October 20, 2017
Walling off Russia leaves Ukraine with a bare market for books
by Ian Dreiblatt
So, things haven’t been great between Ukraine and Russia for the past few years.
At the end of 2016, Ukraine passed a law prohibiting the importation of “foreign products with anti-Ukrainian content.” A few weeks later, the execution of that law got fleshed out a little when the nation announced a complete ban on the importation of books from Russia. The move wasn’t unprecedented — Ukraine had been banning some Russian books for a few years, and a fuller history of the two nations’ using print as a medium for nationalist hostility would stretch back centuries, and detail oppressive maneuvering in both Kyiv and Moscow. But the complete ban on all Russian books represented a major escalation.
The law was immediately unpopular with Ukrainian publishers. In February, Ukrainian Association of Publishers and Booksellers chief Alexander Afonin voiced a scathing series of complaints about the law to Publishing Perspectives’ Eugene Gerden. The ban would “mean a sudden shortage of books in the Ukrainian market,” he said, while also shifting some consumers’ purchases to the black market. It would also, in the absence of any government subsidies to make up for the lost sales, leave publishers financially unable to produce enough books to compensate for the lost imports.
It appears Afonin was right. By summer’s end, Gerden was reporting that at least 136 Ukrainian publishing houses had closed since the imposition of the ban, with sales of Russian-language books plummeting by more than fifty percent, from 9.8 to 4.3 million. Nor is it just a matter of what language books are available in — as Ivan Stepurin of Summit Book pointed out to Gerden, the high costs of rights and translations mean that, without the option of importing them, many books have simply vanished from Ukraine, “especially in educational literature, world classics.”
This is bad. According a Razmukov Center report quoted at the Russian news site Vzglyad, Russian is the native language of over a third of Ukrainians, and it’s used daily by many more. Walling out Russian books has made literature collateral damage in the conduct of broader post-Soviet hostilities, to the benefit of exactly no one. And it’s nudged Ukraine along in the direction of ethno-nationalism, by inevitably increasing the marginalization of the nation’s (very) large Russian-speaking minority. This is not in any way to defend Russia’s annexation of Crimea, support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, or zippy approach to international relations more generally. But when a medicine proves as rough as Ukraine’s import ban, it had better be easing symptoms or curing the underlying illness, and the ban accomplishes neither.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.