Vilnius loves Ukraine

February Vilnius greeted us with frosty weather. Lithuania, which lies at northern latitudes, seemed to be lagging behind Ukraine, as in Kyiv spring was breaking through all the gaps. The above concerns only the weather. In all other respects, the Lithuanians were completely in sync with the Ukrainians.

Last year, the first day of the Vilnius Book Fair coincided with the first day of the escalation of war in Ukraine. Lithuanians came out to support Ukraine, organized poetry readings by Ukrainian authors and showed their solidarity in every possible way. Three days later the cultural representatives of the Baltic countries were the first to call for a ban on Russia’s participation in book fairs in Frankfurt, London and Bologna. That very year Vilnius welcomed us with Ukrainian flags on almost every building. After a year of active war, no one gets tired of the Ukrainian theme here.

“Western Europe doesn’t understand you. They are afraid to come here, even to Vilnius, as they believe we’re too close to war. But we do understand.” — says one of the Lithuanian taxi drivers who is taking us to the expo center on the outskirts of the city. When he finds out that we are from Ukraine, immediately starts talking about Kyivan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The locals remember not only the common Soviet past, but also our older history, and this similarity of experience makes us extremely close.

The existence of a common threat also brings us closer together. Better than anyone else Lithuanians understand what it means to be a neighbor of a great empire. The problematic “divorce” from Russia in the early 1990s, attempts to bring the country down, first by assault of the TV center by Soviet troops and later through the gas cut-off, have deeply rooted in the memory of Lithuanians. And now, when they follow events in Ukraine, they perceive our struggle as something very personal.

“What I know from my Lithuanian colleagues, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, is that they have been listening to Ukrainian news a lot, and many people can understand even a few hundred Ukrainian words now,” — tells us Halyna Kruk, an author.

But the Ukrainian language enters Lithuania not only through the news. More than 70,000 Ukrainian refugees currently live in the country, and so the likelihood of hearing Ukrainian on the streets of Vilnius is greater than ever. Vilnius has become a real island of freedom for many Ukrainians who have fled the occupied territories or threatened cities. No wonder that we find this connotation even in the name of the Lithuanian capital.

By the way, the motto of the 23rd Vilnius International Book Fair was “700 Lines for Freedom”, combining the themes of freedom and the 700th anniversary of Vilnius. The Lithuanian Publishers Association, the Lithuanian Culture Institute and the Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre Litexpo made every effort to engage Lithuanian readers both in conversations about books and to support Ukraine, which is now indispensable for any discussion about defending values of the free world. The colors for the event branding, Ukrainian songs at the concerts during the fair, the status of Ukraine as the guest of honor — everything spoke of increased attention to our country, and its central place in the concept of the fair itself.

Gitanas Nausėda, the President of Lithuania, also paid a lot of attention to Ukraine in his speech at the opening of the fair, as well as in conversations with representatives of Ukrainian national stand. He hopes that Ukrainians feel that in their fight against Russia they are not alone, and stresses that it is important to have support not only on the battlefield, but also in psychological and cultural spheres: “Ukraine needs all the support it can get. We have to give a voice to Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

“Visits of the Speaker of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, the President and First Lady and the Minister of Culture were a great surprise to us. They came to show their support and see what is being published in Ukraine,” — commented Sofia Cheliak, representative of Ukrainian Book Institute and stand coordinator.

Top officials of Lithuania were not separated from the public by a fence, book fair was not blocked off for them, and no scanners or frames were set up. Despite the minimal security, it was quite easy to come up to them and communicate directly. They talked to journalists, visitors of the fair and looked through Ukrainian books.

Yuliia Kozlovets, Mytstetsky Arsenal representative and co-curator of a special Ukrainian program of events adds: “The cooperation, established in previous years, is now turning into strong support. It is important that it is not only formal, but also very personal Lithuanians personally collect funding for drones, knit socks, and help displaced people.”

President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda and First Lady Diana Nausėdienė even joined in weaving camouflage nets for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Funding for the damaged library in Chernihiv was also being raised during the book fair. And this is not to mention the Lithuanian Writers’ Union (including Donatas Petrošius, Laurinas Katkus and Marius Burokas), which has turned its fund into a fund to support the Ukrainian army. They use their funds to buy cars for the military, night vision devices, purchase aid for Kherson and much more (by the way, a new fund raising was launched immediately after the book fair). The Union representative, Lithuanian poet, translator and editor Marius Burokas, received an award from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania for this activity.

Marius is also one of the most active translators of contemporary Ukrainian poetry, and during the first months of the full-scale invasion he compiled daily digests of Ukrainian news about the war with Russia in Lithuanian translation.

Another example of support from the Lithuanian poetry community was the “Memory. Fire. Oxygen” anthology translated by Antanas Joninas. It not only displayed important Ukrainian poetic voices, but also set an important charitable goal: all money from the sale of books will be sent to support Ukrainian foundations.

As you can see, Ukrainian topic has captured all groups of Lithuanian society — from the top officials of the state, writers and translators, and down to taxi drivers (with all due respect to this challenging profession), who not only are aware of our common history, but often become visitors of the book fairs. It seems that in a country with a population smaller than the Kyiv agglomeration everyone reads. At least, that’s the impression one gets. This impression is especially reinforced when you observe the crowds at the Bookexpo pavilions — very often they were as big as those we see at the Book Arsenal in Kyiv or at BookForum in Lviv, in a country of forty million people.

We will tell more about the support of the Lithuanian people and the Lithuanian cultural community in a separate article from the special project “Lithuanian Accent”.

Lithuanian reading habits

The most interesting thing about such an active attendance is that the Vilnius Book Fair does not really claim to be particularly international. The vast majority of books, apart from the Ukrainian ones and a small amount of English-language literature from the retailers, are still published in Lithuanian. And that means it is mainly Lithuanians who come to buy books and meet the authors.

This can also be confirmed by the accompanying materials, signs and printing that fill the book fair. If you don’t know Lithuanian, you risk getting lost here. Of course, many Lithuanians understand English, but it is noticeable that no one has paid much attention to English as a language of international communication. When you come to the Vilnius Book Fair, you find yourself in a self-sufficient culture that feels comfortable within its own language and does not need additional connections with the outside world. Being a native Lithuanian speaker is enough to feel part of a globalized, free world. This shows a striking contrast to the experience in Ukraine, where English is increasingly penetrating all spheres of life and signaling our sense of isolation and desire to be closer to the world.

“Publishers prepare new editions for the fair, organize autograph sessions, and I understand that there is a reader that comes to buy books, because this fair is not located in the city center, and you have to go there with a specific purpose. This means that this is an established target audience. In Ukraine, we need to work on this, because sometimes we think that a change of location can change sales,” — noted Bohdan Budnyi, director of Bohdan Books Publishing House.

On the other hand, the Lithuanian book market still has a lot in common with Ukrainian. For example, Lithuanian publishers claim that translated literature currently accounts for about 70-80% of their market. Translations, of course, are from countries that actively promote their stories — primarily from English, German, and French-speaking authors. Ukrainian books have been terra incognita for Lithuanian readers for quite a long time. Oksana Zabuzhko, whose book The Museum of Abandoned Secrets appeared in Lithuanian translation for the first time this year, explains this by pro-Western orientation of the market. And for a long time, Ukraine was not among its priorities.

“Why don’t we start with ourselves: how many contemporary Lithuanian writers have we translated? What about Romanian writers? Please keep in mind that our market is larger. For a long time, we were also focused on those who would pay us for translation,” — tells Oksana Zabuzhko.

But since 2022, the situation has been rapidly changing for the better. New anthologies of Ukrainian poetry are appearing, Serhiy Zhadan’s fourth book is being published in Lithuanian translation, and essays about Ukrainian literature are appearing in the largest literary magazine «Literature er menas». Representatives of the Ukrainian Book Institute claim that 90 items of books translated from Ukrainian into Lithuanian were available at the book fair.

The largest Lithuanian publishing house, Alma litera, occupies a huge area of the expo center. It has several separate stands in different sections of the book fair, and covers almost all possible genres of literature. Of course, they couldn’t ignore the Ukrainian theme either: the publishing house presented 9 Ukrainian books for this year’s fair. These include eyewitness accounts of the war, a biography of Volodymyr Zelensky by Serhiy Rudenko, Mary by Sashko Dermansky, and The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Zabuzhko, whose posters adorned the expo centre.

“We started publishing Ukrainian books only last year, before that there was little interest in stories from Ukraine. First we published Volodymyr Zelensky’s biography (in the summer of 2022) and it became a bestseller. We are also optimistic about the sales of Oksana Zabuzhko’s book. We hope it will make readers more interested in Ukrainian literature. This is just the beginning, but I believe it to be a good start,” — says Dovilé Zaide, CEO of Alma litera. Ms Zaide’s words are confirmed by several dozen fans of Oksana Zabuzhko who formed a long queue to get the writer’s autograph.

Stands’ spaces could be divided into a general (adult) part, a children’s part and a nook where academic publishers are located. Ukrainian books were present in different segments of the book fair. Translations of Andriy Lyubka’s novel Carbide, Stanislav Aseyev’s The Bright Path and Agrafka’s The War that Changed Rondo — an attentive adept of the Ukrainian publishing market could turn the search for familiar books into an interesting quest.

The presence of Ukrainian photo books at the fair turned out to be a special surprise. The Kaunas Photo Gallery holds exhibitions, publishes books about photography and takes part in book fairs. This year they organized an individual Ukrainian shelf at their stand.

“When we participated in the prestigious Paris Photo Fair, we decided to include Ukrainian photo books in our collection. Colleagues from the photography sphere from Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities helped us to get these books. And here we are showing part of our collection, which was also with us in Paris, but we have already sold many books,” says Gintar Krasutskaitė, a representative of the photo gallery.

She notes that the photography industry, and the photobook industry with it, is quite strong in Lithuania. Such books are popular and are bought by a fairly educated audience that understands the value of such publications: “Many people are interested in Ukrainian photography here. It should be noted that historically Lithuanian and Ukrainian photographers were quite close, often collaborating. For example, Borys Mykhailov, a well-known representative of the Kharkiv School of Photography, was a good friend of the Lithuanian photographer Vytas Lutskus. They lived in different cities, but did similar projects, learned from each other.”

There are no specialized fairs dedicated to photobooks in Lithuania, but taking into account the demand for such literature, the presence of the Kaunas Photo Gallery at the fair is not accidental. They have their own bookshop and are always ready to offer interesting content to the audience.

Marius Burokas, a Lithuanian writer and editor of the English-language edition of Lithuanian literature Vilnius Review, answers the question on which Ukrainian books the Lithuanians lack, saying that they require all of them. There is a lack of translations of twentieth-century classics of prose, contemporary bestsellers, voices of war, poetry, and historical non-fiction in particular.

“Since the early 2000s, stories about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania have been more popular, and now interest has shifted to the history of the entire region: Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and their interactions,” says Burokas.

Lithuanians are now very much interested in researching their own history, in particular the partisan period, and want to learn more about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). A representative of the independent military publishing house Ernesros confirms this trend. According to him, since the escalation of the war in Ukraine, sales of their books, which mostly introduce Lithuanians to military history, have increased by 50%: “You had the UPA, we have the Forest Brothers. Now people want to know more about those who fought for independence. Most of our books are about the struggle for independence.”

About 20 events were dedicated to the city of Vilnius, which celebrates its 700th anniversary this year. These included a discussion by representatives of UNESCO Cities of Literature, talks about alternative histories of Vilnius researched by local historians, readings of excerpts from letters of Gediminas, poetry dedicated to the city’s anniversary, book presentations and conversations about the names, faces, tastes, architecture and interiors of Vilnius.

After the pandemic, this year’s book fair was the first full-fledged one. And despite the fact that publishers’ sales increased during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, the “appetite” for live communication was great. In 2022, the war also affected the reading habits of the Lithuanian audience.

“In the first months of the escalation of the war in Ukraine many of us could read nothing but the news, and only now we are returning to consistent reading and talking about books, despite the fact that we continue to follow the news. And this pause in reading, of course, had a negative impact on the sales of Lithuanian publishers in 2022,” said Ruta Elijoskaitė-Kaikariene, Executive Director of the Lithuanian Publishers Association and Chair of the Vilnius UNESCO City of Literature. At the fair, some bestsellers were sold out in the first days, and readers are once again thirsty for books and talks about books.

It must be noted that Lithuanians come not only to buy books, but also because of the people behind these books. After all, personal experiences and live communication are sometimes way more important than literature itself. Halyna Kruk, a writer, puts it this way: “When Lithuanians come to meet with Ukrainian writers, they are primarily interested not in some political or any other expertise on the events in Ukraine, but in one’s personal impressions, one’s reflections. They come to get an emotional message, a reaction to events, not for facts. For example, I was asked what my typical day looks like. In other words, they are interested in how the war affects us in terms of various humanitarian challenges, how we experience it, and this is what literature allows us to show.”

Halyna also told us that, after her poetry reading at the book fair, Lithuanian artists Jelena Škulis and Dileta Deyke from the Rankų darbas handicraft studio presented her with a cloth with her embroidered poem about the Russian-Ukrainian war on it. The canvas belonged to the grandmother of one of the artists, who had experienced the horrors of the Russian occupation. Thus, by talking about our traumas, Lithuanians are also talking about their own, generational traumas of occupation. And this is another obvious explanation for why there is so much empathy between Lithuanian and Ukrainian audiences.

Ruta Statulevičytė-Kaučikienė, communications manager of the Lithuanian Culture Institute, says that this year’s gathering is largely therapeutic and important for all age groups of readers.

“We are especially pleased that we managed to engage the teenage audience in reading at this fair we have a Young Readers Room where teenagers can talk to each other and to the invited influencers who agreed to participate in the book fair, including rap artists and insta-bloggers. It is important that teenagers participated in shaping the fair’s programme,” said Ruta Statulevičytė-Kaučikienė.

Over the four days of the event 52,700 guests visited the book fair. Readers came to see their favourite authors, took part in discussions and talked to each other a lot. In total, 180 authors spoke, including celebrities such as Nora Krug and Olga Tokarchuk (online). And on Friday and Saturday, everyone had the opportunity to enjoy performances by their favourite musicians, including Alina Orlova, who has often visited Ukraine and is well known to our listeners.

Persistence of Ukrainian stories

The Book Arsenal International Festival together with the Lithuanian Culture Institute co-curated a special Ukrainian programme of events called Persistence of Sounding. Events included exhibitions, film performances, film screenings, discussions, poetry readings, creative meetings and workshops.

“The attention from Lithuanians is very important to us, and in general, this stand and our participation became possible thanks to the Lithuanian initiative: our partners from Litexpo, the Lithuanian Culture Institute, did everything possible to make sure that Ukraine was represented at the fair. The Ukrainian Book Institute joined the organization of the stand and brought 12 publishing houses from Ukraine, and our colleagues from the Book Arsenal created a programme that, according to visitors’ feedback, is very interesting for Lithuanians. They want to see Ukrainian authors, attend workshops and events,” Sofia Cheliak, the coordinator of the stand from the Ukrainian Book Institute, said.

Publishing houses, participating in the national stand, were: Zaliznyi Tato, Vydavnytstvo 21, Chorni Vovtsi, Gerda, Staryi Lev Publishing House, Summit-Knyha, Neopalyma Kupyna, Folio, Yakabu, Bohdan Books, Baltia-Druk and Kalamar. There was also a stand from Gerda publishing house.

“People come to the Ukrainian stand for the opportunity to communicate, for the opportunity to hear testimonies and share their own. Sometimes a single question, not even “how are you doing?” but “where are you from?”, provokes long and sensitive answers. I heard from a Ukrainian woman who moved to Vilnius that “Vilnius accepts me with all my pain”. Lithuanians know the pain point, and they are ready to accept tears, hysterics, and the severity of trauma. They don’t get tired,” Kateryna Mikhalitsyna shared with us.

Among the participants of the events were children’s writer and poet Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, writer Andriy Lyubka, poet Halyna Kruk, artist Yevhen Arlov, poet and performer Haska Shyyan, film critic Alyona Penziy, coordinator of the International Book Arsenal Festival Yuliia Kozlovets, illustrators from the Pictoric club (Olena Staranchuk and Oleh Hryshchenko) and the Agrafka art studio (Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv).

The books by Andriy Lyubka Carbide and Haska Shyyan’s Behind the Back were presented in Lithuanian translation during the book fair. There were events for the youngest audience in different formats: readings, games, and masterclasses.

“My hour of conversation with children is a chance for them and their parents to regain normality, a chance for a new memory of when they were happy. If I can, I also involve mothers in the games, because this is a special complex topic. After one of our games, a mother came up to me and said that she couldn’t remember when anyone had touched her with tenderness, except for her child. Behind such stories is a catastrophe of loneliness,” Kateryna Mikhalitsyna said about her impressions of the Reading with the Hippo event.

Ukrainian illustrators and Ukrainian visual books were ever-present — from Pictoric’s large exhibition Illustrated Ukraine to Rodovid’s art books at the Kaunas Photo Gallery stand, from two exhibitions by Agrafka (The War that Changed Rondo and the premiere of illustrations to Moscoviada) to the exhibition of the winners of the Best Book Design 2022 competition.

“Our cooperation with the Baltic countries will grow stronger and stronger, particularly in terms of book illustration. Both Lithuania and the Baltic countries in general have an amazingly good visual taste, and we have a lot to learn from them and are open not only to broadcasting current messages, connected to the war, but also to long-term cooperation,” Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv told Chitomo exclusively.

There’s also a very important victory for us. A Ukrainian book was awarded in the Best Baltic Book Design, and it was the first time Ukraine took part in this competition. It was the Довідник безбар’єрності (Handbook of Barrier free Access).

This year’s experience of the Vilnius Book Fair shows that the longstanding cooperation between Lithuania and Ukraine in the cultural sphere is reaching a new level. Interaction is deepening, translations and interest in each other are increasing. As Sofia Chelyak notes: “Despite the fact that there is currently no programme for translating Ukrainian literature, Lithuanian publishers are finding opportunities to publish our books on their own, but on the other hand, these are also good books that eventually become part of their business model.”

This book fair has never practiced inviting guests of honour, and it made an exception for Ukraine, helping to organize our presentation for free. What is this if not evidence of special attitude and solidarity?

It is hard to deny though that the escalation of the war in Ukraine was a very important catalyst for these processes, and perhaps we would have liked to see a revival of Ukrainian-Lithuanian cultural exchange under different circumstances. But we must use the potential that already exists and respond to the sincerity of our Lithuanian friends. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians now living in Lithuania felt that this is not a foreign country for us. We have a lot in common in the past, shared historical and cultural experiences and a close understanding of the world and the current political moment. All this gives us hope that we will have just as much in common in the future. We have something to unite for, something to learn about each other’s culture.