Ukrainian publisher mourns human toll of Russian attack

Sergii Polituchyi, Ukrainian publisher and businessman, shows an example of a book for kids inside of his printing house, which was heavily damaged by a recent Russian missile strike, in Kharkiv

By Max Hunder

KHARKIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Sergii Polituchyi arrived at his burning printing house before the firefighters, and the agony and destruction caused by the mid-morning Russian missile attack is seared into his mind.

"That smell, that sight - it is still in my head, in my heart," said the 70-year-old founder of the Faktor company, the biggest printer in Ukraine and a key part of its publishing industry. "It is the most awful consequence of war."

The attack last Thursday killed seven employees and wounded 16 others at the company, which he said accounted for 40% of Ukraine's printing capacity and produced almost half of its educational textbooks.

Traces of blood are still visible on the floors and walls of the vast building, where Polituchyi spoke surrounded by hundreds of burnt copies of novels and children's books – some of the 600 titles printed every year by the company he set up 28 years ago.

"This has wiped out my entire past life. It has rendered all those years of mine and my team's hard work meaningless," he said. "It is not only printing and book production that are under threat ... but the entire (publishing) industry."

The bombing was one of several deadly strikes by Moscow in recent weeks on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city which is known for its universities and is a centre for publishing. A Russian strike on a crowded DIY hardware store on Saturday killed 16 people and wounded dozens more.

Russian forces, which have launched a new offensive north of the city, are now about 20 km (12.5 miles) from Kharkiv's ring road, bringing back memories of their attempts to reach the city in 2022.

Moscow says it does not target civilians in what it portrays as a war to demilitarise Ukraine. The Kharkiv regional governor said there were no military facilities anywhere near the printing house.

Polituchyi was born to a Ukrainian family in Russia and lived there for 26 years, but he spoke in Ukrainian. He said his printing house stopped publishing books in Russian after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, even though it meant significant lost revenues.

His life would now be dedicated to rebuilding his business, he said, and he was hopeful of receiving funds from Ukraine's government or foreign donors.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the printing house after the bombing, recording a video message to world leaders from the ruins.

"I see it as my mission to rebuild this enterprise specifically in Kharkiv – because if we leave Kharkiv, what will (it) be left with for tomorrow," Polituchyi said of the city.

It will not be easy, however. The missile caused more than 5 million dollars worth of damage and some of the employees killed in the strike had 20 years of experience. Polituchyi said finding people with the same skills would be extremely difficult in a niche industry like publishing.

"...with the help of people and the government, we are sure that we will rebuild everything," he said. "But we won't be able to rebuild the lives of those killed by the aggressor."

(Editing by Tom Balmforth and Philippa Fletcher)