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Ukraine. Ukraine. Serhiy Zhadan's The Orphanage.

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Sunday, December 4, 2022, 3:00-4:30 pm Pacific

Thoughts and Questions for Discussion

by Leah Light, Matthew Light, Igor Mikhaylov

1. What is this book about? Why is it called The Orphanage? What do you think the main themes are? The book is about events in Ukraine but what more universal messages are being conveyed?

2. Are the teacher and his nephew named randomly? According to one source on the Web:

The name Pasha is both a boy's name and a girl's name of Russian origin meaning "small". Your little Pasha will rule the roost. In Russia, Pasha is traditionally given to a boy born on Good Friday.” And as to Sasha, one entry reads “Sasha is a gender-neutral name of Russian origin, meaning “defender” and “helper of mankind”. This solid and heroic name is the Russian short-form of the Greek name Alexander or Alexandra, which means “to defend man”.

Is there a religious message in the book? If so, what does this novel have to say about religion--or religion in a post-Soviet Ukraine?

3. Pasha and Sasha both have physical disabilities. Is this important?

4. Pasha is a teacher. He frequently describes himself as “a teacher” or as “just a teacher.“ What is Zhadan trying to convey by this? What do we learn from Pasha’s interactions with others (teachers, students, and persons met on the journey) about expectations of the role of teacher?

5. How do the characters in the novel engage with their environment? How did you experience the temporal/spatial world in which Pasha and others find themselves throughout the novel? Why are the seasons mentioned so often?

6. To what entities does Pasha have a duty of care or responsibility? How does his view of his personal responsibility shift during his journey? Do circumstances simply force him to take on responsibility or is his behavior governed by a change in his views about responsibility? Is his behavior any different from that of others in this regard? Is he a hero?

7. How does Sasha’s relationship with his nephew develop over the course of their journey? What’s the message here?

8. What is the role of other characters in the book? What is the role of each gender, male and female? Most people that are hiding, waiting, huddled are women (and children). Most people in authority are men, in the train station, soldiers, cossacks, drivers, journalists. Who is actually better off, women or men? But there are women in leadership roles too, for example, Sasha’s mother who is an authoritative train stewardess, Nina at the orphanage, even Anna the prostitute wields some power. Who is Anna? and what is her symbolism? Anna appears as a waitress at the motel, Anna appears as a prostitute at the train station, Anna appears as a spy towards the end of the story. Why does Pasha keeps on thinking everyone is Anna?

9. Pasha is a teacher of Ukrainian but rarely speaks this language except in the context of teaching and is reluctant to own up to the subject matter he teaches—at least until the end of Day 2. What is the role of the language spoken in the novel? Can you always tell what language is being spoken?

10. On Day 2 Pasha takes more active control of events. Is his sense of control merely an illusion? Is his previous indifference and/or helplessness more in touch with the reality of his situation?

11. What is the role of memory in the novel, specifically memory for traumatic event?

12. Animals make periodic appearances throughout the novel. How are dogs and birds portrayed? What do human/canine interactions tell us in the novel? BTW: Author Serhiy Zhadan’s band is called Zhadan and The Dogs.

13. Reading the reviews below, what points or questions do they raise about The Orphanage that you might not have noticed in your own reading of the book?

14. How does reading The Orphanage affect how you see the current conflict in Ukraine?

15. What questions do you have about The Orphanage after reading the book? Frame one question to bring to our discussion.


Reviews of The Orphanage

Times Literary Supplement

Ukrainian Institute

The Exiled Soul

The New York Review


The Orphanage is our starting point to understand what is happening today in Ukraine, the most devastating and destructive conflict to erupt in Europe since World War II. The Orphanage is one of the New York Times “Six Books to Read for Context on Ukraine.” Its author, the Serhiy Zhadan, is a poet, essayist, activist, and celebrity with rock star status in his country Ukraine, where his home is in Kharkiv. His international reputation is quickly growing with a 2022 nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Our discussion will be facilitated by Shmoozers founding member Leah Light and her son, Matthew Light, a well-known scholar of security and migration policies in post-Soviet Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Russo-Ukrainian war was launched by Russia under president Vladimir Putin in February 2014. It was post-Soviet Russia's response to the manifest desire of a large swath of the population of independent Ukraine for political liberalization and closer ties with the West. The months-long wave of popular dissent known as the Euromaidan Movement crested over Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor Yanokovych's rejection of a cooperation agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. On February 20, in what is known as the Revolution of Dignity, the movement succeeded in voting Yanokovych out of office.

Two days later, on February 22 came the outbreak of pro-Russian unrest in the industrialized Eastern and Southern region of Ukraine sharing a border with Russia. This area known as the Donbas (Donets Basin) has significant reserves of high-quality coal and iron ore that had provided Imperial and later Soviet Russia with the majority of its fuel and steel. The undeclared war on Ukraine was attributed by Russia to internal Ukrainian secessionists, while it was an open secret that unmarked military and weaponry were being sent by Russia to invade and occupy the borderlands. Simultaneously, in March, Russia invaded Crimea, took over vital infrastructure, and held a sham referendum resulting in annexation of the region.


In April 2014 the undeclared war expanded as pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics with obvious assistance from Russia. In August, unmarked Russian military vehicles crossed the border with Ukraine, beginning the phase known as the war in the Donbas. A stalemate ensued so that by 2019 Ukraine acknowledge that about 7% of its territory was "temporarily occupied."

We have to recognize that this year's invasion of Ukraine, eight years after Russia's annexation of Crimea and covert war in the Donbas, is an escalation of the same long conflict. On February 24, 2022, Russia gave diplomatic recognition to the Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic as independent states. Three days later Putin began a"special military operation" in Ukraine. The ruthless and lethal bombardment of civilian targets in Ukraine's cities, towns, and villages continues. By September of this year, 18% of Ukraine's territory was under Russian control. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), as of November 1, 2022, there are 7,786,195 Ukraine refugees recorded across Europe.

Serhiy Zhadan's The Orphanage, is a novel about the intimate effects on one family of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home. Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.

The above description on serves--for now--to orient us to the story. Stay tuned for further posts, updates and comments.

About the Facilitators

Leah Light is a founding member of the Yiddish Schmoozers and an emerita Professor of Psychology at Pitzer College. She is a National Institute of Aging multi-year funded expert on memory, language and aging. Leah served as President of the American Psychological Association's division of experimental psychology and on its advisory committees. She received the APA lifetime achievement award for her research on Adulthood and Aging.

Matthew Light is Associate Professor of Criminology and European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, University of Toronto. His studies focus on Russian and regional policies relating to migration, policing, criminal justice, and public and citizen security. His book Fragile Migration Rights: Freedom of Movement in Post-Soviet Russia (Routledge 2016) examines these issues after the breakup of the USSR and in the new post-Soviet Russian state as well as the post-Soviet states of Georgia, Armenia, and Ukraine.

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