Posted by: bluesyemre | March 14, 2022

#Books against bombs: How Ukrainians are using #literature to fight back

A window barricaded by books in Kyiv. Photograph: Lev Shevenko

During Covid, Ukraine’s population bought books, thanks to a government vaccine initiative. Now there is no time to read, they can still be useful.

I’ve lived in Kyiv since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 – and now I’m an internally displaced person again. After a Russian military plane was shot down in front of my windows, my family and I were evacuated to a safer place in Lviv, western Ukraine. As editor of the media outlet Zaborona, I spend days working from our temporary home, collecting evidence of the war.

Shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic brought an unexpected cultural breakthrough in the country. Ukraine had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world, and the Ukrainian Books Institute, a relatively new government agency, came up with the idea of offering “culture vouchers” as a reward for getting a Covid vaccination. With each 1,000 hryvnia voucher (about £25) you could buy tickets to a movie or a concert, a gym membership or books. Citizens spent more than 1bn hryvnias on books.

Many Ukrainians hadn’t previously been in the habit of buying books – studies suggested that the average Ukrainian reads only one book a year. But since Russia annexed Crimea and occupied part of the Donbas in 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have passed several laws regarding books. One banned the import of books printed in Russia. Another one obliged the media to publish in Ukrainian. Programmes were launched to support local writers and the translation of foreign authors into Ukrainian. This led to a surge in the development of Ukrainian publishing houses and the emergence of many new writers.

Ukrainian authors have already written about Putin’s attacks, in Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, or The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan. But the country said goodbye to books on the first day of Russia’s invasion. There is no time to read or write now – everyone is focused on protecting their loved ones. When, on 24 February, Russia launched a full-scale attack, missiles flew not only at military infrastructure, as President Vladimir Putin claimed, but also at civilian homes. In cities throughout Ukraine, the Russian army began to destroy residential houses. Locals were forced to invent ways to protect themselves.

Urban researcher Lev Shevchenko photographed how his neighbours in the residential area of ​​Kyiv barricaded themselves with books. In the image, piles of books line a window from top to bottom. They are arranged mainly with the binding inside, so it’s hard to tell what most of them are. Only one hefty volume, of the works of the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov, stands out. Ironically, this painter, who saw the second world war as a teenager and witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, publicly supported Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian policies and painted pictures in praise of Russia’s “greatness”. Now the people of Kyiv are using a catalogue of his paintings to defend themselves against the air attacks of the Russian army.

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