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Ukraine's Rock Star Poet Who Chose To Fight Back

Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan
Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine's most beloved writers, is recovering from an attack by baseball-bat-wielding demonstrators who tried to make him kiss the Russian flag in his hometown of Kharkiv.

They failed.

"I told them to go f*** themselves," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Dozens of people were injured in the eastern city of Kharkiv on March 1 as pro-Russian protesters clashed with supporters of Ukraine's new authorities.

The pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the regional government administration, beating and heckling the activists who had occupied the building to prevent its takeover.

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Zhadan was one of these activists.

"The assailants started beating everyone in the building -- volunteers, journalists, students, women," he tells RFE/RL by e-mail. "On the square, they [set upon] these people. They assaulted those who had already been injured, they forced them to drop to their knees and kiss the Russian flag."

The 39-year-old writer and poet was hospitalized with a concussion, a split eyebrow, and a fractured jaw.

Zhadan, who enjoys an almost rock-star status in Ukraine, describes the violence as "a sad page" in Kharkiv's history.

Still, he urges residents not to let the incident divide their city.

"We must now look for areas of mutual understanding, we must start talking to each other again," he says. "We will all have to share the same city in the future."

In his industrial, predominately Russian-speaking home town, Zhadan is somewhat of an oddity.

In Kharkiv, Zhadan was often a lone voice.
In Kharkiv, Zhadan was often a lone voice.

Raised in a working-class family, much of his work focuses on the bleak realities of life in Ukraine's industrial heartland.

But Zhadan, despite his flawless Russian, writes exclusively in Ukrainian as an act of patriotism.

He has also passionately backed the Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster last month of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych -- an unusual and increasingly dangerous stance for a Kharkiv resident.

The Russian takeover of Crimea, another pro-Russian region, earlier this month has only emboldened him.

He accuses Moscow of attempting to sow division in Ukraine by relentlessly portraying Euromaidan activists as terrorists and Nazis.

"Hate is not a continual feeling, it grows and is warmed up easily. All you need to do is create an enemy and convince yourself that this enemy is threatening you," he tells RFE/RL. "Something similar is happening in eastern Ukraine. The puppet masters are quite skillfully using the rhetoric of 'fascists and extremists', turning Ukrainians against each other. The Russian trail is easy to discern."

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At the same time, Zhadan warns Ukraine's new leadership against radical countermeasures such as its decision -- promptly vetoed by the interim president -- to strip Russian of its official status across Ukraine.

"I don't think language is dividing us," he says. "It's what we say in these languages that is dividing us."

Zhadan is nonetheless confident that separatism has "no future" in his country.

He says that Russia, by invading Crimea, may actually act as a catalyst for Ukrainians to overcome their long-running divisions.

"Russia's actions are really changing our country, they are turning it into a real nation instead of a mere territory populated by various people," he says. "It's a shame that our unity is achieved under such circumstances."

Written by Claire Bigg based on an interview by Jan Maksymiuk

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