foreign agents bill

Publisher from Georgia David Kakabadze: The most important thing is to get rid of Russian influence


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David Kakabadze is a journalist, translator, and book publisher from Georgia. For 25 years, he has been a journalist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Germany and in the Czech Republic. Since 2021, he has been the co-owner of a book publishing house and a concept store, Siesta Publishing. During the interview, we sat with David in another book space – Sens bookstore. Drinking Ukrainian cold brew, we talked about being “foreign agents,” David’s experiences of searching and translating Ukrainian books, and his views on book publishing in Georgia, Ukraine, and Germany.

We spoke on the 2nd of June, just one day before the Georgian “foreign agents” – “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” — bill was enforced. David’s visit to Ukraine is a part of the Book Arsenal Fellowship Program.


Chytomo: David, my first question is about the “foreign agents” bill. I know that you are protesting, your colleagues are protesting, and everybody is against this severe rights violation. (Massive protests have occurred throughout Georgia since the new law draft was again considered in March 2024.) It is crucial for my readers and me to follow this because it’s all a part of a bigger image and our fight against Russian aggression. Could you describe the situation in relation to the Georgian book publishing market? How has it influenced those in book publishing?


David Kakabadze: It is too soon to speak about the influence because this radical change in policy direction just started at the beginning of April. Until then, the government claimed that the goal was still Europe, and we wanted to move in that direction. 

But one year later (the first draft of the foreign agent’s bill was introduced in March 2023), they are pushing the same bill, but with a change of name, from the law on foreign agents to the law on foreign influence. People felt humiliated. It was obvious that this government was and still is lying to the people.


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Our main goal is to get rid of the Russian influence and revive the country. Because we are heading in a very dangerous direction again, towards Russia, and we cannot allow this to happen.


What did we do as book publishers? Of course, we wrote a letter of protest. We protest all the time as a group and as a whole community. For example, in mid-May, we had a protest march from the writer’s house. We gathered publishers, booksellers, writers, translators, and all literary people. We gathered at the writer’s house symbolically and went from there to Rustaveli Avenue to join the bigger protest. 

Furthermore, we suppose that the publishers who are very strongly against this law and against the government will feel consequences, like withdrawal of government funding. So, to speak, our publishing house and 30 other publishing houses refused to take any grants from the state as long as this government was in place. We signed a special letter for this. So we are targets for the government now.


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Chytomo: Could you describe how much Georgian book publishers depend on the government?


David Kakabadze: The Georgian market is a tiny book market. Without support, you cannot cover even the costs of publication, and we can not begin to speak about profit. So we depend on grants a lot, mostly foreign ones, but there are local grants as well. For instance, the Writer’s House offers grants, as does the Tbilisi mayor’s office.


The average print run for most publishers is three to four hundred copies. We usually consider ourselves happy if we sell more than one thousand copies of a book.


Hopefully, when the government changes (the next election is in October 2024), we will again start getting grants from them.


Chytomo: Could you tell me more about the book publishing market in Georgia — you told me how much is selling, but what do people prefer to read?


David Kakabadze: Nonfiction books are becoming more and more popular. Also, as a reaction to the ongoing political events in Georgia, more and more people ask for George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian works like “1984,” “Animal Farm,” or “Brave New World.” Yes, these are great books (all three published by Siesta, by the way) but we do not want to live in another animal farm, even if it is called “the brave new world.”


Chytomo: David, coming back to your personal story, you had experience working in Germany and then in the Czech Republic. So you are a “foreign agent” yourself? How did you decide to return to Georgia and jump into the book publishing business? 


David Kakabadze: My background is in German literature. I studied it in Tbilisi and then in Jena, East Germany, before returning to Georgia to work as a sports journalist.


And then 9 April happened (April 9, 1989 — The massacre of Tbilisi, the crush of pro-independence demonstrations in Tbilisi, as a result of those 21 people were killed and hundreds were injured). One friend of mine, among them, one neighbor of mine. It was an enormous shock for me, and I decided to give up journalism. I started teaching at Tbilisi State University.


In 1990, I got a fellowship from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation to write my PhD in Cologne, Germany. Just three months after I left the country, the civil war broke out in Georgia, and I decided to give up my studies and go back to Tbilisi where my wife and two kids (aged one and six) were living. But my German professor persuaded me to stay and helped me bring my family to Germany. Then, for the next 25 years,  I worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich and Prague. In 2018 I quit my job and moved back to Georgia.


Publisher Ketevan Kiguradze, the founder of the Siesta Publishing House, wrote to me then:


“If you consider taking any job here in Tbilisi, here is my publishing house. Join me and let’s do the job together.”


And it was a dream job! It is great to have the possibility to pick books that you like, to publish whatever you like, and to translate what you want. Siesta Publishing House is not very big, but well established with a good name in Georgia. 


After the war in Ukraine escalated, we, as a publishing house, thought that we had to do something about that to show our solidarity with the Ukrainian people.


Chytomo: And then you’ve started looking for books from Ukraine?


David Kakabadze: Indeed! Then I stumbled upon a book by Serhii Rudenko “Zelensky: A Biography.” As Serhii had been a correspondent of Radio Free Europe for some time, I felt I could trust him.


So we contacted him through the German agency and bought the rights. I translated this book myself, and it was published in May 2022, so shortly after the war began. Serhii rewrote the book practically for us, and then this book was translated into more than 20 languages. We were the first to translate.


Then we published Katerina Babkina, “My Grandfather Danced the Best” and Artem Chekh’s “Absolute Zero.”


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Chytomo: Why these books?


David Kakabadze: There are two different stories about this. As for Babkina, I was reading a blog by Michael Judge, in 2022. In this blog, Katerina’s stories were introduced very firmly, so I decided to contact her.


As for Chekh, I read an article in The New York Times – 6 Books to Read for Context on Ukraine. And among those was “Absolute Zero” by Artem Chekh. I liked his honesty and criticism. I mean he writes in a simple direct way, and he’s not making a hero out of himself. He writes about his weaknesses during the war, this fascinates me.


I applied for a support grant from the Translate Ukraine Program and got selected. So my big thank you to the Ukrainian Book Institute for supporting our projects.


Chytomo: I’ve also heard from my colleagues at Chytomo that you are preparing to publish Victoria Amelina’s book “Dom’s Dream Kingdom.”


David Kakabadze: Yes, this was Iryna’s Baturevych proposal from the last Frankfurt Buchmesse. 


I was very moved by the story of Victoria Amelina (Victoria Amelina – a Ukrainian writer, was killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk on the 3rd of July 2023). I didn’t know her personally, but when the tragedy happened, I was very touched. 


Gvantsa Jobava, the former chairperson of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association and the Vice President at the International Publishers Association, knew her personally. When this happened, almost a year ago, we were together with Gvantsa in Tsalenjikha, western Georgia, at a book festival. Gvantsa came with tears in her eyes, saying, my good friend was seriously wounded in a rocket attack in Kramatorsk. Sadly, Victoria passed away a few days later. 


When Iryna proposed to me one of her books, I leaned toward this. Later when I found that the novel is about a dog, it was even more appealing to me since I like animals very much.


Chytomo: Thank you for this support and for publishing Ukrainian books. Coming back to your publishing, I know your book publishing house also has a pretty book space, and it’s a touristic place in Tbilisi. How do you manage to create it?


David Kakabadze: We opened this bookstore in December 2021 in Vake, a very pretty district where many tourists walk around and many foreigners live. However, the rent is very high. 

David Kakabadze: “This is the entrance to our bookstore where, among other things, we sell postcards drawn by Ukrainian children. All money is spent for charity purposes.”


And soon after we opened, we realized that we could not survive by selling only books, because we were not even able to cover the rent. Keti Kiguradze had the idea to establish something like a concept store and to offer Georgian designers to sell their stuff in our shop. There are a lot of designers who don’t have opportunities to sell their stuff. It’s very tough, and bigger shops ask for huge money just to put your stuff there.

And we said, let’s divide the costs and let’s divide the income. But this needs to be more or less connected to culture, to literature, like bookmarks, postcards, bags, and t-shirts with quotes from different literary works, etc. And yes, everything is handmade.


Chytomo: What was your last time in Kyiv, and how do you feel in Kyiv now? 


David Kakabadze: I visited Kyiv a few times before. The last time was in the late seventies-early eighties. I used to work as a sports reporter, and I always came here to match Dynamo Tbilisi – Dynamo Kyiv. It was always a very tough rivalry.


The biggest difference for me now, besides the new architecture, is to hear the Ukrainian language in the streets, which was not the case at that time. In the metro yesterday, I saw clips promoting learning the Ukrainian language.


I think that Putin in some way unified the Ukrainian nation. The way Ukrainians unite and withstand Russian aggression should be a matter of interest for everyone. It should be important to the whole world, because Ukraine is fighting the war for the whole civilized world, not for itself, not only for Georgia.


Chytomo: And how do you feel about the Book Arsenal and the Fellowship Program?


David Kakabadze: Last year, I participated in the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Special Program for publishers from Ukraine and neighboring countries. I applied for that fellowship, and I was accepted. There, I had the great chance to meet your compatriots. It was very nice to meet them and have conversations about our common problems, our business, and our stories.


David Kakabadze: “Photos taken at Book Arsenal in Kyiv. We sent Georgian books (translations of Babkina and Chekh) for Georgians fighting in Ukraine against Russian aggression.”


Through them, I learned about this Arsenal Book Festival, and I told Oksana Karpiuk that I would like to attend at some point. Later, when this fellowship was announced, I immediately applied for it and was selected. 


It’s great to experience this festival and to see people working under such circumstances.


I consider them real heroes. So to speak, yesterday I met Nataliia Miroshnyk, a representative from Vivat Publishing. She is from Kharkiv, and the city is constantly under attack; just a week ago their printing facility was destroyed. I asked her, “Are you going back?” She replied, “Yeah, tomorrow I’m traveling back to Kharkiv.”


It’s fascinating. Russians will never destroy Ukraine.


Chytomo: Thank you for this sense of common ground. As for your ground, which book would you recommend learning more about the current situation in Georgia? 


David Kakabadze: Well, to understand, there is one book by Lasha Bugadze, “Small Country,” published by Sulakauri. It is about Georgia, its recent past and present. I don’t think it has been translated into any language; it’s quite new. 


Chytomo: And my last question will be again about Ukrainian books. What do you think about Ukrainian nonfiction? Starting from 2014, we have a big splash of nonfiction, of the reports from war. As a reader and a journalist yourself, how do you evaluate the potential of this literature?


David Kakabadze: I think Ukrainian nonfiction books about the war are not necessarily the best way to understand Ukraine. Maybe, it just needs to be high-quality literature (fiction or nonfiction), and it doesn’t matter whether it touches the subject of war or not. For instance, for me, a book by Serhii Plokhy, “The Gates to Europe,” is very important to understand the formation of Ukrainian identity and to understand that we–Ukrainians and Georgians–have a lot in common.


But the best way, of course, to see this connection is by visiting us. Come to Tbilisi, and you’ll see Ukrainian flags everywhere, and you will see Ukrainian people at the demonstrations for Georgian rights. Together we are stronger and we will win. 




Editorial note:


Some days after our interview, I talked with David about the situation in Tbilisi with Georgian publishers after the “foreign agents” bill was enforced:

“We still don’t know what it will mean exactly for us as publishers. As for the protests, they don’t happen as often as in April and May, which does not mean that people accepted the law. They just changed tactics, trying to organize an educational campaign throughout Georgia about the law and its consequences. Besides, President Salome Zurabishvili presented the roadmap for resolving the political crisis and returning to the path of EU integration.”


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The Book Arsenal Fellowship Program is a part of “Promoting exchange between the German and Ukrainian book & literature industries” program.

Photo courtesy of David Kakabadze

Copy editing: Nicole Yurcaba, Terra Friedman King