How a Kyiv-based Publisher Has Also Become a War Hero.
Hey, America, do you remember that there’s a war going on in Ukraine? You know, the one that has been raging for almost two years since Vladimir Putin’s Russia brutally attacked a sovereign neighboring nation. I mean, I know it’s difficult to focus on that war when everyone’s attention seems to be on the horrific Israel-Hamas conflict. By the way, most of the Republicans in our Congress and Senate seem to have forgotten about the war in Ukraine, but they could seemingly care less about funding a desperate Democratic country and U.S. ally when they identify much more with the authoritarian, white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic nation that has been the enemy of the West for almost 80 years.
The French haven’t forgotten about the war in Ukraine. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I viewed the recently-released documentary Glory to the Heroes, produced by French philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy, which chronicles Levy and his co-director Marc Roussel embedding this past summer with elite Ukrainian forces on the frontline all over the eastern and southern parts of the country during the “counteroffensive.” (This film is a follow-up to Slava Ukraini, meaning “Glory to Ukraine,” where Levy filmed during the first days of the Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022.) Glory to the Heroes documents the incredible courage of Ukraine’s soldiers on the battlefield, while also depicting the devastation and sorrow from Russia’s continuous attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
But the heroes of the genocidal war against Ukraine not only roam the battlefields where land mines lurk, missiles fall, and dangerous drones buzz overhead. Some heroes are the ones trying to save the orphaned children, educating them while they mourn their dead parents.
Since Russia began bombing Ukrainian cities and towns on that fateful February day two years ago, of the more than 10,000 civilians killed, almost 600 have been children and more than 9,000 children have lost parents due to the war (added to the more than 100,000 children who lived in Ukrainian orphanages before the war). These numbers don’t include the more than 19,000 Ukrainian children that Russia abducted as of June 2023. And Russian assaults have destroyed or damaged almost 3,800 educational facilities.
A couple of months after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I was so shaken watching television videos of the orphaned children (UNICEF eventually estimated more than 20,000 children lost parents in that quake), I felt compelled to join an NGO that was headed there from New York to help in any way possible. Camped out at a water treatment facility in Léogâne, just outside of Port-au-Prince, I befriended a Haitian family with multiple children, played soccer with orphaned kids, cleaned out rubble from shelters in tent cities, and gave an inspirational speech at the local church. Since traveling to Ukraine these days is much more problematic, I try to identify with anyone in that war-torn country risking their lives and sacrificing their time and resources to comfort and educate the children.
I met one of many thousands of such “heroes” through, of all places, the social networking website LinkedIn. While I’ve maintained a LinkedIn profile for 16 years, I’ve never found it particularly engaging as a social media platform or useful as a business networking operation (although I’m quite fond of the “recommendations” section). Perhaps that’s my own fault for not upgrading to a paid membership, but I do regularly check notifications to discover who may be lurking around my profile and resume.
Ukrainian Children’s Magazine Publisher Peter Dudyk
About a month after the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a publisher of children’s magazines from Kyiv named “Roman” scanned my LinkedIn page. Extremely intrigued, I reached out: “Roman, I noticed you viewed my profile so I viewed yours and it turns out we have experience with children’s magazine publishing in common. I consider you a hero for doing what you can to help your country’s children. I write this hoping that you’re surviving the horror that Russia is inflicting on you. My grandfather was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in the early 20th century and I’ve always felt part Ukrainian. I feel for all of you. Please stay safe.”
It turned out that Roman is actually Petro (Peter) Dudyk. Peter was using — and still uses — the pseudonym “Roman” in case pesky Russian troll farms are monitoring his social media messages and might wanted to target him as a good samaritan. The next day, Peter replied in translated Ukrainian: “Hello Stephen, I can’t publish a children’s magazine for orphans today because of the war. There are many children in orphanages who are lagging behind in education. I try to help them become full people, but now I am deprived of such an opportunity. I’m not a hero. Heroes are those who protect us in the trenches and on the front lines. I just work for the development of children.”
Peter Dudyk and I have been LinkedIn pen pals ever since.
Peter has turned 60 during this war. He was born in the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine, not far from Odessa in the southwestern part of the country. Although he grew up in a land that was part of the former USSR, Peter’s parents managed to send him and his brother to a boarding school. From an early age, the plight of parentless children made an impression on him.
“In that boarding school, there were also orphans and half-orphans,” recalls Peter. “Some children were lagging behind in education and development. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but when I became an adult, I saw a story on TV about children who lived and studied in an orphanage. It made me remember my childhood impressions of boarding schools.”
Pavlyk the Snail from Ravlyk Magazine
Peter graduated from the Lviv Polygraphic Institute (now the Academy of Printing). He has been in the publishing business since 1992, the year after the USSR disbanded and Ukraine declared its independence. He was once involved in publishing regional newspapers, but starting in 2010, living and working in Kyiv, Peter turned his attention to developing publications for children. In 2015, through self-funding and donations, Peter created ?????? or Ravlik in English (which means “Snail”) — a fun, colorful, illustrated monthly magazine for children from pre-school to early elementary school age. Ravlik is a combination storybook, comic book, and coloring book with an adventurous snail as its main character. In the years before the war, Peter was circulating from 3,500 to more than 5,000 copies per month depending on how much money he could raise and volunteers who would help.
“When I started the magazine I sought out the heads of institutions to find out what the needs of children were and how I could help as a publisher,” Peter relates. “It turned out there was not enough developmental literature for children in Ukraine. From the very beginning, I aimed this project at providing educational material for orphanages and then for preschools and community centers.”
Ravlik Magazine Cover, 2024 Issue
Imagine that — children born in the 21st century experiencing the wonder of print publications.
In the years before the start of the war, says Peter, he helped at least 50 orphanages get educational materials. But the war not only suspended the publication of Ravlik, but the Russians looted and destroyed the magazine’s digital archive and computer equipment in the city of Irpin, where part of the illustration and design department was located. Peter managed to transfer the seven-year-old archival printed version to a “safe place” in the west of Ukraine.
“I don’t know if I will be able to digitize these publications,” Peter says. “And I’ll need new design programs and many other programs for the publishing process. I really want to bring the magazine back to life because it’s very important that children are able to turn their attention away from war and think about goodness and learning.”
Ravlyk Magazine Cover, 2017
A week after I started talking with Peter, he sent me a text that made me extremely worried about the safety of my new friend. “I am now in western Ukraine, and recently single Russian rockets flew here,” he said. “Some have been shot down and others destroyed where our military equipment was being repaired. There have been no sirens for two days, but many refugees are coming here from Mariupol.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 had begun in that southeastern city and lasted until mid-May. Just over 100 children were killed during the merciless Russian bombings of the city.
Ukraine class with magazines
With his publishing operation shut down, Peter began focusing on helping the Ukrainian military. At the end of March 2022, Peter wrote that “Ukrainian defenders” as he called them, were in dire need of SUVs, pickups, and mini-buses “to save lives and help defeat the aggressor.” I didn’t hear from him again until mid-May, when he reported he had been desperately raising funds for laptops, tablets, power banks, and a mobile router for the defenders. “We acquired tablets that work in aerial reconnaissance and laptops to search for Ukrainians who have disappeared during the war.” During this period, Peter never forgot the children. He and some friends donated about $3,000 for orphans “who needed medicine on a regular basis.”
Peter has not escaped from this war, which has touched him even more personally. Last August, he informed me that his 36-year-old nephew Oleksandr “died in this damn war.” His 25-year-old nephew Mykhailo’s eye was gouged out by fragments of a rocket. And another nephew, Nazar, has five contusions and two wounds. Mykhailo and Nazar are back in action, and Peter’s adopted son Andrily is also serving at the front.
In spite of all that horror and pain of war, throughout 2022 and last year Peter was still busy writing and publishing children’s books. During 2023, he published two children’s titles (total circulation of 4,000 copies) in collaboration with another LinkedIn connection, an author and illustrator from Ireland named Debbie Howard, whose books are about the adventures of a character called “Popcorn the Bear.” One Debbie and Peter production is called Pavlyk and Popcorn: A New Beginning, where the heroes are a snail (“Pavlik”), a bear (“Popcorn”), birds, and various other animals. In the story, these fictional heroes are fleeing Ukraine in a hot-air balloon to find a safe haven. Peter has also written four other books and distributed four of Debbie’s self-published books, copies of which have been sent to whatever school libraries, lyceum libraries, and children’s centers housing orphans are still standing.
Ukraine kids with books and magazines
By last summer, Peter had resumed his quest to finance and re-launch Ravlik Magazine. As a kindred magazine spirit who has either created or helped launch new publications during my eclectic publishing past, I wanted to help Peter breathe new life into his baby. In mid-September, I wired him $500, thinking that would just be a drop in the proverbial publishing bucket. About two weeks later, he surprised me with a personal message and a post on his LinkedIn page.
“Stephen, thanks so much for your help. We will begin working on the magazine in a few days and the first issue will be distributed in October. While the war rages on, there will be no regular publication as we can only publish as we acquire funding. Unfortunately, the government cannot help. With the end of the war and victory, we hope to resume monthly publication.”
As you can see in the photos with this piece, children and orphans of Ukraine as old as pre-teens love books and magazines by Peter Dudyk. One 7th-grader named Bohdan says he has read all the editions of Ravlik since he was in early elementary school. “I like reading modern fairy tales,” Bohdan adds. “My favorite character in the new book is ‘Smik the Spider’ who caught enemy bullets with his web.”
Ukrainian soldier with equipment donations
No matter how much Peter Dudyk resists being labeled a “hero” of the Ukraine war, he clearly is one. With his team of writers and the help of friends (mostly from social media), he is providing these children of war with support, education, development, and memories that will last a lifetime when their country is safe and free again. We can only wish and hope that it happens long before the end of this year.
“I’m just one example of many thousands of other volunteers, each of whom is engaged in the same direction for the sake of victory,” Peter says, displaying the humility I’ve recognized in dozens of his messages. “Using this example, I want to show that Ukraine cannot be defeated. Ukraine is strong in spirit and will win. But at the cost of what sacrifices? In order for there to be fewer victims, the entire democratic, civilized world should help this peace-loving country, to which my generation of the past is also related. And this help was needed yesterday.”
Do you hear that Republican Congress and Senate? Get busy!
Top photo: Glory To The Heroes – Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
All other photos by Petro Dudyk