Illustrator Oleh Hryshchenko took a 17-hour bus ride and a flight to get to the Frankfurt book fair. But it was worth it, he says, to promote Ukrainian culture in the face of Russian aggression.
“I have not joined the army but we can fight with our art,” Hryshchenko told AFP on the opening day of the fair, at a display of pictures by Ukrainian illustrators’ group Pictoric.
“A lot of Ukrainian artists have joined the military and I am proud — but I am better at drawing than with a gun.”
Hryshchenko is part of the major Ukrainian presence at the world’s biggest publishing event: authors and industry figures appearing throughout the week at the country’s large stand.
President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to address the fair on Thursday, part of the fair organisers’ efforts to support Ukrainian culture against what they see as the propaganda disseminated by the invading Russian forces.
Hryshchenko travelled with girlfriend and fellow illustrator Olena Staranchuk — once he had obtained the necessary authorisation to leave Ukraine.
With no civilian flights out, the took a lengthy bus ride to Poland for an event there, before flying on to Frankfurt.
“We were tired but we have be here to present Ukraine,” said 37-year-old Hryshchenko. “I would even travel for 20 or 30 hours.”
– ‘Culture as a weapon’ –
Setting up the large Ukraine stand in the cavernous conference centre posed a number of challenges, not least getting furniture and books overland to Frankfurt.
Getting them out of Kyiv was further complicated by the recent Russian missile strikes there, said Sofia Cheliak of the Ukraine Book Institute, part of the culture ministry.
Getting them from Kyiv to Frankfurt took about two days, said Cheliak, who helped organise the stand. “Because of attacks, everything was closed. It was quite hard to find a car, and organise the whole process.”
But the stand is there, with a wide array of Ukranian books of every variety. It also has a stage, above which a large red light flashes when air raid sirens go off back in Ukraine.
Forty-six Ukrainian publishers will take part in the five-day fair, which opened Tuesday. Among the many authors attending are the well-known “punk poet” Serhiy Zhadan.
Ukrainian officials see high-profile events such as the fair as key to pushing back against Russia’s attempts to wipe out the country’s identity.
“Russia uses culture as a weapon,” said Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, in a video message to the fair Tuesday.
He accused Moscow’s forces of having burned Ukrainian books and replaced them with Russian literature. “Russia is fighting against Ukrainian people and our identity.”
– Emerging from Russia’s shadow –
While Ukrainians have top billing at the fair, Russian state institutions, which usually run their nation’s stand, have been banned. Instead, prominent opponents of President Vladimir Putin have been given the stage.
While the Ukrainian publishing industry initially ground to a halt following Russia’s invasion in February, it has since rumbled back to life.
Sales may not be what they were before the conflict, but some types of books are proving popular, said Cheliak: Ukrainian history for example — and how to deal with trauma.
Pictoric sees the fair as a chance to show the world that Ukraine is about more than war — their displays includes not just illustrations inspired by the conflict, but others from before the war, covering a range of subjects.
“A lot of people did not know anything about Ukraine, and now we have a chance to show them what Ukraine is,” said one of the group’s illustrators, Anna Sarvira.
“For a long time we stayed in the shadow of Russia… We are trying to change that.”