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Poetry After Bucha: Serhiy Zhadan on Ukraine, Russia, and the Demands War Makes of Language

"There’s no such thing as peace without justice."

The following is a speech delivered by Serhiy Zhadan as he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Booktrade on Oct. 23. It was translated into English by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes.

*

He has dark, labor-laden hands with grease ingrained in his skin and caked under his nails. Typically, people with hands like those know how to work and love it. Now, the nature of their work is a different matter altogether. Somewhat short, quiet, and anxious, he stands there and offers explanations about the situation on the frontlines, about his brigade, and about the vehicles he has to operate as their driver. Then he suddenly decides to try his luck.

“Hey, volunteers, buy us a fridge,” he says.

“What do you need a fridge for on the frontlines?” we asked, bewildered. “If you need one, though, let’s head to the supermarket. You can pick one out, and we’ll pay for it.”

“Nah, I meant that I need a vehicle with a big refrigerator. You know, a refrigerator truck. To collect the dead. We’ve been finding bodies that have been lying out in the sun for over a month. We’ve been using a mini-bus—can’t breathe in there.”

He speaks about the dead like he’s talking about his work—in a calm and measured manner, with neither bravado nor fear. We exchange contact information. A week later, we find a refrigerator truck in Lithuania and have it sent to Kharkiv. He and a whole team of fighters pick up the vehicle solemnly and take pictures with us for our report. This time, our friend is armed and dressed in clean clothes. If you take a closer look, though, you can see that his hands are just as dark. His daily labor is hard, and his hands are the best testament to that.

*

What does war change first? One’s sense of time, one’s sense of space. The outline of one’s perspective, the outline of temporal progression changes very quickly. People in a war-torn space try not to plan for the future or think too much about what the world will be like tomorrow. What’s happening to you here and now is all that matters, just the people and things that will be with you tomorrow morning—tops. That’s if you survive and wake up. Staying alive and pushing forward another twelve hours or so is the most important task at hand.

Then, after that, it’ll be clear, it’ll be obvious how to act, how to conduct yourself, what to rely on, what to push off of. This applies, to a great extent, to servicemen and those “civilians” (unarmed people, that is) who have remained in a zone edging toward death. This is the feeling that accompanies you from day one of a major war: the feeling of a temporal fracture, the absence of continuity, the feeling of air being compressed, that it’s hard to breathe because reality is exerting pressure on you, trying to squeeze you out to the other side of life, to the other side of what’s visible. There’s this compression of events and emotions, this dissolution into a thick bloody current that envelops you and sweeps you up—what distinguishes the reality of war so drastically from the reality of peace is this pressure, this inability to breathe freely and just speak. Yet you have to speak. Even during times of war. Especially during times of war.

When speaking about peace in the context of this bloody, dramatic war instigated by Russia, some people don’t want to acknowledge a simple fact—there’s no such thing as peace without justice.

War unequivocally changes language, its architecture, the scope of its use. War, like an intruder’s shoe, disrupts the ant colony of communication. Afterwards, ants, akin to the speakers of a disjointed language, feverishly attempt to restore its wrecked structure and tidy up what they were used to, what their lives had been. Eventually, everything slides back into place. Yet the inability to utilize the usual mechanisms—more precisely, being unable to use previous, peacetime, pre-war constructions to convey the state you’re in, articulate your fury, your pain, your hope, is particularly painful and unbearable. Especially if you’re used to trusting language, used to relying on its capabilities, which seem inexhaustible to you.

Turns out, though, that language’s capabilities are limited—limited by these new circumstances, this new landscape, a landscape that’s inscribed in the realm of death, the realm of disaster. Each and every ant is tasked with restoring the common cadence of collective communication, common sounds, and a common understanding. What does a writer become in this case? Another ant, just as mute as the rest of them. Since the onset of the war, we have all been trying to regain this disrupted ability, the ability to express ourselves so we’re understood. We are all attempting to articulate ourselves, the truth, the outer bounds of our turmoil and trauma. Literature may have a slightly better chance at achieving this, since it’s genetically tied to all our previous linguistic catastrophes and upheaval.

How can one talk about war? How can one manage all the desperation, fury, and rancor in one’s tone, as well as all the energy and eagerness to stick by your fellows, not to retreat? I think we aren’t the only ones struggling to convey what matters most. The world listening to us isn’t always capable of understanding one simple thing—when we speak, the degrees of our linguistic tension, linguistic sincerity, and linguistic emotionality differ too drastically. Ukrainians shouldn’t have to justify their emotions, but unpacking these emotions is worthwhile. What for? So as not to keep all this pain and all this anger bottled up, at the very least. We can articulate it; we can vocalize everything that has and will happen to us. We simply have to be ready for the fact that this won’t be an easy conversation. Nevertheless, we have to begin it today.

The varying weight and color of our words seems crucial to me. This appears to be about having differing fields of vision, views, and perspectives, but most importantly, it’s about language. Sometimes it seems like as the world watches what has been transpiring in Eastern Europe for the past six months it has been using vocabulary and definitions that haven’t been able to explain what’s going on for a long time. For instance, what does the world (I understand the ephemeral and abstract nature of this term, but I’m going to use it anyway) mean when it speaks about the need for peace? You would think that this was about stopping the war, about ending this armed standoff, about the moment when the artillery fire goes quiet and silence sets in.

You would think that these things would bring us closer to a common understanding. After all, what do we Ukrainians want more than anything? For the war to end, of course. Peace, of course. For the shelling to stop, of course. Personally, as someone who lives on the eighteenth floor of an apartment complex in downtown Kharkiv, where you can see the Russians launching rockets from the neighboring city of Belgorod, I vehemently want the rocket attacks to stop, the war to stop, for everything to return to normal, to a natural existence. So what do Ukrainians find alarming about European intellectuals’ and European politicians’ declarations about the need for peace (which doesn’t negate the need for peace, of course)? It’s the fact that we understand that peace won’t come merely because the victim of aggression has laid down their arms.

The civilians in Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin didn’t have any arms at all, which didn’t spare them from suffering terrible deaths. The people of Kharkiv aren’t armed either, yet the Russians have consistently and chaotically fired rockets at them. What do proponents of a speedy peace at any cost think they should have done? For these proponents of peace, where is the line between supporting peace and not supporting resistance? The thing is, though, I’d say that when speaking about peace in the context of this bloody, dramatic war instigated by Russia, some people don’t want to acknowledge a simple fact—there’s no such thing as peace without justice.

There are various forms of frozen conflict, there are temporarily occupied territories, there are time-bombs camouflaged as political compromises, but unfortunately, there won’t be any peace, real peace that provides a sense of security and prospects for the future. And by castigating Ukrainians for being unwilling to surrender and perceiving that as an element of militarism and radicalism, some Europeans (I must note that this number is rather insignificant, but still) are doing a bizarre thing; by trying to stay in their comfort zone, they venture beyond the bounds of ethics. And this is no longer a question for Ukrainians—this is a question for the world, for its willingness (or unwillingness) to swallow yet another manifestation of utter uncontrollable evil in favor of dubious financial gain and disingenuous pacificism.

Typically, war shows what people have been trying not to notice for a long while; war is a time of uncomfortable questions and tough answers.

Thing is, for some, this has turned out to be a rather convenient form of reassigning responsibility—appealing to people who are protecting their lives, blaming the victim, shifting priorities, and manipulating good, positive messages. The situation is as simple as it gets, though. We’re assisting our troops not because we want war, but because we really want peace. Soft, unobtrusive capitulation, which has been offered under the guise of peace, is not the path to a peaceful existence and the restoration of our cities.

Ukrainians capitulating may help Europeans save money on their energy bills, but how will Europeans feel knowing, as they surely will, that the heat in their homes has been paid for by the destroyed lives and houses of people who also wanted to live in a calm, peaceful country?

*

It all comes down to language—I’ll say it again. It comes down to how precisely and aptly we use certain words, how measured our tone is when we speak about teetering on the edge between life and death. How sufficient is our previous vocabulary, the vocabulary that enabled us to encapsulate the world quite well just yesterday, how sufficient is it now to talk about what hurts or to give us strength? Thing is, verbally, we have all found ourselves in a spot we haven’t ever spoken from before. Therefore, we have a shifted system of assessment and perception; the coordinates of meaning have changed, and the boundaries of expediency have changed.

What may look like talk about death from the outside oftentimes is a desperate attempt to cling to life, to its opportunities, to its continuity. After all, in this new, fractured, shifted reality, where does war as a topic of conversation end and where does the domain of peace begin? A refrigerator truck full of dead bodies—is this about peace or war? Taking women to places away from the shelling—what is this in support of? A peaceful resolution to the conflict? Buying a tourniquet that saves a serviceman’s life—is this humanitarian aid or aid for combatants? And in general, assisting those who are fighting for you, for civilians in basements, and children in the metro—does this reach beyond the confines of pleasant conversation about kindness and empathy? Do we have to remind others about our right to keep existing in this world or is this right obvious and irrefutable?

It turns out that these days a lot of things, phenomena, and concepts need to be explained, or, at the very least, they need a fresh reminder, they need to be re-articulated and embraced again. Typically, war shows what people have been trying not to notice for a long while; war is a time of uncomfortable questions and tough answers. This war launched by the Russian army has suddenly put forth a slew of questions that reach well beyond the context of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Like it or not, in the upcoming years, we will have to talk about things that make us uncomfortable: populism and double standards, a lack of responsibility and political conformism, ethics, which, as it turns out, have hopelessly disappeared from the vocabulary of those who make crucial decisions in the modern world. One could say these things pertain to politics, that we’ll have to speak about it, about politics.

Nevertheless, in this case, politics is merely a screen, a cover, a chance to avoid bumping into any sharp edges and avoid calling a spade a spade. But that’s just what’s needed—calling a spade a spade. Criminals being called criminals. Freedom being called freedom. Deceit being called deceit. During times of war, these lexical units sound particularly sharp and expressive. Avoiding them without getting cut is very hard. They shouldn’t be avoided. They really shouldn’t be.

It’s sad and telling that we’re speaking about a peace prize at a time when there is a war going on in Europe. Going on not too far from here. And it’s been going on for years, actually. This peace prize has been awarded for all the years it has been going on. Naturally, this isn’t about the prize itself. It’s about how willing Europe is to accept this new reality: a reality with destroyed cities (where they could have had joint business ventures), a reality with mass graves (where citizens of Ukraine lie, citizens who just yesterday could travel to German cities to go shopping or visit museums), and a reality with filtration camps for Ukrainians who have come under occupation (camps, occupation, collaborators—these are all words that are hardly used by Europeans on a daily basis).

Also, it comes down to how we will all go about living in this reality with ruined cities, burnt schools, and destroyed books. And first and foremost, with the thousands of dead and with those who, just yesterday, were wrapped up in their regular, peaceful lives, making plans, and relying on their own sense of memory.

It’s important to mention our memories, and here’s why. War isn’t just a different experience. When you speak in those terms, you speak about superficial things, about what is on the surface, which describes a great deal, yet explains very little. Actually, war changes our memory and fills it with excessively painful images, excessively deep traumas, and excessively bitter conversations. You can’t rid yourself of these memories; you aren’t able to fix the past. It will always be a part of you. Hardly your best part. This process of falling into a stupor and catching your breath, this experience of falling silent and searching for a new language, is too painful for you to go on talking, carefree, about the sublime world outside the window.

Poetry after Bucha and Izium is still undoubtedly possible. Moreover, it’s necessary; however, the specter of Bucha and Izium, their presence, will weigh too heavily in this post-war poetry, which, to a great extent, will determine its content and tonality. This painful, yet necessary realization—that mass graves and bombed neighborhoods will provide context for the poems written in your country—does not fill you with optimism, of course, yet it makes you understand that language requires our daily labor, our constant involvement, our engagement. After all, what do we have in order to make our point, to express ourselves? Our language and our memory.

Since the end of February, since the start of this massacre, that is, there’s this distinct feeling that time has lost its usual cadence, its flow. It has become akin to a channel in the winter that freezes to its very bottom, stopping the rush of the water and paralyzing everyone who has found themselves amid this unmoving current. We have found ourselves in this frozen state, amid cold timelessness. I remember this feeling of helplessness very well—when you can’t feel movement, when you’re lost in silence, unable to discern what’s up ahead, in front of you, in the gloom and silence.

Wartime truly is a time with a disjointed panorama, disrupted communication between the past and the future; a time when you feel the here and now with maximum acuteness and bitterness, when you immerse yourself in the space that surrounds you and focus on the moment that overwhelms you. There are certain elements of fatalism to this—when you stop making plans and thinking about the future, as you try, first and foremost, to root yourself in the here and now, under the skies that unfurl above you, and the only thing that reminds you that time is passing is the fact that days turn to nights, summer follows spring without fail, and despite the frozen nature of your feelings, despite the stupor, life goes on; it doesn’t stop for a single instant, and it encompasses all of our joys and fears, all of our desperation and all our hope. It’s just that the distance between you and reality has changed. Reality is now closer. Reality has become more dreadful. And now you have to live with this.

What else has changed for us, besides language and memory? What will distinguish us in any group of people, in any crowd? Our eyes, perhaps. They absorb the external flame; they’ll always have this glint to them. We’ll have the gaze of people who have looked beyond what’s visible, who have stared into the darkness and managed to discern something over there. Our gaze will always differ from others’ as it reflects things of the utmost importance.

*

In the spring—sometime in May—my band and I performed at a military base for servicemen who were resting after several hard, lengthy battles. We have known them awhile. We have performed for them consistently since 2014. Outskirts of Kharkiv, brisk greenery, soccer field, a small auditorium. We know a lot of the fighters personally. A lot of my old friends—people from Kharkiv—went off to fight this spring.

Seeing them wearing military fatigues and holding weapons feels unusual. And their eyes are unusual, too—they’re like cooled metal, like glass reflecting a fire. It was month two of this full-on war; they had already been bombarded by Russian shelling in the trenches. But there they stood, smiling and joking around. And those eyes—you could glimpse two months of hell in them.

“I already spent some time in the hospital,” one of them said. “The Russians dropped phosphorus bombs, and I got hit. No biggie, though—I’m still alive and kicking. Back to the frontlines soon.”

This is one of those cases when you simply don’t know how to respond. Language betrays you, you lack language, and you are left merely searching for the right words. They are sure to turn up, though, eventually.

What will our language be like after the war? What will we have to explain to each other? First and foremost, we will have to say the names of the dead aloud. They must be named. Otherwise, there will be a major fragmentation of language, a void between voices, and a fracture in our memories. We will need tremendous strength and faith to speak about the dead, as their names will shape our vocabularies. Yet we will need just as much strength, confidence, and love to speak about our future, to articulate, vocalize, and outline it.

Like it or not, we will have to renew our sense of time, perspective, and continuity. We are fated to have a future. Moreover, we bear responsibility for it. Now, it is shaped by our visions, our convictions, our willingness to take responsibility. We will work at returning our sense of the future, since there’s just so much in our memories that demands our involvement tomorrow. We are all linked by this current that carries us, that won’t let us go, that unites us. We are all linked by our language. Even if, at a certain moment, its capabilities seem limited or insufficient. Nevertheless, we will be forced to return to it and its capabilities which give us hope that, in the future, there will not be any misunderstandings or anything left unsaid.

Sometimes language seems weak. Actually, though, in many cases, it is a source of energy. It can step away from you for some time, but it isn’t capable of betraying you, which is what matters most. As long as we have our language, we have, at the very least, the vague chance to articulate ourselves, speak the truth, and tidy up our memories. So we speak and we go on speaking. Even when words hurt our throats.

Even when they make us feel lost and empty. The possibility of truth is behind our voices. And it’s worth taking advantage of this opportunity. This may be the most important thing that could happen to us.

_____________________________________

Yale University Press will publish his Serhiy Zhadan’s book Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, in Spring 2023.

Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan, widely considered to be one of the most important young writers in Ukraine, is the author of Mesopotamia and What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems.





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