Mazin Lateef Ali, founder of Baghdad's Dar Mesopotamia for Printing, Publishing, and Distribution, was awarded the 2023 International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire laureate at the award ceremony at the World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway. Ali published books about the Jewish community in Iraq, among other topics.

Ali has been missing since he was abducted at gunpoint in January 2020. The annual Prix Voltaire is the IPA's primary award to put a spotlight on freedom of speech and expression challenges, and often honors those around the world who have been censored, oppressed, disappeared, or murdered while conducting their work.

The IPA also announced a Prix Voltaire Special Award for Ukrainian children’s book author and poet Volodymyr Vakulenko, who was killed during the fighting in Ukraine this past year. On an episode of the Copyright Clearance Center's Velocity of Content podcast released yesterday, Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who accepted the award on Vakulenko's behalf, spoke to CCC's Chris Kenneally about Vakulenko's significance in his home country and the importance of literature during the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. Below is an excerpt of that interview:

Copyright Clearance Center: Volodymyr Vakulenko had many roles in Ukrainian publishing. Can you describe his reputation among other Ukrainian writers, like yourself?

Victoria Amelina: First of all, Volodymyr Vakulenko was very honest and very passionate, exactly the kind of person who wouldn’t be able perhaps to survive the Russian occupation without being arrested, without being questioned, and perhaps, as we can see, without being killed, because he was always honest, and it was important for him to have his freedom of speech, freedom of expression. It was very difficult for him to hide his views anywhere, and it was particularly difficult for him during the time of occupation of his native village, Kapitolivka.

I have to say that we all call him Volodymyr Vakulenko, but his pen name was Volodymyr Vakulenko-K., and this K stood exactly for the name of his native village, Kapitolivka. So he was not only a patriot of Ukraine, but also he had very warm feelings about his village, and other writers also knew that. He grew up in the east of Ukraine, in the Kharkiv region, but since 2015, it was also very important for him to go to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and support those who had to live in the war zone. Little did he know that soon he himself will end up living in the war zone.

Vakulenko was also a political activist apart from being an author and a publisher. He took part in protests against former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and volunteered to fight, as you say, in the Donbas region after the Russian annexation that year. What did it mean to him to be a Ukrainian patriot?

He really took an active part in the Revolution of Dignity in 2015, and he was severely injured at the time. He had an injury of his head that he received in Mariinsky Park. This was very important for Vakulenko to be in the middle of history. He wanted to make history, I think. And it was impossible for him to watch how freedom has been taken away from Ukrainians, and he couldn’t stay aside.

He didn’t fight, in a sense. He had never had weapons, neither in Kyiv in 2015 nor later. He didn’t volunteer to join the army as a soldier. But he volunteered to help the army. He brought help to the Ukrainian soldiers on the front line, and he kept doing so in the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022 as well. This is a tradition among Ukrainian writers. Since 2015, many of us, including myself, helped the soldiers on the front line on different levels, and Volodymyr Vakulenko kept doing this even after February 24th, 2022. Some small things—he kept buying cigarettes for the soldiers or some food—whatever they asked. He just wanted to support them. He didn’t have a health that would allow him to serve himself, but he wanted to make sure he does everything in his power to support those who can fight.

U.S. intelligence agencies revealed before the Russian invasion in 2022 that the Putin government had prepared an extensive hit list of prominent Ukrainians who were to be rounded up, imprisoned, or killed after a military takeover of Ukraine. What does it mean to you as a Ukrainian writer yourself that the Russians have made your country’s culture a target for destruction?

It means to me that I’m fully aware that I am alive thanks to the Ukrainian army and thanks to our allies who supported us with weapons. And although—I mean, Ukraine is a very peaceful country. We are all about culture, music, art—mostly these things. But at the same time, every second of my life, I have to be fully aware that I have to be thankful to the army. And I have—despite the fact that I am a human rights activist, but the most important thing for us right now is getting weapons to defend ourselves.

I have to say that before the full-scale invasion, I had been rereading one of the history books, and I had been trying to imagine what it would mean for me if the Executed Renaissance would have to repeat, because perhaps 90% of my friends are writers, artists, or civil activists, and this would mean that 90% of my friends would be executed by the regime. This is quite an appalling thing to even think about.

This is perhaps the reason why we fight so fiercely, why we cannot understand what the question is when we are asked if we would agree to give up some part of Ukraine’s territory. We cannot have any compromise. We cannot give up neither Donetsk, Luhansk, nor Crimea, because we know what’s going on there in the occupation, and occupation is in fact something even worse than war. This is where people like Volodymyr Vakulenko become helpless and can be tortured and can be executed. To me, it is very important that the world hears us and understands this.