Politics in Paris: Russia’s Country of Honor Stint at the Salon du Livre Reflects Strained Relations

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm

Book fairs can find themselves in the middle of shifting geopolitics. At the just-closed Salon du Livre in Paris, the French president sidestepped a visit to Russia’s Country of Honor stand.

A victim of bad geopolitical timing, the Russian Country of Honor display was bypassed by France’s president on his visit to the Salon du Livre. Image: Roger Tagholm

As we publish our story, Vladimir Putin has declared the anticipated landslide victory at the polls for another six-year term as Russia’s president, even as Western allies debate what many see as Moscow’s brazen acts of international belligerence. —Porter Anderson

By Roger Tagholm | @RogerTagholm

‘We’re Disappointed’

Organizers of Russia’s Country of Honor exhibit at the Salon du Livre Paris—which finished its run Monday (March 19)—expressed disappointment that Emmanuel Macron of France canceled a scheduled stop at the Russian stand on the fair’s opening day last Thursday (March 15).

The French president reportedly changed his mind that morning in an act of solidarity with the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States—the four nations coming together to condemn the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in southwest England’s Salisbury.

Eugene Reznichenko, executive director of Moscow’s Institute of Translation, told Publishing Perspectives, “We’re disappointed. This stand and this fair is the combined work of France and Russia, and if Macron had come, he’d have appreciated the work we’ve done together. But we’ve had lots of positive comments from French people—from editors and publishers and readers, all of whom say they’re disappointed.

“One French author told us that [Macron’s action] was really stupid, unacceptable. He said to us, ‘Don’t think that all of France is with Macron and this boycott.’”

Eugene Reznichenko

Nevertheless, if Russia has found itself something of a pariah for some at the book fair, condemnations on the diplomatic stage didn’t seem to deter crowds of visitors on the opening evening of the fair. The Russian delegation to Paris is reported to have numbered 200 people, including 38 authors and 20 or more publishers. The program featured around 120 events, many at venues in various parts of the French capital. Popular Russian authors at the fair have included Andrei Guelassimov, Gouzel Iakhina, and Ludmila Oulitskaia.

Founded in 2011, the Russian translation institute provides grants for the translations of 120 to 140 books yearly, concentrating on fiction, poetry, and children’s books.

The program reports that it works with publishers in 50 countries and its push at the moment is to translate more modern literature. Nadejda Serebryanikova, coordinator of international projects at the institute—and thus the Russian exhibit’s hands-on manager—said that it was a pity that politics had prevented Macron meeting some of the Russian authors.

Reznichenko acknowledged that some of the institute’s funding comes from the Russian government. The Russian State University for the Humanities and the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature are among its founding members, for example. But, he said, such money comes from taxation, which “is being used for good things, for culture, for literature.”

He said that the Salon du Livre country of honor program wasn’t funded by money received directly from the Kremlin and that the Institute of Translation operates independently.

Reznichenko added that, as yet, “It hasn’t been proved there are no other versions of the events” regarding the poisoning in the UK—this, despite the fact that before the Salon du Livre opened, London had announced its conviction of Russian culpability and Theresa May, the UK’s prime minister, had announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.

“There has been an overreaction,” said Reznichenko at the Russian stand in Paris.

Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi and the Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi greet France’s Emmanuel Macron at the Sharjah City of Honor stand at the Salon du Livre Paris. Image: Roger Tagholm

Russia Bypassed by Emmanual Macron

This politically difficult year marks anniversary observances for two giants of Russian literature. It’s the 200th anniversary of the birthday of Ivan Turgenev, the author of Fathers and Sons, and the centenary of the birth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Achipelago raised global awareness of the Soviets’ forced labor camp system.

Reznichenko said that there would be more events recognizing the work of both authors. The Salon du Livre, for example, is to select a French bookshop to honor for its display or promotion of books by Russian authors, as part of the Russian Country of Honor program.

“This stand and this fair is the combined work of France and Russia, and if Macron had come, he’d have appreciated the work we’ve done together.”Eugene Reznichenko

But at the fair itself, Macron’s walkabout was busy.

The Salon du Livre had not only a Country of Honor in Russia this year but also a City of Honor, and that was the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah, which next year will be Paris-based UNESCO’s World Book Capital. Having bypassed Russia’s display, Macron stopped at the Sharjah stand. He was greeted by the Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi as well as by publisher Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi—who leads the Emirates Publishers Association and is on the executive committee of the International Publishers Association.

The sheikh during the Salon du Livre released French translations of his historical writings from Sharjah with a signing at the Paris Opera. And Bodour, for her part, inaugurated the first result of the translation exchange that her Kalimat children’s publishing house has developed with Paris’ Gallimard Jeunesse.

And meanwhile, the unhappy dilemma of the Russian program, a casualty of unfortunate timing and deepening political divides, drew the Moscow delegation some sympathy, at least, Eugene Reznichenko said, even from the fair’s organizers.

“After Macron left,” he said, the organizers “came to our stand and apologized,” saying they didn’t agree with the president’s decision to bypass the country of honor.

Challenging political tensions coincided with Russia’s appearance at Paris’ Salon du Livre as Country of Honor 2018. Image: Roger Tagholm

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).