The “Chronicler of a Generation” – Serhij Zhadan at Kulturbahnhof Kamea (Frankfurt / Oder)
by Ekaterina Grineva
Serhij Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, translator, social activist and Ska-Punk singer. His works have been translated into thirteen languages, making him one of the most famous contemporary Ukrainian writers. He is the author of the novels Depesh Mod (2004), Voroshilovgrad (2010), Mesopotamia (2014), as well as the poetry collections Citatnik (1995) and Ethiopia (2009). Zhadan is the winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, awarded “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”.
On December 5th, 2022, Zhadan was a guest in Frankfurt/Oder. He read his works in Ukrainian with German translation at Kulturbahnhof Kamea. His conversation with Prof. Dr. Annette Werberger – literary scholar at European University Viadrina – and his translator Claudia Dathe focused on writing, poetry and translations. Ukrainian literature, futurism and anarchism were touched upon in the conversation. The reading of Zhadan’s poems at Kamea Kulturbahnhof was followed by a Ska-Punk concert by his band Zhadan i Sobaky – songs from various albums were played, accompanied by the audience singing and dancing. There were some people who came hours before the event and were waiting outside in the middle of the red-brick art space, immersed in a dense fog of that cold December evening to see one of the main artistic voices of contemporary Ukraine. The funds that were raised this event were given to Kharkiv Karazin University, whose buildings and dormitories were destroyed as a result of Russian shelling.
Zhadan comes from Starobilsk in the Luhansk region and has been writing prose and poetry in Ukrainian since the 1990s. He studied literature, Ukrainian and German studies in Kharkiv and has been translating Rilke and Celan into Ukrainian. He was inspired by the Ukrainian culture of the 1920s and wrote his doctoral thesis on Michailo Semenko, the founder of Ukrainian futurism. In his works, he deals with the upheavals of the post-Soviet period in eastern Ukraine. In 2016 Zhadan received the Ukrainian Book of the Year award for his anthology Mesopotamia, in which he wrote about the divided Kharkiv. His most recent novel Internat (2017) is an impressive account of the war in the Donbass. A teacher travelling through the war zone repeatedly gets caught between the front lines in a dense fog and is confronted with the question of whether one can remain neutral in war.
Since the start of the war in February 2022, Zhadan has been organizing voluntary aid transports, collecting donations for the army and performing as an author and singer. His project Zhadan i Sobaky (Zhadan and Dogs) evolved more and more into a musical accompaniment to his poems. With each new album the band brought text and melody closer and closer. Thus, lyrics turned into songs. And the songs turned into hits. The peak of this development became the album “Psi” (2016) on which the band not only changed their name from Zhadan i Sobaki v Kosmosi to more laconic Zhadan i Sobaki, but also made a formula of their own Ska-Punk.
Their album “Madonna” (2019) is the logical sequel to it, but even harder, more straightforward and sarcastic. The powerful chorus at the beginning of the “Madonna” album reads: “Who are we, we are baptized with you. Where we were baptized – in a church in Troyeshchyni” (Хто ми з тобою, ми з тобою хрещені. Де ми хрещені – у церкві на Троєщині). Biblical allusions haunt the listener throughout almost every song. “I myself became like the Apostle Peter” (Я сам зробився, як апостол Петро), Zhadan’s lyrical hero admits. The narration is intertwined with the music, sometimes coming to the fore and finally turning to a recitative as in the song “Marat” – a reference to the famous story of Marat, an important figure of the French Revolution. Central topics of the songs are birth, alcohol, sinful existence or death. But Zhadan is not spreading despair. On the contrary, he makes you look for the best even in the worst. Due to recent events, the meaning that he puts into his music has undergone a strong change and instead of death it is now led by a strong determination of peremoga (ukr. “victory”): “I love this country even without cocaine” (from “Kraïna”, 2014) – his holding on to his own country is also depicted in Voroshilovgrad.
However, writing poetry and writing songs are different things that don’t always go well together. It seems that with “Madonna” Zhadan abandoned the concept of multi-instrumentalism and left it for his other musical projects – Linija Mannergeyma and Zhadan & Fima. “Madonna” is also less experimental than his earlier albums. Instead, it has more hits and is closer to pop to a certain degree. It’s a quite conscious step. Zhadan’s music and lyrics are multi-layered, emotional and masterful. At the same time, he remains alien to both the pop scene (because of his harshness and sarcasm) and the music community (because the writer is still not perceived as being also a musician). At their concert in Frankfurt Zhadan i Sobaki sounded simple, but not primitive. They hide interesting references in their melodies, as for example the almost canonical punk sound of The Ramones. Musically, Zhadan can be compared to the Belarusian punk rock band Lyapis Trubetskoy. Ska-Punk with bright trumpets, playful and harsh lyrics, and heavy guitars was popularized by Sergei Mikhalok – founder and leader of Lyapis Trubetskoy. Especially Zhadans song “Malvy” seems to have jumped out of the “Kultprosvet”-period of the Belarusian band. The song logically suits the post-Soviet (post-apocalyptic) aesthetic of all of Zhadan’s work.
I assume, that Zhadan chooses the Ska-Punk music genre for a reason. Traditionally, early Ska-Punk lyrics were politically sharp and protesting. Ska-Punk allows Zhadan to express his position as a critic of the Soviet regime, a supporter of Euromaidan – along with other activists he occupied 2014 a government building in Kharkiv – as well as an opponent of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. After all, Zhadan’s goal in today’s war is to influence the public through various mediums – texts, music as well as social-activism. Part of this strategy could be the sacrifice of experimentalism and instrumentality in favor of a more simplified popular genre.
In his novels, essays, poems and songs Serhij Zhadan takes us into a world that has experienced great upheavals and at the same time lives from tradition. His texts tell how war and destruction enter this world and change people. Before the beginning of the war in 2022, Zhadan often spoke with writers and journalists about the conscious distancing or reinterpretation of the “Soviet” in his work: “Here we all are children of the Soviet Union, but we love the Ukrainian language and literature, we are the Olympians”, he declared in an interview with another prominent Ukrainian author, Yuri Andrukhovych, in 2021. A year later, his position regarding the break with Soviet heritage, which morphed nowadays into the Russian one, has understandably become even more radical. The Olympus according to Zhadan and many other cultural figures would now be given to Ukrainian literature. This, at least, has been the focus of his multi-layered and self-sacrificing creative work over the past two decades, as he became the “chronicler of a generation”.
There was a contrast throughout the evening between the quiet beginning with a reading, conversation and a film screening and the party that lasted until late at night at Kulturbahnhof Kamea. Both were skillfully directed by Zhadan, who has inexhaustible energy and creativity. The audience asked for an encore. Zhadan certainly impressed the Frankfurt audience with his dedication and his outstanding personality. His strength proved to be an exceptional example of support for Ukraine.
 Serhiy Zhadan awarded Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2022. Suhrkamp. 24.10.2022, https://www.suhrkamp.de/rights/nachricht/serhiy-zhadan-awarded-peace-prize-of-the-german-book-trade-2022-b-3683 [accessed: 19.02.2023]
 See Oleksij Bondarenko: Ska-pank z ikonami i prismakom pochmillja. Recenzija na albom “Madonna” gurtu Žadan i sobaki. Liroom. 16.09.2019, https://liroom.com.ua/reviews/zhadan-madonna-review/ [accessed: 23.02.2023]
 Andrukhovych, Yuri: Sergej Žadan – Juriju Andruchoviču: U menja izmenilos’ oščuščenie togo, o kom ja pišu, č’im golosom govorju. Craft. 21.03.2021, https://craftmagazine.net/ru/sergey-zhadan-yuriyu-andruhovichu/ [accessed: 18.02.2023].
 As written on the cover of the book Zhadan, Serhij: Hymne demokratischen Jugend. (Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp 2009).
Ekaterina Grineva is a Research Associate in the project “Europäische Zeiten / European Times – A Transregional Approach to the Societies of Central and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM) at the European University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder). She obtained an MA in Russian studies, Literary and History studies in Freiburg and Moscow. From 2018 to 2021 she was a member of International Research Group 1956 “Transfer of Culture and “Cultural Identity”. German-Russian Contacts in the European Context”. Her research interests lie in Slavic as well German studies and she is working on her PhD project on modernism and baroque theatre, specifically on the impostor figure of False Dmitry.
Citation: Ekaterina Grineva, The “Chronicler of a Generation” – Serhij Zhadan at Kulturbahnhof Kamea (Frankfurt/Oder), in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.03.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45504
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 2. März). The “Chronicler of a Generation” – Serhij Zhadan at Kulturbahnhof Kamea (Frankfurt / Oder). TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut6a