Reading on the frontline: Ukrainian soldiers find inspiration in bibliotherapy for military morale

Reading seems to be a basic human need. In Ukraine, a government-supported project gives official recognition to the fact that soldiers fighting against the Russian invasion find solace in books

“Ukrainian defenders today are intelligent, educated people who seek for development even during the war. In addition, reading at the front is almost the only way to relax and distract yourself from a stressful combat day.” – (ministry of culture and information policy of Ukraine)

On January 2nd, 2023, American historian and specialist in eastern Europe Timothy Snyder published a post on X (formerly Twitter) with a photo of a Ukrainian soldier in a trench reading Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom. In the comment to the photograph, he wrote in Ukrainian: “the highest honor for an author is a reader”. Snyder’s post received 1.7 million views in less than a day.

As the subject in the photo, military officer Oleksandr Shirshin, later confirmed, the picture was taken in a trench in the Yatskivka district of Donetsk region, where Shirshin was serving in the 80th separate airborne assault brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Meanwhile, a marine who defended the city of Mariupol, Mykhailo Dianov, claims that “[i]n the prisoners-of-war camp in Olenivka, a book was equal to a pack of cigarettes or a loaf of bread”, serving as a “luxury item”. Dianov was able to exchange a cigarette lighter for a copy of Three Comrades by Erich Maria Remarque.

These readers are not inhabiting the traditional space one associates with books: the home, the library, the school or university. Fighting the invading Russian army, these soldiers are engaged in a practice that can be called reading on the frontline.


As a response to Ukrainian soldiers’ demand to obtain reading material in combat zones, in April 2022, the ministry of culture and information policy (MCIP) of Ukraine presented the joint initiative Books to the Front, together with Cultural Forces, an NGO made up of Ukrainian volunteering musicians and actors, and a number of bookstore chains.

The Books to the Front project offers official recognition of the fact that there are many educated people with master’s degrees and PhDs, as well as casual readers, among military personnel in Ukraine. Ukrainian military units have libraries that had to be enlarged and updated for wartime, and Books to the Front aims to provide these libraries with supplies. At the press conference devoted to the project, Oleksandr Tkachenko, the minister of culture and information policy of Ukraine at that time, expressed his belief that “the book on the front strengthens our defence”.

An important context for this statement is what is happening on the other side of the war. The Russian state has withdrawn Ukrainian books from libraries and bookstores in the occupied territories, and brought Russian textbooks to schools, colleges and universities in eastern Ukraine. It is clear that books are becoming weapons in the war of cultural expansion.

Following the launch of Books to the Front, the MCIP quickly ceded responsibility for creating and administering soldiers’ libraries to the voluntary and private sector, with laypeople and private business owners responding quickly. Along with Cultural Forces, led by Kolya Serga, a Ukrainian musician and TV host, there are 14 partners inthe project, with more than 50 online and walk-in bookstores all over Ukraine. One of the practical goals of the project is to create a mobile library that can provide military personnel with access to literary works, training manuals, fiction and other publications.

The Russo-Ukrainian war echoes historical parallels, as soldiers on the front lines during the first and second World Wars had also found solace in books

The project allows anyone to contribute. All a person needs to do is visit one of the partner bookstores, buy a book, sign it and leave it on a special shelf in the store. Personal comments and wishes from civilians to soldiers are one of the peculiarities of this volunteering initiative. Tkachenko stressed the importance of messages that civilians leave for soldiers as, in his view, they build an “emotional connection with the defenders”.

Every partner fulfils their role in the project: MCIP ensures institutional and governmental support; Cultural Forces delivers collected books to front locations where they give concerts and receive feedback from the soldiers, while bookstores provide the books.

The Russo-Ukrainian war echoes historical parallels, as soldiers on the front lines found solace in books during the first and second World Wars.

During the first World War, the YMCA, British Red Cross, Camps Library and British Prisoner of War Book Scheme gathered books for British troops, aiming to combat boredom among soldiers. Similar to the situation in contemporary Ukraine, the public donated reading materials, collected by volunteers and distributed to hospitals and combat zones. Launched in 1914, the British War Library service provided one of the first instances of what became known as “bibliotherapy”. A century later, Ukraine continues this tradition, finding inspiration in the timeless value of bibliotherapy for military morale.

America’s late entry into the second World War allowed the American library establishment to monitor book distribution strategies of other participants in the war. Established in 1919, the American Library Service became the lead player in supplying books to American troops in the 1940s. Unlike in the British context, the US exhibited a co-ordinated and ideologically consistent approach, emphasising that its soldiers preferred “highbrow” literature, apparently setting them apart from their German counterparts.

While the British, Soviets and Germans relied on unwieldy hardcovers, the US pioneered the mass production of small paperback Armed Service Editions, distributing more than 122 million copies between 1943 and 1947. Believing that “books are useful, necessary, and indispensable”, the Council on Books in Wartime, an organisation of trade publishers, articulated three principal uses for books in wartime: to influence the thinking of the American people concerning the war effort; to maintain the nation’s morale; and to communicate essential information about the importance of each individual’s contribution to winning the war.

Regarding preferences on books in Ukraine, Syaivo Books shared a list of popular donations by Ukrainians to the troops, with eight non-fiction books among the top 12. Findings of historical research and life stories of prominent people of Ukraine dominate the collection.

Ukrainians also like to dispatch analytical firepower, sending books by authors such as Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, and H R McMaster, who provide analyses of the current world situation through the lens of “spin dictators” including Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orban, expansionist policies in China, proxy wars in the Middle East, and mistakes made by Nato and the US. Serhii Plokhy’s Gateway of Europe as well as works by modern Ukrainian authors including Max Kidruk, Serhiy Zhadan, Oksana Zabuzhko, Yuri Andrukhovych, Andriy Kokotyukha and Vasyl Shklyar add to the literary arsenal.

Ukraine’s experience proves that people read under any circumstances. People can be seen holding a book in their hands in subways, shelters, or bunkers during air attacks

Tatyana Vyshnevska of Cultural Forces emphasises that books should be published in Ukrainian and – echoing US innovations of the second World War era – they should be small in size so as to be convenient to carry. Vyshnevska stressed the main tasks of the project are to provide knowledge and psychological support which are “necessary for strengthening Ukrainian identity and uplifting the spirit”.

Having collected almost 25,000 books for almost two years, Books to the Front has clarified several trends regarding reading practices of Ukrainians, both military and civilian. First of all, there is a considerable rise of interest in Ukrainian classical literature and authors. These timeless 19th- and early 20th-century works delve into Ukraine’s roots and identity, and its role in the modern world.

Despite the enormous impact of the full-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine, literary life in Ukraine persists. Literary works are still being written, bookstores and publishing houses are making their top-lists, and literary prizes are still being awarded.

Ukraine’s experience proves that people read under any circumstances. People can be seen holding a book in their hands in subways, shelters or bunkers during air attacks, as well as in the dark during blackouts, with a flashlight or a candle in their hands. Soldiers read books even in trenches amid moments of peace and quiet.

Reading seems to be a basic human need. It appears that when people enter extreme conditions, they do not lose their interest in reading – on the contrary, reading only gains strength as a practice, with untold levels of educational, informational and therapeutic potential.

Dr Iryna Kovalchuk is a researcher at University College Dublin, contributing to the project Imaginative Literature and Social Trust, 1990-2025. Her work is funded by the Irish Researcher Council’s Ukrainian Researcher Scheme

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