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‘Sky Above Kharkiv’ is an intimate account of the earliest months of war from Serhiy Zhadan, Ukraine’s most beloved poet

Kharkiv musicians performed in the demolished courtyard of the Palace of Labor.Serhiy Zhadan

Wars are fought on many fronts, and soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, demand for Ukrainian voices skyrocketed. A group of prominent authors, translators, and editors began a campaign to highlight Ukraine’s distinct national identity by championing the work of its writers, and many already well-known figures were sought to contribute to a variety of media outlets worldwide. In the past few months, several collections of that latter work, reacting to and documenting the early months of the war, have been published.

In March, writer, activist, and photographer Yevgenia Belorusets’s “War Diary,” translated by Greg Nissan, hit shelves. The book comprises photos and journal entries, originally published by Der Spiegel and online, that Belorusets made in Kyiv during the six weeks after the invasion. She recounts daily atrocities committed by Russian forces and daily acts of defiance by ordinary Ukrainians, bouncing between pride in the fortitude of her compatriots, disbelief at the revelations from Mariupol and Bucha, and bewilderment at the “strange patience” of the rest of the world. In April, novelist Andrei Kurkov’s “Diary of an Invasion” came out, drawing on work published in a dozen outlets, including The New Yorker and the BBC. The majority of the collection covers the war’s first five months, but it also includes fascinating pieces published in the eight weeks prior to the invasion. In his preface, Kurkov, who was born in Leningrad but has lived his entire life in Kyiv, notes that “in the Ukrainian national character, unlike in the Russian one, there is no fatalism. Ukrainians almost never get depressed. They are programmed for victory, for happiness, for survival in difficult circumstances, as well as for the love of life.”

While this national character has been demonstrated repeatedly in the political and military arenas, it’s hard to imagine a more concrete illustration than Serhiy Zhadan’s “Sky Above Kharkiv.” The collection, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, comprises Zhadan’s Facebook posts from the war’s first four months. Zhadan is nominally a poet, but that characterization understates his stature in Ukraine, which Western media often likens to that of a rock star, which incidentally he also is, fronting a group called Zhadan and the Dogs. He’s also a playwright, a librettist, and a novelist, perhaps best known for 2017′s “The Orphanage,” an indelible account of ordinary citizens in a city under siege, written in the shadow of the fighting that began in 2014 between Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatist groups in the eastern Donbas region.


Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, lies west of the Donbas and about 20 miles south of the current border with Russia. During the first months of the war, Kharkiv was continually shelled as Russia pressed down from the north. Ukrainian counteroffensives forced Russia to abandon the northern front in September 2022, but missiles continue to regularly target Kharkiv and surrounding cities.


Despite the dangers, Zhadan is one of an untold number of residents who never left Kharkiv. “We have a lot of work to do,” he writes, “and probably more important, we love this city too much to abandon it when it’s going through tough times.” That comity is abundant in “Sky Above Kharkiv,” as Zhadan repeatedly tells readers he loves them, calls them “friends” and “dear brothers and sisters.” He wishes them good morning, good evening, and happy dreams. And he hits the same inspirational chords over and over: “Let’s stick together.” “Glory to Ukraine.” “Ukrainian flags flutter above the city.” “Tomorrow, we’ll wake up one day closer to our victory.”


Costigan-Humes and Wheeler endearingly capture Zhadan’s wit and colloquial tone. The poet spends much of his time in a “somewhat beat-up Hyundai” — often speeding through the city “Kharkiv-style” — delivering supplies and food to military groups — “our boys” — and volunteers, including a chainsaw that “will come in handy for the boys getting ready to welcome the Russians to Ukraine. :)” Emoticons are plentifully preserved throughout the book. He also participates in and stages concerts and other events for residents forced to shelter in the city’s metro stations. Individually, such pithy entries may sound banal; as a group, they become almost hypnotic.

And it is not only the day-to-day he describes. He discusses Ukrainian society’s maturation in the years since 2014′s Maidan Revolution, and castigates Russia’s imperial culture with its “grand narrative that always justifies violence and disdain for others.” And he somehow remains unfailingly positive, only veering toward despair the evening of April 3, when the “unbearable” testimonies from Bucha have come out. “I’m speechless. Simply speechless. Hang in there, my friends.”

In his introduction, Zhadan writes that “none of this is about literature — it’s about reality,” and while many of these posts may not rise to conventional literary heights, many do, notably three poems that appear. One from June 15 includes a poignant testimony on the solace of writing during wartime: “no matter how much I choked on the empty, wordless/ air of this spring, the scorching, mute/ air of the summer,/ it turns out that language overpowers the fear of silence.”


Language may not overrun mercenaries or shoot down missiles, but it can — when wielded by writers like Zhadan and so many of his compatriots — help defeat prejudice, ignorance, and skepticism, with words as well as arms bringing Ukraine one day closer to victory.

SKY ABOVE KHARKIV: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front

By Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

Yale University, 208 pages, $26

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.