“We are in the epicentre of hell”: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine spurs condemnation from writers and publishers in Europe and abroad

Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk is among the signatories to an open letter condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo: Lukasz Giza)

Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Svetlana Alexievich, Orhan Pamuk, and Olga Tokarczuk are among more than 1,000 writers from around the world who have signed an open letter published by PEN International in opposition to Russia’s illegal invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. Pledging solidarity with “writers, journalists, artists, and all the people of Ukraine, who are living through their darkest hours,” the signatories condemn the “senseless war” launched by Russian president Vladimir Putin on February 24.

“All individuals have a right to peace, free expression, and free assembly. Putin’s war is an attack on democracy and freedom not just in Ukraine, but around the world,” the letter reads. “We stand united in calling for peace and for an end to the propaganda that is fuelling the violence.”

The reference to Russian propaganda is germane; on Saturday, the Guardian reported that Russian media had been directed to source all its reporting through official government channels and to avoid using the words “war,” “attack,” or “invasion” to describe what Putin has officially called a “special military operation.”

Moscow has also moved to restrict access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in Russia, with the intent of containing dissent among the Russian people themselves. The measures have not succeeded in quelling public protest among well-known Russian actors, sports stars, and influencers speaking out in opposition to the incursion on Ukraine. More than 2,000 anti-war protesters have been arrested across Russia since the war began.

On Twitter yesterday, bestselling author Stephen King added his voice to the chorus of protest, posting a photo of him wearing a shirt that reads, “I stand with Ukraine.”

Also on Monday, the Bookseller reported that the Frankfurt Book Fair was “suspending co-operation” with Russian authorities responsible for securing the country’s stand at the annual rights fair in the fall. “The organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair strongly condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine ordered by President Putin,” reads a statement by the fair’s president, Jurgen Boos. “Frankfurter Buchmesse assures the Ukrainian publishers’ associations of its full support.”

Following suit, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair announced that it would halt co-operation with Russian state institutions involved in organizing its booth for this month’s event. According to Publishers Weekly, “Bologna again condemned the Russian aggression and added that the BCBF and its associated brands ‘continue to support the Ukrainian Publishers’ Association and will continue to promote their books, illustrators, and writers in their absence at this year’s event.’ ” Elena Pasoli, director of programming for the international event, said that the ban affected state institutions, not individual writers or publishers.

This is despite an open letter from the Ukrainian Book Institute, the Lviv International Book Forum, and PEN Ukraine, which explicitly called for the cessation of all “online and offline distribution of books by Russian authors and publishers through the bookstores in your countries.”

Bologna’s stance appears to be an attempt to separate actions of the Russian state and military apparatus from those of individual Russians, many – if not the majority – of whom oppose the invasion. In the Guardian on February 27, Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin offered a blistering critique of Putin’s recklessness and his ahistorical justifications for war. He also noted the effect that Western inaction or tacit approval has had on encouraging the Russian president’s megalomania. “Putin’s inner monster wasn’t just brought up by our Pyramid of Power and the corrupt Russian elite, to whom Putin, like the tsar to the satraps, throws fat, juicy bits of corruption from his table,” Sorokin wrote. “It was also cultivated by the approval of irresponsible Western politicians, cynical businessmen, and corrupt journalists and political scientists.”

Inside Ukraine, while Russian tanks roam the streets and bombs rain down on cities, the domestic publishing community is struggling to maintain operations. Julia Orlova, CEO of Vivat Publishing, told Publishing Perspectives that her staff is working remotely and taking whatever refuge they can when air-raid sirens go off. “Of course, this situation is not physically and mentally healthy at all,” she says. “One of my colleagues had a heart attack because of explosions and horrible volleys.”

Commenting from Kharkiv, a city that has suffered massive civilian casualties from Russian bombing in the last twenty-four hours, Vivat’s director of communications, Galina Padalko, is even more succinct: “We are in the epicentre of hell.”

Following the Russian invasion on February 24, Oleksander Afonin, president of the Ukranian Publishers and Booksellers Organization, reached out to the Geneva-based International Publishers Organization to request that his international colleagues “condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and support Ukrainian people in this difficult time in the fight against the world aggressor.” In response, José Borghino, secretary-general of the IPA, issued an open letter that reads, in part:

We condemn this criminal Russian invasion in the strongest possible terms. The IPA was founded with the intention of supporting peace. Our first President, Georges Masson, stated at our inaugural Congress in 1896 that the first International Publishers Congress … is one of many gatherings whose purpose is to multiply peaceful relations between nations, in encouraging the visible tendency of peoples to join more and more through a community of interests.’ Nothing in the intervening 125 years has changed that stance.

IPA president Basour Al Qasimi also submitted a statement of support, noting, “In times of peace, books have a powerful uniting force. In times of conflict, books are even more important in fostering hope, supporting reconciliation, and cementing peace.”

John Degen, executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, is attending his organization’s National Council meeting this afternoon. “Discussion of Ukraine will happen for sure,” he says. In the meantime, he notes a statement from the U.K. International Authors Forum that he assisted in preparing. “We are concerned for the safety of the Ukrainian people, their culture and freedoms, and the safety of our creative colleagues,” the statement reads. “Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage has produced many great works of literature and art. It is vital this tradition is protected for the people of Ukraine today and for future generations.”

“My sense is that TWUC will sign on to this, as we’re a founding member of the IAF,” Degen says.

“We are in the epicentre of hell”: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine spurs condemnation from writers and publishers in Europe and abroad
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