"I received my first map as a gift from my father when I was six years old," Mr Holubei, the founder of the Stop Mapaganda project, recalls. "We used to play a game: he would name a country or city, and I would look for it."
Mykola has retained his love for maps and considers the image of Ukraine's borders to be part of his identity. He now lives in Germany, where he has purchased dozens of maps from local shops that undercut this identity by depicting Crimea and / or Donbas as part of Russia or as disputed territories.
Now Mykola is going for million-dollar lawsuits against map publishers.
"Mr Holubei's study has interested us. We respond to cases of incorrect labelling of Crimea, publication of maps of Ukraine without the peninsula, etc," the office of Ukraine’s presidential representative in Crimea says.
"Recently, our team met with Mr Holubei, he presented more of his research, and we fully support his aspirations."
LIGA.net tells the story of Mr Holubei and his study, and has tried to find out what map publishers have to say about designating Crimea as part of Russia.
On New Year's Eve 2023, Mykola made himself a present and bought a large map to stick photos to. He noticed, however, that the map depicted Crimea as a ‘disputed territory’.
"I was outraged, but I did nothing," Mr Holubei recalls. "But then there was a terrorist attack in Dnipro, when a rocket destroyed a high-rise building.
"I was furious and went to the shops. I thought that the problem was just with those wall maps. But it turned out that out of five maps, four were incorrect."
Since then, Mykola and his friends have been shopping in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, as well as buying maps online.
Mr Holubei has collected dozens of maps and globes from different publishers and made an extensive study running up to 400 pages – an overview of such publishers as Columbus Verlag, Räthgloben 1917 Verlags, Kunth Verlag, Interkart, Franckh-Kosmos, Stiefel Eurocart, Mairdumont and its brands (all in Germany), Freytag-Berndt (Austria), National Geographic (USA), Tecnodidattica Spa, Edizioni White Star (both in Italy), and Hallwag Kümmerly+Frey (Switzerland).
The study revealed that the maps of those publishers had several ways of incorrectly depicting the state borders of Ukraine.
1. Crimea is depicted as part of Russia
A case in point is the National Geographic Europe Executive Map, with the inscription near the Kerch Strait reading ‘Boundary claimed by Ukraine’. Meanwhile, the same enlarged map model depicts Ukraine's borders correctly.
Another example is the ‘Russian Crimea’ on the Weltkarte – Staaten der Erde mit Flaggen map by MARCO POLO, a subsidiary of Mairdumont.
2. Crimea is depicted as disputed territory, shaded in the colours of Ukraine and Russia
This is the case with the Europa politisch map by Freytag-Berndt, which Mykola has bought.
3. Dotted lines separate not only Crimea but also parts of the Donbas or Ukrainian regions where Russia held an illegal pseudo-referendum
Mykola found this on the Weltkarte – State of the Erde with Flaggen map by MARCO POLO, a subsidiary of Mairdumont.
4. Crimea is depicted as ‘neutral’ or is separated from Ukraine by a dotted line/border without colouring.
According to Mykola, such incorrect maps can be purchased in stores and on the websites of such distributors as Thalia (Austria, Germany), Amazon.de, Hugendubel, Buecher.de (Germany), and Orrel Fussli (Switzerland).
In late February, Mykola bought a map of AGT-Geocentr, a Russian publishing house, with Crimea marked as part of Russia online via the UK retailer, Maps Worldwide, and showed LIGA.net the receipts.
His study says that Maps Worldwide also offers such maps as ‘From Rurik to Putin’, again with Crimea marked as Russian territory.
After being contacted by inews.co.uk, a UK news media, Maps Worldwide said that they had removed AGT products, and they were no longer accessible on the website. However, Mykola notes that the retailer continues to sell other incorrect maps – for instance, from Freytag-Berndt.
Another issue is with Google Maps. In Ukraine, the online map depicts the peninsula correctly; in Germany, however, it is marked with a dotted line. A LIGA.net journalist asked his friends in Czechia to check Google Maps as well, and they got a similar result.
Mr Holubei is convinced that incorrect maps in Europe are sold on a systemic scale. They meet the needs of all consumer groups – children's maps and atlases, wall maps, desktop maps, gift maps, globes, and maps and atlases for schoolchildren and motorists.
Finding maps with the correct borders of Ukraine is possible, says Mykola, but more difficult.
"Out of five wall-mounted political maps, only one is correct," he says of his visit to one of the shops. "All the maps are about the same size, and the correct one is half the size. And if you don't know where to look, you simply won't see them. They are in a box, and the small one is inside."
"Consistency is not about buying an incorrect map in Germany. It is difficult to buy a correct one."
LIGA.net has twice sent inquiries to a dozen companies from Mykola Holubei's research, but received only one reply from the Austrian publishing house Freytag-Berndt, which depicted Crimea as ‘disputed’.
Freytag-Berndt said that it is trying to "create an image of the world that should be as realistic as possible, and therefore the conflict zones are depicted as 'disputed'".
However, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine "it is impossible to show the correct front lines," the publishing house says, and Crimea and the Donbas are now shown as Ukrainian territory.
However, the publisher is yet to respond to a request for clarification, including a request to send the ISBN numbers of the new maps.
Oleksandr Shcherba, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Austria and now ambassador-at-large, has had a history with Freytag-Berndt, which he calls "difficult and mean". In an interview with LIGA.net, Mr Shcherba recalls that despite his protests, the publisher stubbornly published Crimea as Russian.
"Then I personally met with the management. It was around 2018-2019," he adds.
"Their arguments were as follows: their maps are a practical guide for travelling motorists that show who is ‘in charge’ in each territory. They are not interested in politics."
"I told them that after visiting some territories motorists can have purely practical and serious problems when visiting mainland Ukraine, and they will be to blame.
"They thought for a while and agreed. They said that they would shade Crimea on their maps so that motorists would understand that this territory is under occupation."
Mr Shcherba adds that he "unfortunately, did not get more from the publishing house".
The problem with motorists is a valid issue, professor Rostyslav Sossa from the Department of Geodesy and Cartography at Kyiv National University, tells LIGA.net.
"According to Ukraine’s constitution, international law, and UN decisions, Crimea is Ukraine. But a person cannot travel [there] freely," he explains.
"In such cases, a cartographer or a publisher should make a note – [neither on the Crimean isthmus nor with a dotted line]. There should be a note in the [map’s] legend that the territory of Crimea is temporarily occupied by Russia."
There is no universal code for cartographers on how to depict borders, Mr Sossa explains. Ideally, borders should be depicted in accordance with international law recognised by the UN, and occupied territories should be marked with notes. In reality, this is not always the case.
"Often, some copy from others without thinking or checking what they are showing," says Mr Sossa, "and distributions are sold without much thought either."
"Of course, this does not do the bookstore chains any favours. There should be some kind of safeguards to watch what they sell."
Mr Sossa sees no reason to talk about any ‘conspiracy’ between publishing companies and distributors, although he does not rule out that "Russian propaganda is pushing its own versions, [and] has certain influence." He, however, sees the threat of publishing incorrect maps en masse.
Maps with an incorrect depiction of Crimea mislead the German people and incorrectly inform them "about reality and legal reality," adds Norman Heidenreich, a former senior manager at Microsoft Germany who now heads his Management Academie Weimar and organises weekly events in support of Ukraine.
"Many people use this material on the maps as an authoritative source for answers," Mr Heidenreich tells LIGA.net. "If these maps are wrong, but rather reflect some Russian claims, then this is seriously misleading. It must be stopped."
Mykola Holubei has already outlined his plans.
Firstly, he wants a working group of diplomats and lawyers to be set up. He has already presented his research to Ukraine’s ministry for foreign affairs and the office of Ukraine’s presidential representative in Crimea.
The latter assures that it is interested in Mr Holubei's research and supports him in his struggle for the correct depiction of Crimea on maps, but does not have a mandate to interact with foreign institutions, unlike the foreign ministry.
"This issue can be resolved by the civic participation of concerned Ukrainians and Europeans. Appeals and advocacy are tools of civil society that are quite effective," the office of Ukraine’s presidential representative in Crimea said in a statement to LIGA.net.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry has asked Mr Holubei to draw up a list of countries and companies so that it can start contacting publishers, he says. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Oleksii Honcharenko, a member of Ukraine’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, believes that "embassies should also ask questions."
"If companies do not respond to the embassies' requests, then we can raise questions with the governments of these countries about the verification of such companies. I think this is absolutely possible and should be done," Mr Honcharenko said in an interview with LIGA.net.
Mr Holubei has already launched a civic campaign regarding Crimea’s incorrect depiction on maps. He has created a Telegram channel, plans to make a website, wants to spread the story through the media and the hashtag #StopMapaganda – as well as sue the publishers, demanding a EUR 1 million compensation for each incorrect map purchased. He admits, however, that he took this sum off the top of his head.
"Lawsuits are just one of the steps, not the end in itself. Private companies react faster when it comes to money. The press also likes numbers. Headlines about multimillion-dollar lawsuits are a permanent generator of news about Ukraine, a classic story of David versus Goliath," he explains.
"I wrote to companies that we could compromise on money if you fulfil the conditions: stop distributing those materials, recall products already sold through letters to customers, conduct an internal investigation and publish its results."
Mykola admits he cannot afford European lawyers yet, and is looking for law firms that would take on the case for a percentage of the possible compensation or image gains.
The Germans themselves are also concerned about the maps, says Mr Heidenreich. He adds the topic will be raised at pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Weimar.
Mr Heidenreich believes that German officials should be approached on the issue. "Such materials should not be used in public education, especially in schools. This would be one of the first steps," he says.
"The second step would be to discuss this issue in the press, to have a public debate. I think it would help motivate companies to be more responsible."
If all this fails, Mr Holubei would demand that sanctions be imposed on the publishers. And, according to the office of Ukraine’s presidential representative in Crimea, it is not an unfounded claim.
"It is likely that this activity [marking Crimea as part of Russia on maps] can be recognised as recognising the legitimacy of or denying Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine, which may be the basis for a criminal investigation," it explains.