Who is Serhiy Zhadan? Helen Mirren reads his poem Take Only What Is Most Important at Ukraine war vigil
To mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on the night of Thursday, February 23, hundreds of people gathered in central London.
Some groups gathered around the US and Ukraine embassies, while others, including Dame Helen Mirren, joined the vigil held at Trafalgar Square.
With tears in her eyes, Mirren recited a touching poem; Serhiy Zhadan’s Take Only What Is Most Important.
Here’s a look at who the poet is and his powerful poem.
Who is Serhiy Zhadan?
Serhiy Zhadan, 48, is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and social activist from the Luhansk Oblast province’s city of Starobilsk in Ukraine.
After completing his studies, he started working on his poetry, which focused on his homeland and those in Luhansk Oblast.
Over the years, Zhadan published 12 poetry books and seven novels, winning numerous literary awards. His book Voroshilovgrad, which told the story of a young man in Luhansk, even became award-winning movie The Wild Fields.
In 2016, his book Mesopotamia won the Award of the President of Ukraine as the Ukrainian Book of the Year.
The creative has also collaborated with theatre companies and musicians, adapting his work for the stage and producing lyrics.
He eventually released his own full-length album, Fokstroty with Yuriy Gurzhy.
As for Zhadan’s social activism, the poet has been a keen protestor of corruption and voter intimidation.
Since 2014, Zhadan has visited the front lines of the Eastern Donbas region, which was in armed conflict with Russian separatists many times, bringing humanitarian aid with his Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation.
After the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Zhadan stayed in his home city of Kharkiv, the second-largest in Ukraine, to help organise humanitarian aid.
What is his poem Take Only What Is Most Important about?
The poet’s 2015 poem depicts the experience of a person having to leave behind everything and everyone they’ve ever known to escape a war.
It advises them about what to take before they leave their home and the things they will never get to experience again.
Here’s the poem.
Take Only What Is Most Important
Take only what is most important. Take the letters.
Take only what you can carry.
Take the icons and the embroidery, take the silver,
Take the wooden crucifix and the golden replicas.
Take some bread, the vegetables from the garden, then leave.
We will never return again.
We will never see our city again.
Take the letters, all of them, every last piece of bad news.
We will never see our corner store again.
We will never drink from that dry well again.
We will never see familiar faces again.
We are refugees. We’ll run all night.
We will run past fields of sunflowers.
We will run from dogs, rest with cows.
We’ll scoop up water with our bare hands,
sit waiting in camps, annoying the dragons of war.
You will not return and friends will never come back.
There will be no smoky kitchens, no usual jobs,
There will be no dreamy lights in sleepy towns,
no green valleys, no suburban wastelands.
The sun will be a smudge on the window of a cheap train,
rushing past cholera pits covered with lime.
There will be blood on your heels,
tired guards on borderlands covered with snow,
a postman with empty bags shot down,
a priest with a hapless smile hung by his ribs,
the quiet of a cemetery, the noise of a command post,
and unedited lists of the dead,
so long that there won’t be time
to check them for your own name.