Remarkably, despite the ongoing shelling of Kharkiv by Russia, Vivat Publishing House held a book launch of the Ukrainian translation of Adam Mansbach's Go the Fuck to Sleep in the city earlier this month. Author Sergiy Zhadan, who translated the book, starred at an event that included a reading as well as the performance of a new song inspired by the book alongside the Kharkiv musical group Selo i Liudy.
Vivat Publishing was established in 2013, and is now the second largest publishing house in Ukraine, publishing 400 new titles per year across adult and children's categories, with translations appearing in 26 countries. Julia Orlova, the CEO of Vivat, spoke with PW last month during the first weeks of the war, when employees were forced to flee the city and begin work remotely. She updated PW on the current situation by email.
What has been the biggest ongoing challenge for you so far?
Probably the most difficult thing has been the psychological state of the people. I think it's impossible to prepare for war. You can talk about contingency plans, packing a bug-out bag. But definitely you cannot be fully prepared for war psychologically or morally. Even once you have left the confines of the fighting, you cannot walk away from the horror until the end. Destroyed homes can be rebuilt, but you cannot erase those memories, which have crippled the psyche.
There was an absolute confusion and horror about what was happening. Moreover, Kharkiv, where our publishing house and previously all our staff were based, was among the first cities to be bombed from the very first days of the war, harshly and mercilessly.
Of course, it is very difficult to work under conditions when your company is scattered all over the country and the world. To avoid being torn and lost, we organized a common chat with absolutely everyone in the company on the second or third day of the war. In this chat we supported each other, answered questions, and tried to solve problems, discussed evacuation issues and dropped useful and vital information. The state in which we all found ourselves was so terrible that basically there was no space for any work in our lives. The first and most important thing was simply people's physical survival with the following evacuation.
How are your employees coping?
We have 96 employees and to date almost 95% of the staff have left Kharkiv or Ukraine. To date, only a few of my colleagues have remained in the city, which suffers daily from brutal bombardment and destruction. Most colleagues have been forced to leave home, move to other, calmer areas of Ukraine, or go abroad. It is clear that when evacuating, people took the most necessary things with them. And obviously this is not a computer or a laptop. While a number of colleagues have the technical equipment to work, a certain percentage do not, so not all business processes are up and running. Not everyone has access to high-speed internet, and there are problems with the working servers, which we are trying to repair and optimize as soon as possible.
There are colleagues who have been working from basements, bomb shelters, underground stations, or even on the road. Part of the team are volunteers or in the ranks of territorial defense forces, buying body armor and weaving camouflage nets. Several of our authors have joined the war, including Pavlo Kazarin, Oleg Bakulin, Vakhtang Kipiani and Vitaly Zapeka.
How are you handling logistics, such as printing and shipping?
Printing in Kharkiv stopped in April with the start of the war, and we hope that the printing presses will not be destroyed by the shelling. This is a tragedy, as we have some 50 books ready for the printer. Our inability to transfer books from the warehouse in Kharkiv remains a struggle, as there is constant shelling in the city. We have been trying to move books to a relatively safe location, but so far the supply has been disrupted.
Have you seen a spike in demand for Ukrainian titles from abroad?
So far, the demand for Ukrainian books has increased significantly, driven primarily by the number of refugees—mostly women and children. For terrified toddlers, a book is a comfort, an opportunity to enter into another bright, peaceful, often fairy-tale world, where it is so good and comfortable. For children's psyche, reading is a kind of rehabilitation tool after experiencing stress.
In addition, Ukrainian readers want to see and buy books in their native language. Today, a book in their mother tongue is more than just a book. It is a bridge that lies between the foreign land and home, an inseparable link with the homeland. For our refugees, coming across a book in Ukrainian in a foreign bookshop equals to meeting a compatriot who, like you, has lived through the war, heard the terrible thunder of explosions and felt constant fear for his family and home, and then finally found themselves in relative peace. This is why the encounter with a Ukrainian book abroad is so important, almost therapeutic for our citizens.
Has Russia's propaganda war further impacted the publication of books during the war in any way?
The other day, we learned that the Russians are pulling our books from libraries in the temporarily occupied territories, in such cities as Kremenna, Rubizhne in the Luhansk region, and Gorodnya in the Chernihiv region. The books are withdrawn, destroyed on the spot, or taken to an unknown destination. We also know that libraries in the temporarily occupied territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv, and Sumy have begun to exclude Ukrainian historical and fiction literature which does not coincide with the postulates of Kremlin propaganda. Russian "military police" units have been brought in to do this.
Russia has set itself the goal to not only destroy our beautiful cities and to cripple people, but also to throw our literature into the fire. Russia inherited its hatred for literature from the Soviets. Throughout their existence, Ukrainian writers have fought against this pseudo-imperium. Their books were destroyed and the writers were sent to prison for half their lives, just to be shut up. But the imperialists failed then, and they won't succeed now.