Publishing Books In Ukrainian Is Now An Act Of Resistance


Natalie Miroshnyk was at the Warsaw Book Fair for Ukrainian publisher Vivat when she heard that a Russian missile had hit her country’s biggest printing house, killing seven workers, injuring 22 others and destroying 50,000 books.

“I got the message 10 minutes before a meeting,” says Miroshnyk, the head of foreign rights for Vivat, which is based just a few kilometres from the Faktor-Druk printworks that made its books in Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv.

“I lost my voice and couldn’t do anything because I was so shocked. Then I realised I had to tell everyone about this, to tell an international audience about this, to ask them for support and to pay attention to this crime,” she adds. “It was so painful. We are really like a big family, so it was like losing our nearest and dearest.”

Rescue teams found the dead and injured lying among mangled wreckage and mounds of burning books – novels, poetry, children’s stories and textbooks – printed in a language that has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to invasion and occupation.

Russia launched all-out war on its neighbour in February 2022 on the pretext of demilitarising and “denazifying” the pro-western democracy, but relentless Kremlin propaganda belittling Ukraine’s history, culture and statehood reveals a broader intention – to deny the distinct identity of Ukrainians and wipe their country off the map.

It is the latest expression of a centuries-old Russian attitude towards other peoples of the Tsarist and Soviet empires, and Ukraine’s rejection of it extends from the battlefield through all aspects of civilian life, where interest in the national language is soaring.

“Since the start of the war, I’ve realised that this is my own personal front – to speak Ukrainian,” says Liliya Serkina, who fled to Lviv in western Ukraine from the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia when Russian troops poured over the border nearly 2½ years ago.

Like many people in eastern and southern Ukraine, Serkina (63) spoke little Ukrainian for most of her life; her parents moved to Zaporizhzhia from Russia during the communist era, when Russian was associated with modernity and progress and offered education and job opportunities all over the Soviet Union; “local” languages like Ukrainian, by contrast, were depicted as rural and backward – quaint anachronisms in the nuclear superpower.

“I never thought about the Ukrainian language. I was born in a Russian-speaking family and I hardly ever heard Ukrainian in Zaporizhzhia, so I couldn’t see how it would be needed,” Serkina says.

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Her attitude changed in 2014, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians joined the so-called Maidan revolution to oust the country’s then pro-Kremlin leaders and align it with the West. More than 100 protesters were killed, and then Russia occupied Crimea and created proxy militia who seized parts of the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine.

She borrowed money to buy a laptop so she could escape the Russian-dominated news bubble that surrounded her social circle in Zaporizhzhia, and began to read Ukrainian media and writers whose reports shattered the Kremlin’s narrative of events.

“When Maidan began, I realised I want to be a real citizen of Ukraine… I realised I had to change something. I wanted to get to know this country because it was my country. I made my choice,” Serkina says.

When she visits Zaporizhzhia now, she speaks only Ukrainian to people with whom she conversed in Russian for decades, and wonders what to say to neighbours who have expressed support for the Kremlin “and want to take us back to the Soviet Union”.

“I hope this war has woken some people up,” Serkina says.

“Do they really want to be part of an empire? If you know what it really means, how could you want to be part of it? When it means what we saw in Bucha and other places?” she adds, referring to a Kyiv suburb where Russian troops tortured and executed local residents when it was occupied in March 2022.

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The May 23rd attack on the Kharkiv printing house is another entry on the long list of Russian crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

Vivat salvaged some of its charred books from the ruins and put them on display the following week at Kyiv’s Book Arsenal literature festival under a sign in Ukrainian and English saying: “Books destroyed by Russia. Support bookish Kharkiv – buy books!”

Amid air-raid sirens and the threat of missile strikes, 35,000 people visited the festival during four days of readings, discussions, film screenings and other events, in another vibrant show of support for Ukrainian language and culture.

“In the days after the attack, we had seven orders per minute on our website and our sales increased by four times,” Olena Rybka, chief editor of Vivat, says in its head office in Kharkiv, a city of 1.3 million people just 35km from the Russian border.

Kharkiv has long been the centre of Ukraine’s printing industry, but until quite recently it was an almost entirely Russian-speaking place, just like Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Dnipro, Odesa and other urban centres of the east and south.

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This began to change after Maidan, when the bloody end of the revolution and Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine shocked it out of a widely held assumption, fostered under Soviet rule, that the neighbours were eternal “brotherly nations” – with Russia cast as the elder brother, whose interests would always take precedence.

During 10 years of conflict, and particularly the full-scale war, Ukrainians have come to pride themselves on being on what Russia is not – democratic, free and anti-authoritarian – and speaking their own language is an expression of that difference.

The state has encouraged a move to Ukrainian by mandating its use in official settings and the media, where once television talk shows and debates were routinely conducted in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian – reflecting the country’s de facto bilingualism.

Russian is still heard to some degree all over the country, but the shift to Ukrainian is clear to the ear and from data: a recent survey showed that 28 per cent of Ukrainians still speak both Ukrainian and Russian at home, but 59 per cent now speak only Ukrainian at home, compared to 32 per cent in 2019.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, sometimes struggled with Ukrainian when he switched from comedy to politics in 2019, having grown up speaking Russian in the eastern industrial city of Kryvyi Rih. Early in his presidency, he would occasionally switch to Russian to urge Kremlin counterpart Vladimir Putin to end the conflict or counter his false claim that Russian-speakers faced violent oppression in Ukraine.

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Since the start of Putin’s all-out invasion, Zelenskiy has addressed his nation every evening in Ukrainian, and his wife Olena, who was also born in Kryvyi Rih, champions the Ukrainian Bookshelf project which has supplied tens of thousands of books in the language to libraries in dozens of countries worldwide, including Ireland.

“You cannot defend the Russian language now, because it is defended by Putin and was one of the pretexts for the war,” says Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine’s best-known novelist in the West, whose books have been banned in Russia since 2014.

“The younger generation in Ukraine realises that the Russian language brings danger. There are lots of de facto bilingual young people who refuse to speak Russian; they can read and watch YouTube in Russian, but they will not speak it.”

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Kurkov’s preference for writing fiction in Russian – his first language – has always made him suspect to some Ukrainians, and his participation in a Canadian festival with an anti-Putin Russian-American writer last year led to him being effectively “cancelled” in his homeland, where many intellectuals refuse to share a public platform with anyone linked to the aggressor state.

“It’s war and I accept it,” Kurkov (63) says in Kyiv, where he lives and has encountered no face-to-face animosity. “Most Ukrainian bookshops removed my books from their shelves… I know from my publisher that my books don’t sell here now.”

Kurkov, who speaks and writes non-fiction in Ukrainian, remembers how it was regarded as “almost a foreign language” by most people in the Soviet-era Kyiv of his childhood.

“Ukrainian history did not exist for Soviet schools. That only changed after independence [in 1991]. I never heard about the deportations to Siberia or the Holodomor before then,” he says, referring to a manmade 1932-1933 famine under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians.

“And nobody knew about the generation of Ukrainian writers and other cultural figures of the 1920s and 1930s, who were killed by Stalin in the gulag. It was all hidden.”

Viktoriia Grivina’s great-great grandfather, who ran a cultural centre in eastern Ukraine, was executed at this time along with hundreds of Ukrainian writers, artists, theatre directors and other intellectuals who became known as Ukraine’s “executed renaissance”.

Relatives of Soviet “enemies of the people” were banned from living in major cities and the stigma lingered long after Stalin died and his victims were rehabilitated. So Grivina’s mother was born in a Ukrainian-speaking village outside Kharkiv and had to switch to Russian to attend secondary school and then university in the city.

“She was the first member of her family who got back into the city in the 1980s, and I think she was always afraid of being kicked out again,” says Grivina, who is researching culture in Kharkiv during wartime for a PhD at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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“So my mother tried to be a model Soviet citizen, speaking perfect Russian and pretending she had no relatives. I think it was a big trauma for her. But when I speak to her in Ukrainian, she automatically replies in Ukrainian and then pretends it never happened.

“Even now, she can still say that Ukraine is the language of the village and you have to speak Russian to get ahead… Her generation grew up in an environment where Ukrainian was not fashionable or cool, and if you wanted a good job you had to speak Russian. So it is embedded. Russian and Soviet propaganda were very efficient in that.”

Grivina (36) remembers going to a film screening in Kharkiv in 2021 and hearing young students from the surrounding region speaking “Surzhyk Ukrainian” – Surzhyk is a blend of Ukrainian and Russian that is very common, especially in border areas.

“I realised this was the first generation who didn’t feel they had to switch to Russian when they moved to the city,” she says.

“In the 1920s there was a brief period when Ukrainian was very cool, and the avant-garde writers and artists of the time worked in Ukrainian. But then came the huge trauma of these people being executed or having their Ukrainian identity repressed. I think we’re only starting to get over that now,” Grivina explains, sitting in a cafe opposite the gutted shell of a Kharkiv administration building that was hit by a Russian missile.

“It’s a form of resistance,” she says of Ukraine’s new linguistic and cultural renaissance. “The Book Arsenal festival is cool. Reading Ukrainian classics is suddenly cool. Russian was the language of the elites, but not anymore… The tables are definitely turning.”



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