A ‘Very Painful’ Book Boom: As Russia Wages War On Their Culture, Ukrainians Turn To Reading

KYIV — Halfway through the annual Book Arsenal Festival, Ukraine’s biggest publishing event, Anastasia Yehorova had already bought 11 books. Among them: Zero Point, a novel by soldier Artem Chekh; Tara Westover’s Educated, an award-winning memoir about growing up in a Mormon family; and Rebecca Yarros’s Fourth Wing, a romantasy bestseller.

Yehorova, a 31-year-old IT project manager whose husband serves in the military, buys five times more books than she used to before Russia’s full-scale invasion. The choices have grown much wider and better in recent years, she explains.

“But the real reason I buy more than I can read is because I am afraid that the Russians will force us to flee again…and that we won’t be there anymore — and neither will Ukrainian books,” she said, an existential concern amid a war that is, for Ukraine, existential.

With a hip new bookstore opening in Kyiv every other month and unexpected bestsellers rocking the market, readers and publishing industry insiders alike speak of a spike in demand for books.

Like a broader blossoming of the arts in Ukraine, the book boom is tied to the war, a response to the Russian aggression that continues to target Ukrainian culture and kill its creators.

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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire as a lifeless body lies under the rubble after a Russian missile hit a large printing house in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 23.
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Firefighters work to extinguish a fire as a lifeless body lies under the rubble after a Russian missile hit a large printing house in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 23.

A week before the festivalon May 23, a Russian S-300 missile struck the Factor Druk printing house in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and the target of a relentless campaign of missile and bomb attacks for many weeks now. The strike killed seven employees, wounded 17 people, and destroyed 50,000 books as well as the printing equipment at the plant.

“We received a lot of support, but the damage cannot be undone,” Olena Ryba, the editor in chief of Vivat, which is Ukraine’s third-biggest publishing house and is owned by Factor Druk, told RFE/RL.

Vivat’s losses amount to 5 million euros ($5.4 million) and the overall capacity of Ukraine’s book publishing industry will be reduced by 30-40 percent as a result of the attack, she said.

From the first day of the full-scale invasion, February 24, 2022, Russian forces have been destroying Ukrainian cultural sites, looting galleries and museums in occupied territory, and killing artists in attacks at the front and across the country.

The body of Volodymyr Vakulenko, 49, a children’s book author, poet, and translator, was found in a mass grave in the Kharkiv region after Ukraine recaptured the area from Russian forces in September 2022. Viktoria Amelina, 37, a novelist and war crimes researcher, was killed by a Russian missile in July 2023.Maksym Kryvtsov33, a poet and a soldier, was killed by an artillery strike in January 2024.

According to the state-run Ukrainian Book Institute, Russia has ruined 154 libraries in Ukraine, damaged over 750 more, and destroyed more than 1.8 million books.

In the occupied territories, it says, Russian authorities have been confiscating Ukrainian books, in some cases burning them, and have brought some 2.5 million copies of Russian books to libraries and schools.

Singed books from Kharkiv at the Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv.

Books burned by the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv were laid out among the stands of some 100 publishers who set up shop at the four-day festival at Kyiv’s Mystetskiy Arsenal, a huge late-18th-century neoclassical complex that used to serve as an ammunition storehouse and now hosts cultural events.

People line up at the entrance to the Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv on June 1.

The theme of the festival was “Living on the Edge.” Despite the tense situation on the front and the danger of Russian attacks across Ukraine, a defiant mood and a sense of early-summer enthusiasm prevailed among visitors who waited in a long line to get into the book fair and attended packed public discussions and art events.

“The full-scale war, and before that the pandemic, created a wild demand for cultural events, especially offline,” Yulia Kozlovets, the Book Arsenal Festival director, told RFE/RL. She said that about 35,000 people visited.

According to Kozlovets, the Ukrainian reading public has changed over the past two years, with more young people seeking Ukrainian-language books and more readers looking for highbrow literature.

“The war has ultimately liberated Ukrainian culture from an inferiority complex,” she said.

This shift might have not occurred without a “political decision” to pass a law banning the import and distribution of books from Russia and Belarus in June 2023, Rostyslav Karandeyev, the acting culture minister, told RFE/RL. For decades, the huge Russian publishing industry undermined Ukrainian competitors and Russian-language books dominated the scene, he says.

The war has provoked a period of soul-searching and steered many in Ukraine to rethink their identity, says Oleksiy Erinchak, an IT entrepreneur who founded a sprawling three-story bookstore called Sens (Sense) on Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk Street, in February. Many are transitioning from Russian to Ukrainian and need books for immersion in the language, he adds.

Russia’s invasion has fueled a burgeoning demand for books written by soldiers and veterans, history books, and Ukrainian classics. But over time, interest in psychological literature, general nonfiction, and lighter fiction has returned, according to Ilona Zamotsna, co-founder of the Kyiv-based publishing house Vikhola.

At the same time, some categories are in crisis — most notably children’s books, which is suffering because of a mass exodus of educated mothers and children.

In fact, insiders say that the situation in the publishing industry is not as rosy as it may seem to Ukrainians admiring the rising variety and quality of books and the new trends in layout, design, and printing.

The publishers are encountering “massive challenges” and “there is hardly a boom in a quantitative sense,” Oleksandra Koval, the head of the Ukrainian Book Institute, told RFE/RL.

Last year, Ukrainian publishers doubled their revenues compared to 2022 and exceeded the figures of 2021 by more than one-third, but the number of books printed was just 55 percent of 2021 output.

“The increase in revenue can largely be explained by the rise in book prices,” she said, adding that some 30 book companies suffered war damage in addition to Kharkiv’s Factor Druk, one of the biggest full-cycle printing houses in Europe.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the average price of a book in Ukraine has increased by 37.5 percent, according to data from five top publishers compiled by the media outlet Liga.net.

Singed books from Kharkiv at the Book Arsenal Festival

Publishing also suffers from a shortage of qualified personnel because many have left the country or are fighting the invasion, Erinchak says, and the industry was underpopulated to begin with.

“Years of Russian publishers’ dominance left the Ukrainian market underdeveloped; it was a business built on enthusiasm, and now we need to innovate to survive,” he said.

The Ukrainian state has done too little to support culture and publishing for decades, Karandeyev says, and the wartime economic straits make it difficult to change that now.

Nonetheless, according to Karandeyev, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will soon sign off on a Culture Ministry project that would hand about 900 hryvnyas ($22) to every Ukrainian turning 18 to spend on books through the government app Diia.

Civil society is also doing its part. A group of volunteers in Kherson, a southern city continually battered by Russian troops stationed across the Dnieper River, opened a “book shelter” where people can read and exchange books in a safe space. Another group, called Kulturniy Desant (Cultural Landing), enables donors to send books to soldiers on the front lines.

To some, the wartime fashion for reading is a form of escapism restricted to a narrow bubble, while some see it as a crucial attempt to “decolonize” Ukrainian culture. Others compare the current literary ferment to the so-called “executed renaissance,” the generation of Ukrainian language poets, writers, and artists killed by the Soviet regime in 1920s and 1930s.

Yaryna Chornohuz

Yaryna Chornohuz, a 29-year-old marine infantrywoman whose collection of free-verse poems titled “dasein: defense of presence” won this year’s prestigious Shevchenko National Prize, keeps two boxes from DJI Mavic drones full of books at the positions to which she is deployed. Her copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is stained with blood, she says.

To her, the wartime wave of literary creativity is something “very painful.”

“I could not open my book after it was published. It was written as I watched many of my brothers and sisters in arms dying,” she told RFE/RL.

She dedicated it to them, she said, “so that they and our experience are not forgotten.”

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