Beating time in the air with his hand, he read into a microphone in Ukrainian:
“They once lived in this building—see the fading red paint blistering on the window frames—Its from those times when someone decided to house them all in one building so that their breath could be heard—in the entry ways”.
The man is a prominent Ukrainian writer, Serhiy Zhadan, the author of twelve books of poetry, seven novels and the winner of more than a dozen literary awards.
Western readers might’ve heard of his novels Depeche Mode and Voroshilovgrad, as his work has been translated and published in various languages, including English and German.
With his hipster looks – skinny jeans, converse sneakers, asymmetrical hair – he could be easily mistaken for someone from a trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn, jotting his thoughts in a leather pocket dairy, typing his novels into a laptop over fair-trade coffee at a cafe.
But that’s not the case.
Zhadan flew to New York from Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, only a few hours away from the war in the country’s east.
At 40 he is one of the few contemporary Ukrainian writers known in the Western literary world.
He is the front man of a ska band, “Dogs in Space,” and is father to a college-age son and a two-year-old daughter.
These days, as his country fends off Russian aggression, Zhadan spends most of his time either speaking to westerners on behalf of Ukraine, or visiting towns affected by the war in its eastern region, Donbass, performing readings and concert, and delivering humanitarian aid.
“When abroad, I talk about what’s going on in our country,” Zhadan says.
“We are at war and that’s hard to ignore.”
But, he says, beyond ongoing sad and tragic events, it’s important to remember that “Ukraine existed before the war and it will exist afterwards. ”
So he tries to talk about Ukraine’s culture, and his latest trip to the United States has him speaking at Columbia University and giving readings in the Northeast.
We meet for an interview in an area in the East Village called Little Ukraine – once inhabited by Ukrainian émigrés at the end of the 19th century, these days represented by a handful of Ukrainian restaurants, businesses, and cultural centers.
We go to cafe Orlin where over lentil soup we talk about his books and writing (his book Mesapotamia came out a year ago and now is been translated into German) but the topic inevitably switches to the war in Ukraine and Russian aggression.
Born in a small town near Luhansk – the region that’s been making international headlines together with the town of Donetsk for being occupied by Russia-backed insurgents – Zhadan is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian.
He moved to Kharkiv to attend university and has been living there for over two decades.
He witnessed the birth of an independent Ukraine in the 1990s and realities of contemporary Ukraine serve as the backdrop of many of his novels and poems.
During the Euromaidan revolution last winter, Zhadan was actively involved in pro-democratic protests in Kharkiv.
In the Kremlin’s plan for Ukrainian domination, Kharkiv was placed on a map of Novorossia – a Kremlin-created pseudo-state of eight regions of Ukraine, plus Crimea and Transnistria.
A lack of support for separatism saved the city but Kharkiv had – and still has – its dangerous moments (lately, Kharkiv has been the target of a series of terrorist attacks and bombings).
In March 2014, during the anti-government rally, the regional administration building was stormed by pro-Russian protesters.
Zhadan was among a group of activists that tried to prevent the building’s take over, and he ended up with a concussion and facial fractures after he was hit in the head with batons.
He was transported to a hospital in Poland, but after a brief stay was back in Kharkiv where, he says, he belongs.
The predominantly Russian-speaking Kharkiv was reluctant to support any movement, pro-European or Russian separatism.
But today, without much love for the government in Kyiv, the city continues to remain loyal to Ukraine.
“People didn’t choose Ukraine, didn’t choose Russia, people chose peace,” Zhadan sums it up.
Regardless, Kharkiv politicians and business leaders are on guard to keep the city from turning into another Donbass.
“I would like for the city to be more responsible but it is what it is,” says Zhadan.
“Until people don’t pick up arms, until they don’t go against the country, against the constitution it’s necessary to go on, to look for a dialogue, for understanding.”
Zhadan’s parents and brother remain in the Luhansk region, in an area that has changed hands between Ukraine and Russian separatists over the past year, with some parts eventually returning to Ukraine.
In the past, the writer and his father were not ideological allies.
The elder Zhadan was against the Euromaidan protests, and supported ousted pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych and his party.
But when Russian tanks appeared in mining towns, Zhadan’s father – and others who had clung to the notion of strong ties with Russia – rediscovered a strong sense of patriotism.
During his trips to Donbass, Zhadan sees how people living near the front line have become hostages of Putin’s war.
“The conflict is a so-called ‘hybrid war’,” he says.
“Which makes everything low and nasty because the aggressor doesn’t admit that he is an aggressor and blames the fault on others,” setting up regular people.
Russian propaganda broadcast in the conflict zone is effective, convincing residents that Ukrainians are the enemy.
Life under perpetual shelling, in close proximity to deadly GRAD rocket launchers and heavy artillery, traumatizes those who for various reasons couldn’t migrate to other regions and they become passive victims.
“People say ‘We don’t know who’s shooting, we don’t care who’s shooting, we just want the shooting to end,’” Zhadan says, adding that people prefer not to express their opinions about what’s going on and what they want as they don’t know who will be in power tomorrow.
An advocate of his native Luhansk region, long before the war Zhadan promoted the area as a unique and interesting part of Ukraine.
He insists that Donbass hasn’t made a choice in favor of pro-Russian separatism, as Russia has made that choice for them, as it did for Crimea.
He doesn’t think that the Minsk II ceasefire agreement will succeed because Russia is not interested in ending the war.
“Everyone understands that it’s just a slowing down, which allows for re-dislocation, and this is not the end.”
Despite many reasons for pessimism – the war and Ukraine’s many economic woes – he sees many Ukrainians who won’t stop until their country is free, safe and on track to a better, preferably westward-facing future.
“They should’ve been tired by now,” he says about those people.
“But they are not. They take a break and go back to work.”
On the night of the reading in the East Village, he reads a poem about the mass arrests of Ukrainian writers in the 1930s.
Once upon a time, there was a building in Kharkiv, a colony of sorts, that housed Ukrainian writers and their families until they were swept up by a wave of Stalin’s repressions.
Many of them were sent to the Gulags, never to return.
Zhadan reads in Ukrainian: “They were led out at night, their dreams scattering, from their shoulders like rats from window sills.”
His words are followed by English translations by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, presentedby Bob Holman—one of the most influential New York poets, and the founder of Bowery Poetry Club.
After the reading, the conversation turns to Ukraine and the war, as people are eager to hear a first-hand account of what’s going on.
Sadly, Zhadan no longer has to borrow from the dark days of communism for his poetry as he lives in the midst of today’s war in Ukraine.
Since the Maidan revolution Zhadan has been reporting and writing columns and dispatches on a regular basis but he wants to create larger work.
A novel, maybe.
“I’ll write about the war, no doubt,” he says.
“It’s difficult to think about anything else.”