We met Serhiy in the hall of the Odesa Art Museum. He had performed the second concert with the “Linnia Mannerheima” (Mannerheim Line) band, the writer had to only handle journalists’ attention, and he could catch his train with a clear conscience. It is a bad idea to speak about one particular topic with Zhadan. Raising the same themes and issues every time is boring. That is why we have decided to refer to six songs of the “Zhadan i sobaki” (“Zhadan and dogs”) in this interview. This way, we have learnt what the famous writer and musician is protesting against, whether his songs about alcohol reflect the reality, what religion means for his art, whether a Ukrainian analogue of “three hundred Chinese” should be abolished, and how to change a rusty and old system.
Why? These attempts have just not succeeded. (laughs)
Even so, it is the music of protest, isn’t it?
Well, no. You know, it’s kind of cliché. Even now, you’ve said, and it’s very conformable, because we are making a new song, there are such words “rock-n-roll is music of protests”. But it is more in self-ironical regard. I suppose that a protest and rock-culture as art of protests reflect the reality as much as they don’t. Just look at those rock-musicians who are very far from protests, who are often supple, who often make concessions and collaborate with different political regimes. I think it doesn’t depend on rock or pop music, ability to protest is not a genre feature but rather a human ethic feature: you either have it or not. And whether you play guitar or work at factory, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter.
In comparison with “Zhadan i sobaki”, “Liniia Mannerheima” looks more lyrical, personal, sometimes even intimate.
Well, it is at the stage of shaping. I think when we come here the next time, it will be quite another program. On the other hand, well, I agree with you, of course, it is not that expressive as “Zhadan i sobaki”. It is more meditative, atmospheric, and it is very important here – connection with audience. It is more experimental. We haven’t put it in “Zhadan i sobaki”, we haven’t put it there on purpose. We make there more vibrant material, wattage is more important for us in this project, not some details.
Anyway, where is your personal Mannerheim Line?
It is hard to say, because Mannerheim Line in this regard is a metaphor of your beliefs, principles and important things for you, things which shape you and which you try to stand for. I guess it is difficult to formulate your ethic credo, at least, spontaneously. Obviously, it’s about that you can’t let your close people down, betray them. Anyway, you have to stand for what is important for you, which shapes you. You can’t betray yourself. Because there is a big danger that you can lose yourself.
“10 Holy Men” (“10 pravednykiv”)
Biblical topics are used rather on cultural, anthropological levels than on church or religious ones. I agree that it is quite difficult to call it a religious art, but you can’t call it anti-religious as well. I use Biblical symbols, topics and context as kind of universal cultural code. It is what virtually any person can understand. For example, this song about 10 holy men.
It may sound ridiculous, but for many young authors you are kind of literature holy man.
I do hope you are wrong. I think that it is extremely risky to consider your colleagues, your contemporaries as holy people. I mean when you make yourself an idol, a perfect image, you do risk getting disappointed and losing some part of your faith.
However, there is even a term you can find in Internet – “zhadanism”. It is not about your certain style but about young authors who try to imitate it.
It is nonsense (laughs). In fact, usually, somebody makes up some concept and then tries to follow it even though this concept is absolutely artificial and non-realistic.
“Two Portos” and “Booze” (“Dva portveina” i “Buhlo”)
Alcohol appears in your texts as often as religious topics. Does Zhadan, a rocker, reflect the stereotypes about rockers who put several bottles of alcohol in their riders?
“Two Portos” as well as “Booze” are extremely self-ironical songs, they show and laugh at all these stereotypes about rock-n-roll as music of alcoholics and rebels. In fact, we kindly laugh at all these, these songs are definitely ironical ones, we don’t speak straight-forwardly. Moreover, “Two Portos” is a cover on Red Hot Chilli Peppers song.
Everything began when I put this phrase “two portos” (dva portveina) on their chorus, that’s how we made this song. As for “Booze”… It also has some apocalyptic and religious topics. On the other hand, it was interesting for me to combine serious things, for example, a person who is a hostage of circumstances with something extremely harsh and something extremely simple, namely, the idea of alcoholism, and try to make something based on this contrast.
However, you have recently said that alcohol is a networking tool. You said that a person you drink with is more important than what you drink.
Yes, I think it is true not only for me. It is our Eastern Slavonic concept of alcohol drinking. When alcohol is used as a certain agent, which joins different energies.
Ten years ago, you said in an interview that it didn’t matter where to live. Is it important for you today that Serhiy Zhadan is considered as a Kharkiv writer?
I don’t care about it. I’ve never felt embarrassed that I am from Kharkiv, vice versa, I always highlight: I love Kharkiv, I have been living there for 27 years and going to live further. However, I don’t think these phrases like “a writer from Kharkiv” or a “Kharkiv poet” are important. I am not less connected with Luhansk region, where I was born and grew up, where my parents, many friends are. Donbas for me is also the motherland.
Kharkiv is often called a cultural capital of Ukraine…
Well, it doesn’t reflect the reality at all, because today a cultural capital is not a precise definition. Today, there are no such terms as “cultural outskirts”, “cultural capital” and, perhaps, thanks God. Time changes, realia change. The capital is where you want to make it. I think we can call a cultural capital Odesa, Lviv, Kyiv as well. The question is what do we do it for? Kharkiv is an engaging city. Of course, we have very interesting and creative artistic, musical, theatrical communities. The point is that the term “cultural capital” seems a bit artificial for me.
“Three Hundred Chinese” (“Trysta kitaitsiv”)
Actually, it is a migration issue… I don’t have a particular attitude to it. I perform a lot for Ukrainians around the world, in Europe and America. And I don’t feel like judging those who migrate. I think it is not very fair, because people have different visions on their place in the world. I guess it is not OK when a person becomes a hostage of his or her birthplace or a passport. The world is big, it is opened for everybody. I think that a person should be driven by a search of happiness, harmony and self-realisation. If a person can fulfil his or her ambitions abroad, let it be. The crucial thing is that people don’t forget where they and their roots are from. I don’t judge people. On the other hand, migration for the country is a disturbing issue, because these are gifted, creative people who could do some good for the country, who migrate. Of course, they have different reasons for migration, but evidently, we will have to deal with migration, “brain drain” issues etc.
What do people who stay gain? It is an option as well. You stay, you are driven by something, evidently, it is important for you, it means something for you. As for me, I’ve never thought of migration, given the fact that I believe that a person should travel, see the world. It is good when she or he is able to live in different countries, places, to feel other people. I believe it is right, and it is what we, Ukrainians, are extremely lack of. Actually, we are a very reserved society, especially speaking about Eastern Ukraine. There is a statistics which says that the majority of Donbas citizens have never left their region. However, there is the difference. One option is to go abroad, travel, earn money and come back to develop your country. And the other option is just to leave your country forever. That’s why in fact, it is a very difficult issue, so I’d better speak about it in terms of particular examples. All people have their stories, motivation, sometimes own tragedies and reasons for happiness. In general, it is better to speak about a particular person, not about the mass of people, I suppose.
Well, then perhaps, it is better to create our own “Hungarian shawarma”?
Yes, definitely! I think Ukraine is potentially very prosperous country. The bottom line is to work harder, be not afraid of work, of problems. And not to shift the responsibility on others.
“F**k You” (Za#%baly”)
(laughs) Well, there’s a grain of joke in this joke… Oh, I meant a grain of truth.
But we both understand that one such a win won’t change much.
I don’t agree. Let me explain. I have many friends who are officials at different levels: local, national. Many of them became officials after 2014 (the Revolution of Dignity). So we can say, it is really a change of authorities. They are young people who are trying to do something. And I see how it is difficult for them to do it. I understand that this state machine is extremely inert, sulky and rusty. The only person’s desire is often not enough to do work. However, I also see that a person’s will, a political or a public one, can often change a situation a lot.
Sometimes, a person becomes a mayor of a small town and really does want to change something, but she or he fails. Or a person becomes a head of a theatre, cultural centre or a library, and wants and can change something but he or she fails. That’s why in fact, I wouldn’t underestimate the significance of a personality. Especially in our country these state mechanisms are out of date, they are inadequate. Obviously, the system needs changing. And it can’t be made separately, I mean it will be made simultaneously, anyway. Some elements of the system will be changed, perhaps, one day, the amount of such elements will be enough to break the system. I can’t see how it could be transformed in another way.
Three years ago, you said that people had better trust poets than politicians. Has anything changed since that time?
No, it hasn’t. I guess it is still so. Mentioning poets, I meant people connected with art, culture in general. I think it is evident. Culture, despite all the sceptical attitudes, utopian cultural ambitions, still remains a territory which is empowered by a bigger amount of options and freedom. An artist can stand for the independence if it is his or her goal.
It is more difficult with politics, because this structure extremely focuses on itself, it is self-restoring, reserved, hermetic, aimed at grinding, breaking, altering each its participant as it needs. Culture still keeps space for a manoeuvre, place for expressing itself, for some freedom. I guess people understand it. That’s why yes, I can repeat that people would sooner trust a musician, an artist, a director, a writer than a MP or a minister.
What will happen if these artists, directors, writers become policy makers? Can people, if not always perfect, win an extremely imperfect system?
Well, actually, there are no perfect people. Whether they can change the system, it is the same what I was talking about culture. In my opinion, the political system needs a grave reformation, a break. As it is now, it is not effective, it doesn’t work. The system breaks the best. The most perfect initiatives. It breaks people, makes them surrender. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and shouldn’t move somewhere. Obviously, if people feel enough confidence, have enough faith in what they can do, they should try.
You mean that “art beyond politics” is something manipulative?
It is hard for me to understand, frankly speaking, how a person can be beyond politics. Beyond the life of his or her country. It is not about advocating for some party or a politician, or a government or an opposition. It is more about your option: either you clam up and live in vacuum or you live the life of your country, your country people, but then you can’t be indifferent to what is happening. Actually, when my colleagues, people of art, say that they are beyond politics, I am confused. Once again, I don’t judge or bully people. I think that such public hysteria won’t do any good. But as a human, I can’t understand it.
Interview by Dmytro Zhuravel
Photo by Valerii Puzik