By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Anne Applebaum: ‘There’s a Big Role for Publishing’The Penguin Random House author Anne Applebaum and her colleague at The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg were in Kyiv and interviewed Volodymyr Zelensky on April 12. The Ukrainian president-under-siege spoke to her about Russian propaganda.
“The way they say that we’re eating people here,” Zelensky said, “that we have killer pigeons, special biological weapons … They make videos, create content, and show Ukrainian birds supposedly attacking their planes. Putin and Lukashenko—they make it sound like some kind of political Monty Python.”
With her June issue article now online at The Atlantic, Ukraine and the Words That Lead to Mass Murder, Applebaum spoke today (May 9) to the Association of American Publishers’ annual meeting, which was led by AAP president and CEO Maria A. Pallante and board chair Michael Pietsch of Hachette Book Group.
Among Applebaum’s comments were insights into book publishing’s potential to have a productive role in the Ukrainian-Russian emergency and in China, as well.
It’s not just Applebaum’s most recent book, The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Doubleday, 2020), that has given her such a widely recognized command of the moment’s dynamics. She won a Pulitzer in 2004 for Gulag: A History; the 2013 Cundill History Prize for Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Penguin Random House, 2013); and the Duff Cooper Prize for Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday. 2017).
In Monday’s appearance, Applebaum was in conversation with her own editor of some 20 years, Penguin Random House vice-president and editorial director in nonfiction, Kristine Puopolo.
To Puopolo’s question about what has made autocracy play a growing role in Western political life, Applebaum responded that the speed of the development of information and communications technology—the iPhone having been introduced only in 2007 (as was Amazon’s Kindle)—has contributed to the experience typically called information overload, “the sense that one can’t keep up.” And that, Applebaum said, “has led a lot of people to feel nostalgic for an easier and simpler time.”
Nostalgia, she said, comes in good forms and bad forms. In benign forms, she said, “You can enjoy visiting old churches, you can like old architecture, you can be fascinated by history, without wanting it back exactly as it was. And then there’s something called ‘restorative nostalgia,’ which is a desire to bring back the past and to make it real in the present, whatever kind of destruction and damage that might entail.
“We saw a version of that this morning,” she said, “as the president of Russia unfolded on Red Square in Moscow a kind of Soviet-style parade, lauding the achievements of a past generation, or almost a parody version of this,” in Victory Day pageantry.
“We should be giving voice, we should be amplifying, we should be publishing and supporting those Russians who have a different vision of what their country should be. And there are such Russians, we all know them.”Anne Applebaum
“Of course in our country, in the United States,” she said, “we know this, too, a longing for some simpler time when people seemed more equal, when politics weren’t so confusing, when maybe relationships between the sexes and the races were somehow more hierarchical and it gave advantages to some groups over others. Nostalgia for that is quite powerful right now,” she said. “And, of course, the only way to smash the present and return to the past would have to involve some kind of anti-democratic or authoritarian political movement. That’s the appeal of it in our country, as well as in many others.”
This understanding of “restorative nostalgia,” then, can be read in the actions of Vladimir Putin, who “has in his memory a time when Moscow dominated half of Germany,” Applebaum said, “and if he’s truly nostalgic, then that’s what he wants back.
“That would be the result of a of a Russian occupation of Ukraine and, of course, that would be watched and imitated and understood by other dictators around the world, too.”
By contrast, Applebaum told Puopolo, “A victory of Ukraine—by which I mean Ukraine remains a sovereign state, it keeps its borders, it continues to exist, it has some form of security guarantee or some reason to believe that that safety would continue—all of that revitalizes the idea of liberal democracy, of a European way of doing things, by which I mean a postwar European idea that borders are not to be moved, that disputes are to be resolved by negotiation and not by violence, a reinforcement of that set of ideas and ideals.”
A part of the value of Ukraine to the democratic world, Applebaum said, is that it represents “not just a liberal democracy, but a very particular form of civic patriotism … We’re defending an idea of Ukraine that’s bilingual. Many religions can exist side-by-side. Ukraine has a Jewish president; it has all kinds of people of different nationalities in its leadership. That kind of Ukraine, that believes in the rule of law, that believes in tolerance, that believes in liberal values,” she said—”I think it’s important that we as a community of democracies continue to support it.”
Publishing and Autocractic States
When Puopolo asked about the role of publishing, it turned out that Applebaum has a view that promotes more nuanced engagement than isolation, not just in relation to Russia but also to China.
“My view is that all of us, you know, in the publishing world especially,” Applebaum, “should be encouraging the existence of an alternative Russia. By which I mean we should be giving voice, we should be amplifying, we should be publishing and supporting those Russians who have a different vision of what their country should be. And there are such Russians, we all know them.”
This is an interesting point, of course, because in the debate about reactions to Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, many have taken a position that even independent Russian publishing—not aligned with Putin’s state media—should be ostracized and isolated by the rest of the world. This was the case in the recent Caucasus and Black Sea Basin Countries’ Regional Publishing Conference in the Republic of Georgia, itself a victim of Putin’s aggression. Organizers in Tbilisi made what they termed a “difficult but fair decision” not to invite even independent publishers from Russia.
In Applebaum’s view, a more complex tack is called for, and Russian publishing interests that run counter to Putin’s state should be supported.
She spoke up for “Anything that can help in that end, whether it’s publishing books, whether it’s distributing foreign and Western and American authors inside Russia—anything that can give a window and some light and some amplification of an alternative Russia should be continued.
“Obviously there are sanctions on those Russians who support the Putin regime,” Applebaum said, “and that includes some cultural figures. I agree that sanctions like that are unavoidable. If you look at some of the well-known composers and artists who’ve been very vocal and supportive of Putin, they’ve added a lot to his cachet inside the country and I’m all for excluding them and canceling their contracts, and using this as a way to show that we don’t find this kind of this kind of war, this kind of brutal aggression acceptable in in the civilized world.
“The more the publishing community can push back and demand that texts not be censored–the more it can keep open space for an alternate China, for alternate voices in China, for an alternate public discussion in China, one that’s different from the official Chinese version–then the more I think publishing can do some good there.”Anne Applebaum
“But that should be done at the same time as those Russians who are of a different view—who can conceive of a non-imperial or an anti-imperial Russia, who have a different vision for their country—should be encouraged, whether that’s publishing the opposition, or whether it’s organizing with the opposition, or distributing foreign material. I think there’s a big role for publishing and doing exactly that.
“China is going to be an even more complicated question,” Applebaum said. “I know that publishers already today deal with these nuanced and complicated questions about Chinese censorship of American and foreign writers inside China. The Chinese will often take lines out of texts, and since so few people in American and Western publishing are able to check them, these things sometimes go through.
“The more the publishing community can push back on that and demand that texts not be censored—the more it can keep open space for an alternate China, for alternate voices in China, for an alternate public discussion in China, one that’s different from the official Chinese version—then the more I think publishing can do some good there.
“So I think it’s very important to remain nuanced,” Applebaum said, “and to remain open to the idea that there are things we can publish and things that we can do in countries like Russia and China, and not to think they should be cut off completely, but to be very careful about how you act with censors, how you react with censors—how you make sure that what comes from your publishing house or your writers remains true to the spirit of what they wrote.”
Follow our coverage of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and its impact on the country’s publishing players and international industry reactions.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the Association of American Publishers is here. More from us on the freedom of expression and freedom to publish is here, more on the work of Anne Applebaum is here, more on copyright and its issues is here, more on book bannings is here, and more on the United States market is here.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.