The hall is packed out as people wait expectantly for the arrival of the bard. We snaffle a couple of free seats, surrounded by the young and not so young, who pay us no mind as they gazed intently at the black curtain. This theatre was once one of the Jewish centres of Chernivtsi, a cosmopolitan cultural capital in western Ukraine, part of northern Bukovina, and which annually hosts the Meridian Czernowitz International Literary Festival. After a little while, Serhiy Zhadan, described by Marci Shore as “the Bard of eastern Ukraine”, appears alongside two guitarists to a rapturous welcome from the crowd.
With his sharp features, dressed all in black with half-mast trousers and a sweatshirt, his hair shaved to a grade one on the sides with the rest swept back, Zhadan sits somewhere between a version of James Dean (had he reached the age of 40) and Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan (with whom he shares musical inclinations as well as a physical resemblance). He grabs the microphone and uses his powerful voice to ask those who are standing or sitting on the steps around the entrance to get on stage and sit beside him. For two hours, Zhadan and his band Zhadan i Sobaky (“Zhadan and The Dogs”, formerly known as “Dogs in the Cosmos”) play some of the ‘ska’ songs that have become key musical references for this generation in Ukraine, as well as other tunes to accompany Zhadan’s poetry.
Vira walks on unsteady legs through the streets of Sambir. From time to time, she talks to herself as she takes short steps to dodge the hazards on pavements covered with ice and snow. It is January and the temperature has dipped below minus 20. The morning breeze slashes the lips and one can barely take one’s gloves off. On reaching us, Vira looks up and smiles faintly. Vera in Russian, her name means “faith”, though she is not a believer. She is embroiled in a lawsuit against the Ukrainian state, from which she is demanding the pension of her late father, the local boss of the NKVD, the KGB’s precursor. She rejects the pension that corresponds to her as a former civil servant in one of the dusty military institutions from the previous era, though at almost one hundred euros a month, it is not an insignificant sum amidst the country’s crisis and with a devalued hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency. She says she has been deceived by the state. Such mistrust of the state is common; historically, it has worked in favour of the ruling classes, people like Vira’s father.
Belonging to the NKVD brought respect based on terror, but also status and privileges. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in the new Soviet society, everyone was equal, but some more than others. Vira is one of those people whose situation became virtually frozen, like Sambir’s pipes these days, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Her gas and electricity have been cut off after she stopped paying the bills.