Review: Michael Idov on Ukrainian novelist Serhiy Zhadan

A straight-up war novel from the middle of today’s Europe may seem like a postmodern proposition at heart, but in the case of Ukraine it’s plain realism. The country has been embroiled in bloody conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed a part of its territory and fostered (when not outright providing) separatist forces throughout its east. With The Orphanage, this war finds its bard in Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s most interesting and talented writers.

Unlike some other works by Zhadan—which include poems, stage plays, and ska songs—the structure of The Orphanage has the stoic simplicity of a Cormac McCarthy novel, or a moody video game. A divorced schoolteacher named Pasha lives in a dilapidated but relatively peaceful town, referenced only as the Station, on the outskirts of a larger city where the fighting is more intense. Pasha’s underage nephew is at the titular orphanage in the city; Pasha’s quest to pick him up and bring him back forms the entire plot.

Despite his literature-adjacent profession, Pasha is not exactly a stand-in for the author. Zhadan is a passionate lifelong activist who’s helped coordinate pro-EU protests in Ukraine, while Pasha stays pointedly neutral. Neutrality is, perhaps, not the right word — like many civilians in the contested Donbas and Luhansk provinces, he has a specifically Eastern Ukrainian identity that has no truck with officialdoms in either Kyiv or Moscow. He teaches his class in Ukrainian, as required by law, but speaks Russian outside the classroom—a small detail that, for any reader of the original, immediately nails down the character’s essence. “Nobody’s fighting against me. I’m not on anyone’s side,” Pasha claims mid-journey. “I don’t even know who’s doing the shooting.” 

In 2014, one year before the time The Orphanage is set, Zhadan was attacked by pro-Russian agitators who broke his nose and forced him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. It is to the writer’s immense credit that he finds room not just for sympathy but full empathy with Pasha’s obliviousness, mimicking it by letting his prose fall into a blurry, deliberately detail-free deadpan. “A jeep full of soldiers is parked by the school … They could be with one of the volunteer battalions, or maybe the National Guard. The flag on the jeep is the same as the one on their school. The town hasn’t changed hands.” 

This isn’t just an act of political magnanimity, however: it’s a winning literary strategy. There is an innate surreality to a befuddled civilian’s view of war, and Zhadan mines it judiciously, without forced flourishes. He is helped in this at every turn by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, whose excellent translation forgoes prestige-lit bloodlessness for idiomatic, Americanized dialogue. (It’s par for the course for a modern war novel to include a few “motherfuckers,” but I did crack a smile at one character’s “All righty now”). 

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A rare modern case of an author renowned for poetry and prose in roughly equal measure, Zhadan certainly has a poet’s eye and nose, be it for the stench of “mud and blood, snow and earth” in a classroom turned makeshift hospital, or for the sight of “wet books that look like fallen birds left out in the rain.” Elsewhere, a different pile of books looks like “food left out and getting mushy.” War’s obscene degradation of culture is, unsurprisingly, one of the recurring motifs here. It provides a few bits of gallows humor, too, such as a soldier momentarily confused by poets’ portraits hanging in a classroom, or a character’s remark at the sight of a shelled library: “Good thing the kids don’t like reading.”

The Orphanage’s arrival in the Anglophone world, especially in such robust shape, is cause for both celebration and a few caveats. For one thing, no matter how great the translation, reading this novel without its full documentary context must be an objectively different experience than reading it in Ukrainian. Luckily, it is one Zhadan seems to anticipate: logistical confusion (whose side has set up this checkpoint? who’s shooting? which language is being spoken right now and with which accent?) is part of the intended effect. The author even reinforces it by avoiding the words “Ukraine” and “Russia” almost entirely, preferring things like “Pasha’s country” or “south border.” It is the only trick in an otherwise trick-free novel one may find a bit coy, but it works.

The other, a bit more fraught, issue is the book’s literary context. A casual Western reader might be tempted to liken it to a work of great Russian literature, from Tolstoy to Grossman and beyond. This is what some Russian readers do as well, claiming Zhadan as a “post-Soviet” rather than a Ukrainian author (The Orphanage, like Zhadan’s other works, is somewhat remarkably available in Russian, where it must make for an uncomfortable read). Ironically, this would be an example of doing to him exactly what the Russian state is trying to do with Eastern Ukraine: citing accidents of history over one’s clearly stated will. It is true that the Luhansk-born Zhadan’s native language is likely Russian—but that makes his conscious decision to write in Ukrainian more, not less, significant.

It is, in fact, more than a remarkable coincidence that two of the modern Russian novelists closest to Zhadan in prose style—Eduard Limonov and Zakhar Prilepin—have both made ideological turns that all but erased their literary profiles, and that both of these turns involved Ukraine. The late Limonov, who had once started a nationalist party aiming to unite the far left with the far right, spent his last years enthusiastically applauding Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas; Prilepin revealed himself as a Stalinist and anti-Semite before actually joining the war on Russia’s side, and boasts about the people he’s killed there. 

On the other hand, the Russian authors whose views are closer to Zhadan’s, or at least free of imperialistic fervor—Vladimir Sorokin, Viktor Pelevin, Aleksey Salnikov, and others—tend to stay in the realm of the phantasmagorical and eschew realism altogether. Reading The Orphanage, it occurred to me for the first time that this persistent flight from reality might be seen as a way of evading guilt or masking complacency. In other words, today’s Great Russian Realist Novel would involve the kind of self-reckoning that would render it not just unpublishable but perhaps unwriteable. Like it or not, writing in Ukrainian, with Ukrainian optics, affords a moral clarity that may simply be absent from Russian letters right now. 

To some readers this clarity, it must be said, may also look a bit like conservatism with an Eastern European hall pass. Here, after all, is a book that is unabashedly male, relatively blunt, and utterly unconcerned with any of the topics roiling the modern Western literature, a book that, a few mentions of mobile phones aside, could have easily been written in 1924, the year Mikhail Bulgakov wrote his civil-war classic The White Guard. To this, one can only reply that even Zhadan himself must be looking forward to a world where Ukrainians will have the luxury of regarding The Orphanage as stodgy historical fiction. For now, it’s a small, bright light, slicing through gunsmoke.

Michael Idov is the author of Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow, the novel Ground Up, and copious magazine articles. His second feature film Jetlag was released last month.

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