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Serhiy Zhadan: Ворошиловград (Voroshilovgrad)

Before getting on with my review, I should point out that there is no such place as Voroshilovgrad. There was – twice – but it is now called Luhansk. Yes, Voroshilovgrad was so good that they named it twice, after Soviet general Kliment Voroshilov but changed it back again to Luhansk twice. Though this book is set after 1990 (when it definitively became Luhansk), Zhadan’s novel clearly has a certain degree of looking back. However, Voroshilovgrad plays a relatively small but symbolic role in this book.

Our narrator is Herman Korolyov. He is thirty-three. Though he is originally from a small town near the Russian border, he now lives in Kharkiv. His job, at least according to his business card, is independent expert. He and his friend Lyolik – they were history majors at college together, along with Lyolik’s cousin Bolik – worked at various jobs. They now work with Bolik at various youth organisations, whose main function seems to be laundering money.

The flat they (Herman and Lyolik) live in is somewhat symbolic of the whole novel – total chaos. Herman receives a phone call at 5.00 a.m., when he is not at his best. The call is from Kocha, one of the many colourful characters in this book. He has a history of serious misbehaviour but has now settled down somewhat, working at the garage owned by Yura, Herman’s brother. We will later learn that the garage is technically owned by Herman and learn later still that that may not be the case, either. Lots of things are not what they seem in this book.

Kocha informs Herman that Yura has now left, possibly gone to Amsterdam or Berlin. He is not sure where and even less sure why. He wants to know what to do. Eventually, Herman sets out for the garage, driven in Lyolik’s battered car and accompanied by Bolik.

One of the many things that makes this book fascinating is the series of colourful and imaginative images Zhadan gives us. We get one en route to the garage. A semi-trailer has broken down on a bridge, straddling the width of the bridge, though that has not stopped people trying (and failing) to get across. The driver has taken the keys and disappeared. The semi-trailer was carrying crates of chickens and now chickens and feathers are flying all over the place, the police are helpless and the drivers are annoyed.

Herman gets out and decides to walk. While he is walking, we get another colourful image. A decrepit Ikarus bus (we will meet another one later on) stops to pick him up. The bus is full of odd characters and also, as the driver describes it, athletic gear, Chinese-made sneakers, and other shit like that, which the passengers have bought on the cheap. The bus breaks down, the driver falls asleep but eventually Herman gets to the seemingly abandoned garage.

Kocha eventually appears, as does the other employee, known as Injured, a former football star and former and current womaniser. Herman’s problems are about to start.

His first contact is with Olga, the accountant, who tells him the finances are in something of a mess but the garage is more or less solvent. However things become more complicated when the local mafia, known as the corn boys, as they grown corn everywhere, have decided they want to buy the garage and have ways of persuading people to do what they want. Secondly the local officials in the form of two large and aggressive women point out that the garage has broken various rules and owes various sums of money.

The thugs get more thuggish and Bolik and Lylik try to persuade him to return to Kharkiv. Though seemingly a weak character, Herman is not going to be beaten by a band of thugs or, rather, he is determined not to be. However, as a fairly normal thirty-three year old, it is football and the opposite sex which seem to take up much of his time.

We now follow Herman in a series of adventures. There is the football match with his old friends against some old enemies, played more or less in the dark. Both sides know that, whatever the result, there will be a fight afterward. There is the man who has taken over the local but abandoned airport, planning to dig up a Tiger tank. There are smugglers, Shtundists, gypsies, nomadic Mongolians, a secret train that goes nowhere, gypsies, punk farmers and a host of other characters, some of whom are friendly and some of whom are definitely not. But we always know there is going to be a showdown with the thugs.

On the basis of this book, we learn that Ukraine, at least the Eastern part, is chaotic, somewhat of a Wild West, where law and order has broken down, thugs do what they want and officialdom can be bought for the right price. Herman struggles through but learns or, perhaps, imparts to us, one useful lesson – stick to your friends and family because when things go wrong, they are the ones who will stick by you.

Zhadan certainly paints an interesting portrait of a chaotic country, but one inhabited by people who, while often living outside the law and whose behaviour is at times questionable, are ultimately good people, even if you may not want them living next door to you.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Folio
First published in English in 2016 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes