Arts and Culture

Print Prevails in the War Against Ukraine

Melissa James

Displayed proudly in the window of a small independent bookshop, nestled in a quiet street of Hertfordshire – worlds away from the savage battleground that Ukraine has become – was a selection of Ukrainian titles. In clumsy, but charming writing was a sign that announced they were printed in Ukraine. A moment of confusion ensued. But what about the war?

In the cratered, crumbling streets of Kharkiv – Ukraine’s traditional printing quarter –  remains a force to be reckoned with. Publishers, in the range of ever-falling missiles, print on. 

Some houses have been forced to amend their operation models, but a determination is clear. Loaded onto transport from shelled warehouses, books are being evacuated from Kharkiv and Kyiv to safer Western Ukraine.  From there, they are sold internationally – global support for Ukraine, tangibly evidenced in the growing interest in Ukrainian titles. 

Writers and artists have long been a target of the Russian regime, who are desperate to asphyxiate Ukrainian language and culture. Volodymyr Vakulenko, was a renowned children’s book author until he was brutally murdered in March 2022. His home in the Izyum region was raided and his writing confiscated before he was taken and never seen again – that was until his unmarked grave was discovered. 

Genocide of the cultural elite is a familiar tactic when Russia’s history is dissected. 

Yet, the internet complicates the task. Journalists have, albeit sometimes patchy, access on the ground to upload their articles and pictures online. And a legion of war bloggers have emerged from the rubble, documenting their survival through everything from journalling to poetry.

However, books remain to represent a tactile aperture to the history and substance of culture. Russia knows this, and whilst they have destroyed beyond 50 libraries and archives, the publishing houses battle on in the face of adversity to replace the lost. Printing new titles, and new editions of Ukrainian classics serves to demonstrate the resolve of the Ukrainian people and a renewed interest in national identity. 

Although efforts to preserve literature are being made, a Plan B is in motion. The Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) has been established to create a digitised archive of original and celebrated works to immortalise them in the threat of destruction. 

Mykola Khvylovja, a father of post-revolutionary Ukrainian prose, has had his work resurrected by young Ukrainians who have found resilience in his words. Re-editions of his poetry and novels from the 1920s are selling out within weeks of them being fresh off the press.

Blighted by blackouts and missile strikes, the houses are still churning out books to meet the consumer’s demands; sales have tripled from 2021 to 2022. Percentages of the orders are from Ukrainians who have found refuge in Europe, but who yearn for home comforts. Whilst e-books became a temporary fix, many find salvation in having a piece of home in their hands.

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