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Ukrainian publisher makes books to survive

Anastassia Boutsko
May 24, 2022

Despite bombardment and rocket fire, the Vivat publishing house in Kharkiv never stopped producing books. It even opened a new bookstore.

A worker at Vivat publishing house in Kharkiv works from her computer in a bomb shelter.
A worker at Vivat publishing house in Kharkiv works from a bomb shelterImage: Vivat-Verlag

Kharkiv, the name of Ukraine's second-largest city, has been often heard in the news over the past three months. Here, in the area next to the Russian border, the first Russian bombs fell on the night of February 24. In the weeks that followed, the city was systematically shelled. According to various estimates, one-third to one-half of the inhabitants of Kharkiv, a city of over a million people, have left since then. But for those who remained, life goes on. They plant flowers in parks, they clean the streets — and they even produce books.

Book production in the bomb shelter

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

Poet Serhiy Zhadan stands with his computer in the Vivat bookstore.
Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan recently read new works in Vivat's new bookshopImage: Vivat Verlag

But many continue to work, often from bomb shelters. "Our editorial processes, typesetting and correcting texts, contracts or even illustration can continue," says Orlova, whose print shop in Kharkiv was damaged by the shelling. Now, the publisher must work with other printers near Kyiv and in western Ukraine. Vivat's warehouse was also moved to the vicinity of Lviv, and can only now restart distribution, which is primarily done digitally. On May 20, the publishing house reopened its bookstore in the destroyed city center of Kharkiv. Ukraine's leading 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 drops in income," said Vivat press officer Galina Podilko. "People in Ukraine desperately need to feel that life goes on." She also said that demand for books has been growing steadily 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 works on her computer in the basement of her house with jars of jam and food next to her.
Vivat accountant Anna Grabina working in her house basement, calling it "almost cozy" Image: Vivat-Verlag

‘When it comes to war…there is only black or white'

Vivat was created in 2013 when two smaller publishing houses merged. Gradually, it became one of Ukraine's top 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," Orlova says. She is particularly proud of the quality of their books. "We work with leading Ukrainian and international authors, building new talent." Vivat's portfolio includes fiction, nonfiction, Ukrainian texts and translations and many 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 also used to be one of our markets. But it was very important to take an absolutely clear position. When it comes to war and violation of international law, there is only black or white," says Orlova.

 Vitali Zapeka wearing soldier gear sits on a laptop outdoors.
Vivat author Vitali Zapeka working on his new children's book at the front — dedicated to his granddaughterImage: Vivat Verlag Charkiv

From the publisher's point of view, neither Russian books nor Russian publishers belong in the Ukrainian market at the moment — nor on the international scene. "It pains me, because I had many friends and colleagues in Russia," says Orlova, who was born in Murmansk, Russia. But every Russian publisher also pays its taxes in Russia, supporting the war. Moreover, Orlova wants to see a clear stance on Russian culture in the publishing industry in relation to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas — as well as on the war in Ukraine.

A picture of Julia Orlova on the left wearing a Ukrainian traditional outfit and a photo on the right with her in a wintwer jacket in her basement in March 2022.
Publisher Julia Orlova wearing a traditional Ukrainian outfit (l) before the war, and is also shown in her basement in March 2022Image: Vivat Verlag

‘You can't prepare for war and death'

Orlova could not sleep on the night of February 24, like many in Kharkiv. "There was a lot of information from reconnaissance services that it would start that night. Still, no one believed that war would break out." Despite warnings, she had not been prepared. "One can't prepare for war or death," she says. At five o'clock in the morning, she was woken from her sleep by the sound of explosions, gunfire and the hiss of defensive missiles.

"We all ran to the balcony, although it was the stupidest thing that could have been done." Since then, Orlova has learned to distinguish the sounds of weapons from one another — whether from the Russian or Ukrainian sides.

A worker of Vivat in front of a Ukranian flag with comments written on it.
Vivat employees have been working from the front and in bunkersImage: Vivat-Verlag

Renaissance of the Ukrainian publishing industry

Even if the end of the war is not yet in sight, Julia Orlova and her staff agree: Ukraine will win the war. In fact, they have long since won it morally. "I hope for a renaissance of the Ukrainian publishing industry in the post-war period. And we will play a central role in rebuilding the country." She said it was particularly important for the world to become better acquainted with Ukrainian literature: "We have many great authors, especially in the field of children's and young adult books. It is very worthwhile to discover them."

Visiting a Ukrainian village on the front line

This article was translated from German.