Ukraine’s Yulia Kozlovets: ‘Do Not Be Indifferent’

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Interview: The director of the Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv talks about life amid missile strikes and Putin’s ‘crime against humanity.’

Yulia Kozlovets. Image: Khrystyna Kulakovska

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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‘Keep Spreading the Word’
Instead of preparing for the International Book Arsenal Festival in May, the book fair’s coordinator Yulia Kozlovets tells Publishing Perspectives, “I and my team have explosions, air-attack signals, sleepless nights, shelters and basements, reports from the frontline, roll calls with friends and volunteering for our defenders.”

The book festival—in its 11th year at the Mystetskyi Arsenal—last week issued one of the best-read appeals we’ve covered from Ukraine. A Message From Ukraine’s Book Arsenal Festival in Kyiv introduced many subscribers in our international readership to the concept of cultural sanctions, elaborated on by Vivat Publishing CEO Julia Orlova in her interview with us from Kharkiv.

“Now, I and many of my colleagues are staying in Kyiv,” Kozlovets says. “This is my hometown, where I was born and raised, studied, gave birth to my children, had a lovely private bookshop with my sister, and was managing the best book festival in the world. There is actually no place for doing Ukrainian book business now. What we need now is security, safety, and peace.”

She has none of those yet in Vladimir Putin’s now seven-day war on Ukraine. For all the indispensable coverage from Ukrainian and international journalists in-country under siege, the most important news on Wednesday may have been Reuters’ dispatch from Amsterdam: “The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan on Wednesday said he would immediately open an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Ukraine, following requests to do so by an unprecedented number of the court’s member-states.”

A total 39 nations have made referrals to The Hague, thereby “fast-tracking an investigation,” Reuters reports, “allowing the prosecutor to skip having to seek approval of the court.” Two alleged transgressions of international conventions in Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine involve what military experts now agree is the use of cluster and vacuum weaponry, the British defense secretary confirming per Radio Free Europe, “We’ve seen the deployment of thermobaric [vacuum] artillery weapon systems” in Ukraine.

Kozlovets, needlessly apologizing to a reporter for intermittent communication issues, concedes, “Things are not so easy here.”

In the early hours of this morning (March 3) Kozlovets’ Kyiv has been rocked by new explosions, some seen in real time by the CNN International AC360 worldwide audience overnight in split-screen live coverage as Anderson Cooper spoke from Lviv.

Image: March 3, 2022 Ukraine, CNN ‘AC360’

‘This Humanitarian Catastrophe’

“We are at home with my parents, 75 years old,” Kozlovets says. “They’re unwell, especially my mother. They’re stressed and terribly tired and already almost don’t respond to alarms—I can’t always persuade them to take refuge in a shelter. Thank God, so far, they agree to move to get to a bathroom.

“When a rocket flies into the house opposite to yours, after a quick sticky fear, you begin to feel a wild rage, hatred, and anger.”Yulia Kozlovets, International Book Arsenal Festival

“You get used to everything,” she says, “and to the sounds of explosions and shooting, too.

“When a rocket flies into the house opposite to yours, after a quick sticky fear, you begin to feel a wild rage, hatred, and anger. It only grows when you look at pictures of the destroyed Mariupol; at the damaged TV tower in Babyn Yar—the Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv where Nazi Germany’s forces killed almost 34,000 Jews on September 29 and 30, 1941; at the maternity hospital and the children’s intensive care unit in a Kharkiv basement; at babies born in Kyiv’s metro underground; at bombed satellite cities on the outskirts of Kyiv.”

Kozlovets understands that she’s speaking to a world still catching up with the horror Moscow has unleashed. To be living amid such a relentless attack, her eloquence is remarkable.

“It’s hard to imagine,” she says, “the scale of Ukrainians’ hatred for the Russians raised during these last seven days. Millions of people have united in resistance. Our military forces are highly professional and motivated, Territorial Defense units are defending their local communities and their own homes, and they and consist of ordinary people, farmers, engineers, teachers, publishers, artists.

“Women are completing first-aid courses, collecting food and medicine for those who are suffering. Millions of people are transferring money to the army. Students and IT professionals have joined the ‘IT army’ and are fighting on the digital front. Journalists and cultural managers stand on the information and cultural frontline.”

A Book Festival in a Military Plant

At the top of the Mystetski Arsenal site’s home page

The irony is inescapable. Kozlovets’ International Book Arsenal Festival is named for its venue, Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal, which in 2003 became what she describes as the nation’s flagship cultural and museum institution, housing contemporary art, new music, theater, literature, and historical heritage collections. In its 10 years, the festival has hosted more than 500 writers, poets, philosophers, designers, illustrators, and publishing experts from more than 50 nations.

“Publishers are gathering books to arrange a symbolic stand of children’s books from Ukraine at Bologna Children’s Book Fair because our publishers cannot go, themselves.”Yulia Kozlovets, International Book Arsenal Festival

“Every year,” Kozlovets says, “we are determining the program’s topical focus, relative to which leading intellectuals discuss the issues important to the cultural community and civil society. Besides that, the festival has its main literary program; its program for kids and teens; special musical and performance programs; different genre programs; and special projects.

“We also pay much attention to the visual component,” she says, “from exhibition projects on the art of book publishing, illustration, design, art books, and art objects to installations in the latest design trends in ‘zines and self-published books.”

Primarily public-facing, Book Arsenal, Kozlovets says, brings together publishers, cultural institutions, and international partners in bookselling and diverse programming. It runs five days “in the beautiful space of Old Arsenal.”

Still gaining traction on the world stage for its unusual name, this is a program well-known to the international network of leading trade-show and book-fair events. Since 2016, the show has worked with Goethe-Institute Ukraine; Frankfurter Buchmesse, and with the Buchkunst Foundation for its annual award in book design. The award ceremony is held at the opening of the festival each year and the winning book and shortlisted contenders are seen at Frankfurt and at Leipzig Book Fair in a collection called “The Most Beautiful Books of the World.”

Kozlovets is proud of the successful outreach and community she and her team have developed for the show. In addition to the Goethe-Institut, Frankfurt, and Leipzig, “We’re cooperating with a lot of international partners,” she says, “such as House of Europe; the delegation of the European Union to Ukraine; the British Council Ukraine; French Institute Ukraine; the Polish Institute in Kyiv, Czech Center in Kyiv; the Austrian Cultural Forum; London Book Fair; Vilnius Book Fair; the Lithuanian Culture Institute; Bologna Children’s Book Fair; Birmingham Literature Festival;  Cheltenham Festival; IBBY; and others.”

‘Very Active Communities’

In Kyiv, two instructors, left, gives civilians a course in territorial defense weaponry on February 12, prior to the February 24 start of Putin’s war on Ukraine. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Palinchakjr

Under assault, Kozlovets says, the Ukrainian publishing industry’s people are relying in war on the same channels that have kept them in touch in peace.

“There is actually no place for doing Ukrainian book business now. What we need now is security, safety, and peace.”Yulia Kozlovets, International Book Arsenal Festival

“The publishing sector of Ukraine,” she says, “especially the core of it made up of the most active market players, is relatively narrow. All of us know each other, we follow on social networks and communicate in real life.

“We use different groups on Facebook and Telegram in which the members are book people—not only publishers, but also book designers, translators, indie publishers, illustrators. They’re very active communities. They were this way in peacetime, uniting people for solving their professional challenges. And they’re very active now. It’s not physical touch. Physically, all of us have private priorities and social tasks. But a lot of us are in contact via messengers in order to help each other; to direct someone who needs assistance; to volunteer for suffering people; and for the army and our military forces.”

When asked if she knows of members of the literary community who are serving in the military effort now, Kozlovets lists:

  • Oleg Sentsov, the writer and filmmaker imprisoned after Russia’s takeover of Crimea and released after four years in a prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow
  • Vakhtang Kipiani, an author, journalist, and historian
  • Oleh Feshovets, the owner and director of Astroliabiia Publishing
  • Oleksii Bondarenko, formerly the chief editor of Veselka Publishing
  • Vlad Sord, the director of Dim Khymer Publishing
  • Yevhen Stasinevych, a literary critic and curator
  • Serhii Zhadan, an author, poet, and musician, now reported to be volunteering with Territorial Defense in Kharkiv
‘Putin Must Fall’

The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and the first lady visit the International Book Arsenal Festival on the second day of its 2021 edition. Image: IBAF

Kozlovets has a fine command of English and is fully aligned with so many you speak with in the siege of Ukraine: “Keep spreading the word,” she says. “That’s my most frequent answer to the messages in chats from people abroad.”

“It’s hard to imagine the scale of Ukrainians’ hatred for the Russians raised during these last seven days.”Yulia Kozlovets, International Book Arsenal Festival

Fluent in the tone and tack of contemporary communication, the biggest fear she shares with other leaders in the publishing sphere is that the world will become accustomed to the reports of missile strikes and will lose track of its outrage–or be befuddled by the disinformation campaigns the Kremlin is driving on social media.

There’s no time for polite requests. The talking points have become staccato, forceful orders to the rest of the world to pile up those cultural sanctions alongside the financial, legal, and political sanctions now collapsing Putin’s economy, cratering his currency, paralyzing his people, and severing his lines of support around the world. Those demands gather force and speed, and yet come across with singular depth in Kozlovets’ delivery as she reasons her way through the maddening truth of Putin’s spectacular depravity.

“We call for a suspension of Russian participation in international cultural events,” she says, “such as festivals, biennials, exhibitions, art and literature fairs. We know already that Frankfurt Book Fair and Bologna Book Fair have declared that they are suspending cooperation with the Russian state institutions in charge of organizing the Russian collective book-fair stands.

“We ask you to boycott events organized by Russian institutions as well as international foundations that are directly and indirectly linked to or funded by Putin’s regime and Russian capital. We ask you to cancel any cooperation with Russian artists, writers, no matter how great or famous, as long as they openly support Putin’s regime or diminish its crimes or don’t publicly and directly oppose the regime.

“We need to make it absolutely clear,” Kozlovets says. “Putin’s regime is criminal. He is responsible for this crime against humanity, this humanitarian catastrophe. He must fall.

“This is not a fight against those few activists, artists, writers, publishers, and cultural influencers who have openly condemned the Russian aggression, those who are brave and responsible enough to protest, to be imprisoned, and to fight the ruling regime in their country. But the name Russia has become for us—and finally for the whole world—a synonym with universal evil. Supporting Russians means now support for evil. The Russian Federation is a rogue state. Russian culture, when used as propaganda, is toxic.”

She’s aware, she says that there are publishers headed for Bologna (March 21 to 24) who “are gathering books to arrange a symbolic stand of children’s books from Ukraine at the fair, because our publishers cannot go, themselves. It’s a great idea. It will make our publishers and all of Ukraine visible.

“We highly appreciate all the efforts of all book people.” she says. “Our friends and partners from Lithuania. Public events at Vilnius Book Fair were followed with messages of support for Ukraine and strong protests against Russian aggression. In Poland, people are gathering Ukrainian children’s books for refugee kids. In Germany, Italy, the UK, Czech Republic, Switzerland, the USA, Canada, Spain, and other places, so many are taking action and spreading the truth.”

Kozlovets asks that we share with you an initiative of Book Arsenal’s professional program in Ukrainian literature.

  • “Rights On!” promotes Ukrainian literature abroad with catalogues and videos, so that rights directors, scouts, literary agents working in the international translation sphere can find the titles available.
  • That program is mounted in cooperation with Chytomo, Ukraine’s leading news medium for the book business, which has included on its site a very helpful guide to “Ukrainian Books About the War for Urgent Translation.” And Publishing Perspectives will have an interview Friday (March 7) with Chytomo’s leadership.

“What we need now from our colleagues in the rest of the world,” she says, “is that they not remain silent. Do not be indifferent.”

“We are asking for your solidarity and support,” Yulia Kozlovets says. “We call on everybody to boycott the Russian state now, until it completely withdraws from Ukraine and is held responsible for its war crimes. Please, speak loudly and declare your position.”

At the 2021 edition of the International Book Arsenal Festival at Kyiv’s Mystetski Arsenal. Image: IBAF, Sergey Khandusenko


Catch up with all our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing industry and players. 

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Ukrainian market is here, more on the International Book Arsenal Festival and the International Book Space Festival is here. More on the freedom to publish and the freedom of expression is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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