As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags on, the world continues to marvel at the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people. Regardless of vocation, culture, or religious background, Ukrainians have resisted and fought back. One way people are making an impact? By writing. Words have the power to unite, inspire, and motivate humanity through the most catastrophic events. Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian novelist, poet, and musician, is a testament to this. On June 27th, Zhadan won the 2022 German Peace Prize for documenting the struggles of his people during Russia’s brutal war.
In Zhadan’s recent novels, essays, and poems, he reflects on Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. By using both “a poetic and radical tone,” Zhadan illustrates how the ongoing war has destroyed the lives of people in this region. While honoring Zhadan with this award, the German Book Trade’s jury stated, “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.”
In this article, we will look at a brief overview of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and discuss Zhadan’s impact. Then, we will examine some resources for how we can do our part from anywhere across the globe!
A Brief Overview of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict
To understand the difficult relationship between Russia and Ukraine, scholars must look back into more than 1,200 years of history. Both countries were originally born out of Kyivan Rus, a medieval kingdom founded in 800 AD by a group of Vikings. In the 1200s, the Mongol armies from Asia invaded and conquered Kyivan Rus. But nearly 300 years later, descendants of the original Kyivan princes returned and formed their own empire- imperial Russia.
The leaders of imperial Russia believed they had a right to Ukraine’s land. Because of their shared culture dating back to medieval times, they asserted that Ukrainians and Russians were “brothers.” But the Ukrainians disagreed. Although Russia and Ukraine practiced the same religion and shared some history, Ukrainians had rebuilt a new, unique culture during the time of the Mongols. Ukraine’s food, language, art, and music were completely different from Russia’s. And Ukraine wanted to keep that culture alive and independent.
In February of 1917, a revolution forced Czar Nicholas II, Russia’s leader, from the throne. Later that same year, another revolution planted the roots for a new empire called the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had complete control over Ukraine’s land and its people until it collapsed in 1991. Ukraine was finally allowed to gain its independence.
In the Russia we know today, President Vladimir Putin has once again claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. In an attempt to “reclaim” the land Putin believes rightfully belongs to Russia, he sent his army to Ukraine’s soil. Today, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving the country in order to be enlisted in the army.
Serhiy Zhadan’s Impact
Serhiy Zhadan was born on August 23, 1974, in the village of Strobilsk in Eastern Ukraine. He graduated from the Kharkiv Teacher’s College in 1996. There, he wrote his thesis on the Ukrainian Futurist writers of the 1920s. He currently lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine, where he spends much of his time writing poetry, prose, and essays. Today, much of his work documents his real-life experiences while living through a modern war.
Zhadan is known as the most popular poet of the post-independence generation in Ukraine. Throughout his writing career, he has published eight novels and fifteen poetry collections. His most popular novel, Voroshylovhrad, won the Best Book of the Decade award from BBC Ukrainian Service in 2014. But it is his poetry collection, A New Orthography, that is influencing his people the most during wartime.
A New Orthography speaks to the devastating impacts of war on humanity and the world’s ecosystems. In the opening poem, Zhadan writes:
And it’s the non-human world that witnesses and loudly mourns:
Eastern Ukraine, the end of the second millennium.
The world is brimming with music and fire.
In the darkness flying fish and singing animals give voice.If you’d like to read more of Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry, click here.
Since the 2020 publication of A New Orthodoxy, Zhadan’s collection has been translated into English, German, Swedish, French, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian. Zhadan’s poetry gives a voice to the voiceless men, women, and children affected by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. By documenting and translating these voices, Zhadan illustrates to the rest of the world just how disastrous this conflict has been. But his poetry isn’t only illuminating and shocking- it’s inspiring.
Zhadan’s words connect Ukrainian soldiers across the country and remind them what they are fighting for. Not only are they fighting for their land, their culture, and their people, but they are fighting to prove that even underdogs can win against imperial aggression.
Aside from writing, Zhadan has played a pivotal role in organizing humanitarian aid for those caught in the crossfire. He has helped rescue people from war-ravaged neighborhoods, collected and distributed first aid supplies, and organized concerts with all proceeds going towards the war efforts. Over the past few months, Zhadan has offered poetry readings for those gathered in a bomb shelter near his hometown of Kharkiv. During a poetry reading in April, Zhadan told his people, “A person cannot live only with war. It is important for them to hear a word, to be able to sing along, to be able to express a certain emotion.”
This is the power of writing. And after reading Zhadan’s words, we must do anything in our power to ensure that Ukrainians can live a life of ensured peace, freedom, and independence.
How Can I Help?
Maybe you’re not a writer like Serhiy Zhadan. But there are still ways you can get involved and help Ukraine! Click here for a list of organizations that are collecting monetary or physical donations. If you’d like to show your support in other ways, consider participating in a nearby protest or sign one of these petitions. You can also email your government representatives and urge them to help Ukraine in any way they can. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we practice good citizenship and deputyship to our global neighbors. Together, we can help put an end to the catastrophic war in Ukraine. Together, we are stronger!
If you’re interested in reading more about the impact of libraries in Ukraine’s war efforts, go to Bookstr.