A few years ago, in 2016, to be precise, I was curating a Ukrainian event at one of the biggest European literary festivals. And since I had a free hand, I chose to invite three Ukrainian women writers of the new generation to present the most up-to-date trends in the book market of my country. I was very proud of this concept and the invited participants. I even wrote an essay about them for an important socio-cultural weekly. The announcement was a success, and the event was printed in the program, but a terrible thing happened when it came to the promotional strategy.
I first learned about it from a Facebook friend who tagged me in a weird post full of protesting intonations. And when I opened the festival’s website and its social media pages, I was rendered speechless: my three intellectually powerful yet fragile authors were pictured on a photo collage together with a Russian writer, Zakhar Prilepin. It looked as though the four of them were walking hand in hand, with Prilepin in the middle. The text of the invitation was highly emotional and showed that the organizers had no clue they had done anything wrong.
For many years, European cultural institutions have too often placed Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in the same “eastern triangle.” Residencies, anthologies, entire festivals, and stand-alone events. The organizers, curators, and sponsoring foundations did it with the best of intentions, so we, the Ukrainian side, barely protested, taking it with the grain of salt but still accepting. In 2016, though, the war was raging in the east of Ukraine, Crimea had been annexed for two years already, and it was already clear who the aggressor was. But still, we got those “try to talk you guys” from the European organizers.
It took me a week of non-stop email exchanges with the administration of the above-mentioned festival to settle the issue and explain to them what the problem was and why not only their publication but also the mere fact of inviting that author was inappropriate. Meanwhile, I learned that Prilepin was a very popular author in that country, and his publisher was promoting him generously, never mentioning some “interesting facts” of his biography. He participated in a war in Chechnia as a mercenary, and just a few weeks before that incident, he posted a video in which he was shooting at the Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass. Theoretically, any of those soldiers could have been family members or friends of mine or the authors I have invited. His blog has always been the most intense concentration of hatred against Ukraine (not recommended). Finally, this festival and another one that invited Prilepin withdrew their invitations. He wrote an angry, hateful post on his blog mentioning everybody, including the curator (yours truly). End of story, some more eyes opened, and the Ukrainian authors didn’t have to boycott the event.
Most probably, the PR department made “the mistake” because they followed this ossified Western habit of blindly putting together anything they see in Cyrillics that they can’t read. But the Cyrillic alphabet is not a criterion. Social values are the criteria. The outlook and the belonging to a certain civilization. Ukraine is definitely part of a Western one. Russia and the nations it suppressed and made its zone of influence belong to a totally different one. It looks like it’s arriving to its end. Belarus has yet to decide where it wants to be. But again, Cyrillics is not a uniting criterion here.
It takes courage, a deeper look, and probably some basic empathy and a sense of judgment to see why.