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Christian Andersen Award
Russian influence on IBBY: can we trust the “Nobel Prize” of children’s literature?09.01.2023
There is no end to the discussion in social networks about the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and the jury of the Hans Christian Andersen Award — the “Nobel Prize” in the field of children’s literature, which the Queen of Denmark refused to patronize. How exactly do Russians occupying high positions in its structures harm the organization?
Depending on your location, access to links leading to Russian sites may be limited, so the article contains several screenshots in case the materials are not available. English translations of the images are provided automatically by Google Translate – Ed.
On January 10, the IBBY Executive Committee will meet to discuss the situation with the Russian illustrator Anastasia Arkhipova as President of the Andersen Awards jury. She seems to be causing increasing reputational damage to the organization, but she is not the only troubled figure in IBBY.
Arkhipova was elected to this high position in September. In previous years, she had already been a member of this jury, but this is the first time she has become its head. Instead, her colleague Denis Beznosov was re-elected for a second term to the Executive Committee in September 2022 and elected as Vice President of IBBY.
Both are Russians with a long history of working in government institutions. Beznosov is the deputy director of the Russian State Children’s Library. At the same time, Arkhipova is an associate professor at the Stroganov Moscow Academy of Arts and Industry, a member of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, the Moscow Union of Artists (MCX) and the Moscow branch of the Union of Artists of Russia (MOCX). In 2013, Arkhipova received the state award — the title of Honored Artist of Russia, in 2016 — the gratitude from the Minister of Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation, in 2018 and 2019 — a silver medal and gratitude from the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.
IBBY’s official position is that members of its structures represent themselves as artists, not as governments of their countries (obviously, even if these members have been cooperating with the Russian state for many years, receive awards from the authorities, etc.; and if so, why are the sections still called national?)
Similarly, the IBBY did not exclude from its membership the Russian board, which did not react to the full-scale invasion at least with a public statement, but also nominated a writer who openly supports the war for the Andersen Award-2024 (more on this below).
Note that neither Anastasia Arkhipova nor Denis Beznosov refused to work in the country’s state institutions that launched aggression against another sovereign country — neither after 2014, nor after February 24, 2022. They remain in these positions at a time when children, whose interests, according to the IBBY philosophy, should be at the center of the organization’s mission, continue to suffer from the war. At the same time, in the Kharkiv region, the Russian army killed Ukrainian children’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko and (as of January 5) 452 children. According to the portal “Children of War”, there are more than 877 wounded children. Since February 24, more than 13.8 thousand children have been forcibly deported to Russia from the occupied territories (at the time of writing these figures have increased – Ed.).
We believe that even without this connection to Russian state institutions, Arkhipova and Beznosov should not have been elected to their positions at IBBY during a full-scale war: they live in Russia, they represent Russian culture, and this “business as usual” legitimizes the claim that this war is “Putin’s war”, not the Russians’, and that culture is “beyond politics” (one can see how absurd this statement is by looking at the data on how systematically Russia destroys Ukrainian cultural monuments, libraries, books in the occupied territories under shelling). All this discredits an organization of such scale and with such a long history as IBBY.
However, it seems that Russians in this situation are considered “anti-war” actors by default unless they prove the opposite. So what have Anastasia Arkhipova, Denis Beznosov and the Russian section of IBBY been doing all this time?
Russian colleagues and the “tragic situation”
On 26 February 2022, IBBY released a statement on the Russian invasion called “The Ukraine conflict” *. This text describes in detail how war harms children, but the country that started the war, Russia, is mentioned only once. IBBY expresses its support for Ukraine, but asks to “remember our friends and colleagues at IBBY Russia in Moscow and St Petersburg, as they struggle to process this tragic situation.” This controversial statement was signed by the IBBY Executive Committee, which includes, among others, Denis Beznosov. Only ten months later, on October 28, the committee issued another statement on Ukraine, in which the war was called a war, not a conflict, and again assured of their support.
* “The Ukraine conflict” instead of “Russian invasion or aggression on/against Ukraine” is a frame that alludes to a civil war (internal conflict) and not the external aggression, which Russian propaganda has been promoting since the beginning of the war in Donbas.
When people in social networks began to be outraged by the appointment of Arkhipova and Beznosov and wrote about it to IBBY, the organization did not officially react for some time. However, some national sections like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belgium, and Moldova also started to speak out against the Russians. The Danish board has withdrawn its nominees for the Andersen Award, and the Ukrainian section announced the same. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark refused to patronize the award.
The main scandal in social networks broke out after it turned out that the Moscow branch of the Union of Artists of Russia (MOCX), where Arkhipova is on the board, held a propaganda poster contest “Agitfront” in the fall of 2022.
The screenshots were taken on 8.01.23, 14:18
In the description of the project on the MOCX website, the following topics for works are indicated: “reunification of historical Russian lands under the name “Together Forever” (a slogan used by Russia in the occupied Ukrainian territories), mobilization and responsible attitude to it, popularization of the volunteer movement, raising the military spirit, visual messages of the world-affirming the “russkiy mir” (Russian world) and its values, the demoralization of the enemy, counteraction to demonization of Russia, ideological and valuable confrontation of the worlds (Russia — NATO, Russia — USA)”, etc. The style and theme of the works, which are also published on the site, are corresponding. They actively use symbols of the Russian invasion (letters Z, V, visual messages like a bear that is going to trample on the Ukrainian coat of arms and flag, etc.)
Works of MOCX contestants Andrey Sannikov, Boris Zabolotskiy, Evdokiya Levina
In early January, representatives of Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown Odense addressed the IBBY’s international chairman Sylvia Vardell about this situation. For some reason in her response she blames… social networks, and not her Russian colleagues. “The misinformation spread via social media is so negative and destructive (…) we are fully aware of the gravity of the situation and the damage that the award and Hans Christian Andersen’s name are suffering due to the perceptions created via social media,” she explains and adds that Internet users simply confused the two organizations, МСХ and МОСХ (the Moscow Union of Artists and Moscow branch of the Russian Union of Artists).
It is easy for a foreigner who does not know the language to get lost in these Russian abbreviations that differ by one letter. Therefore, I will allow myself to assume that this statement of Ms. Vardell is based on the explanation of Arkhipova herself. It seems that she offered a similar reason to the journalists of the Danish edition DR, who wanted to take a comment from her. The Russian artist “initially denied any connection with MOCX and claimed to represent another union, the illustrators. However, her name appears on the MOCX website, so Arkhipova did admit that four years ago she was offered a seat on the board of directors,” the journalists wrote.
The term “offered” does not entirely explain what function Arkhipova performs in the МОСХ. Is she, as stated on the site, a member of the board and a member of the creative commission on graphics, or was her name just put there, and she has not known about it for four years?
The screenshot was taken on 8.01.23, 13:11
“However, she denied any connection to the poster contest, called it “disgusting” and asked “not to identify her with such ‘art’”. She added that she wants to resign from the MOCX board and avoided answering questions about the war. Arkhipova complained that she felt she had been harassed “beforehand”,” the DR article continues.
It will not be too difficult for Anastasia Arkhipova to “leave the MOCX”, because in 2023 her five-year term on the organization’s board ends. Hopefully, if we hear soon that Arkhipova is no longer in this position, she will not try to present it as a brave resistance to the system.
“Anastasia grieves for the people of Ukraine, especially for the children, but has little recourse to express her views in a repressive country like Russia,” Sylvia Vardell convinces in her letter. Well, it seems that Ukrainians should take Archipova at her word, because her actions prove just the opposite. However, the question arises:
How can a person so limited in expressing her views objectively evaluate the books and illustrations of the candidates for the award? What will be her decision when the nominees include authors discussing the war in Ukraine or Syria, the Russian attack on Georgia, etc.? Shouldn’t Anastasia first take care of finding opportunities to express her own opinions freely?
Touring artist in the occupied territories aka nominee for the Andersen Award
Meanwhile, “colleagues in Moscow and in St Petersburg”, whom the IBBY Executive Committee asked not to forget in February 2022, have submitted their nominees for the Andersen Award 2024. Officially, the candidates from all countries will be announced in March at the Bologna Book Fair. Still, you can already read about the candidates from Russia on the page of the Russian State Children’s Library.
The screenshot was taken on 8.01.23, 17:40
One of them is the writer Andrey Usachev. Anyone who wants to get to know him better will find many interesting things online. Here, in an interview from July 2022, he speaks about the development of children’s literature in Russia: “A separate question is about ideologization: it has always existed and will always exist. Nature does not tolerate emptiness. For the last 30 years we have had an active Western ideology (how much “tolerant” European bullshit was printed in the country where the pioneers-heroes were replaced for a while by blue guys), and now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.”
As an illustration that Usachev’s books are interesting not only for children, the publication picked up his photo with the Russian military.
The screenshot was taken on 8.01.23, 17:25
When Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbas in 2014, Andrey Usachev became a frequent visitor to the occupied Ukrainian territories. On the web, you can find references to his tour around the occupied Luhansk region, during which he “supported the Russian language, Russian literature, our culture”, and a photo with the flag of the terrorist organization DNR. Usachev sent his books to the occupied Ukrainian territories, and in 2018 there was even a festival dedicated to his 60th anniversary.
As Usachev admits, he has been to the occupied Ukrainian East 6 times since 2014. In an interview in May 2022, he called Ukrainians “Nazis” and openly supported the war (a special military operation in Russia).
Moreover, Andrey Usachev is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Russian State Children’s Library, where Denis Beznosov works as a deputy director. He is a frequent guest at the library’s events.
The library itself holds meetings with children “evacuated” (in fact forcibly displaced) to Russia from the occupied Donbas, and even takes them to Moscow for excursions, using the money of Putin’s fund (Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives). You can see Denis Beznosov in the photos from these meetings. According to the text of the publication, Russian figures told Ukrainian children about the “rich cultural heritage of Russia”.
Screenshots were taken on 8.01.23, 17:25
It seems that decades after World War II and reflections on individual and collective responsibility, we are back to where we started. I understand that during the communication within IBBY, Anastasia Arkhipova and Denis Beznosov were convinced that they don’t support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Therefore IBBY believes that we should give them the benefit of the doubt.
But why is IBBY not interested in how they proved it by their actions? Is it possible not to work for war while remaining in Russian state institutions? Where does the line of responsibility lie, and how does it relate to silent participation in propaganda or passive observation, to the legitimization of institutions that assert Russian power in the occupied territories through the imposition of Russian culture, but also through the murder and deportation of children? How can the Russian section of IBBY remain in the IBBY, which not only did not oppose the invasion but nominated a writer who openly supports this invasion as a nominee for the Andersen Award?
“It is difficult to be active at the international level without the approval of the Russian government. That’s why she (Arkhipova — ed.) becomes a symbol regardless of what she thinks about the war,” believes Margaretha Ullström, the head of the Swedish section of IBBY.
It seems that the IBBY leadership should think about this again, recalling the context, in which the organization was created after World War II, and its basic principles. Otherwise, the focus of its attention risks shifting from protecting the interests of children to defending the Russian status quo.
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