The 2022 U.S. Book Show, held virtually once again in its sophomore year, kicked off its first full day of programming this morning with words of welcome from Jim Milliot, editorial director of show sponsor Publishers Weekly. Milliot’s welcome was followed by the conference opening keynote: a 25-minute conversation between PW bookselling and international editor Ed Nawotka and Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian novelist in Kyiv whom Nawotka termed the “literary ambassador for 40 million people.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Kurkov, who had just started work on his next novel, stopped writing fiction and started writing eyewitness accounts based upon his own observations in Kyiv and those of friends, including some in occupied areas. His reports from the war zone have been published in newspapers around the world, and are being compiled into a book scheduled for publication in the U.K. this fall and subsequently in the U.S.
The conversation between Nawotka and Kurkov may have been billed as “Writing and Publishing in a Time of War,” but it was much more than that: during the interview, Kurkov employed a literary lens to provide an overview of Ukraine’s history with Russia leading up to this war and why Ukrainians are so passionately defending their homeland.
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Kurkov noted that about 20 years ago—coinciding with the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia—Russian science fiction writers began writing novels that envisioned war between the two countries; in those novels, “Russians would always defeat Ukrainians and destroy Ukrainian independence,” Kurkov said. This scenario, which had expanded beyond fiction to other media, evolved into a narrative promoted by the Putin regime that Russia and Ukraine were “brother nations,” which further morphed into a narrative that Russia and Ukraine were one nation, and that Ukraine as an independent entity did not exist.
Describing Ukrainians as highly individualistic people who think for themselves rather than blindly follow their leaders as he said Russians do, Kurkov recalled that for years, this anti-Ukrainian propaganda was not taken seriously, and that he and other Ukrainians “were just laughing” at it. While about 30-40 novels speculating on Russian sovereignty over Ukraine were published since the early 2000s, there was only one Ukrainian literary rejoinder, he said: a satire envisioning Ukrainian troops conquering Moscow, with an “almost theatrical parade” through Red Square.
“Ukrainians are used to taking everything with irony or humor,” Kurkov said. “This is a positive thing, but it was misused by the enemy.” Russia regarded Ukraine’s response to its propaganda as a “lack of reaction,” and recently stepped up its rhetoric, defending the invasion on grounds that Ukraine is a fascist state and Ukrainians are Nazis—despite 73% of the population having voted in the last election for a Russian-speaking Jew, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite the role that the Russian publishing industry played in fomenting anti-Ukrainian sentiment, Kurkov does not support a global boycott, explaining that not all of the books published in Russia were meant to diminish Ukrainian sovereignty. “There were small publishing houses that were publishing Ukrainian authors in Russian translations,” he said, “It was very important. I don’t see any reason to punish them: they were punished by the Russian state themselves for not adhering to Putin’s narrative.”
After giving that shoutout to defiant Russian publishers, he praised the publishers in various European countries, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia, that are publishing Ukrainian-language children’s books, so that young refugees “won’t grow up without access to Ukrainian literature.”
If there’s one more thing that the global publishing community can do to help their Ukrainian colleagues, Kurkov noted, it’s to assist in publishing in e-book formats “future paper editions” of books. Paper is difficult to come by, especially considering issues in the global supply chain, and a number of distribution warehouses in Ukraine, Kurkov said, have been shelled.
As for American booklovers, Kurkov urges them to read three “wonderful and very truthful books” about Ukraine: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder; The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy; and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum.
“People know so much about Russia and the Soviet Union and so little about Ukraine,” he said. “Although they sympathize with Ukraine, they don’t understand the reasons behind this war.”