter, snagging on trees and taking root in basements.” Zhadan borrows Homer’s trick of making martial death into similes of natural bounty: “Soldiers drop to the ground like ripe apples onto wet grass.” At a checkpoint, a man howls “like he’s berating the gods for their bad behavior.” He laments, “Olezha, my pal Olezha…I didn’t even have time to throw some dirt on his body or drag him into the snow. He’s still lying there, all burnt up.”
Despite being a teacher of Ukrainian in a largely Russian-speaking region, Pasha is no hot-blooded patriot. At the beginning of The Orphanage he is timid, indecisive, unwilling to take a side, even if, as the political situation gets worse, he feels that “something had broken in his language, cracked, like ice on a reservoir in March, and it was on the verge of splitting into countless heavy, prickly shards.” His girlfriend, Maryna, left him because he wouldn’t get her away from the war zone. He doesn’t watch TV and he doesn’t like politics. (To be fair, the news has always been unreliable at best, and elections corrupt.) But his problems with Maryna were about more than the war: he’s so averse to conflict that he couldn’t even have a proper argument with her. His nephew asks him “whose side he was on, what he was going to do, who he was going to shoot at,” deriding him for his lack of patriotism. But Zhadan has sympathy for Pasha. He still has time to make the right choice.
In a 2020 interview with openDemocracy, responding to a question about the national identity of people in the Donbas, Zhadan set forth his idea of civic identity as a pluralistic and dynamic process, a matter of choice and action:
I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical Ukrainian identity. The identity of someone born in Zakarpattya is a 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.
In 2014, he recollected, his native region of northern Luhansk chose the Ukrainian side, supporting the army and volunteers against the separatists. As for the inhabitants of the occupied regions, he had compassion for them as well: “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.” The Russian invasion has further proved his point: while a significant number of eastern and southern Ukrainians chose the pro-Russian camp in 2014, this time opposition to Russian aggression is far more unified. No one likes to see their home reduced to rubble.
With his writing and his social activism and charitable work, Zhadan has long been a builder of bridges, an essential figure in a bitterly divided political landscape. In an interview with the magazine Apofenie, he defended the importance of dialogue, which had “acquired negative connotations in Ukraine” since 2014. A failure to establish dialogue within Ukraine, he argued, would be “fatal” to the country’s development and even its survival. He is for a Ukraine that embraces diversity, and he rejects ethnonationalism—sometimes implicitly, sometimes with his characteristic gentle mockery. Mesopotamia revolves around a group of old Kharkiv friends about his own age whose ranks include Marat, a Chechen boxer; Bob Koshkin, who is Jewish; and Sasha Tsoy, the “son of a Korean student who washed up in Kharkiv in the early eighties.” Zhadan himself grew up speaking a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, but is now one of the leading writers working in Ukrainian.
Reading Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler’s impeccably idiomatic translation of The Orphanage, the Anglophone reader may wonder about the language of the original. We learn that although Pasha is a Ukrainian teacher, he always speaks Russian outside of class—even in the hallway of his school. One soldier is described as “speaking Russian; his accent comes through in the interrogative.” Another soldier has “a Caucasian accent”; he is presumably a Chechen sent by Russia. He doesn’t recognize the pantheon of Ukrainian poets on Pasha’s classroom wall, laughingly saying, “The only good poet’s a dead poet.” When Pasha panics at a checkpoint, he “can’t seem to figure out what language he’s speaking. The words are bursting out of him, choppy and broken—no intonation, no detectable accent—he’s just hollering, like he’s trying to cough up mucus.” He encounters Ukrainian soldiers from more firmly Ukrainian-speaking regions further west, and they laugh at him “for sliding back and forth between languages.” When another soldier is “mixing the two languages,” Pasha responds in kind. This blend of Russian and Ukrainian, sometimes called Surzhyk after the name for a mix of grains, appears throughout Ukraine but is especially common in the east of the country.
The choice of language, the mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, the accent and the confidence with which Ukrainian and Russian are spoken—these are all essential aspects of the story. But Zhadan tells us about these distinctions rather than showing them, even in the original: The Orphanage is monolingual, written entirely in Ukrainian. In spite of the dystopian landscape, the highly textured, politicized, contested surface of language in Ukraine is smoothed into an almost utopian homogeneity, even as Zhadan recognizes the significance of language choice in the politics of Ukraine, especially in the embattled eastern regions.3 It’s a political-linguistic soft-focus lens, blurring away strife even as it contributes to the project of building the Ukrainian literary canon.
Zhadan achieves another pointed effect by choosing not to name the two sides. There are checkpoints everywhere, but the reader must piece together who’s in charge. We encounter “frayed national flags” that change with the occupying army, but we aren’t told which country they belong to. Pasha remembers a time “last spring, right after it’d all started, right after they’d come to the city, started taking over police stations and tearing flags off public buildings. Most of the locals didn’t know what to make of them, what to expect of them.” Some of the armed men have “come in from out of town.” They’re clearly separatists, but are they from other regions of Ukraine or from Russia? Instead of clear answers, we have sentences like this: “People coming from the south [i.e., occupied territory] give off a burnt smell, like they’ve been sitting by a campfire.”
Though this vagueness may confuse some readers, and though it can demand narrative circumlocutions that sometimes feel awkward, it allows Zhadan to avoid patriotic rhetoric and the casting of blame, in keeping with his peacemaking project. He transcends the murky details of politics, preferring to evoke a more universal human predicament.
In her 2018 collection Lucky Breaks, recently published in a translation by Eugene Ostashevsky, the Ukrainian writer and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets takes a similar approach in her stories of women from the Donbas, leaving the two sides of the conflict unnamed. We see the haziness and confusion of the Donbas war as it was experienced by people on the ground, who were sometimes shelled from both sides and who were engulfed by propaganda, rumor, fear, and rancor. Here, as in The Orphanage, this device reflects the veiled nature of Russia’s involvement in the war before this year; it never openly acknowledged its participation in the separatist uprisings, though its decisive interventions were well known. There is no such ambiguity now: Russia has made explicit its desire to erase Ukrainian statehood.
While The Orphanage is gentle toward those who are torn or indecisive, its final position is clear. The orphanage’s director, Nina, is a brave protector of the children under her care, and the novel’s moral compass. Like Zhadan, she has a strong, serene conviction of the value of the Ukrainian national project. She criticizes the gym teacher, Valera, for his nostalgia for Soviet times and his failure to vote. She chastises Pasha for not talking to his students about the war—for not taking sides. She’s the only one who resists when the separatists want to tear down the Ukrainian flag at the orphanage. Everyone else just stands and watches.
Pasha’s journey ends as you might expect. He realizes that when you love someone or something—your nephew, your girlfriend, your country—you have to fight for it. His urge to withdraw is understandable, but in the end he has to pick a side. His nephew will be marked forever by his time in the orphanage, as Ukraine will be marked by the war that has cut it into pieces. Pasha’s job as a Ukrainian teacher, his effort to protect his students—these works mattered. “Checkpoints get taken down,” he reflects, “but grammar rules remain.”
In the first months of the war, Zhadan reported that he found himself unable to write poetry or fiction, though he still made music. Now it seems that his muse has returned. His social media dispatches from summertime Kharkiv—still under fire, still surviving—have the flavor of poetry. He chronicles the flight of shells, studying the wartime weather: “In summer’s tradition the sky is cloudy, as if in doubt.” On July 5 he published a poem on Facebook. It begins, “And something is bound to be given back/when so much is taken away.”
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes, Wanda Phipps, Virlana Tkacz, and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler (Yale University Press, 2018). ↩