An office and shop of the Old Lion Publisher on the territory of old renovated factory, Lviv, Ukraine. Source: Vydavnytstvo staroho Leva
The quantitative rebirth of Ukrainian literature is underpinned by the success of new Ukrainian authors, in Ukraine and worldwide. Contemporary Ukrainian authors are entering world competitions and they are placing within literary rankings. Authors are taking part in literary forums like the famed Frankfurter Buchmesse (Frankfurt Book Fair). Moreover, the Ukrainian Book Institute (since 2016), as well as the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation (since 2017), are actively supporting and funding the translation and promotion of Ukrainian books.
The government policy of an embargo on book imports from Russia has facilitated the development of Ukrainian-language books as well as Ukrainian publishing houses. A shift in reader preferences is also discernible.
So, what tendencies in literature, and which particular authors, are in the forefront?
Some trends in the publishing industry: Ukrainian is becoming the preferred language for publications; Ukraine is starting to see revenue from the export of its cultural offerings
The Ukrainian Book Institute has researched publishing in Ukraine. The year 2018 marked a record number of books published in Ukrainian, since independence – 16,857 titles and 38 million copies. These account for almost 81% of the total number of books published in Ukraine in 2018.
The increase in the number of copies of Ukrainian-language books during the last five years is partially explained by the number of education texts (printed mainly, but not solely, in Ukrainian). As such, these statistics do not exclusively reflect the actual demand by readers.
Nonetheless, the number of other Ukrainian-language books has increased as well. In particular, the increasing number of titles shows that more and more Ukrainian authors write in Ukrainian, and that more and more books are being published in Ukrainian and translated each year.
Researchers delved even further into the question of language. In 2013, roughly half were reading books that had been published in Russian, while only 26% were reading those published in Ukrainian. Today, the numbers are almost equal (24% vs 28%). For those who do not consider language an issue in the choice of books they read, the numbers have also increased.
Importantly, the creative sector in Ukraine overall (books, music, films, video) has gained significance, not only culturally but economically. In 2017, the share of the creative sector in Ukrainian GDP reached 4.4%. If before Ukraines import of cultural products was 5 times more than export, now the numbers are equal.
Embargo on Russian book import: positive influence on Ukrainian publishing or discrimination?
In 2013, books published in Russia comprised almost 3/4 of the Ukrainian market. Now, that fraction has dropped to 1/4. The decrease began after Euromaidan in 2014, partially because of new permits required to import books and partially because of the decline in demand for Russian-published books.
In March 2019, sanctions against Russian publishers were tightened. A resolution by the National Security and Defence Council banned the import of books from nine major Russian publishers.
Is such a policy, in effect, discrimination and limitation of freedom of speech — as some politicians opposed to the changes claim? Key to the policy is the need to distinguish purely economic sanctions from what constitutes an actual ban on content.
From an economic standpoint, the embargo is solely a monetary goal intended to support Ukrainian publishers. A side effect is that many books previously published in Russian, in Russia, will now be published in Ukrainian, in Ukraine. This is a natural outcome of market logic.
Clearly, for the Ukrainian market it is more economically reasonable to publish in Ukrainian. However, when the entire post-Soviet market is taken into account — as Russian publishers typically do — Russian-language publications will always prevail. In this regard, the impact on the Russian market is negligible.
The so-called “ban” on Russian publications is, in fact, a much-needed filter on hate literature. Since 2017, Ukraine has carried out a content-rebuild on imported books. The instance of hate content is monitored.
A quantity of no more than 10, of any given book, requires no form of review. However, if publishers intend to import large numbers, they must seek official authorization, to ensure that the book’s content is not contrary to democratic values, such as: “disavowing Ukraine’s independence; promoting violence; inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred; triggering terrorism; or demonstrating any violation of human rights and freedoms.” A specialized government division has been assigned for this review.
It is only within the greater context that these policies come into perspective. Russia’s repression of Ukrainian culture, especially during the Soviet era, and continuing today through the hybrid war, uses culture as a weapon against Ukrainian sovereignty. The efforts of the Ukrainian government are a necessary means of defence from an aggressive power that seeks to eradicate Ukraine from the world map.
“There is a war going on. We had too many Russian films, television, books, Russian pop music in our headphones. We had catastrophically few Ukrainian and too much Russian, says Serhiy Oliynyk, head of the department of permit and control over the distribution of printed matter. – No journalist asked why we give so many permits and so many denials. When we were just getting started, importers asked how best to organize the work so that there were no problems. We told them: do not tempt fate. Do not try to bring in literature that contains encroachments on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, inciting ethnic, religious hatred, and so on. I can state that we have been understood correctly.”
Moreover the scale of filtering Russian literature should not be overstated — 13,062 permits versus 212 denials for the import of Russian books were issued during 2017-2018.
New Ukrainian authors on the global scale: a chance of a Nobel Prize
Only in recent years, the chance of an author of Ukrainian literature standing as a candidate for a Nobel Prize has become even remotely possible. In the past, many authors were potential candidates, but few had the means or support to reach even a modicum of recognition. In the 1980s, for example, attempts were made to nominate Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus, during his incarceration in a Soviet prison. However, he died under suspicious circumstances before the application process could get underway.
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Today the situation is changing rapidly, especially within the last five years. New Ukrainian authors have emerged, many of whom don’t bear the stamp of Soviet repression, nor the legacy of Imperial Russian enslavement. Additionally, following the dark period of the Yanukovych regime, government agencies have finally started supporting and promoting Ukrainian culture.
In 1992, Yuriy Andrukhovych wrote his novel Moscoviad — a story about living in Moscow, as experienced during a single day. The author uses fantasy realism to convey a dystopian world. The novel became a symbol of empire — disintegrating, but still oppressed by the secret police (KGB) — reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. It was followed by Perversion and Recreations.
In many ways, Moscoviad, translated into English in 2009 by Vitaly Chernetsky, marks the birth of new Ukrainian literature.
Andrukhovych became one of the first Ukrainian poets to perform poetic verse, backed by alternative rock. These were not traditional songs, rather a unique, avant-garde form of composition.
Oksana Zabuzhko continued along that same path of moving Ukrainian literature away from empire. Having taken part in a two-year Fulbright scholarship in the U.S., she wrote the provocative novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex in 1996. It is considered to be the most influential novel since independence.
Fieldwork raised both political and feminist subjects that had been too controversial to broach in earlier years. The book is a landmark in a new freedom in Ukrainian literature — unfettered from restrictive societal norms.
Another of Zabuzhko’s acclaimed novels is the 800-page The Museum of Abandoned Secrets (2009). Spanning decades of contemporary Ukrainian history, the novel is a multi-generational saga which critics have compared to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901).
Museum follows a journalist investigating major events in Ukraine, starting with the terror of the Holodomor during the early 1930s. He delves into the little-known role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, active in Western Ukraine during the Second World War and beyond. The novel then takes the reader through the decades leading up to Ukrainian independence in 1991, and culminates in the Orange Revolution in 2004.
In 2019, Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger included Museum in its list of the 20 best novels of the century. The list is arranged chronologically, as opposed to highest to lowest, thus does not show which of the novels is the best of the best. Most agree, it is worthwhile to read them all.
Among the most recent publications is the collection of Zabuzhko’s stories Your Ad Could Go Here.
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New Ukrainian authors continue to appear on the scene, with several mentioned in the Ukrainian Book Institute’s survey. They too have an international presence and are being translated into other languages.
Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian poet and writer from Donbas, is considered one of the most provocative new writers. His work is known for salacious imaging and other оbscenities, especially in language. He is mainly popular for his boundary-pushing style, depicting society as it is and not as it is idealized. His criticisms of contemporary Ukrainian society focus on the remnants of post-Soviet attitudes — a “me-first,” survival-by-any-means justification for actions and choices, regardless of the price to society-at-large.
His much-acclaimed novel, Voroshylovhrad is titled after the former name of the now-occupied Luhansk. As a sign of the author’s forward thinking on the inevitable path of the region, the novel was published in 2010, four years before the occupation.
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In December 2019, The PEN America Literary Awards, sublittled the Freedom to Write, shortlisted Zhadan in the category “Translated Poetry.” Zhadan’s What We Live For, What We Die For, translated by theater director Virlana Tkacz together with American poet Wanda Phipps, has also been included in the The New York Times book list.
Another breakthrough writer, Vasyl Shkliar, saw his novel Raven’s way (2009) sell more than 300,000 copies in Ukraine alone. The book is considered to have initiated a whole new trend of not colonial but successful or at least fighting-for-freedom Ukrainian history. The trend has been followed by other emerging authors.
Thanks to Shkliar’s work, the theme of underground Ukrainian resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1920s was popularized for the first time. The 1918 proclamation of independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the subsequent invasion of the Soviets to crush the movement, was forbidden to be acknowledged in any way.
Although well-known to historians, only with the publication of Raven’s Way could the global audience learn the truth, free of propaganda. By comparison, the WWII French resistance has been recognized from its inception, while the struggles of the interwar Ukrainian freedom fighters, “sichovi striltsi,” was hidden from the public during the entire Soviet regime.
The novel is pivotal from many points of view. It undermines the Soviet narrative of Ukraine welcoming their intervention and reveals their true motives — occupation and oppression. Most importantly, the novel provides the missing link in Ukraine’s 300-year struggle for independence. Raven’s Way casts a spotlight on the final stand of the last courageous battalion, down to the fight of one remaining soldier (zalyshynets), who held out to the very end.
Shkliar’s historical novels, as yet untranslated, include the 17th century Kozak era and the defence against endless incursions by neighbouring peoples — Turks, Tatar’s, and others.
His more recent works reveal the ongoing five-year war against Russia-backed separatists in Donbas. He has also published a novel on the struggle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, from 1942-1953.
Meanwhile, in terms of genre, author Irene Rozdobuko’s work is completely opposite to Shkliar’s. She leaves the themes of history and social criticism to others — her specialty is psychological drama. Her novel The lost button, available in English, has made her one of the top-10 most popular Ukrainian writers.
Yuriy Vynnychuk is another favourite. His unique fusion of tragedy and humor makes him truly standout. His novel The Tango of Death employs magic realism in depicting interwar Western Ukraine. Tango is set in Lviv and features characters of different nationalities, who are bonded by the fact that all their parents fought in the battles of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. All of them dying in 1921.
In the novel, the lives of a Ukrainian, a Pole, a German, and a Jew are intertwined, despite their cultural differences. Their experiences are those of regular life — falling in love, falling out of love, disputes and quarrels, sorrow and joy, but through it all they remain true to their friendship.
Plans and prospects
Traditionally, the Frankfurt Book Fair is the measure of Ukraine’s presence in the literary world. This year, Ukraine took part in the fair for the fifth time, with the Ukrainian Book Institute organizing a major exhibit and a speaker’s program.
The 2019 budget allocated by government funds amounted to UAH 4.2 million, which is more than the total sum for all previous years. The number of publishers taking part this year also reached a new high, with 28 participating.
The impressive exhibit covered 140 square metres and had many components. Each of the participating publishers had their own space to show their works. A sampling of books with the best book design (as determined in the Book Arsenal forum) was on display. A large area was designated purely for market deals — a visible indicator of the success of burgeoning Ukrainian literature.
Bohdan Neborak, head of the translation sector of the Ukrainian Book Institute, spoke about the new translation support program of the institute:
“We are very pleased to announce the translation support program “Translate Ukraine,” as it is the main ground for the sale arrangements. Publishers from Austria, Germany, and Canada came to the presentation of the program with clear questions and specific interests in certain Ukrainian authors.”
This is the first large-scale government program for the translation of Ukrainian books, and will greatly help to advance the market. Foreign interest is already evident, with large Ukrainian publishing houses selling 40-48% of publication rights each year, in Frankfurt alone.
This year saw another newly created institution — the Ukrainian Cultural Fund. During the last two years, the fund has supported some 800 projects in various cultural sectors. It is playing a significant role in the optimistic outlook for Ukrainian music, film, art, and literature.
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