Perhaps no contemporary writer-activist has captured the world’s attention the way Ukrainian poet, novelist, and rock star Serhiy Zhadan has. Despite the continuing war in Ukraine and his seemingly round-the-clock volunteer efforts, Zhadan somehow manages to remain a prolific, productive writer. His book Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front is a testimony to Zhadan and Ukraine’s fortitude. Intimate and courageous, Zhadan’s latest is a record of the war’s first four months, when volunteers like Zhadan worked tirelessly to evacuate children, protect the elderly, and raise awareness in Western countries about the new reality Russia’s invasion created for Ukrainians.
What makes Sky Above Kharkiv different from other firsthand war accounts is that Zhadan composed the entries via social media. In the entries, he shares photos, sends encouraging messages, and organizes far-reaching humanitarian drives and fundraisers. In his posts, Zhadan balances careful observations about the destruction raging in Ukraine with more personal assertions like, “The Russians aren’t an army. They’re criminals.” For Western readers unfamiliar with the current war’s historical context and relevance, Zhadan provides poignant and direct insights: “They’ve come here to liberate us from us... They simply want to destroy us, just in case, just because.” While many Ukrainians have held and asserted this view since the war’s beginning, Western audiences have been reluctant to believe that Russia’s brutal actions within Ukraine constitute the definition of genocide.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the largest war on European soil since World War II, and Zhadan gently reminds readers of this. He states that the current war reminds him of World War II, especially in regards “to the occupiers’ ideology and moral imperative.” However, Ukrainians and other global communities are not the only ones to agree about the similarities between the Russo-Ukrainian War and World War II. The Kremlin has effectively utilized its role during World War II to fuel pro-war propaganda and justify the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Zhadan alludes to the Kremlin’s desire to return Russia and former Soviet-bloc countries to the old Soviet Union’s fold. He describes what Russia produces as a “musty draft from the Soviet Union, the corpse-choked vent of the past” and describes it as a “lost, doomed civilization that simply can’t leave itself or others alone.” This a continual theme throughout Sky Above Kharkiv, and Zhadan’s recurring reflections about the power of Russian propaganda and its denial of Ukrainian agency forms a cycle in the book, one which mimics the cycle of violence and oppression Russia has historically used to oppress those it desires to dominate.
In one entry, Zhadan states, “Russia isn’t just ruining our educational system, which is our future, it’s bringing its narratives to our schools, the ones that are still standing, and wrecking everything we have been struggling to build for so long.” Here, Zhadan reinforces another worthy anecdote throughout his entries–the transformative and supportive power of writing and language. Specifically, Zhadan focuses on poetry. Poetry, for Ukrainians, has been a historical cultural necessity. While Ukrainian poetry has been predominantly viewed by Ukrainians as a means of resistance, Ukrainian poetry has been deemed a threat by Soviet and Russian regimes bent on destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty and cultural autonomy. Zhadan poses, “Like a sturdy thread, Ukrainian poetry stitches up the body of history, holds everything together, doesn’t let us forget a single thing.” This brief conversation will resonate with a larger conversation occurring within the framework of genocide in Ukraine as well as the erasure of Ukrainian identity in Russian-occupied territories within Ukraine’s borders.
Zhadan adeptly tackles another Russian tactic the Kremlin utilizes in the hopes of earning victory in Ukraine–that which Ukrainian historian and writer Olesya Khromeychuk refers to as “Ukraine fatigue.” Zhadan discloses, “I feel bad for people who cling to their peacetime existence and whose peacetime existence slides through their fingers like a predatory fish.” He follows this with another stark reality with which Ukrainians in Ukraine’s eastern regions have lived with since 2014: “The war is somewhere near all the time. It loves reminding everyone of its presence.” As news from Ukraine’s frontline makes only brief appearances in or disappears entirely from headlines, Zhadan’s words are a nudge to readers to remember that, yes, there is still a war occurring in Ukraine. He also reminds them that because of its continuity, the war “hasn’t become part of anything yet” that it “goes on, taking our lives, time, and energy.” In what can only be described as typical Zhadan-fashion, Zhadan returns to the necessity of poetry and writing during adverse times. He does this not by directly stating the key importances of writing during wartime; instead, he models it, using poetic language and techniques to communicate, and then transforming social media into a diary of a different sort.
Sky Above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front essentially redefines witness literature. It embraces social media’s role in documenting the largest ground war in Europe since World War II and capturing the resilient spirit of a nation and its people. Because of its diary-like, epistolary structure, it is also unlike anything else Zhadan and his translators have previously delivered to audiences around the globe. Its entries also possess another unique attribute of which most war documentaries and diaries are void–hope and an encouragement to, as Zhadan writes, defeat the “unhinged, shoreless, boundless evil, which we must defeat if we are to keep on living, loving, and doing what we hold dear.”
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба–Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian (Hutsul/Lemko) American poet and essayist. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.