‘It’s the new normal’: In Kyiv’s newest book store, readers fear how Ukraine’s story will end

<span>Anastasia Ponomarenko, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, in Kyiv’s Sens bookshop. It stands on a boulevard down which Putin planned a triumphal march.</span><span>Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Observer</span>
Anastasia Ponomarenko, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, in Kyiv’s Sens bookshop. It stands on a boulevard down which Putin planned a triumphal march.Photograph: Alessio Mamo/The Observer

There is a coffee bar, a space for ­literary events and thousands of books displayed on the ground floor and in the large brick-lined basement. Signs point customers to sections: novels, history, fan fiction and foreign literature.

Welcome to Sens, Ukraine’s biggest bookshop in the heart of Kyiv. With unlikely timing, it opened its doors last week, two years after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion.

Putin had planned a triumphal military parade down Khreshchatyk, the capital’s main boulevard where Sens is found, next to the office of mayor Vitali Klitschko. The plan failed.

In 2022, Ukraine surprised the world by stopping Russia’s onslaught. Its armed forces evicted the Russians from the Kyiv region. That autumn they recaptured the southern city of Kherson on the Dnipro river and Kharkiv oblast in the north-east.

Ukraine’s euphoria didn’t last. A counter-offensive last summer was unable to break through entrenched Russian positions. Then in autumn enemy troops regained the ­initiative.

In recent months they have been creeping forward. A week ago, Russian units captured the shattered salient city of Avdiivka, after a five-month siege. Europe’s terrible 21st-century war – slowly and inexorably – appears to be going Putin’s way.

What, then, is Ukraine’s story in 2024? It is a question Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his speechwriters have been pondering as ­soldiers on the frontline have been running out of ammunition and western military support dwindles.

Zelenskiy is expected to give a press conference. His challenge: to offer hope and a credible way forward to a population that is tired of conflict and so much loss. According to Oleksii Erinchak, the 33-year-old founder of Sens, the national mood is no longer one of giddy optimism. Instead, he said, it is more “realistic”. And ­inevitably gloomier.

There is an understanding that the war which began a decade ago when Putin annexed Crimea and seized parts of the east of the country is not going to end soon. It is a painful collective moment, he suggested.

“You see a brown thing sitting on the floor of your bathroom. You have to admit it’s a turd and not a cake,” he said, adding: “We’ve taken a cold shower.” In 2023 Ukraine’s leadership oversold the prospect of a speedy ­victory, which would see the return of Crimea and the liberation of occupied territories. Zelenskiy’s team fell into “magical thinking”, Erinchak observed. “They prepared a warm bath for the president,” he said.

Ukrainians had a tendency ­dating back to Cossack times to let their leaders sort out problems, he added. Society, he said, had to be more self-reliant. That meant helping the war effort in various ways: in his case, by starting a business and ­paying taxes.

Assistance from foreign partners was crucial. In the US, hard-right House Republicans are blocking a $61bn assistance package. “We lost Avdiivka mostly because we ran out of shells,” the bookshop owner said.

Customers browsing the shelves and sipping espresso said they believed Ukraine would prevail. But they admitted to occasional feelings of despair. “One time I think we will win and everything will be fine. The next I feel myself broken,” said Anastasia Ponomarenko, a 24-year-old entrepreneur with her own lingerie business. She added: “We have to remain strong. If we don’t believe in victory we will lose everything.”

Ponomarenko had bought a copy of Laura Nowlin’s novel If He Had Been with Me after seeing it on TikTok. She said her father was fighting on the frontline. “I read a lot now. It’s some kind of meditation and release,” she explained. She said she had booked a holiday to Portugal and was looking forward to a break. But she saw her future in Ukraine, war or no war. “I would like to have a family and for my kids to grow up here,” she said.

Nearby, Anton Soloviov, a 28-year-old content curator, was working on his laptop. “In terms of culture I’m optimistic. Politics it’s hard to say,” he said. He pointed out that the outcome of the war depended on “so many things” including backing from western countries. “It seems to be a bit thin,” he noted. He said he just finished reading Circe, the bestselling 2018 novel by Madeline Miller, which adapts Greek myths.

Could Ukraine win? “What does that mean?,” he answered. In Soloviov’s view Russia’s war against Ukraine had raged for hundreds of years. “For it to end Russia will have to stop existing in its current form. Hard to imagine,” he said. He said he felt as if he were leading a “delayed life”, waiting for a return to his pre-invasion existence, which may not ever happen. “It’s the new normal. It’s depressing to think maybe this will last 10 more years,” he admitted.

Down the road a group of actors were staging a performance on the Maidan, Kyiv’s independence square. An actor in a Putin mask stood in front of a bloody map of Ukraine.

A recorded voice narrated some of the grim events since 2014: the ­persecution of Crimea’s Tatars – the peninsula’s pro-Ukrainian Muslims – and the abduction of Ukrainian children. “Putin will not stop. He has to be stopped,” the narrator said.

Several people holding banners watched. They were demanding the return of their loved ones from Russian prisons. Some were captured Ukrainian soldiers. Others were civilians taken from the Kyiv region in spring 2022. Nearby, well-wishers laid flowers at shrines to the “Heavenly Hundred”. These were protesters killed in February 2014 by security forces loyal to Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.

With no obvious path to victory, what should Zelenskiy say? Oleksiy Kovzhun, a veteran political consultant, said the “idea of heroism and suffering” no longer worked. The most compelling message, he said, was the argument that Ukraine was involved in a “Manichean fight”. The country was not only battling for its survival, but was defending Europe and the “civilised world” from future Russian aggression, he said.

The Kremlin has portrayed its “special military operation” in Ukraine as a struggle against Nato and the “collective west”. Moscow was seeking to expand its influence across the globe. “We need to tell our partners to stop worrying about world war three because it’s already here,” Kovzhun said. In the meantime, Zelenskiy should stress the “everyday miracle” that Ukrainian cities continue to function, despite regular Russian attacks and bombs.

Back at the Sens bookshop, Erinchak said publishers had stopped producing Russian language titles. All of the volumes on sale were in Ukrainian. In response to the invasion there had been a literary boom, he said. Locals were buying ­classical works including a mock-heroic version of the Aeneid, written in Ukrainian by Ivan Kotliarevsky. Also popular were poets and artists from the “executed renaissance”, a group of Ukrainian Soviet writers from the 1920s and 1930s.

Others sought out books on Ukrainian history and fantasy. The store’s bestselling title was I See You Are Interested in the Dark, a detective mystery written by the Ukrainian novelist turned soldier Illarion Pavliuk. “It’s a page-turner. You finish it in three days,” Erinchak said.

At weekends Sens is packed. Why? “People want to live their normal lives. Books help them to chill a bit. We are not stopping culture right now. It continues,” he said.