Ukraine’s Iryna Baturevych: ‘Solidarity Is Our Superpower’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Interview: Iryna Baturevych at the publishing magazine Chytomo has launched an English-language edition for the world book business.

The Chytomo staff at work under Vladimir Putin’s siege of Ukraine. Upper row from left: Oksana Khmelovska, co-founding editor-in-chief; Oleksandr Mymruk, managing editor and head of NGO Chytomo; and Viktoria Feshchuk, partnerships manager. Lower row from left: Anastasia Zahourui, calendar curator; Oksana Gadzhiy, art director; and Iryna Baturevych, co-founding development director. Image: Iryna Baturevych

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Ukrainian Authors’ Voices Will Be Heard’
For international book professionals, Chytomo—the independent digital magazine for the Ukrainian publishing community—has created an English-language edition, practically overnight. Just available today (March 4) in time for the publication of this Publishing Perspectives interview, the site carries news in English about the Ukrainian book business, its people, its events, and—the spur to get the new edition launched, of course—Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

“On the first day of the bombing of Ukraine by Russia,” says Iryna Baturevych, “Chytomo was cyber-attacked, along with many other independent media plus official government sites.”

Baturevych, a deputy director of the Ukrainian Book Institute who co-founded Chytomo in 2009 with Oksana Khmelovska, concedes that an online attack “for an independent niche medium is a huge problem. We have no IT department to fight Russian hackers. But on the other hand,” she says, “it means that Chytomo, as the main Web site for publishing professionals in Ukraine, has also become visible and ‘dangerous’ for Russian propaganda.”

The pride behind that line is unmistakable. A badge of honor: Chytomo was selected as a target, when Moscow awakened a slumbering sovereign nation between 4 and 5 a.m. on February 24 with an unforgivable waking nightmare that seems to grow only more horrific by the day.

Iryna Baturevych

“We were back quite soon,” Baturevych says, “and now we’re informing people about what’s happening in Ukraine right now: major events in Ukrainian book publishing and literature; leading voices and works by Ukrainian authors and artists we recommend for translation into foreign languages for promotion abroad; and how our cultural infrastructure operates in wartime conditions.”

Baturevych and her associates at Chytomo, in other words, are a long way right now from their news-feature tag line, “The Culture of Reading and the Art of Book Publishing.” For our image at the top of this story today, they’ve each contributed a shot from home, from a bomb shelter, from a dark place.

“We are hiding in the bomb shelters,” Baturevych says, “being in different parts of Ukraine and abroad, coordinating our work with translators, volunteers, and now sharing our articles in English. We strongly believe the voices of Ukrainian writers, publishers, illustrators, and artists should be heard.

“There are only six people in our team,” she says, “but we are going to fight, and keep being vocal about this war. And we feel the great support of the Ukrainian community and our international friends.”

Chytomo, she says, means readable.

 ‘There Is No “Post-Soviet” State Here’

Chytomo’s staff and friends, before the war. Image: Iryna Baturevych

“We’re sure that everyone’s effort to stop this war and each action to protect Ukrainian independence means a lot,” Baturevych says. Implied in that comment is a growing awareness among members of the Ukrainian book publishing community that the world is watching, praying, paying attention, organizing in near-universal resistance to Putin’s unspeakable aggression. Each person interviewed in Ukraine by Publishing Perspectives has interviewed has expressed a key fear the country’s agony won’t be recognized, understood, followed, addressed.

Iryna Baturevych with the art book ‘Pain,’ which she sold at a charity auction to support Chytomo shortly before the war. Image: Iryna Baturevych

“But our superpower,” Baturevych says, “is our incredible solidarity.

“People who before the war didn’t support politicians, artists who were ‘not into political discussions,’ booksellers who couldn’t agree to exclude Russian books from their catalogues or not—now everyone plays on one team, fighting in our army, working as volunteers, donating to the Ukrainian military, banning all Russian cultural products and services.

“Even those who spoke Russian switched in one day to Ukrainian,” Baturevych says, “to let Putin know that Russian-speaking Ukrainians don’t need to be ‘saved’ and would rather use Ukrainian forever than receive this ‘help.’

For the Chytomo team, she says, “The most important thing for us now is to see Ukrainian authors translated and published in English, French, German, Spanish, Polish, any other languages.

“The experience of Ukraine over the last eight years of war with Russia, it’s just not a “post-Soviet” experience–we’re not on this page anymore. This is an absolutely new episode of European history, and we want not only Europe but the world to see: There is no ‘post-Soviet state’ here. This is a free country brave enough to fight against propaganda, freedom of culture, and our history.”

To that end, on the Chytomo site–potentially of immediate use to the many rights directors, literary agents working in international rights, and scouts who read Publishing Perspectives–Ganna Gnedkova has compiled an article headlined Ukrainian Books About the War for Urgent Translation.

“Over the last decade, numerous important nonfiction works, novels, memoirs, plays, and even children’s books were published in Ukrainian to explain the reality of the situation,” the introduction reads. The piece then goes on to list “our selection of these books, which we recommend be translated into other languages in order for the world to gain a better understanding.”

In that article, you’ll find Artem Chekh’s Zero Point, for example, about the author’s experiences as a soldier in the Donbas separatist conflict.

Serhiy Zhadan’s ‘Internat,’ one of the books that Chytomo’s staff recommends for ‘urgent translation’ to explicate the war and its background for the rest of the world

And the poet Serhiy Zhadan’s Internat is a book that’s been translated by Sabine Stohr and Juri Durkot into German, a winner of the 2018 Leipzig Book Fair Prize in the translations category.

For the industry in-country, the site carries news, commentary, resources for Ukrainian publishing professionals. It seems odd now how old-hat a piece called How Publishing Communities Keep in Touch During a Pandemic seems. It’s based on the BarCamp 2.0 event held in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut and Frankfurter Buchmesse only a short time before Christmas–when the world hadn’t yet imagined the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic being shoved to the edges of world attention by a the Russian military attack on Ukraine.

“People are so angry now,” Baturevych. And the energy of that anger has seized the world’s attention and admiration.

‘People Prefer to Read in Ukrainian’

Baturevych is the development director at Chytomo and works with the team from Canada at the moment. As the instability between Kyiv and Moscow intensified before Putin’s attacks, she made a decision to leave the country with her young son and join her husband who lives and works in Québec.

Iryna Baturevych, husband, and son at a protest in Montreal. Image: Iryna Baturevych

Despite the wisdom of her early departure, “We didn’t expect Russia to start this wholesale war,” Baturevych says, “and I’m worried about my family, friends, and our editorial team. All of them are in Ukraine–in the central and western regions. Some of us are not far from Kyiv. Others managed to come to Lviv and other western cities. Those of us who hear the sirens run to the bomb shelter, others keep working.”

Just as Yulia Kozlovets pointed out in her interview with us, Baturevych points to two key efforts the Ukrainian publishing community is calling to the attention of the international book business:

  • “Rights On!” at Chytomo promotes Ukrainian literature abroad with catalogues and videos, so that scouts, literary agents, and rights directors working in the international translation sphere can find the titles available.
  • New Books From Ukraine (PDF) is the catalogue from the Ukrainian Book Institute, from which we’ll be hearing more next week here at Publishing Perspectives.

In 2020, Baturevych says, the Ukrainian Book Institute’s survey work indicated that Ukrainian readers were turning a corner in preferring books in their own language (32 percent) than in Russian (27 percent). As the fighting began in 2014, she says, interest in Ukrainian literature began spiking and it’s logical to expect that the national fervor so many are finding inspiring will create even more energy for Ukrainian writings.

“This is an absolutely new episode of European history, and we want not only Europe but the world to see: There is no ‘post-Soviet state’ here.”Iryna Baturevych,

“We haven’t conducted a new survey to see how the mood changed” Baturevych says, “but during the last week, all our book chains announced they’d stop any collaboration with Russian retailers, publishers, and other Russian companies.”

In alignment with most of the publishing-community members we’re in touch with, a couple of talking points here are repeated, much as they’re emailed into inboxes in many parts of the world: “It’s important to ban Russian books and other culture products,” Baturevych says without distinction between state-run publishing and independent publishing in Russia.

“Its activities in the field of culture are toxic,” she says. “We ask everyone to stop any distribution of books by Russian authors and publishers through the bookstores in their countries; to stop buying and selling rights to and from Russian publishers; to suspend participation of Russia, its publishing houses, cultural centers, and authors in all international book fairs and literary festivals; to terminate grants for translations of contemporary Russian authors into foreign languages.”

And she takes pride fully understandable pride in how engaged in the fight people of publishing are for Ukraine. “All publishers and booksellers in Ukraine are donating to the Ukrainian army and volunteers,” Baturevych says.

Chytomo donates to the Ukrainian army and volunteers. All businesses and all citizens are doing the same. Our funding is transparent and derived exclusively from grants, cultural funds, readers’ charitable donations, and advertising revenue from publishers and publishing companies. But now these sources are almost unavailable, and we have only our Patreon account.

Baturevych and Khmelovska

As grateful as the team is for any support it gets, Baturevych says, “The Ukrainian publishing industry needs to be heard.

“We believe in the victory of Ukraine and we are waiting for the opportunity to go back to the offices,” she says. “Everyone wants to be back to work: write, review, translate, edit, print, record, publish, and distribute the new books.

“We strongly believe that this cruel war Ukraine experiences today will change the industry as well as impact Ukrainian literature,” she says, “and Ukrainian authors’ voices will be heard all over the world.”

And from Canada, Baturevych sends this coda to us when it arrives from Ukraine. This is her co-founder and Chytomo’s editor-in-chief Oksana Khmelovska, writing amid the wail of air-raid sirens:

“It’s very, very scary. I fall asleep every day thinking that this is just a nightmare, and in the morning everything will be as usual. But it doesn’t happen.

Oksana Khmelovska

“The Russians are ‘liberating’ the Ukrainian people in many cities and towns and villages. The Russians bomb schools, universities, student campuses, maternity hospitals, general hospitals, and residential buildings.

“It’s absolutely impossible that a free, democratic, and peaceful country could face a real bloody invasion, called a ‘demilitarization’ by Putin’s propaganda.

“The situation is not easy, but we feel great support.

“The hardest moments–when someone from our team is not answering for a long time. The hardest thing–to be far away from your family and check the news at night knowing your help would be only digital.

“The physical safety of our team is the most important thing, but the second one is what we are doing as a Chytomo team.”

Catch up with all our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing industry and players. 

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Ukrainian market and Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is here, more on the Russian market is here. More on the freedom to publish and the freedom of expression is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.