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‘The organizers decided to politicize it’ Russian book fair sparks controversy over cancellation of Navalny spokeswoman’s novel presentation

Source: Meduza

Kira Yarmysh, best known as the spokeswoman for imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny, was set to see her debut novel presented at the Non/Fiction international book fair in Moscow this week. Then, the event’s organizers canceled the presentation at the last minute in an alleged attempt “to save the fair at any cost.” The decision has sparked controversy among the festival’s participants, many of whom consider it politically motivated — especially in light of the fact that Yarmysh is currently under house arrest. Now, some Russian literary figures have opted to boycott Non/Fiction altogether, while others are urging their colleagues not only to attend but also to make Yarmysh’s exclusion the main topic of discussion at all of the book fair’s events.

The organizers of the Non/Fiction international book fair have cancelled a scheduled presentation of Kira Yarmysh’s debut novel “Incredible Incidents in Women's Cell No. 3,” announced editor Varvara Gornostaeva on Monday, March 22. Gornostaeva, the chief editor of the Corpus publishing house, which released Yarmysh’s book in 2020, wrote on Facebook that the book fair’s organizers initially moved the presentation from the amphitheater — the largest stage in the Moscow Gostiny Dvor, where the book fair is being held — to a smaller hall. Then, they unofficially asked Corpus’ parent company, the Russian publishing group Eksmo-AST, to cancel the book presentation altogether.

According to Gornostaeva, the organizers of the Non/Fiction book fair argued that they made this request “to save the fair at any cost.” Allegedly, a presentation involving an opposition figure could put the entire book fair in jeopardy. “I’m convinced that such compromises — that is, to call it what it is, censorship — is the main threat for any cultural institution,” the Corpus chief editor added. Gornostaeva also recalled that the controversy is taking place while Yarmysh is under house arrest as a suspect in the so-called “sanitary case.”

“She [Kira Yarmysh] has been deprived of her rights, the main human right — the right to freedom. And freedom is exactly what culture should defend. The book community, which, by definition, should take a humanist position, should protect the writer and defend her right to freedom of speech all the more.”

The Non/Fiction book fair’s spokesman, Vitaly Kogtev, confirmed the cancellation of the presentation, but declined to give any reasons why. In response to Meduza’s questions about the decision, Kogtev gave a brief answer: “No comment.”

Kira Yarmysh called the decision to cancel the presentation “mean and cowardly.” In a post published on her behalf on Facebook, she explained that due to the extension of her house arrest, she wouldn’t have been able to attend the presentation anyway. Nevertheless, the book fair’s organizers made it clear that the event “wouldn’t take place under any circumstances.”

“In other words, the most famous and respected book fair in the country scrapped my presentation for political reasons. Because I’m Navalny’s press secretary. At the same time, they’re obviously ashamed to admit it, so they tried to do it secretly.”

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A number of participants in the Non/Fiction book fair, including well-known writers and literary critics, have condemned the decision to cancel the presentation. Some have even refused to take part in the fair. Meduza’s literary critic Galina Yuzefovich described the cancellation as a willingness to “preemptively bend under a command that has not yet been given by anyone.” Writer Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) wrote that he “sympathizes” with the difficult choice the organizers are facing, adding that “this is a choice, after which you respect yourself — or stop [respecting yourself].” Meanwhile, writer Oleg Lekmanov, who was set to present his newest book at the fair, refused to attend because of the handling of the situation surrounding Yarmysh’s novel. 

Other participants in the book fair suggested bringing up Yarmysh’s book and it’s subsequent ban at other Non/Fiction events. Writer Alexander Arkhangelsky, a participant in one of the book fair’s talks, said that now “many will have to start any presentation with a statement of solidarity” with Kira Yarmysh. “That is, the effect, comrades, will be the opposite of the desired one,” he added. Political scientist Kirill Rogov, who is supposed take part in one of the book fair’s seminars, suggested that participants act even more decisively: 

“What about, on the contrary, opposing the exit (non-participation) strategy with a strategy of active participation. In other words, as part of our presentations or the time allotted to you at the presentations, we could devote part of this time to Kira Yarmysh’s book and this case. It should be more than just two formal phrases. As a result, Kira’s book and her persecution will become the centerpiece of the fair. It seems to me that we, Kira, and people of good will, need more publicity, not less publicity, and if the fair’s organizers decided to politicize it, then so be it.”

In turn, gallery owner Marat Gelman, proposed printing t-shirts in support of Yarmysh and wearing them to the book fair. A similar idea was put forward by Lida Moniava, the co-founder and development director of the Lighthouse Charity Foundation, who was supposed to take part in one of the discussions at the Non/Fiction book fair.

“I think that no one should cancel their participation in Non/Fiction. You need to come there with Kira Yarmysh’s book and during each presentation talk not only about your topic, but also about the fact that there is such [a person as] Kira Yarmysh, who is sitting under house arrest for nothing, who was excluded from Non/Fiction’s program for nothing. So long as we ourselves haven’t been excluded, we can talk about her book.”

Story by Pyotr Lokhov with additional reporting by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translated by Eilish Hart

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