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Russian invasion upends young, flourishing Ukrainian publishing industry

A visitor reads a book at a book fair during a Publishers Forum in Lviv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. A regional council in western Ukraine has passed a motion to ban all Russian-language books, films and songs in the region. The legislature in the Lviv region voted on Wednesday to "impose a moratorium on the public broadcast and use of Russian-language content" until Russia withdraws all of its troops from Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mykola Tys)
A visitor reads a book at a book fair during a Publishers Forum in Lviv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. A regional council in western Ukraine had passed a motion to ban all Russian-language books, films and songs in the region.

Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine serves as the center of the Ukrainian book industry, and when Russia began raining bombs down on the city in February, many of its scrappy publishers were forced to pull up stakes and flee.

But Galina Padalko is confident that they will return. Too much is at stake to stay away.

"We have one dream, to return to Kharkiv and continue our work in our hometown. And of course we all know that we will win. In our books, good always triumphs over evil," says Padalko, chief communications officer at Vivat Publishing House.

The book business has played a role in the clash between Ukraine and its larger neighbor to the north over the last decade. For many years, big Russian companies such as Eksmo dominated the publishing business in Ukraine, and Ukrainian writing was considered something of an afterthought.

British writer and translator Steve Komarnyckyj remembers visiting Ukraine during the Soviet era, and searching in vain for Ukrainian books to read.

"I went into a bookshop," he recalls, "and there was a cordoned off shelf with the words, 'Ukrainian literature,' and the shelf was empty. I went up to the guy behind the checkout and said, 'Where's the Ukrainian books?' And he looked at me like he was baffled."

But the 2013 invasion of Crimea unleashed a flood of Ukrainian writing, much of it dark and very political, according to writer Andriy Kurkov, who spoke at a recent forum sponsored by PEN America.

It also prompted a backlash against Russian publishers, who were accused of putting out books that amounted to little more than pro-Kremlin propaganda. Russian writers such as Alexander Dugin and Eduard Liminov routinely sought to undermine the country's sovereignty, says Iryna Baturevych, formerly with the Ukrainian Book Institute, a government agency.

"They wrote that Ukraine is full of Nazis. They wrote that Ukraine doesn't serve to be a separate country. It was really horrible," she says.

In 2017, Ukraine barred the "unauthorized distribution" of books from Russia and required anyone importing books from the country to obtain a permit. Certain writers and publishing companies were banned altogether.

While the ban was criticized by some human rights groups as censorship, the sidelining of Russian companies enabled Ukrainian publishers to flourish. The number of books published by Ukrainian companies rose by around half between 2016 and 2019, says Baturevych.

"I was really bowled over with the quality of the work, the high production values, really interesting and quite different fiction and non-fiction. It was just really exciting," says literary agent Emma Shercliff, who prepared a report on Ukraine for the British Council.

But the industry has suffered mightily since then. Many books in Ukraine are sold through book shops and supermarkets, and retail sales plummeted due to the Covid pandemic.

The war has greatly aggravated the industry's problems, closing retail outlets and disrupting supply chains, says Artem Litvinets, chief business development officer at Vivat.

"We have zero cash flow and the main difficulty is money," he says.

"We are not sure [about] our future. We are not sure about our ability to work tomorrow, because there is no safe place in Ukraine," adds Padalko. Her own street in Kharkiv has been bombed, and she is now working remotely from her hometown in western Ukraine.

Despite its financial challenges, Vivat is giving away digital copies of its books to readers. At a time when Russia is churning out propaganda about the war, it's more important than ever that Ukraine's writers be heard, the company's employees say.

Ukraine has called for a boycott of some Russian books and publishers, and the call has generated considerable support abroad. Some foreign publishers have canceled or not renewed contracts with Russian companies, and writers such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have been vocal critics of Russia.

King has said he will no longer allow his books to be published in Russia, where he's highly popular, and recently tweeted a photo of himself wearing a pro-Ukraine shirt.

Last month, the Bologna Children's Book Fair, one of the industry's biggest events, barred companies linked to the Kremlin from attending and sponsored a special exhibit of Ukrainian books.

While independent publishers were allowed to attend, all but a few stayed away, and the show's director, Elena Pasoli, thinks she knows why. Many in the Russian publishing business oppose the war, but fear speaking out.

"I think they were not feeling comfortable [about] what their government was doing, and they didn't simply feel like meeting with the international community, and I totally understand that," Pasoli says.

In March, Evgeny Kapyev, general director of Russia's Eksmo, appealed to the world to rethink the boycott, arguing that most Russian publishing companies are not connected to the government. Books, he argued, should be about more than making profits. They have the power to help further understanding among people.

The argument has pretty much fallen on deaf ears.

Prominent Ukrainian literary critic Tamara Hundorova opposed the book ban imposed by her government about five year ago. But since the invasion, her outlook has changed, she says.

Ukrainians have bought millions of books published by Russian companies over the years, and some part of the proceeds ends up in the Kremlin's coffers.

"This money supports the Russian army, and bombings, and tanks that kill Ukrainian citizens," she says. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.