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Bookstores have come under attack in Ukraine. But interest in reading is only growing

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Bookstores in Ukraine are expanding despite the war, fueled by soaring interest in works by Ukrainian writers, some of whom have been killed by Russian forces. A deadly Russian strike on a major book printing plant late last month is reigniting calls to protect Ukrainian heritage. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has more from the city of Kharkiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: After the missile strike, the Factor Druk printing factory looked like a crime scene. In the sprawling warehouse, firefighters hosed down piles of burning books. There was blood on the wall. Seven people died here. The roof is caved in. I'm standing next to several stacks of books - the remnants of books. These are novels. These are textbooks. These are children's books.

Most came from Vivat, one of Ukraine's largest publishers. Artem Litvinets is the editor-in-chief.

ARTEM LITVINETS: (Through interpreter) We lost at least 50,000 books. It was painful to hear from the writers who talked about how hard they had worked on these books and how the Russians destroyed them.

KAKISSIS: Vivat has its headquarters in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Eighty percent of books in Ukraine are printed in Kharkiv, even under constant Russian bombardment. The Russian border is about 20 miles away.

LITVINETS: (Through interpreter) People who decide to stay in Kharkiv are making a statement, one that says the city is alive as long as we are here.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTS TUNING)

KAKISSIS: We meet Litvinets at one of Vivat's bookstores in Kharkiv. It's colorful and tidy. The shelves are full.

LITVINETS: (Through interpreter) Since the beginning of the full-scale war, Vivat has doubled in size in terms of staff and the number of books in stock. Also, we started out with three bookstores, including this one in Kharkiv, and now we have nine.

KAKISSIS: Mysteries and romantic fiction are popular. Litvinets calls it escapism in a brutal reality. Ukrainian authors are especially in demand.

LITVINETS: (Through interpreter) We don't sell anything in Russian. People switched entirely to Ukrainian. Pulp fiction, fantasy, history - literally everything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Before 2022, Kharkiv used to be a Russian-speaking city. Today, it has a popular poetry slam entirely in Ukrainian. One of the founders is Artem Elf.

ARTEM ELF: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He says, we have our own culture, our own artists, who are not connected to Russia, who have a completely different space.

YULIA LYPNEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Eighteen-year-old Yulia Lypneva recites a heartfelt poem about Kharkiv, her hometown, as it fights for its life in this war.

LYPNEVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: She says, young Ukrainian writers like herself are trying to fill the gap left by those killed in the war. They include poets and novelists who have defined Ukrainian identity today. The losses are often compared to the Executed Renaissance, a literary generation murdered by the Soviets almost a century ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KAKISSIS: The downtown apartment building where some of the Executed Renaissance writers lived still stands.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: A man walking by tells us, "we didn't even know their names when we were in school during Soviet times because we mainly heard about the Russians."

TETYANA PYLYPCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: The writers' stories are told at Kharkiv's Literary Museum. Director Tetyana Pylypchuk shows us around.

PYLYPCHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: She says, Ukrainians, especially in Kharkiv, need metaphors in a shared language to make sense of their wartime experiences.

PYLYPCHUK: (Through interpreter) The question of identity used to be a matter of choice here. My family were Ukrainians who chose Russian culture. Later, I decided to choose Ukrainian culture. Now this choice is a question of life and death.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRANDFATHER CLOCK RINGING)

KAKISSIS: The Factor Druk printing plant has gone quiet since the missile attack. Owner Sergii Polituchyi says he plans to restore and reopen it. We meet him at his book-filled office in central Kharkiv, a city he says he won't leave.

SERGII POLITUCHYI: Kharkiv is the capital of publishing and capital of printing. Inside myself, in my soul and my heart, I feel responsibility.

KAKISSIS: Some of the books destroyed in the missile attack were displayed at a major literary festival in the capital, Kyiv, this weekend. The title was simple - Books Destroyed By Russia. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kharkiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.