A Ukrainian publishing house makes books to survive | Books | DW

Kharkiv — the name of Ukraine’s second largest city has often made headlines over the past three months. Here, in the area near the Russian border, the first Russian bombs fell on the night of February 24. In the weeks that followed, the city was systematically bombed. According to various estimates, a third to a half of the inhabitants of Kharkiv, a city of more than one million inhabitants, have since left. But for those who stayed, life goes on. They plant flowers in parks, clean streets and even produce books.

Production of books in the air-raid shelter

“On the one hand, making books is a profession and a calling for us,” Julia Orlova, founder and managing director of publishing house Vivat, told DW. “On the other hand, work saves us from going crazy.” Before the war, his publishing house had 177 permanent employees and about 200 freelancers. Many are no longer there, while others are fighting at the front.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan recently read new works in Vivat’s new bookstore

But many continue to work, often from bomb shelters. “Our editorial processes, typesetting and proofreading of texts, contracts or even illustration can continue,” says Orlova, whose print shop in Kharkiv was damaged by the shelling. Now the publisher has to work with other printers near kyiv and in western Ukraine. The Vivat warehouse has also been moved to the Lviv surroundings and can only now restart distribution, which is mainly done digitally. On May 20, the publishing house reopened its bookstore in the destroyed city center of Kharkiv. Great Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan read his new poems at the opening.

“We want to use this symbolic action to draw attention to the problems of Ukrainian publishers, who are saving the Ukrainian book industry despite huge financial losses and revenue cuts,” said Galina Podilko, Vivat’s press officer. . “Ukrainians desperately need to feel that life goes on.” She also said demand for books has been steadily increasing in recent weeks, especially for children’s and young adult books. Since the outbreak of the war, Vivat has already produced more than 60 books. Other publishers in the country are also following suit.

Anna Grabina is working on her computer in the basement of her house with jars of jam and food next to her.

Vivat accountant Anna Grabina works in the basement of her home, calling it ‘almost cozy’

“When it comes to war… there are only blacks or whites”

Vivat was born in 2013 from the merger of two small publishing houses. Gradually he became one of the leading Ukrainian publishers. The year before the war began, Vivat sold nearly two million books. “That makes us one of the top three publishing houses in the country,” says Orlova. She is particularly proud of the quality of their books. “We work with leading Ukrainian and international authors, creating new talents.” Vivat’s portfolio includes fiction, non-fiction, Ukrainian texts and translations, and numerous children’s books.

Russian books were also produced until 2014, but the Russian annexation of Crimea was a turning point. “We took a clear pro-Ukrainian position. This caused us great economic losses because Eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking and Crimea was also one of our markets. But it was very important to take a position absolutely clear. When it comes to war and the violation of international law, there are only blacks or whites,” says Orlova.

 Vitali Zapeka wearing soldier's clothes sits on a laptop outdoors.

Vivat author Vitali Zapeka works on her new children’s book Ahead – dedicated to her granddaughter

From the publisher’s point of view, neither Russian books nor Russian publishers currently belong to the Ukrainian market — nor to the international scene. “It hurts me, because I had a lot of friends and colleagues in Russia,” says Orlova, who was born in Murmansk, Russia. But every Russian publisher also pays their taxes in Russia, supporting the war. Moreover, Orlova wants to see a clear position related to Russian culture in the publishing industry regarding the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass – as well as the war in Ukraine.

A photo of Julia Orlova on the left wearing a traditional Ukrainian outfit and a photo on the right with her in a winter jacket in her basement in March 2022.

Publisher Julia Orlova wearing traditional Ukrainian attire (l) before the war, and is also shown in her basement in March 2022

“You can’t prepare for war and death”

Orlova couldn’t sleep the night of February 24, like many in Kharkiv. “There was a lot of information from the reconnaissance services that it would start that night. Yet no one believed that war would break out.” Despite the warnings, she hadn’t been prepared. “You can’t prepare for war or death,” she says. At five o’clock in the morning, she was awakened from her sleep by the sound of explosions, gunfire and the whistle of defensive missiles.

“We all ran for the balcony, even though it was the dumbest thing that could have been done.” Since then, Orlova has learned to distinguish weapon sounds from each other, whether on the Russian or Ukrainian side.

A Vivat worker in front of a Ukrainian flag with comments written on it.

Vivat employees worked from the front and in the bunkers

Revival of the Ukrainian publishing industry

Even though the end of the war is not yet in sight, Julia Orlova and her team agree: Ukraine will win the war. In fact, they have long earned it morally. “I hope for a revival of the Ukrainian publishing industry in the post-war period. And we will play a central role in the reconstruction of the country.” She said it was especially important for the world to know more about Ukrainian literature: “We have many great authors, especially in the field of books for children and young adults. It is really worth discovering them.

This article has been translated from German.