Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started on February 24, continues to disrupt Ukraine’s publishing industry, as warehouses are destroyed, logistics break down, and employees are displaced. Moreover, Russia continues to try to undermine, delegitimize, and ultimately eradicate Ukrainian culture, as part of a contemporary campaign that dates back to when Ukraine achieved its independence in 1991.
At the end of November, a delegation of American writers traveled to Kyiv to present a new report on the war’s impact on Ukrainian culture compiled by PEN America and PEN Ukraine. The report noted that Russia sought to stifle criticism of the war by silencing Ukrainian writers and artists, including Vladyslav Yesypenko, a journalist and recipient of the 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, who was imprisoned in March. At least 31 Ukrainian writers and artists and have been killed since the war started, either by Russian authorities or while fighting.
The report also states that the Ukrainian government has documented damage and destruction to at least 49 libraries and archives. Oksana Boiarynova, a member of the Ukrainian Library Association’s board, reported in August that 2,475 Ukrainian libraries, out of about 15,000, were closed as a result of the war, and another 21 were completely destroyed.
Russian soldiers have also seized and destroyed Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian-language books from public libraries in numerous cities, according to the PEN report. Museums have been looted, as well. In all, more than 500 cultural institutions have been impacted by the war.
But through it all, the Ukrainian publishing industry continues to operate. According to a survey conducted by Chytomo, the online trade magazine of the Ukrainian publishing industry, 85.9% of Ukraine’s publishers were operational in late September, up from 39% in April; the remaining 14.1% were at least partially at work. Furthermore, 10% of the publishing houses were forced to relocate, and 28.6% of publishers had employees or operations dislocated by the war.
Numerous publishers have been shelled—particularly those in Kharkiv, the traditional printing center, where the country’s three largest printers are located. Among the publishing houses that suffered the most, Chytomo reported, is Ranok, which had a warehouse destroyed and several bookstores damaged, totaling some $450,000 in losses. Others that were damaged include Vivat and Ist. In all, 18.5% of Ukrainian publishers have suffered serious damage from the fighting. “Virtually all publishers are trying to work despite the difficult conditions,” wrote Oksana Hmelyovska and Anastasia Zagorui, authors of the Chytomo survey.
Some publishers see continuing their work as part of the war effort. Representatives from the publishing house Stiletto and Stylos told Chytomo, “We continue to publish new books, sell old ones, print additional copies and even participate in events. We are a publishing house focused on veterans and the military, so from the first day of the war, we have donated numerous books to combat units and hospitals.”
Early in the war, many Ukrainian publishers saw sales drop as bookstores closed and they focused on digital distribution, often offering e-books for free. Today, customers have returned to stores and sales are returning to normal, according to Chytomo’s survey. “In the first months, sales dropped to almost zero, but since June we have seen a gradual increase in sales, and even a return to normal figures,” said representatives of UA Comix Publishing, a publisher of comics and graphic novels.
Some Ukrainian publishers are now reporting an increase in sales. Why? A new refusal by Ukrainians to read Russian books. “The majority of readers and bookstores in Ukraine are refusing to read or stock Russian-language books, and accordingly, our publications are placed on the shelves instead of Russian ones,” representatives of Old Lion Publishing House, a children’s book publisher in Lviv, told Chytomo. Old Lion’s book How War Changed Rondo, written by Romana Romanyshyn and illustrated by Andriy Lesiv, became a global bestseller in translation in 2022. “The emphasis has noticeably shifted to the publications of Ukrainian authors,” said the representatives of Old Lion. “The absence of Russian books has created a gap in the market we are happy to fill.”