Russia’s declaration of war against, and invasion of, Ukraine this week is certain to have consequences for the international publishing industry. While it is too soon to say exactly what the impact will be, several international publishing organizations have already condemned Russia for their attack. Among the critics are PEN International, the Federation of European Publishers, the European Writers Council, the Italian Publishers Association, and the major German publishing agencies and associations.
The Börsenverein Group, the organization that includes the Frankfurt Book Fair and oversees the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, issued a statement saying they are “outraged" by the attack on Ukraine and called for an end to hostilities. “We appeal to the Russian people and their president to stop the deliberate destruction of peace and freedom in Europe. And we send words of solidarity to the people of Ukraine: you are part of an international community that supports human dignity, democratic participation, and equality for all. You have a right to peace!"
In criticizing the attack, the Federation of European Publishers said: "Ukraine is a free country in a free Europe, and has the right to peace and democracy, for its citizens to live in safety, and to territorial integrity.” The statement continued: "We are very fortunate that this year, Ukraine is one of the participating countries in the European Union Prize of Literature. Ukraine is part of Creative Europe, of our common European family, and we believe that literature brings a message of peace and allows all European citizens to be 'united in diversity'."
The International Publishers Association, of which both Russia and Ukraine are members, said it had no position on the matter.
The first place where there is likely to be some visible expression of protest will be the Bologna Children's Book Fair, scheduled for March 21-24. That said, Bologna’s program director, Elena Pasoli, said that the fair will not change any plans to include Russian publishers in the program.
“We don’t have any plan to treat Russian publishers differently from the past,” she said. “I don’t feel blaming our beloved publishers for what’s happening. Ukrainian publishers are beloved friends as well,” she added, noting that Yulia Kozlovets, general coordinator of the International Book Arsenal Festival—Ukraine’s primary book fair —served as one of the jury members of the 2022 BolognaRagazzi Awards.
In fact, as the past decades have seen Ukraine’s publishing scene emerge as a force of its own, it is the country’s children’s book publishers, including Old Lion Publishing House and A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, that have won the most international acclaim. Such Ukrainian authors as Andrei Kurkov, who writes in Russian, have become international superstars. (Kurkov's next book to be published in English, Grey Bees, forthcoming from Dallas, Tex.–based Deep Vellum Publishing in April, is set on the front lines of the fighting in the separatist region.)
Ivan Fedechko, rights director of Old Lion Publishing House, which is based in Lviv—itself an UNESCO City of Literature—wrote PW to say that the war is already impacting business at home. "Now when the war is in our home and civilians are hiding in the bomb shelters, there are no other thoughts except worries about your family, friends, and your country,” he wrote. “Strong reaction and the real help of West is highly important at this moment."
Another publisher, Liliia Solovinska from Видавництво "Ранок" -- Ranok publishing house -- has described on Facebook how she fears for her safety. Her family are hiding in the their bathroom of their home in Kharkov, with the sound of machine gun and rocket fire outside, and the city surrounded by the Russian military and tanks encroaching.
A Proxy Propaganda War
For its part, Russia has been conducting a proxy propaganda war against Ukraine dating back to the country’s independence in 1991. One of the nation's weapons has been books, and Russian publishers are known to have flooded the Ukrainian market with cheap paperbacks in an effort to undermine any growth in the local publishing industry.
Back when Russia subsumed Crimea in 2014, Oksana Hmelyovska, one of the coeditors of Chytomo, a Ukrainian website covering books and the media market, said that “we hope that culture and publishing play not the last role in defense of our independence.” Three years later, in 2017, Ukraine went so far as to ban Russian books, which then accounted for more than half of the country's sales. The ban lasted for nine months and, after Ukraine was accused of censorship, the ban was altered to only impact books that contained either overt Russian propaganda for Russia as an aggressor or showed favor for Communism and the Soviet ideology, the liquidation of Ukraine as an independent country, and those promoting the idea of the Ukraine as “Malorossia,” or “Little Russia.” Since then, more than 1.5 million copies of Russian books have been banned from import or publication.
“The rules are fair,” said Iryna Baturevych, deputy director of the Ukrainian Book Institute and cofounder of Chytomo. “Russian propaganda works very well. This has been an information war.”
Baturevych noted that Russian books continue to be available in Ukraine and, according to the latest data by the Ukrainian Book Institute, 204 million total copies of a combined 21,818 titles were approved for publication or distribution by the Ukrainian State Committee of Television and Broadcasting between 2017 and 2022. It has been easier, said Baturevych, for Ukrainian readers to detect propagandistic nonfiction titles and ban them, but to find propagandistic writing in fiction requires a close read, and it often slips through the censors: “We are definitely sick of getting books with titles like, Smoke Over Ukraine or Novorossiya in My Heart.”
Ukrainian authorities have also opted to ban outright nine separate Russian publishing companies from operating in the country due to what has been called consistent systematic publishing and distribution of the books classified as “anti-Ukrainian content.” These publishers include Alhorythm, Centrpolygraph, Knyzhkovyi Svit, Piter Publishing House, Viche, Yauza, and Yauza-Press, and AST/Eksmo, the largest and most dominant trade publishing house in Russia, is also banned. Serhiy Oliynyk, the head of the import permission department at the Ukrainian State Committee of Television and Broadcasting, indicated that 20% of the titles banned by the Ukraine were published by AST/Eksmo.
Asked whether their publishing house was susceptible to political influence, Evgeny Kapyev, Eksmo's general director, told PW in November 2021 that the house is entirely independent of the government. “Russians already know Putin is sometimes an angel, sometimes a devil,” Kapyev said, “and as a consequence, they don’t want to read about politics.”
Last year, the imports of Russian books to Ukraine rose by 73% over 2020, to more than five million copies—the largest figure since 2014. Not all of this is propagandistic soft power machination, but, rather, simply publishers meeting market demand; Ukrainians have been buying more books over the past decade according to the Ukrainian Book Institute and, although Ukrainian is the language of preference in the majority of the country, many citizens will read books in both Ukrainian and Russian.
Baturevych noted that one area that cannot be understated is the problem of piracy, which itself is fostered by unethical publishers and others in the region. “Booksellers believe that as much as 40% of all books on the Ukrainian market are illegal, including books imported from Russia,” she said. Digital piracy is also widely prevalent in the country, she added.
What Can Be Done?
Asked how publishers can show support for the Ukrainian publishing industry, Baturevych said that one of the best ways is to pay attention to how they sell rights, noting that foreign publishers often overlook Ukrainian publishers when it comes to selling rights to bestsellers, offering rights for distribution in Ukraine to Russian publishing houses. In a post appearing in the U.K. publishing newsletter BookBrunch, New York literary agent Barbara Zitwer said she has stopped working with Russian publishers. "I have taken the decision to cease selling books or buying books from Russia until the war ends. I hope everyone in publishing will follow and in our way, help to show that we care deeply about ending this war and we mean it," she wrote.
Others are debating the matter in publishing forums, like the Facebook group Publishers Without Borders. Numerous Russian publishers, often speaking of their own accord and some anonymously to protect their identity, have expressed outrage and disgust with the war, noting, many Russians have family, friends and close colleagues in the Ukraine.
As for material assistance, little can be done immediately save for perhaps one thing: continue working with and expressing support for Ukrainian publishers. "The last several years have shown how Ukrainian publishers can be more and more competitive,” Baturevych said. “The question [of who to sell rights to] can't be regulated by the state—it is a business interest of foreign publishers. But it is nice to know people collaborate in an ethical way, showing support for Ukraine. This is very important for us, and I strongly believe it helps us to develop an independent in-home market that is able to resist Russian or any other kind of propaganda.”
There are several hashtags circulating encouraging people to show their support for Ukraine during the Russian invasion, the most prominent of which is #StandWithUkraine.