When Ukrainian children’s world came crashing down, literature stood by them

Posted on : 2022-12-01 17:26 KST Modified on : 2022-12-02 16:50 KST
The Hankyoreh traveled through war-torn Ukraine to explore how literature enables children to endure times of crisis
Vicktoria, a 15-year-old Ukrainian, was reading a novel while on a bus headed to Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 13.
Vicktoria, a 15-year-old Ukrainian, was reading a novel while on a bus headed to Warsaw, Poland, on Oct. 13.

Staying in the greater Kyiv area from Oct. 8 to 13, the Hankyoreh contacted people in Uzhhorod and Kharkiv and tried to collect news from the southeast front line. Amid gunfire, we saw and listened to the world of children shattered by war, and the sadness and endurance of those previously ignored by the media.

We did our best to leave behind in Seoul the theories of critic Kim Hyun, who proposed the paradox of the “usefulness of the uselessness” of literature, and headed off to the most precarious of times and places in 2022 to find the “usefulness” of literature.

Borodyanka Children’s Library on the third floor of City Hall was all but demolished in the air raids by Russian forces in late February and early March.
Borodyanka Children’s Library on the third floor of City Hall was all but demolished in the air raids by Russian forces in late February and early March.
Children’s collapsing world

Here’s how broken Ukrainian children’s world has become.

As of late October, some 414 libraries alone have been destroyed or damaged across Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February. The Donetsk Regional Library for Children in Mariupol, a major youth-oriented library, was reduced to ashes.

According to the regional universal scientific libraries, 14,351 library institutions — rural, urban and regional —  that had been standing in Ukraine before the war were reduced to 11,876 as of the end of May and to 11,558 by the end of August.

Even excluding occupied regions such as Donetsk and Luhansk, some 2,793 public libraries have fully or partially ceased functioning during six months of war. From the start of the invasion to late August, some 720 new titles were registered with the National Library of Ukraine for Children, just 41% of the 1,762 titles that were registered during the same period last year.

Ukraine published a total of 5,544 publications as of October, just 26.2% of last year’s total, while print circulation was 4.34 million, 35.1% of last year’s figure. This is largely because Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest publishing city behind Kyiv, became a front-line town.

After a planned interview was canceled due to air raids on Oct. 10, Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Culture and Information Rostyslav Karandieiev sent a written response early this month.

“The numbers change almost every day. This month, the Didenko Central Library in Huliaipole, Zaporizhzhia, was completely destroyed,” he wrote.

“In general, as of the end of October 2022, 1,057 cultural infrastructure facilities suffered losses, excluding cultural heritage sites,” he added, listing libraries, museums, theaters, and philharmonics among the losses. These numbers do not include schools.

Alla Gordienko, the director of the National Library of Ukraine for Children in Kyiv shows the Hankyoreh’s reporter around the library on Oct. 12.
Alla Gordienko, the director of the National Library of Ukraine for Children in Kyiv shows the Hankyoreh’s reporter around the library on Oct. 12.

The National Library of Ukraine for Children in central Kyiv is a symbolic setting where 200,000 children a year experienced the joy of reading. It has a music room for singing and dancing in groups, and it has rooms where visitors can hide away and read on their own.

Since the start of the war, use has been restricted to fewer than 40 people a day. The October air raids have forced it to close once every three days.

The Hankyoreh managed to speak with the library’s director, Alla Gordienko, on the morning of Oct. 12, while the library was closed. She wept three times during the interview, which lasted an hour and a half.

“These are places where we should be seeing children reading and playing and hearing them laughing,” she said. “To see them so deserted, and sometimes taken over by occupying troops, is just shocking, and the emotions are difficult for us to cope with.”

When Russian forces retreated from a library in Balakliya in Kharkiv Oblast, they burned all the books written in Ukrainian, including translations of the work of Russian authors. Gordienko said they were aware of four librarians who had died. A survey in late June by a university library association found that 500 librarians had left the region where they were employed for the midwestern part of the country or overseas.

What is the importance of books when people’s very survival is in jeopardy? Gordienko explained, “When the shells are falling, parents can provide stability for a time. But what can they do for their children after that?”

“For children, war isn’t all there is. That’s where books and libraries play their role,” she added.

Indeed, the people who spoke to the Hankyoreh all shared the same message: Damaged infrastructure can be rebuilt, but spiritual institutions like libraries and schools are difficult to rebuild once they have collapsed.

But Ukraine’s library fund for the year, which amounts to 183 million hryvnia (US$5 million), has all been directed to “more pressing needs,” according to the deputy culture minister.

The problem here is that postwar recovery will also be dictated by “more pressing needs.” Just as the Hankyoreh reporter was leaving the library after his interview with Gordienko, a young girl attempted to walk in only to be turned away.

While Russian forces were occupying the Kyiv area, the settlement of Borodyanka suffered “even worse horrors than Bucha.” It’s a quiet village of 13,000 people located 60 km northwest of Kyiv and 25 km from Bucha.

Smoke plumes from a civilian apartment located across from the Borodyanka library after being hit by Russian fire in late February and early March. (courtesy of a local)
Smoke plumes from a civilian apartment located across from the Borodyanka library after being hit by Russian fire in late February and early March. (courtesy of a local)

In late February, Russian forces fired three shells at civilian apartments across from City Hall. Their next fire was directed at apartments to the right. Finally came a precision strike against City Hall, hitting the children’s library situated on the third floor of the same building.

A 72-year-old witness surnamed Bolotin told the Hankyoreh, “Only the apartment where I live [left of City Hall] escaped the attack.”

When the Hankyoreh visited the Borodyanka Children’s Library on the afternoon of Oct. 12, there was no sign of it having been used in the eight months since its destruction. Even the electricity has yet to be restored.

All that attested to the library’s past was a crumpled library card holder and 13,000 of its 30,000 books, which employees and village residents had individually rescued and cleaned up.

Borodyanka’s cultural officer, a woman named Natalya, explained, “Residents come here with books for the children to read, but that’s not going to be enough to fill our original storage.”

Halyna Georgiivna, who oversees libraries in the Kyiv area, said, “There’s so little regional funding that it’s unclear when the libraries will be rebuilt.”

The Hankyoreh was also approached by city and library officials, who simply said, “Help us” and “Get the word out.”

As a regional hub, the Borodyanka Children’s Library has 10,000 registered members aged between 6 and 10 years old. Its destruction amounts to the loss of 10,000 people’s cherished childhood memories.

To quote the novelist Kim Yeon-su’s “Such an Ordinary Future,” it is difficult to fathom what the children are experiencing as they witness the incineration of the “future they would already be remembering.” Even the sky seemed irresponsible as it darkened behind the children playing in front of the ruined library.

Children and teens hang out outside the Borodyanka Children’s Library on Oct. 12. Having been destroyed on the inside, it is no longer open to patrons.
Children and teens hang out outside the Borodyanka Children’s Library on Oct. 12. Having been destroyed on the inside, it is no longer open to patrons.
Questions about love on a refugee bus

In the seat right in front of me, a 15-year-old student named Vicktoria was reading “Ugly Love” by Colleen Hoover. It was Oct. 13, and we were on a bus bound for Poland.

The bus was filled with passengers and stiflingly thick with anxiety, fatigue and boredom. Departing from Kyiv on the evening of Oct. 12, the bus took 19 hours to arrive in Warsaw. Every time the lights were bright enough, Vicktoria would crack her book back open again.

Her home was in Poltava, a city in the relatively safe central region of Ukraine.

“It was difficult for me to even read or concentrate on my studies because I was so frightened of the air raid alarms and news about the war,” she explained. Finally, in June, she decided to “study abroad” as a refugee.

“When I read a book, it’s like living in another world. There’s none of the stress or cruelty of war,” she said. “I can just lose myself in that world.”

Many of the students at the Ukrainian school she attends in Poland fled after experiences with death in front-line regions.

“It’s really tough to know what to say, but we’ve grown closer because we all love books,” she said.

When asked what genres she likes, she replied, “I enjoy fantasy and mysteries, but my favorite is romance."

“Aren’t they fascinating?” she added with a laugh. “The love stories of men and women who can’t love.”

The 15-year-old girl’s curiosity about love seemed to run as deep as her laughter.

Vicktoria reads a novel aboard a bus full of Ukrainians fleeing to Poland on Oct. 13.
Vicktoria reads a novel aboard a bus full of Ukrainians fleeing to Poland on Oct. 13.

The children needed literature and books. This is why the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, visited Poland earlier this year to collect children’s books. This is why the Ukrainian government is running a “Books Without Borders” program to distribute books to refugee children. This is why children’s book writers and publishers around the world, including Korean illustrator and author Suzy Lee, donated books to countries surrounding Ukraine.

Ukrainian storybook writer Halyna Malyk told the Hankyoreh that while publishing has diminished because of the war, she’d received a request to print her book from Kharkiv prior to her interview on Oct. 11.

“Even when a war breaks out, even when the libraries fall, children need books, and schools demand books,” she said. As she got into children's literature with stories written for herself and her daughter who has an anxiety disorder, now war will be the biggest reason writers like her must devote themselves in a literary sense.

Alla Gordienko, the director of the National Library of Ukraine for Children, says things you can't ordinarily see become clear in war. “Nowadays, it’s hard for children to sit in one place and concentrate for 15 minutes, but in a situation like this, books are even more urgent,” she shared.

Alina from Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 also said she’d never seen children draw or write stories or poetry like they do now. “In fact, I was so moved by their earnestness to console adults and wish for peace, I could hardly read them all,” Alina remarked.

Sofia, whom the Hankyoreh met while taking shelter from a Russian air raid on Kyiv on Oct. 10, reads a book. (courtesy of Sofia’s family)
Sofia, whom the Hankyoreh met while taking shelter from a Russian air raid on Kyiv on Oct. 10, reads a book. (courtesy of Sofia’s family)
Risking one’s life to deliver “military supplies”

The National Library of Ukraine for Children works with writers to select children’s books to send to front-line regions. The Nemishaieve Lyceum No. 2 school also sends books to Mariupol and other cities in the southeast, and hosts online classes. Small groups of volunteers in the front-line districts head to more dangerous evacuation shelters to bring books to children or to read to them. They supply children's literature, not munitions.

In fact, the major undertaking of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), a nonprofit organization taking the lead in expanding access to and interest in books for children and adolescents around the world, is to protect the equal rights to books and literature of children in crisis. As IBBY’s six mission statements put forth, the physical distribution of books is perfectly aligned with protecting and upholding the rights of children.

Oksana Brui, the head of the Ukrainian Library Association, said in a statement in late June that libraries were searching for new models to meet the challenges they now face, pushing forward with psychological and remote services.

Rostyslav Karandieiev, Ukraine’s deputy minister of culture and information, told the Hankyoreh, “It is clear that children need a children's book at any time, especially in stressful situations. It has been repeatedly noted that a well-chosen book has a positive impact on an anxious child who concentrates on text or illustrations and is distracted from negative realities.”

In a word, reading for solace and healing can be considered “bibliotherapy.”

This year’s IBBY Congress, held in Malaysia in September, clearly pointed to the global threats that children face, organizing several sessions to examine bibliotherapy case studies, including in those in Lebanon, which struggled with a massive explosion in Beirut in 2020 and severe economic distress; in Malaysia, which has taken in refugee children from the Rohingya people of Myanmar; and in Europe, where societies are dealing with discrimination and alienation.

The representative from Italy, the host of the next IBBY Congress, set forth bold goals in the concluding remarks: “We mustn't put off responsibility for resolving hunger, discrimination, inequality, the climate crisis and war. Our children need good books for all these transformations.”

First in line demanding an urgent, immediate response from the older generation is Ukraine, which has been forced to face a harsh winter due to the destruction of its energy infrastructure.

The Hankyoreh’s reporter snaps photos of the interior of the Borodyanka Children’s Library on Oct. 12, where the power was still down.
The Hankyoreh’s reporter snaps photos of the interior of the Borodyanka Children’s Library on Oct. 12, where the power was still down.
A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko that has stood in the plaza outside the Borodyanka library since the 1990s was vandalized by Russian soldiers in February and remained in that state when the Hankyoreh visited the library in October.
A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko that has stood in the plaza outside the Borodyanka library since the 1990s was vandalized by Russian soldiers in February and remained in that state when the Hankyoreh visited the library in October.
On the utility of literature

Ten-year-old Sofia defined war as “something scary.” But nothing brought out the shimmer in the eyes of this girl, who said she “cried a lot” when she experienced an air strike on her way to school on Oct. 10, like the simple question, “Do you like books?”

As soon as she was asked, the floodgates of conversation opened as her voice climbed an octave, and she smiled.

“I really like detective novels and adventure books,” she said. “It's really interesting to try to keep thinking about them, to figure out the riddle-like stories.”

Alas, her smile was fleeting, because I followed up with a useless question: “Are you still reading even now?”

“No,” came her reply, “we had to move from the apartment where we lived to a safer location, and I couldn't bring my books…”

Instead, she said, “When I feel bad and frightened, I write in my diary, and I write poetry. That’s how I get through.”

I didn't expect that response at all. She even said her father told her, “Since there's nothing we can do about the war since it’s already broken out, from now on, we have to work hard to overcome it, and that we mustn't get caught up in the fear.” Her words conjured the image of Anne Frank, writing her diary and novel hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, and how she used to keep telling herself that, like the radio, she wouldn’t turn to a sad channel.

The literary critic Kim Hyun said that “as literature is free from oppression since it is useless,” it condemns a life oppressed by “desire,” which is to say, a life without truth. The statue of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukraine's national poet regarded even by children and young people as the “spirit” of the nation, in front of Borodyanka Children‘s Library was falling apart. Yet he still sings:

“We’ve walked the straight path, you and I,

We have not cheated, compromised

Or lived the very slightest lie.”

A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko that has stood in the plaza outside the Borodyanka library since the 1990s was vandalized by Russian soldiers in February and remained in that state when the Hankyoreh visited the library in October.
A statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko that has stood in the plaza outside the Borodyanka library since the 1990s was vandalized by Russian soldiers in February and remained in that state when the Hankyoreh visited the library in October.

Editor’s note: Last month, the Hankyoreh stayed in Ukraine to cover the war as long-experienced “in silence” by children, rather than the war papered over with barren front lines on maps, casualty figures and adult and political language.We had to cancel coverage appointments and expose ourselves to danger due to Russian airstrikes on downtown Kyiv. This is something the children of the country have been enduring since February.The world was already full of dangers like neglect, abuse, discrimination, hunger and global warming, and now war. Some 1,000 Ukrainian children have been injured or died through mid-November alone, but this figure hides the truth.It’s hard to recreate the lives of at-risk children and adolescents through reportage using the five senses alone.This is because to properly examine their young lives, you must also look at the future their lives already contain.The Hankyoreh calls this duty “literary reportage.”In a world where children face danger, stigma and discrimination, and reckless optimism, does children’s literature provide comfort? Sustenance? Dreams? Or even a basic means to testify?A century after the birth of Korean children’s literature during the colonial era, the Hankyoreh traveled to the United States, Sweden, Malaysia and elsewhere throughout the world to inquire about the utility of children’s literature.

Article and photos by Im In-tack, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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