KYIV -- Ukraine’s 25-year effort to promote the Ukrainian language is yielding economic fruit. Ye, a new bookstore chain devoted to selling books in Ukrainian, is growing fast, opening its 26th store two weeks ago in Kyiv, a bilingual Russian-Ukrainian city.
Defying the stereotype of Ukraine’s ‘Russian-speaking East’ and Ukrainian-speaking West,’ Ye now has 11 bookstores in Kyiv, and five more in predominantly Russian-speaking cities of the east: Kharkiv, Dnipro and Sumy.
Russia’s Soviet-trained leadership insists that Ukraine is part of the ‘Russian world.’ But Ye’s marketers are tracking a new demographic reality: the millions of Ukrainians who graduated from universities in recent years where instruction is in Ukrainian.
“Our concept has always been to give access to Ukrainian consumers to both Ukrainian and the best world literature with the latter in both Ukrainian and original languages,” said Anastasia Levkova, art director of the Ye book chain.
“Our experience shows that people all over Ukraine are ready to read in Ukrainian regardless of the region,” she continued. “Educated people who generally read books are ready to read in Ukrainian. There are no issues, no problems with purchasing Ukrainian books, even in Dnipro.”
Ye was founded a decade ago by Austrian ECEM Media GmbH, publisher of the respected Ukrainian language newsweekly, Tyzhden. After opening its first bookstore here in the capital, the chain grew in the nation’s Ukrainian-speaking heartland: Lviv, Ivano Frankivsk, Ternopil, Rivne, Lutsk and Volodymyr-Volynsky.
Ye’s expansion comes as purchases of Russian language books has dropped.
Whether because of linguistic conversion or economic recession, Ukraine’s imports of books from Russia has dropped sharply in five years.
According to Ukraine’s Culture Minister, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, from $33 million in 2012, imports of Russian books dropped to $23 million in 2013, to $12 million in 2014, to $3.7 million in 2015 and and to $2 million in the first eight months of last year.
Russian publishing houses do not print books in Ukrainian, a language that Russian officials often deride as an impure dialect of Russian. The two languages often are mutually intelligible, comparable to Spanish and Portuguese. However, linguists say, Ukrainian is closer to Polish than to Russian.
This month, Russian authorities are closing Moscow's Library of Ukrainian Literature, a 99-year-old institution, and are putting Natalya Sharina, the last director, on trial on charges of inciting ethnic hatred by distributing ‘anti-Russian literature.’
At the same time, Ukrainian authorities are drafting legislation to make permanent a 90-day ban on imports of books from Russia. The ban took effect Jan. 1 after signing by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.
Publishers here are divided over the Ukrainian government’s move to restrict access to printed materials with “anti-Ukrainian content.”
Some predict it will boost production of Ukrainian books.
Mykhallo Sydorzhevsky, chairman of Ukraine’s Union of Writers, told website depo.ua that the ban will stimulate Ukraine’s publishing industry and squeeze out importers.
Despite the import drop, Kyrylenko, the culture minister, estimated that last year about 70% of books sold in Ukraine last year were printed in Russia.
“Russia has actively tried to conquer markets of its bordering countries and many bookstore chains in Ukraine have involved Russian investments,” said Levkova, the Ye bookstore director. “These often refused to sell books of Ukrainian publishers, who also complained that Russian book chains failed to abide by their financial commitments, and simply didn’t pay for Ukrainian books sold.”
Levkova said Ukraine’s 2013-2014 ‘Revolution of Dignity’ gave a big boost to reading in Ukrainian and that Ukrainian books started to occupy more space on booksellers’ shelves.
“The Ukrainian publishing industry has started to produce more books and started to fill in certain niches that were empty,” Levkova said. “We can’t say the demand is much higher now than in the previous years. It is the supply of Ukrainian books that has changed.”
Now, stores stock Ukrainian language editions of foreign classics, modern literature, and business books.
“Seven years ago we did not have a single business title in Ukrainian, now there are plenty of them,” Levkova said. “The demand was there, but it was not being satisfied.”
But technical and scientific literature in Ukrainian, she said, remains largely absent. Books for teen readers are beginning to appear.
“The scope of possibilities is very wide now with the ban imposed,” Levkova said.
Not all industry specialists are positive from the ban. They say the restriction will create a black market for Russian books.
Alexander Afonin, Chairman of Ukraine’s Association of Publishers and Booksellers, told the website Publishing Perspectives that Ukrainian importers had begun to terminate agreements with Russian distributors.
“In addition to book shortages, the ban may result in a significant increase of black-market titles in Ukraine,” the site said, quoting Afonin.
Levkova says local publishers will fill the gap.
“The principle is this: lack of books today turns into their abundance tomorrow,” she said. “I think publishing can actively develop and the Ukrainian market can be sustainable without Russian books, just like the Polish market and the majority of other book markets in the world.”
“Publishers will produce more books in Ukrainian,” she continued. “They have dreamed about this for a long time, so now they will have a lot of work.”
She said that demand for Ukrainian books largely has less to do with language choice than with economic well-being and promotion of a culture of reading.
“The majority of educated Ukrainians who live in Ukraine, including older people, understand Ukrainian and are capable of reading in Ukrainian,” she said. ”I hope the younger generation will buy more books compared to those who grew up in the wild 1990s. Then people faced a severe economic situation and the culture of reading was lost due to total poverty.”
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Posted April 7, 2017