LVIV, Ukraine — It says something about modern Ukraine’s place in the world that an academic who takes “special pride” in publishing a Ukrainian translation of the complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien was determined also to print a series of manuals on military tactics and civilian survival in a war zone.
“This is a bestseller,” Astrolabe Publishing founder Oleh Feschowetz told the Washington Examiner during a recent interview in his office. “One hundred thousand copies.”
He was referring not to The Hobbit or The Silmarillion, but to Swiss army Maj. Hans von Dach’s mid-century guerrilla warfare manual, Total Resistance: A small war warfare manual for everyone — already in its seventh Astrolabe edition, just eight years after Feschowetz first printed the Ukrainian translation. “It was the first military book in the beginning of the war, [in] 2014.”
Feschowetz did not enter the book industry to promote military expertise. He left a senior post in the philosophy department at the nearby Ivan Franko National University more than two decades ago on a “mission to return Ukraine to the Western civilization” — a goal reflected in the selection of poetry, philosophy, and literature available in his catalog. And yet, the martial texts only sharpened the edge of the publisher’s broader efforts.
“Because Russia always interpret[s] the culture just like a weapon,” he said in another conversation. “We must do the same. Culture is a weapon.”
WHAT UKRAINE HAS TAUGHT US ABOUT THE WEST
So his team has published translations of works as ancient and various as the poems of Catullus, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. The Old English epic Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales were unavailable in the Ukrainian language before Astrolabe brought them forth. For Feschowetz, the study of “high literature” such as the works he has published (including Tolkien’s works, which he rates as “one of the best books” of Western civilization) holds a special resonance for Ukrainian readers who continue to labor to establish strong institutions within their civil society, beyond as it is the protection of Western allies.
“In other words, [Tolkien] speaks more of a man who relies not on an institution, procedures, but on ‘his own hands and his own ship,’ as in Beowulf,” Feschowetz, more comfortable writing in English than conversing, explained in a subsequent note. “In other words, it is not so much about institutionalized freedom, so important for the West, as about gaining and defense of it, that is, [in] fact, about the basis and origins of this freedom, about the real, internal mechanism of its functioning, from which we are so often removed by well-established institutions and procedures. This is, so to speak, the inner ‘West.’”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 struck Feschowetz and his colleagues as an ominous portent for Ukraine, so they began in 2009 to furnish Ukrainian readers (including territorial defense forces of the sort that played a vital role in the recent defense of Kyiv) with tactical manuals. Dach’s explanation of Combat Techniques is “beautiful,” as the former philosophy professor put it, “for combat in cities.” Astrolabe likewise has printed translations of classic and contemporary security literature from the memoirs of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the hero of Finland’s Winter War, to The Perfect Weapon, David Sanger’s recent exploration of 21st-century cyberwarfare.
“In my business, there [are] two main fundaments — Tolkien fantasy and military literature,” Feschowetz said.
As the war has disrupted the publishing house's operations, those lines of effort converge even more literally in the lives of the Astrolabe team. Feschowetz helps train the territorial defense forces in his area, while some of his staff have joined the defense of the country or have been forced into evacuation. Book sales have plummeted, in part due to the number of bookshops in conflict zones, while the logistics and costs of publishing have skyrocketed.
"That’s why we are now mostly limited to making e-books," Feschowetz wrote in a follow-up message. "The exception is mostly special military literature, the preparation and publication of which we have intensified to help train volunteers."
If information warfare is a key domain of the war in Ukraine, the battlespace abounds with references to Tolkien’s works. In 2015, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, referred to the so-called separatist republic that Putin intended to carve from eastern Ukraine as “Mordor.” An unofficial military shoulder patch made in the initial years of the conflict proclaimed its bearers to be a troop of “Elven” (ельфійська) warriors fighting in defense of Middle Earth (Середзем’я), the mythical land of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s famous family saga.
“War is usually the business of young people," Feschowetz said. “And that generation reads Tolkien. Maybe another generation will be reading another book and fight another war with another author.”
For now, Russian troops have acquired a corollary appellation: Orcs. Those foot-soldiers of the Dark Lord, with “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted” ways, seem familiar in societies that survived both Soviet and Nazi occupation during World War II and now resist Kremlin aggression in the 21st century.
“My grandmother, who experienced both occupations, [told me that] although Germans were nasty as well, she said that they were always polite; even if they did cruel things, they were polite,” a senior Baltic official said. “But Russians were [rude] and cruel always. So, it’s like orcs, actually. Orcs, in Tolkien, are never polite. ... So it’s what came into my mind, from my [child]hood.”
Feschowetz pointed to alternative Tolkien fan-fiction from Russian sources, such as Kirill Eskov’s The Last Ringbearer and Maxim Kalashnikov’s The Wrath of the Orc, to argue that Russian forces have embraced the term in defiance of what they regard as a pro-Western story.
“It’s a big subculture in Russia,” he said in his office. "That idea about Russians [being] just like orcs is a Russian idea. ... They think about West, like, 'OK, I'm Mordor. West people [are] bad. We're good.’”
It is not the first time that Tolkien’s stories have mediated a wartime experience, as evidenced by the letters the author exchanged with his son, Christopher Tolkien, during World War II. In their correspondence, he emphasized that the clear demarcation between heroes and villains on display in The Lord of the Rings understated the complexity of real life.
“There are no genuine Uruks, that is, folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable,” he wrote in August 1944. In an April 1956 letter to another correspondent, he implied that democracies would have to beware the temptation to “universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets old of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.”
As a general matter, Tolkien rejected political interpretations of the story. “The tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about death and the desire for deathlessness,” he wrote in a 1957 letter. “Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!”
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That primordial preoccupation may account for the popularity of Tolkien’s legendarium amid this conflict, to judge from Feschowetz’s assessment.
“It's the book of the generation that struggles in this war,” he said. “Usually, war has a psychological, mythological element because it's life on the border of being and not-being, and people activate old levels of psychology, archetypes, types, and [for that] literature works — not bad.”