Zhadan on War-Time, Language, Memory, and Poetry After Bucha (Part 2)

This is the second part of a multi-part series reflecting on Serhiy Zhadan’s acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels). Part 1 focused on the existential and phenomenological experience of “war-time.” In Part 2, we turn to how war impacts the most fundamental embodied experience—breathing—and how war changes language, shifting its “coordinates of meaning” and disclosing the insufficiency of our previous vocabulary.

Not only is war-time experienced as time-out-of-joint but the very act of breathing is transformed. As Zhadan puts it, from the very first day and every day it continues, war is experienced as a “temporal fracture, the absence of continuity, the feeling of air being compressed.” Here in this “zone edging toward death,” to simply breathe becomes laborious because “reality is exerting pressure on you, trying to squeeze you out to the other side of life”—that is, to death. What differentiates the “reality of war” from the “reality of peace” is precisely this sense that events, emotions, and sensations are compressed and your day-to-day, moment-by-moment being and acting in the world is constantly under pressure. There is an “inability to breathe freely and just speak.” To speak the wrong word at the wrong time and with the wrong inflection might result in a beating or losing the opportunity to get food or water for your family; it might even mean your death, depending on the mood of the occupiers. Zhadan is not advocating for silence; prudence is, of course a necessary virtue for war-time; you learn how and when to speak depending upon the situation at hand. Even so, within this compressed, pressurized war-world everyone must at some point speak. “You have to speak. Even during times of war. Especially during times of war.”

Language is, of course, dynamic, living, and constantly shaped by new social realities and events that compel us to rethink our former ways of expressing or describing our world, ourselves, and others. War, Zhadan states, “unequivocally changes language.” Words, phrases, and how we speak is disrupted, challenged, questioned, re-thought, and revised. The horrific, inhumane, experiences of war require a new vocabulary, as former names and ways of talking about events, actions, and political ideologies no longer suffice. Yale historian Timothy Snyder analyzes this phenomenon in his essay, “The War in Ukraine Has Unleashed a New Word,” which explains the etymology, history, and significance of the new word, “Рашизм.” The neologism, “Рашизм,” variously translated into English as “ruscism,” “russism,” and “raschism” was coined to describe the complex of Russian ideology (with particular attention to Putin’s regime) and extreme violence at play in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Рашизм is a term of severe condemnation, which means, roughly, “Russian fascism.” Variants of the word can be traced back to 1995 in descriptions of Russian military aggression in Chechnya (see Wikipedia, “Rashism.”). The terms “Рашизм” (“raschism”/ “ruscism”) and “рашисти”—i.e., “raschists” or “ruscists,” which refer to those who support and promulgate Rashcist ideology and implement its violence—became more widespread in Ukrainian media in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine and subsequently illegally annexed Crimea. (It is important to remember that the Russo-Ukrainian war began in 2014 and had already been underway for 8 years when the Russian Federation launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.) However, as Synder notes, the term started resurfacing with the revelations of mass graves and atrocities in Bucha and the areas surrounding Kyiv. Likewise, council members of Mariupol used the term to describe the war crimes committed against the residents of Mariupol. In light of the realities on the ground—the hundreds of bodies lying dead in the streets, the mass graves full of tortured bodies, corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds in the head—Ukrainians had to search for the right word to describe the extreme violence against humans, non-human animals, and the natural world. Raschism (“Рашизм”) is that right word, the word that creatively puts fascism and Russia into play, enabling the complex history, ideological underpinnings, and brutal reality of this war to more sharply come into focus. Not only does the Ukrainian deployment of the term more aptly disclose the realities of the war, but it is also a way to resist and subvert raschist narratives and attempts to erase and rewrite Ukrainian identity. As Snyder observes “Russian myths of empire cannot contain the imagination of the Ukrainian victims of a new war. National identity is about living people, and the values and the futures they imagine and choose. A nation exists insofar as it makes new things, and a national language lives by making new words.”

In fact, which language we decide to speak can connote ethical and political significance. One can, as Ukrainian writer  did, intentionally choose to forego Russian and to write only in Ukrainian. In “Writing off Russia,” an insightful interview with Refayenko conducted by Yale historian Marci Shore, Refayenko explains why he made this choice.

“At the beginning of the century, I positioned myself as a Ukrainian writer who also functions in the Russian cultural-linguistic sphere. It never entered my mind to write in Ukrainian. After 2014, I learned Ukrainian and wrote a novel in Ukrainian, to show Russians and anyone else that even for a Russophone Ukrainian, learning Ukrainian is not a problem–and not only learning it well enough to speak it, but also learning it well enough to write literary texts.”

At that point in his life, Refayenko, wrote in both Russian and Ukrainian.  He wanted, as he put it, “to be clear to everyone that the problem of defending the

Russian-speaking population in Ukraine has never existed—nor does it now, though it was precisely with this slogan that Russian combatants ‘liberated’ me and my family from our own country. We were forced to leave for Kyiv. But we knew of course that the Russians would not stop there. And so it happened. After February 24, I made a firm decision never again to publish a single text in Russian. […] A language has not been invented in which it is possible to talk with someone who has come to your house to murder you, to murder your wife and your child, to destroy your home and scorch your land. And I have no desire to contribute any longer, even if indirectly, to Ukrainian literature in the Russian language. If it does continue, then let it continue without my participation.” Refayenko’s decision is completely understandable in light of the trauma he has undergone and witnessed.

Transfer of civilians from Irpin to Kyiv due to Russian attacks.jpg
By Mvs.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115915000; Wikipedia “Irpin refugee column shelling

This difficult relationship with language is a perfect segue back to Zhadan’s reflections.  Zhadan discusses the difficulties and frustrations that he and other Ukrainians experience in their attempts to convey to European intellectuals and politicians (and the same applies, in my view, to certain American intellectuals and politicians) what life is like in war. The very architecture of language, says Zhadan, has been altered. The linguistic constructions that seemed smooth and unproblematic in pre-war days no longer suffice. War-time creates new linguistic challenges, in which words like “peace” suddenly become stumbling blocks in the pursuit of common understanding, and this inability to be understood is exceedingly painful for Ukrainians, who are already experiencing day after day, month after month the trauma of war. In what follows, Zhadan describes the frustration and pain that Ukrainian intellectuals, activists, politicians, and engaged citizens experience in this war-time linguistic landscape of fractured discourses.

“Since the onset of 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. […] 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 capable of understanding one simple thing—when we speak, the degrees differ too drastically. Ukrainians shouldn’t have to justify their emotions, but unpacking these emotions is worthwhile.”

While Zhadan justifiably voices frustration with the lack of understanding of well-intended Western dialogue partners due to the vast differences in experience between them and Ukrainians living in and through war-time, he, nonetheless, does not give up on the possibility of meaningful conversations. However, he is aware that such conversations will be difficult. “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 differing perspectives and “fields of vision” among the groups of dialogue partners and even the “varying weight and color” of the words and definitions employed create hindrances to what is most needed—namely, an accurate and true understanding of the present phase of the war and how we arrived at the point. As Zhadan observes, “Sometimes it seems like, as the world watches what has been transpiring in Eastern Europe for the past six months [written in Oct. 2022] it has been using vocabulary and definitions that haven’t been able to explain what’s going on for a long time.” He then focuses specifically on the word, “peace,” and asks what his Western dialogue partners who keep calling for peace—peace now and peace at all costs—mean by the term. The Ukrainians—those actually living through the hell of war—want this war to end more than anyone; but they want it to truly end so that real peace, not a mere temporary absence of artillery strikes, can be restored in Ukraine. It is precisely with their differing uses and understandings of peace that Eastern and Western European dialogue partners are struggling to find common ground.

Here Gadamer’s hermeneutical insights have much to offer Western European and American intellectuals and politicians who want to engage Ukrainians in a genuine dialogue. Ukrainians have demonstrated their integrity and their willingness to die for our shared democratic values. They have shown that, unlike Putin, they are reliable, trustworthy dialogue partners. Ukrainians have existential experience as well as deep historical and cultural knowledge of Russia, its military, and its political strategies and maneuverings. Western partners need to approach Ukrainians with a willingness to listen, learn, and to allow their own present understandings to be challenged and revised. That is, our comportment should be what Gadamer calls hermeneutical openness. We listen to the other, open to the possibility that we have misunderstood and consequently need to amend our former understanding of the situation or question at hand. Although in the passage below, Gadamer speaks of interpreting a text—which for him is a kind of dialogue partner—his insights can readily be applied to the cultural and political dialogue that we have been discussing.

“A person trying to understand a text [Ukrainian culture, history, politics vis-à-vis Russia] is prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained consciousness must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s alterity. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ with respect to content nor the extinction of one’s self, but the foregrounding and appropriation of one’s own fore-meanings and prejudices [pre-judgements; Lat. pre-judicare]. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text [Ukrainian culture, history, politics vis-à-vis Russia] can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings” (Truth and Method, 282).

To demonstrate hermeneutical openness in a dialogue does not mean that you have no say and the other is always right; nor does it mean that you leave your values and cultural and historical horizons behind. Quite the opposite, one’s values, pre-judgments, and present historically shaped understandings that constitute one’s hermeneutical horizons are foregrounded. (Some of our pre-judgments are problematic, harmful and need to be changed; others disclose themselves as true when put to the test.) Our pre-judgments and biases function as conditions for the possibility of genuine understanding to take place; it is through making our views and the assumptions that enable them explicit in conversation with others that such views can, in fact, be tested. If, for example, our present understanding of what real peace means vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia is misguided or shown to be false through our dialogue, then we have the opportunity to amend those views and to expand and enrich our horizons.

With this openness in mind, let’s listen to what Zhadan has to say about what true peace means for Ukrainians and to his criticism of Western Europeans (and again, I add, certain Americans) who are calling for peace now and at all costs. As Zhadan explains, what Ukrainians find so disturbing about these types of calls for peace is “the fact that we understand that peace won’t come merely because the victim of aggression has laid down their arms.” Zhadan reminds us that the civilians in Bucha, Hostomel, Irpin, and Kharkiv were, in fact, unarmed, and yet they were shot, tortured, shelled, and ruthlessly murdered and raped. The very fact that these injustices and atrocities have occurred cannot be pushed to side in present calls for peace. And here Zhadan highlights a crucial difference in the respective views of peace. For Ukrainians living in war-time, peace cannot be separated from justice; the two are intimately connected. As Zhadan puts it, “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.”

He continues with a litany of what has passed for peace and for what some—those who call for peace now and at all costs—continue to advocate. “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 […] 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.” Ukrainians fighting to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones in the midst of bombardments and atrocities are not radicals for supporting their military. Nor are they radical nationalists for rejoicing when their occupied cities are liberated, and the Ukrainian flag is once again flown over a city administration building. Anyone who has been even slightly attentive to the war crimes uncovered in Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv, Kherson, and the list goes on would, it would seem, grasp the relief, joy, and ability to breathe again that liberated Ukrainians experience when their armed forces return and expel the brutal aggressors.  Zhadan’s statements about certain Western voices staying in their “comfort zone”—in their utterly detached, disembodied comfort zones of thought—and thus going “beyond the bounds of ethics” is worth dwelling with. It is as if certain intellectuals enter into an academic game, which requires them to leave their ability to think and feel with those who suffer, finding it more comfortable to engage in academic word games. For example, instead of listening to Ukrainian survivors of rape and torture and publicly condemning such actions, they focus their intellectual energy on explaining their aversion to Ukrainians’ or journalists’ or other academics’ use of the word “evil” to describe Russian atrocities because the term “evil” has theological connotations and is therefore meaningless. (Or they stress that we must speak of evil actions rather than evil as a reified entity, etc., etc.) Even if one agrees with aspects of their arguments, hyper-focusing on these nuances instead of the horrific violence being carried out in Ukraine illustrates intellectualism gone astray, detached, disembodied, in-humane. We need a re-attunement or re-focusing on the ethical dimensions of our being-with-one-another in this world, the existential here and now that needs protecting so that there can be a future.

Continuing his thoughts about ethics, politics, and language, Zhadan writes:

“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.”

Responding to a possible retort that the issues he brings to our attention deal with the realm of politics—as if politics and ethics have no significant overlap—Zhadan, says, in an Aristotelian spirit, then let’s turn to politics and show how the two are intertwined: as the individual and the community are intertwined, shaping and being shaped by one another, so too with ethics and politics. He starts with a critical tone—namely, that what passes as politics today is quite often a “screen, a chance to avoid bumping into sharp edges” rather than speaking the truth frankly, plainly—calling deceit, deceit, war crimes, war crimes, and genocide, genocide. We even shy away from using the word freedom and need to be reminded as to what freedom is—not the mere lack of constraint, but freedom in the positive sense—namely, the freedom to flourish as an individual-in-community-with-others, and importantly, not just human others but natural and earth others, whose flourishing rather than mere survival is intimately tied to our well-being. Freedom, peace, crimes against humanity, genocide, reparations, occupiers, collaborators, filtration camps, are, in times of war, “lexical units” that “sound particularly sharp and expressive. Avoiding them without getting cut is very hard. They shouldn’t be avoided.”  Let’s not avoid them but face them, inspired by the spirit of courage that Ukrainians are showing day after day living in the midst of sub-freezing temperatures, lack of electricity, and constant artillery, missile, and drone strikes on their critical infrastructure, museums, schools, hospitals, and homes—all of which are attempts to destroy their right to exist as Ukrainians. Let’s call war crimes, war crimes, genocide, genocide.