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‘Like reading under the covers,’ books thrive in blackout-stricken Ukraine

Photo by Ismail Salad Osman Hajji dirir on Unsplash

After the terrifying early months of 2022, and a brutal winter of drone attacks and blackouts, a crop of new independent bookshops is hardly what one would expect to find in the Ukrainian capital. But, in defiance of Russia’s ongoing invasion, they are springing up all around Kyiv.

In the central Pechersk district, Misto, meaning “city”, opened in December. At the time, Russian missile attacks were regularly casting Kyiv into darkness. Everyone told Diana Slonchenko, its owner, that she was mad. But war, she says, “changed my mindset”. Her desire to open a bookshop had switched from “something I’ll do one day, to something I need to do now”.

Previously, she worked as a flight attendant and kept her job through the Covid-19 pandemic, but lost it when the Russian invasion stopped civilian flights. Her bookshop is airy, with pale wood fittings, large windows, and a selection of vinyl neatly displayed above a record player. “I wanted it to be light and warm – like a library from the past, maybe a school library but in a good way. No Soviet stuff. I want people to come in here and feel safe,” she says.

The most common question shoppers ask her is: “Can you recommend a book that is not about Ukrainian suffering?” That can be tough, she confesses. Nevertheless, she always suggests a novel she adores, Ask Miechka, by Eugenia Kuznetsova, about four generations of Ukrainian women.

Over in the city’s cafe- and bar-filled Podil district, the Book Lion bookshop opened in August. Comfortable chairs and tables are dotted around; Dolly Parton is on the stereo; coffee and wine is on hand.

“It’s really hard to plan during a war, and we were thinking: how can we do this when we just don’t know what’s going to happen? But step by step we did it,” says Oleksandr Riabchuk, the bookshop’s co-founder.

The shelves are crammed with Ukrainian classics, contemporary fiction and poetry, as well as foreign literature in translation – the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk and George Orwell feature strongly. There are sections labelled “books about Kyiv” and “inside the war”.

There are no books in Russian or by Russian authors. This is a complete reversal: before the Russian incursions into Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, the book market was dominated by Russian-language titles, according to the Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko, whose works are displayed prominently in the shop.

But war has left no corner of life in this country untouched, even its reading culture – especially since the start of the full-scale invasion last year. “People began to understand that the Russians came here to kill people simply because they were Ukrainian,” says Bohdana Neborak, a manager of cultural projects and editor at the Ukrainians magazine. “So people are asking: what does it actually mean to be Ukrainian? Literary culture gives us the place to understand who we are.”

Readers are turning to Ukrainian classics they might first have encountered at school, says Neborak. Also sought after are exquisite new clothbound editions of Ukrainian verse: works by contemporary figures such such as Serhiy Zhadan, and fat anthologies of 20th-century poems.

“Ironically the winter of blackouts was very good for reading,” says Zabuzhko. During a winter of electricity and internet outages, reading a physical book by candlelight was possible when scrolling through a phone was not. “People were reading all the time – rediscovering the pleasures of one’s teenage years, as if they were reading under the covers.”

Fiction was hugely popular at the Book Lion bookshop last year, says Riabchuk, as readers sought to escape into imagined worlds from the grim realities outside. But “this year will be the year of nonfiction: people are wanting to analyse, understand, resolve problems”.

By way of confirmation, browsing the psychology section is Anastasia Shcherbak, the financial director of a local business. She has popped in on her way to work, seeking books useful to her staff dealing with the emotional effects of the invasion.

Just round the corner, there was still the smell of fresh paint at an even newer bookshop, Skovoroda, named for the 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda. The young team opened the store’s doors on 8 April.

“We want to fill the market up with original Ukrainian titles and books in translation,” said the bookseller Victoria Berkut. “There used to be a powerful stereotype that good translations of foreign literature could only be found in Russian – and we want to show that there are good translators into Ukrainian.”

The idea is, she says, for staff to pass on their favourite books to readers, “and it’s working”. Asked for a recommendation, she suggested Amadoka, by Sophia Andrukhovych, whose complex, multigenerational story begins with a man who has lost his memory as a result of injuries sustained fighting in Donbas.

The bookshops are as much community spaces as places for solitary browsing. The Book Lion bookshop, which had electricity through the winter blackouts, proved a haven for people living locally such as the writer Oleksandr Mykhed. During air-raid alerts a group of women employed locally still come and knit in the corner, he says.

Sens, a bookshop that opened shortly before the invasion, in January 2022, is practically a co-working space, with laptop-wielding hipsters getting on with their jobs over coffee.

Svitlana Avrakhova, who works for the software company Grammarly, relocated to Berlin after the invasion and is back for a visit. Along with her coffee, she is stocking up in Sens on books to take back to Germany, including a history of Kyiv in the 19th and 20th centuries and an anthology of Ukrainian women’s short stories.

The new bookshops are a sign of hope: for publishing, reading, and also for the future of Ukrainian literature. “When writers see the bookstores they are happy,” said Riabchuk. “They have faith that the books they are going to write will find readers.”

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