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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksSeptember 17, 2023

‘You cannot use all the energy on fear’: How to hold a book festival in the middle of a war

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Yuliia Kozlovets is the director of Book Arsenal, an annual festival in Kyiv, Ukraine, celebrating books from all angles. Claire Mabey caught up with her in Edinburgh. 

In Edinburgh, every night during the month of August, fireworks explode above the castle on the rock, and military aircraft roar over the old town as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo entertains thousands with its spectacle. For many, the nightly bangs and low-flying planes are a reminder that it’s festival season – a merry month of theatre, books, visual art, science – a phenomenon that explains why the compact, Medieval-Georgian City is thick with artsy bustle. 

For some visitors, though, the noise can come as a shock. 

“At the party, when that plane came. I was like, ‘Really…’” Yuliia Kozlovets says, shaking her head as she recalls the moment when an aeroplane noise-bombed outgoing Edinburgh Book Festival director, Nick Barley’s, farewell speech. “I understood where we were, you know, but it’s in your body to do this,” she hunches, her shoulders dropping as though shrinking from danger. “We are not living like normal people. It’s like living parallel lives.”

Kozlovets is the director of Book Arsenal in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine. We’re both part of a small cohort of festival makers, pulled together in the interests of international collaboration and exposure to the Scottish literary community. Over the week that Kozlovets and I spend together, I see how she keeps her phone close, and how many alerts pop up on her screen. They’re messages from a multitude of apps that try to warn Ukrainians of any and all possible attacks, from missiles, ballistic missiles (which, Kozlovets says, come so quickly you have no chance to hide), drones and other weapons of war.

“I can’t switch off from these channels,” she explains. “My parents and husband are in Kyiv. All these alerts from the systems we have in Ukraine to try and detect the attacks, they come to my phone and I check them. Of course I do.”

Book Arsenal started in 2011 and is a festival that puts the book at the centre of a kaleidoscope of events including design competitions, a book fair, thematic conversations, music, furiously fun events for children and young adults, exhibitions and performance. In an average year the festival fills Mystetskyi Arsenal – a majestic former monastery of sweeping ceilings and thick, creamy columns – with 55,000 visitors and 500 events over five days. They’ve had to cancel the festival twice so far. The first time because of Covid, the second when the full scale Russian invasion started in 2022.  

“You cannot always be afraid,” Kozlovets says as we walk up the Royal Mile, cluttered with Fringe Festival hopefuls plying us with flyers. “You don’t sleep normally, but you cannot use all the energy on fear.” The decision to hold a festival in June 2023 was the result of meticulous, exhausting consultation with agencies and government departments to risk-manage every second and from every angle. “This year, when we were doing the festival in the conditions of war, we were changing a lot.”

Adapting to the environment of constant threat to life included creating large bunkers below the building, specialist training in crowd management and attack response, reducing the programme down to three-and-a-half days, and 100 events, and dividing the audiences into three distinct areas: fiction, non-fiction, and an area for children and teenagers. Dividing the people in this way meant that it was easier to move crowds down into bunkers should an alert come through. “With this amount of people it takes less time. With a whole crowd it can take 30, 40 minutes to move and in that time you can be attacked.”

Yuliia Kozlovets (centre) with staff, at Book Arsenal 2023. (Photo Supplied)

Even while the decision-making process ahead of committing to the festival was a “crazy” one, and a concept that many found shocking, there was huge demand for Book Arsenal to take place. A month after the first invasion, Mystetskyi Arsenal held an exhibition called Exhibition of our Feelings. It was a space for artists and audiences to share their reactions and responses to the attacks, and while there were fewer people coming through the doors, those that did spent a lot of time looking at the work, talking to the artists, and being together. “So we saw this demand from people,” says Kozlovets. “They were looking for the arts, they were talking, they were sharing their own experiences with the people who they were meeting, and it was like some kind of safe place in which they were motivated to reflect. This encouraged us to make our festival.”

As well as dramatic changes to infrastructure and operations, the nature of Book Arsenal’s programming changed too. Since 2014, when Russia invaded, and took, Crimea, a profound shift within Ukrainian literature took place. In response, Book Arsenal 2023 included a series of events on the literature of war, and international guests included, largely, war journalists and human rights specialists, some of whom were already accredited to be based in Kyiv at the time.

On a normal year, over 100 writers from around the world travel to Kyiv for the Arsenal, but now, given the state of travel and the risk to life, Book Arsenal has instead focussed on sharing Ukrainian literature overseas, partnering with festivals all over the world, including Cheltenham Literary Festival and Edinburgh Book Festival. This work was important, explains Kozlovets, but it was for an international audience. Book Arsenal 2023 needed to be shared with those who had stayed in the Ukraine: “They need this festival and they need this event.”

The Winter preceding the 2023 festival had been exceptionally hard. Russia’s military had attacked infrastructure that delivered power, which resulted in rolling outages in freezing temperatures. Trying to work with no power, no lighting, no heat made the final decision-making around the festival challenging. It was during this time that guest curator, Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, hit upon the festival theme of “When Everything Matters”.

Kozlovets explains that the idea was to emphasise the current, very literal meaning of things: “When you’re speaking about light, you’re not speaking about something philosophical, you’re speaking about direct light: if you have light now, in the house, or not. If you’re speaking about freedom, we are speaking about freedom of our territories, freedom for our people, for the occupied territories, or for those who are kidnapped, or imprisoned, and so on. We are speaking about the concrete meanings of democracy and democratic values. And Ukrainians are the nation to understand this.” 

Soldiers browsing books at Book Arsenal 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

There were three alerts over the three days of Book Arsenal in June 2023, two of them at the very end of the day, which Kozlovets considers to be lucky. “Our festival was absolutely amazing,” she says, smiling. We’re sitting and talking in a small yurt set up for interviews and private conversation at the festival site. It’s adjacent to the industry-famous Edinburgh Book Festival’s larger, boho-chic artist’s yurt which houses a steady flow of delicious catering, local beers, ciders and wine (not so local). We ladle chickpea soup into biodegradable bowls next to Simon Schama, Ali Smith, Nicola Sturgeon, Anne Enright, and RF Kuang, among others. Outside there are grassy spots with picnic tables in the shade of trees. The Gruffalo even made an appearance one Saturday morning, inciting a frenzy among the family audiences.

Kozlovets visibly enjoys it all. Her ready sense of humour, her determination to have a good time while she’s here, is palpable, even with the spectre of alerts blinking on her phone. Throughout the week, Kozlovets offers her vast experience to our group, her programming triumphs and strategic wins. In the yurt, however, she tells me that while she’s happy to give away her ideas, her knowledge, she knows she can’t make much use of what we’re doing here. Her life, her working reality, is a universe away from where we are in this safe, Scottish context. When Nick Barley tells the champagne-clutching crowd at his leaving party that Edinburgh Book Festival is the best festival in the world, because he’s seen them all, I wonder if he knows what Kozlovets achieved only a few months prior.

“There is nobody who is not affected by the war,” Kozlovets tells me when we’re back in the bubble of the yurt. “Writers become soldiers, and soldiers become writers. Because of this, our literature is becoming very mixed, very different. Also, we are writing shorter things now. To write a novel takes time. This is the time for poetry, for essays, for non-fiction. These genres are developing very fast: we have a boom in anthologies, and translation of those into other languages, too. The novel needs distance. I think after the war, when that comes, we will see novels reflecting our experience of this time.”

The highlight of this year’s festival, for Kozlovets, was a commissioned collaborative work with the Mariupol Chamber Orchestra and the Ukrainian Institute who are leading the Documenting Ukraine project. “It was absolutely heartbreaking,” says Kozlovets. The Orchestra had to flee Mariupol in February 2022 when the Russian army invaded in what’s known now as the Mariupol Siege. For Kozlovets, the performance was an example of art as a sign of resistance, and of festivals as a source of resistance.

“I was asked by a lot of journalists how and why we were going to do this,” she says. “I was grateful for the attention; and because of the international guests who came, the news of what we were doing was published in Italy, Germany, Britain, Czech Republic, and France. But the festival itself gave us the feeling that we were alive. It was a sign that we live. Culture is one of the targets of our enemy. They want to destroy not only the country, and us, personally, but also they aim to eliminate our history.”

The Mariupol Chamber Orchestra performance that opened Book Arsenal 2023. Photo supplied.

For those who couldn’t attend in person, Kozlovets and her team devised a way for libraries all over Ukraine to select filmed events and broadcast them inside their own buildings. It was a way of keeping everyone connected through conversation, through art and through gathering. “When you see a festival like this, you know you are not alone. In these difficult times, you’re looking for support or asking for support.”

Two days after the festival ended, there was a catastrophic missile attack on Kramatorsk, a city about eight hours by car from Kyiv. Colombian writers, Héctor Abad Faciolince and Sergio Jaramillo, who had just appeared at Book Arsenal, were caught up in the fray which killed many, including celebrated Ukrainian author, 37-year old poet and novelist, Victoria Amelina, who had also participated in multiple events. “She was an incredible person. The doctors couldn’t save her. It was so big for our community. We had only just spent this time together. We were all in black and crying.”

The tragedy prompted Kozlovets to consider how Ukrainians are collectively forced to endure such big losses, and such relentless shock. “Being together among all this is very important. It’s important not to feel alone, that your creativity has an audience, and it is for this audience. It’s also important to show support, and employment, to the authors and artists who are doing the creative work.”

Kozlovets and her team are currently planning the next festival, in 2024. They are proud of what they achieved in 2023, and what they’ve developed over the years that they’ve been operating. The texture of the programme is invigoratingly interdisciplinary and many projects seeded within Book Arsenal have continued on to grow into organisations of their own. Supporting the ongoing development of Ukraine’s publishing industry is important to Kozlovets, who says that through the ecosystem of Book Arsenal, “everything is lifted.”

“If people outside of the Ukraine want to support us,” Kozlovets tells me with a grin, “then first ask your government to give us all your weapons. After that, look for ways to collaborate. It’s mutually beneficial. It opens eyes, it’s interesting because we have an amazing history, so dramatic, so full of stories. And for us it is support because we are sharing our voices, explaining ourselves, we are discovering ourselves. We have amazing writers, great publishing houses, working all of this time even while being attacked; we keep publishing books. And if you understand what we have done with the festival, in the time we had to do it, you know we can do anything.”

YuliiaKozlovets is director of Book Arsenal, an annual festival in Kyiv, Ukraine which is run by Mystetskyi Arsenal, Ukraine’s flagship cultural institution.

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