• Beyond Metaphor: Inside the First Month of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

    Serhiy Zhadan Records the Emergence of a New Reality in Kharkiv

    Writing contradicts death. The desire to capture feelings and meaning, circumscribe accounts, and relay story lines fundamentally clashes with the idea of ruin, destruction, and disappearance. We cling to the writing process as an illusory chance to pin down and preserve the outline of reality, flee the energy field of extinction, and try to trick oblivion. How justified is this illusory state? Well, it’s at least a constant of sorts—most of us are inclined to cling to time, to the feeling of it, to its passage.

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    So how do you pin time down within the confines of your consciousness, within the confines of language? You can try writing. Even if what you’ve written won’t become literature. Moreover, who is there today who can clearly define the boundaries of literature, its contours, its frontiers? What we attempt to get out, shout out, and put out there every day—is that literature? Is there some sort of line of demarcation between what we are willing to say and what we want to read?

    On February 24, 2022, a full-scale war began in Ukraine. The regular army of the Russian Federation appeared on Ukrainian territory, the shelling of Ukrainian cities began, the destruction of our country began. We faced a choice—either hold out and survive or be annihilated. I never thought I would construct a sentence like that on my laptop.

    It’s quite possible that on February 23, I would have found that kind of phrasing too pretentious, excessively emotional—perhaps even ideologically colored. But when you get a call and are told that your friend who received a vehicle from you the previous day has apparently been killed and can’t be buried because his head is nowhere to be found, you realize that these words are the most precise and truthful for all us Ukrainians these days. We don’t have much choice—withstand this war or be annihilated. That’s the way it is. There aren’t any other options or any other scenarios.

    Whether you are a writer, an IT specialist, a municipal worker, or jobless, if you take Ukraine’s side, you become a potential enemy for the occupier, and you could potentially be annihilated. Even if you don’t take a stance, you could still be annihilated. We have all been targets since late February; we have all come under fire, regardless of our views. This speaks to our vulnerability. But it does not mean we feel helpless or doomed.

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    A lot of residents have left Kharkiv, the city where I live, since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Probably hundreds of thousands. A lot of people have stayed, though. And many of those who have stayed made a conscious decision to do so, so they could defend the city and keep working. Some have gone off to the front lines. Others have stayed back to volunteer on the home front, helping servicemen and civilians.

    For me personally, it was and still is a great honor to know these people, to have the opportunity to stand alongside them under the springtime Kharkiv sky, to have the opportunity to say something about them, to write something about them, to snatch their voices, their shadows, their figures out of a great stream of time.

    We cling to the writing process as an illusory chance to pin down and preserve the outline of reality.

    Why have my friends and I stayed? Because we have a lot of work to do. We had this work to do before February 2022, too, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. We knew that when the occupiers came we wouldn’t be able to hide out in basements, that we would have work to do instead. Second, and probably more important, we love this city too much to abandon it when it’s going through tough times. So we decided to stay put in the neighborhoods we’re used to, where we’ve always felt calm and confident.

    War contends with language. During times of war, you constantly catch yourself thinking that you lack words. It’s like you’ve had your breath taken away, the wind knocked out of you, so words get lost, spill all over, and seem misplaced. This is a very strange feeling, strange and unpleasant, because it contains too much anger and too much powerlessness.

    You can’t stop this evil, and you can’t find the right words to articulate what you’ve seen. Reality winds up overpowering language. Reality needs new words, new intonations; it demands that all the most important things and phenomena be renamed.

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    Over the years, I’ve gotten used to writing something on Facebook every day, and it has turned into a job of sorts. A diary for everyone, I guess. It’s mostly about what’s going on. Well, and I’ve gotten used to posting all my new poems online. There’s this direct response from readers, so you can fix, edit, or rewrite something right away. That isn’t an option with poems in black ink. The spontaneity, openness, and uncensored quality of it is what makes readers reacting instantly on the internet so appealing. Sometimes, naturally, this stresses me out or bothers me, but all in all, what could be better than a sense of connection crafted by language, by the written word?

    About a week after the full-scale Russian invasion, in early March, I noticed that I was unable to read: it was hard to focus on anything besides the nightmarish news that kept coming in. You notice that when you pick up texts they simply fall apart, spill all over, like sand running through your fingers; you can’t grasp on to them, you can’t stop their flow. Something similar happened with writing, too.

    You can’t write, because this process doesn’t feel all that appropriate. War sharply changes ways of seeing, changes feelings. Above all, it immediately changes the weight of a great many things, things that seemed necessary and obvious just a day ago. And it turns out that after the first residential areas are bombed, the very notion of a metaphor seems suspect. Just like turning current events into literature, molding reality into literature, searching for images and similes, using blood and gore as literary material seems ethically dubious and completely inappropriate.

    I’m fully aware that this isn’t anything new—art locking up in the face of death, observing, spellbound, the world splitting and being transfigured, losing its former traits and its former meaning forever, as something significant, something implacable and irreparable unfolds underneath its outer crust. You can’t pick the words to feel or guess what exactly is unfolding.

    You can merely give names to everything you see, to what your vision captures, to what your vision hurriedly and chaotically focuses on, and do so out loud. I doubt you can call that literature. I’d say it doesn’t have to be clearly defined, though. Maybe later, when this war ends, we can return to the terms used in literary criticism. That’s probably how things will play out. For now, none of this is about literature—it’s about reality.

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    Naturally, these posts were not written as a book. That just came down to the need to remember the faces, names, attitudes, hopes, and disappointments I encountered these past few months. My greatest fear was that this temporal and spatial content, this bulk of joy and misfortune, faith and pain would simply evaporate in the past, like a chunk of March snow in running water.

    So I wanted to capture and preserve all of this, keep it written down, articulated, as something that receives another chance—a chance to be heard, a chance to be understood. Later, when my friends first suggested I make a book out of these entries, I thought that might be the best manifestation of love and reverence for those mentioned in them. Or for those who weren’t mentioned yet whose shadow was near, one way or another.

    There are a lot of names here which probably would not have appeared in any other, more conventional work; however, in these diary entries, they feel natural: the people of Kharkiv who became witnesses of history, witnesses who weren’t always the most talkative, yet were almost always honest and responsible. They are all a testament to the misfortune that has been brought upon us, the misfortune we’re counteracting. They are the true heroes of this book: epic, comic, lyric, but first and foremost, truly human.

    I don’t know how things will stand on the front lines when this book is published. In Ukraine, we naturally all believe our country will win this cruel war. Moreover, we’re working toward our victory, giving up our lives for it. Yet we are well aware that this victory probably will not come easily, and it is unlikely it will come quickly. We are ready for that, though. We are willing to defend our country; we are willing to stand up to aggressors and war criminals. Because we have this feeling of what is our space, our soil, and our sky overhead. This book is about that, too—this feeling of a sky that has your back, that illuminates you, that marks the outer limits of your presence in the world.

    One more thing—this story isn’t over. This diary of a city that we folks from Kharkiv love so much is still being written. The war continues; it keeps exhausting our country and taking our citizens’ lives. Yet our resistance continues, too, keeping the absolute evil the occupiers have brought with them at bay. Nobody will strip us of the right to call the country where we were born ours. And nobody will strip us of the right to speak our language.

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    We don’t always have sufficient resources to speak to this evil and be treated as equals, yet our language has turned out to be much stronger than any attempt to compel us to remain silent, to forgo calling a spade a spade, or to forgo pronouncing the names we use to identify each other. We are trying to stand up to death; we are trying to stand up to absolute silence. We reserve the right to speak the truth: the truth of this war, the truth of this time, the truth of the voices that evaporated into the sky and made the air more translucent—and more potent.


    February 24, 3:50 pm
    Video Transcript: Serhiy Zhadan with his band, Zhadan and the Dogs, standing by the Kharkiv Region sign

    Hi, everyone. We were on the road all day, and now we’re heading home because this is where our homes are, this is where our families are, and this is our place. All our concerts will come later, after we win. For now, we’d like to encourage everyone to stay where they belong and do their work, to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and to assist our fellow citizens, who need our help today.

    Remember one thing, my friends: this is a war of annihilation. We cannot afford to lose—we must win.

    So let’s stick together. Glory to Ukraine!

    February 28, 8:34 am
    You can hear all kinds of booming in Kharkiv. A lot of people are outside, though, standing in lines outside stores and pharmacies. There are a lot of servicemen checking up, monitoring things. Don’t go outside without your IDs, my friends. Better yet, don’t go outside unless you have to. We talked to our guys—they’re a little tired after yesterday. We’re holding the city. Ukrainian flags are fluttering above it.

    March 2, 12:31 pm
    Reminds me of the Second World War. I’m referring to the occupiers’ ideology and moral imperative, first and foremost. They’ve come here to liberate us from us. They don’t even have a compelling narrative for those with weak stomachs. They simply want to destroy us, just in case, just because.

    March 3, 10:28 am
    Kharkiv is receiving aid from all over the country. This is truly very important—not just protecting the city, but protecting every single resident of Kharkiv. This is a place where we will always live and work. Friends, your support is incredible. You can really feel it, especially when Russian rockets are flying overhead. The Russians are barbarians. Kharkiv is holding on.

    March 6, 5:44 pm
    Today, the sky above Kharkiv was high and translucent, and the clouds were kind of vivaciously volatile. Heavy piles of snow fall from the roofs. It’s quiet in the city itself, so people look around when they hear the snow fall. It’s springtime in the city. It’s wartime in the city. It’s empty in the city center. There are more people once you get a little farther out. It’s pretty lively outside the city limits.

    Reality needs new words, new intonations; it demands that all the most important things and phenomena be renamed.

    That may be because it was relatively quiet this afternoon. There are a bunch of our servicemen here and a lot of guys from the Territorial Defense Forces. It’s a fortified city, basically. A very pretty, sunny, springtime city. Can’t wait to rebuild it once we get rid of all this filth that has come here from the east and chuck it back across the border into oblivion. This place will continue to be the city of poets and universities, you’ll see. The Ukrainian flag is still fluttering above the city.

    March 6, 7:51 pm
    All right, let’s talk about the context of Russian chauvinism, with all its markers, stereotypes, and rigid stances. How much more limited can culture be than language? Take the language of a regular police officer (from now on, in Ukraine they’ll be known as police officers, not pigs) from Kharkiv, for instance. He’s a Russian speaker, of course. But now he’s digging through debris and pulling out Russian-speaking old ladies who voted for pro-Russian parties and who are being killed by air strikes launched by the president of a country that inherited “great Russian culture.”

    In the context of history, this police officer is much mightier and more convincing than the whole imperial tradition with its Golden and Silver ages. He rescues people. The imperial culture kills them. Yes, that’s right—the culture itself, and the whole fake, moribund context behind it that we’re all used to putting up with because—well, because it’s a “grand narrative.” In actuality,  it’s a grand narrative that always justifies violence and disdain for others. That’s really what it is.

    In this war, culture has suffered a devastating defeat once again. This time, it’s the “culture of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.” And you can’t really partake in schadenfreude here. Because in reality, the defeat of culture is civilians getting incinerated by Grad rockets. And servicemen, too, by the way. Clearly, it’s hard to make any predictions during week two of World War III, but it’s clear that—no matter how much longer our sublime and reckless world exists, no matter what subsequent configurations European civilization may take on (yes, the very same humanistic heiress of Athens and Alexandria that has tried to swallow the annexation of Crimea and Russian tanks in the Donbas for the past eight years)—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have suffered a devastating defeat.

    Just like the Russian ballet, the Russian avant-garde (which, to a large extent, is actually Ukrainian, not Russian), along with Russian hockey, and Russian soccer (well, that was going poorly even before the war). A people incapable of stopping itself before it bombed cities in a foreign country doesn’t have the right to shift blame to a nominal adolf. Now it’s your common burden. You’re marked now, Fritz. That was a perfectly normal name before World War II, wasn’t it? It’s still a marker of sorts, though. That’s how it’ll go with your names now, too. So Dostoyevsky won’t provide you with cover any longer. “Great Russian humanistic” culture is sinking, like the unwieldy Titanic. Sorry, I mean like the Russian warship.

    March 7, 9:44 pm
    There’s something else I’d like to talk about—choices. During a war, they emerge sharply, unexpectedly, and often unavoidably. Then from there, you make a decision—take some steps, muster the resolve, or shy away from things.

    These days, it is the individuals I encounter who surprise and inspire me the most. Patrol officers and women volunteers, priests and drivers, special forces operators and villagers carrying hunting rifles. Beyond this, a deep, clear outline takes shape, the outline of a people that has finally recognized its own strength, the strength of its rage as well as the strength of its unity. Not an electorate divided among politicians, but a society politicians have—finally—started speaking to openly and honestly. It’s crucial to acknowledge the trust and respect we have for each other at this particular moment so we can hold on to it after we win.

    March 8, 1:48 pm
    Don’t forget one thing, my friends. History isn’t just being rewritten right now. It’s being rewritten in Ukrainian.

    March 10, 9:27 am
    Now you realize how important the past eight years were to us: years of real change. How much we’ve changed over the past eight years. The army, society, and the government itself. I realize that we Ukrainians love to grumble, but still…If the Russians had launched a full-scale war back in 2014, there probably wouldn’t have been any unity or resistance. The Russians simply don’t understand what has been going on here for the past eight years. That’s where all their nonsense about denazification comes from. So what has been going on? We’ve been developing, while they’ve been decaying. And that’s how things will keep going. :)

    We packed a van with all sorts of useful stuff, and now we’re on our way to Kharkiv. We’re delivering medicine and groceries to several families. I wish you all the best.

    March 10, 2:13 pm
    Winter has returned to Kharkiv. In the morning, there was a dusting of dry, stinging snow, but in the afternoon, there’s been a full-on blizzard out here, which makes the city seem so big and cold. A lot of trucks and minibuses are careening all over the city, delivering humanitarian aid. People are carrying bags of groceries that they’ve just received down the streets. We suddenly noticed that there was nobody on Pushkinska Street. Turns out that an air-raid warning was sounded.

    Residents of this city have learned to get off the streets quickly. Some people do keep going about their business, though. Overall, the city has organized itself quickly. Patrol officers are racing all around, and municipal employees are still collecting garbage. From underneath deep, fresh snow an outline of the city has emerged: a city we know and love, a city where we plan on living in the future. The Ukrainian flag flutters above that city.

    March 11, 10:20 am
    The empty March streets of Kharkiv and the cold metal of tram tracks. The city has changed drastically over the past two weeks. You can feel the strength pushing through the pain. Saving the lives of those who live here is what matters most. The businesslike air and easy-going attitude innate to Kharkiv will return to the streets of the city one day, you can be sure of that.

    Bottom line: this isn’t a war between countries. This is a genocide of Ukrainians.

    March 13, 12:22 pm
    A lot will be written and sung about this war. I suppose the language will be completely different: the language taking shape right here, right now, every day, across the whole country. As of now, it’s filled with too much pain. There’s certainly enough anger, though. And most important, there’s enough faith and enough love.

    March 14, 8:11 pm
    Cold, March city. Artillery impacts have been shaking the air all day. We talk with friends we bump into around town. They all comment matter-of-factly, “That one’s incoming, heading at us. That one’s outgoing—we’re hitting back.”

    Suddenly, I notice that the only people out and about are men: carrying groceries, volunteering, simply standing next to an apartment building and staring up at the sky. That’s how we used to look out for snow. Now we look out for rockets.

    The city is empty by a little after four. Everyone is getting ready for the night. I hope it will be a quiet one. Drivers race around, fast and focused. You can feel spring during the day. It gets chillier in the early evening.

    Ukrainian flags flutter above the city.

    March 15, 9:36 am
    It’s sunny and empty this morning in Kharkiv. An air-raid warning just sounded. Spring feels sharp, heart wrenching.

    March  15,  2:16 pm
    These days, Kharkiv is akin to an ant colony that’s been disturbed by someone’s dirty boot: the ants’ chaotic movements are actually indicative of well-coordinated, logical work. Everyone is doing what they should be doing. Everyone is where they belong. The ants are tending to their colony because they love it. :) Everything will be all right, everything will be Ukraine.

    March 16, 7:43 am
    Last night was not a quiet one. After a patch of thick, compressed silence, blasts echoed and shook the air. It sounded like boxcars were being hitched together somewhere above us. People started driving as soon as curfew was over. The city is living its life. You can hear birds singing outside. Good morning, everyone.

    March 17, 8:51 am
    History repeats itself in strange ways, going in circles and marking new routes. And the symbolism of these days is especially bitter and deep: the city under siege, fighting off the horde, people hiding in the metro like it’s a church, united by song, men and women standing tall because the city has their backs and the city has to be protected. Everything suddenly became so lucid and expressive. This can no longer be erased, it will remain. It was quiet at night, but come morning you could hear the bombardment again. The day began, the city came to life, and everyone is doing their work. Good morning, everyone.

    March 21, 9:11 am
    Spring has come to Kharkiv for real. The streets are hot and sunny. The birds are singing louder and louder— drowning out the sirens. :) The people on the streets give one another inquisitive looks, more hopeful than mistrustful. Overall, everyone has become more aware of others. Life goes on in the city center: folks are handing out humanitarian aid, neighbors are just hanging out and chatting. They don’t pay any mind to the explosions you can hear on the outskirts of town. They’re used to it by now. As you walk around the city and talk to friends, you catch yourself thinking that Kharkiv is now one big volunteer center, though it isn’t always visible. It’s a city with a big heart and incredible humanity. Ukrainian flags flutter above the city. :)

    March 21, 11:07 am
    There are new sounds in the cityscape. When you walk down the street, broken glass crunches sharply under your feet. In the older sections of the city center, destroyed buildings are already being cleared, storefronts are being repaired, and municipal workers are taking care of business. We have a lot of work ahead of us. But it’s good, honest work. It doesn’t scare us. We’ll restore everything. We’ll rebuild everything.

    March 22, 7:28 pm
    Kharkiv kids are singing the national anthem down in the metro. Four weeks of war.

    Today, my poet friends, some actors, and I put on a concert for the people staying in the Kharkiv metro. I’ve honestly never heard such genuine applause. In the evening, right before curfew, people in Kharkiv try to make the best use of their time by walking their dogs or going out with their kids. There is an unexpectedly large number of cats on the streets. :)

    Have a quiet evening, dear brothers and sisters. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up one day closer to our victory.

    March 23, 7:51 am
    For the first three weeks, I couldn’t read anything except the news. Then I got my hands on a collection by Maik Yohansen, one of my favorite writers, and started rereading it. It’s miraculous just how well the sounds and voices of Kharkiv in the 1920s resonate with what’s going in the city today. Like a sturdy thread, Ukrainian poetry stitches up the body of history, holds everything together, doesn’t let us forget a single thing.

    Good morning, everyone. Greetings from Ukrainian Kharkiv. We all have a lot of work to do today.

    March 23, 11:29 am
    There’s something poignant about watching the street sweepers of Kharkiv these days. They clean up thoroughly, unhurriedly. There are still some snowbanks around, but it’s hot out in the sun, and wearing winter clothes is uncomfortable now—spring is here.

    Most passersby have plastic bags—they’re carrying something from somewhere. I ran into an older couple. They recognized me, said “hello,” and wished us victory in the war. :)

    After the initial shock and shelling, the owners of the cute little restaurants and boutiques downtown have been repairing and reinforcing their damaged storefronts and tidying up inside. We went to the destroyed university athletic complex and dormitories. The Russians dropped three bombs on the athletic complex. In other words, it wasn’t an accidental hit. They targeted it. And the complex itself and two dormitories have basically been destroyed. Luckily, nobody was injured.

    There is a lot of foot traffic on Pushkinska Street and tons of cars downtown. The city is being cleaned up, put back together. :) Street cats hunt pigeons. :) Ukrainian flags flutter above the city. :)

    March 23, 7:00 pm
    Almost a month of war. The city, which initially experienced shock, has bounced back quickly, rallied, and put up stiff resistance, despite daily (mostly nightly, actually) shelling and constant casualties. These are miraculous stories of people who didn’t cower in fear but rose to the defense of their city, their country, their future.

    Seeing kids soaking up the spring and racing down the streets on their scooters is particularly sublime. We recently had another concert in one of the metro stations. People are a little weary, but they haven’t lost their faith. Life goes on, people are thinking about the future.

    Have a quiet evening, everyone. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up one day closer to our victory.

    March 26, 9:36 pm
    Our friend was killed. He was the commander of a unit we have been helping out for several years, not just the last month. Zhora was the kind of man who always led from the front. It was remarkable. And it elicited respect. For the enemy, that may be a success—I don’t know. For us, this is one more reason to fight for our land. The Freikorps has lost its commander, but it hasn’t lost its motivation. And now it will take revenge. I don’t envy the Russians posted outside of Kharkiv, especially knowing how yesterday’s battles in Rohan went for them. Friends, remember Zhora—he’s a true hero of this war. There will be a street named after him in Kharkiv one day, I’m sure. Thanks, buddy. It was an honor to stand next to you. Fly high.

    March 29, 11:05 am
    We said our goodbyes to Zhora. The boys are composed and sanguine. Overall, it’s hard to describe all of this with ordinary words, which by now have acquired a completely different significance. Faces illuminated by candles that burn so slimly, fighters saying goodbye to their commander, stepping straight from the church into battle. Weapons thumping against bulletproof vests. The priest held the funeral service while outgoing artillery fire shook the air—our forces were hard at work.

    It’s striking just how well equipped our boys are—Zhora poured his heart into his job and left us with a very powerful unit. In the candlelit church, the fighters looked as though they were ancient icons. There is a strange, painful feeling of history taking place right here and now, and against this backdrop new Ukrainian forces, a new generation of Ukrainians, and a new country are taking shape. Take care, my friends. May you all be among the living today.

    March 29, 8:52 pm
    My volunteer friends and I are sitting around getting all our plans squared away: delivering meds, passing along bulletproof vests, and prearranging humanitarian aid. Have to find it, drop it off, and divvy it up. Most solutions are quick and easy: everyone is conscious of others, supportive—even if they can’t help someone, they know someone who can. Tomorrow is a new day: lots to do, new tasks, new objectives. This is our city. We love it, and we won’t let anyone else have it. :)

    Take care of each other, my friends, and believe in our country. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up one day closer to our victory.


    Excerpted from Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. Copyright © 2023. Published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in May 2023. Reproduced by permission.

    Serhiy Zhadan, Reilly Costigan‑Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
    Serhiy Zhadan, Reilly Costigan‑Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
    Serhiy Zhadan is Ukraine’s beloved literary and activist voice. He has received the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, the German Peace Prize, and several international literature prizes. His previous books include Mesopotamia; The Orphanage; and What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems. He lives in Kharkiv.

    Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler translate contemporary Ukrainian literature.

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