Children in Ukraine and Russia enjoy stories together in London mum's online book club

UK-based expat Dina Berdnikov has created a 'magical world' that allows Jewish youngsters from both sides connect amid the horror of war


War exacerbates divisions and can split families. But every night a virtual book club for Russian-speaking Jewish children keeps a bridge open amid the horror of events in Ukraine.

Dina Berdnikov, a London-based expat originally from St Petersburg, and her colleagues read stories to hundreds of children aged from four to 14 in an online initiative that began during lockdown.

“I have created this magical world where children from Ukraine and children from Russia are happy to be together. They see each other and they care about each other,” she said. “I have a lot of children in Israel who have emigrated in the past months from Ukraine and Russia.”

Sometimes the reality of war has loudly intruded. “It is shocking when you are an adult and a child who is listening says, ‘They’re bombarding us again, I can’t hear.’ They are not afraid but annoyed that they can’t hear the story. Sometimes in London, you could hear the bombs over Zoom.”

Ms Berdnikov, who came here 10 years ago after previously living in the USA and Israel, has been active in Arbuzz, which organised activities for the Russian-speaking Jewish community. She has worked with PJ Library, the Jewish children’s book club, which offers some resources in Russian.

“Ever since lockdown, we shifted our focus from public events to online projects. We started reading children’s books online in Russian. We started quite small with our own children. It started with children from the UK, then we got children from Europe, the US and we now have children from Peru.”

From five, the audience grew to 20, and now there are 200 paying subscribers. In addition, since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, when they offered the club free on social media, they have drawn another 130 members.

Sometimes, a child in Ukraine has disappeared for a week and then reconnected from Poland or France or Italy during their flight to safety in the West.The club provides a “safe space”, said Ms Berdnikov, “a kind of fun island to be”.

But sometimes when she has publicised it on Facebook, she has drawn a strong reaction from someone who would say, “We don’t need your reading in Russian.” While she finds it sad but understandable that Russian culture is being cancelled in Ukraine, she observes that for the children joining the storytelling, Russian is their first language.

It is when they begin sharing their reactions to the stories that children invite others into their own world.

“Last week we were reading a story to a group of four-year-olds about a cat who wanted wings to fly. Everyone wants wings. I asked them where they would like to fly to.

“One boy said he wanted to go to space because ‘there is no war in space’,” said Ms Berdnikov.

“One said, ‘I want to fly to my grandma.’ Some said, ‘I want to fly to my dad, I haven’t seen him for a month, or two months, or three months.’ Or they wanted to go back to Ukraine because they miss their cat. One girl in Russia said she would like to go and live in Ukraine.”

It is not all Ms Berdnikov has been doing since the bombs began falling. She and her family recently hosted a mother and son from Ukraine who have since moved to be closer to friends.

She also reads stories online to the children of an orphanage that has been transplanted from Ukraine to Poland. Reading to a group of children huddled in front of a single computer with ropey wi-fi can be more of a challenge but “they are so happy to join”.

The hardest part was finding books that she felt suitable to this audience as she was wary of tales of happy families. But they took an interest in stories about going back to school.

“They started fantasising about their parents and what they would have said to them.

“It was tragic — but they felt safe to tell me their stories.”

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