What We Live For, What We Die For by Serhiy Zhadan | Book Review

What We Live For, What We Die For by Ukrainian writer, Serhiy Zhadan born in Luhansk Oblast (Eastern Ukraine), currently living in Kharkiv where he supports defense of the city and his country.

Zhadan’s collection of poems written between 2001 and 2015 reminds us that Ukraine is an extremely diverse and multifaceted country with its unique history, culture, and identity. His poems express the richly nuanced and complex Ukrainian experience in post-Soviet times after 1991 – these poems bear witness to the turmoil in the world he inhabits. Snapshots of Ukrainian life presented in Zhadan’s writing are an expression of humanness and a certain universality when it comes to the meaning of ‘homeland’ and loss of home.  

Zhadan’s writing masterfully reflects the fabric of Ukrainian society as well as everyday existence, difficulties, disillusionment and problems of ordinary Ukrainian people mainly from working-class background including soldiers, students, middle-aged business owners, farmers, immigrants, minorities. Zhadan’s empathy for his fellow countrymen is profound – and he shows a deep understanding towards people’s attitudes which are very different to his own, without compromising his own moral compass. The history and its impact on the lives of the ordinary people, the repetition of past mistakes is also addressed in a number of poems appearing in this collection. Zhadan’s poems can be treated as one of many vehicles to understand the current events and war in Ukraine. The issues portrayed in his writing are those of common shared humanity and universality.

At this moment when Ukrainians fight for the right to exist in their own land with their own identity, it is important that Ukrainian stories are told by Ukrainians themselves. Despite Ukraine having existed for over thousand years, its literature and culture has been literally unknown to the wider audience in Western Europe, Africa, Americas or Asia. Only the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution (2013 – 2014), the war in Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) which started in 2014 followed by the full-scale invasion which began on 24 February 2022 sparked an interest in Ukrainian literature among the readers in other parts of the world.  Let us remember that the twentieth century was particularly brutal time for Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.  When Ukraine finally achieved a long-awaited independence in 1991 after the collapse of Soviet Union, the culture and literature has flourished expressing the nuanced rich Ukrainian identity.

Born in 1974, Zhadan is of the last generation who grew up in Soviet Ukraine and the first one that came out of age in the independent, post-Soviet Ukraine. He occupies a particular position when it comes to writing about the events of the last decades. Undoubtedly, Zhadan is one of the major Ukrainian literary voices of the last decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.

For many English-speakers this collection of poems constitutes a great little introduction to Zhadan and an important piece of work for our times.

I would also highly recommend you read his novel The Orphanage which I have already reviewed. It is an outstanding piece of work which brings closer the reality of war in Donbas (which started in 2014).

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