Meet the publisher bringing JRR Tolkien and military textbooks to Ukrainian readers

LVIV, Ukraine — It says a lot about the place of modern Ukraine in the world that an academic who “special pride” by publishing a Ukrainian translation of the complete works of JRR, Tolkien was also determined to print a series of manuals on military tactics and the survival of civilians in a war zone.

“It’s a bestseller,” said Oleh Feschowetz, founder of Astrolabe Publishing. Washington Examiner during a recent interview in his office. “One hundred thousand copies.”

He was talking about not The Hobbit or The Silmarillionbut to Swiss Army Major Hans von Dach’s mid-century guerrilla manual, Total Resistance: A Little Warfare Manual For Everyone — already in his seventh edition of the Astrolabe, only eight years after Feschowetz first printed the Ukrainian translation. “It was the first military book at the beginning of the war, [in] 2014. “

Feschowetz did not enter the book industry to promote military expertise. He left a senior position in the philosophy department of nearby Ivan Franko National University more than two decades ago as part of a “mission to bring Ukraine back into Western civilization” – a goal reflected in the selection of poetry, philosophy and literature available in its catalog. And yet, the martial texts only sharpened the publisher’s broader efforts.

“Because Russia always interprets[s] culture as a weapon,” he said in another conversation. “We have to do the same. Culture is a weapon.


Astrolabe Publishing founder Oleh Feschowetz owns two books sold by his company, including a translation of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ (left).

(Joel Gehrke/Washington Examiner)

Thus his team has published translations of works as old and diverse as the poems of Catullus, Dante Alighieri divine comedy, and Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit. The Old English Epic Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales were not available in Ukrainian before Astrolabe produced them. For Feschowetz, the study of “high literature” such as the works he published (including the works of Tolkien, which he classifies as “one of the best books” of Western civilization) resonates especially for Ukrainian readers who continue to work to build strong institutions within their civil society beyond the protection of Western allies.

“In other words, [Tolkien] speaks more of a man who does not rely on an institution, on procedures, but on “his own hands and his own ship”, as in BeowulfFeschowetz, more comfortable writing in English than conversing, explained in a later note. “In other words, it’s not so much about institutionalized freedom, so important to the West, as about winning and defending it, that is, [in] fact, on the foundation and the origins of this freedom, on the real, internal mechanism of its functioning, from which we are so often distanced by well-established institutions and procedures. It is, so to speak, the inner “West.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia struck Feschowetz and his colleagues as an ominous omen for Ukraine, so in 2009 they began supplying Ukrainian readers (including Territorial Defense Forces of the type who played a vital role in kyiv’s recent defense) with tactical manuals. Dach’s explanation of fighting techniques is “beautiful”, as the former philosophy professor said, “for the fight in the cities”. Astrolabe has also printed translations of classic and contemporary security literature from the memoirs of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland’s Winter War hero, to The perfect weaponDavid Sanger’s recent exploration of 21st century cyber warfare.

“In my company, there are [are] two main foundations – Tolkien fantasy and military literature,” Feschowetz said.

While the war disrupted the operations of the publishing house, these lines of effort converge even more literally in the life of the Astrolabe team. Feschowetz participates in the formation of the territorial defense forces of his area, while part of his staff has joined the defense of the country or has been forced to evacuate. Book sales have plummeted, in part due to the number of bookstores in conflict zones, while logistics and publishing costs have skyrocketed.

“That’s why we’re now mostly limited to creating e-books,” Feschowetz wrote in a follow-up post. “The exception is mainly special military literature, the preparation and publication of which we have intensified to help train volunteers.”

While information warfare is a key area of ​​warfare in Ukraine, the battlespace is replete with references to the works of Tolkien. In 2015, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko called the so-called breakaway republic that Putin intended to carve out of eastern Ukraine “Mordor”. An unofficial military patch made in the early years of the conflict proclaimed its carriers to be a troop of “elven” warriors (ельфійська) fighting for the 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 this generation reads Tolkien. Maybe another generation will read another book and fight another war with another author.”

For now, Russian troops have acquired a corollary name: orcs. These ‘cruel, wicked and evil-hearted’ foot soldiers of the Dark Lord look familiar in societies that survived Soviet and Nazi occupation in World War II and are now resisting Kremlin aggression in the 21st century.

“My grandmother, who knew both jobs, [told me that] although the Germans were also mean, she said they were always polite; even if they did cruel things, they were polite,” said a senior Baltic official. “But the Russians were [rude] and always cruel. So it’s like the orcs, actually. Orcs, in Tolkien, are never polite. …So that’s what came to mind, from my [child]hood.”

Ukrainian translations of JRR Tolkien "The Silmarillion," "The Hobbit," and "The Lord of the Rings" are seen alongside military-related books from Astrolabe Publishing.

Ukrainian translations of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are seen alongside military-related books from Astrolabe Publishing.

(Joel Gehrke/Washington Examiner)

Feschowetz pointed to alternative Tolkien fan fiction from Russian sources, such as Kirill Eskov The Last Ring Bearer and Maxim Kalashnikov Wrath of the Orc, to claim that Russian forces have adopted the term in defiance of what they see as pro-Western history.

“It’s a big subculture in Russia,” he said in his office. “This idea about the Russians [being] just like orcs is a Russian idea. … They think of West, like, ‘OK, I’m Mordor. western people [are] evil. Was good.'”

This isn’t the first time Tolkien’s stories have conveyed a wartime experience, as evidenced by the letters the author exchanged with his son, Christopher Tolkien, during World War II. In their correspondence, he pointed out that the clear demarcation between heroes and villains displayed in The Lord of the Rings underestimated the complexity of real life.

“There are no genuine Uruks, that is, people made evil by the intention of their creator; and not many who are so corrupt as to be irremediable,” he wrote in August 1944. In an April 1956 letter to another correspondent, he implied that democracies should be wary of the temptation of of universal pride, until an Orc grows old”. of a power ring – and then we get and get slavery.

Generally speaking, Tolkien rejected political interpretations of history. “The story isn’t really about power and domination: it just sets the wheels in motion; it is about death and the longing for immortality,” he wrote in a 1957 letter. “Which is little more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!”


This overriding concern may explain the popularity of Tolkien’s legendarium amid this conflict, judging by Feschowetz’s assessment.

“It’s the book of the generation fighting in this war,” he said. “Usually war has a psychological, mythological element because it’s life on the border of being and non-being, and people activate old levels of psychology, archetypes, types and [for that] literature works – not badly.