17-hr bus ride no barrier for Ukrainian at Frankfurt book fair

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Frankfurt (AFP) – Illustrator Oleg Gryshchenko took a 17-hour bus ride and a flight to get to the Frankfurt Book Fair. But it was worth it, he says, to promote Ukrainian culture in the face of Russian aggression.

“I didn’t join the army, but we can fight with our art,” Gryshchenko told AFP on the fair’s opening day at an exhibition of images by Ukrainian illustrator group Pictoric.

“Many Ukrainian artists have joined the military and I’m proud – but I can draw better than with a gun.”

Gryshchenko is part of the large Ukrainian presence at the world’s largest publishing event: authors and industry personalities will be appearing at the country’s large booth throughout the week.

President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak at the fair on Thursday, part of the fair organizers’ effort to support Ukrainian culture against what they see as propaganda being spread by invading Russian forces.

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Gryshchenko traveled with his girlfriend and fellow artist Olena Staranschuk – after receiving the necessary permission to leave Ukraine.

Since there were no civilian flights, they took a long bus ride to Poland to attend an event there before flying on to Frankfurt.

“We were tired but we have to be here to represent Ukraine,” said 37-year-old Gryshchenko. “I would even travel 20 or 30 hours.”

“Culture as a weapon”

Setting up the large Ukraine stand in the cavernous conference center presented a number of challenges, not the least of which was transporting furniture and books overland to Frankfurt.

Getting them out of Kyiv has been further complicated by recent Russian missile attacks, said Sofia Cheliak of Ukraine’s Book Institute, which is part of the culture ministry.

Getting them from Kyiv to Frankfurt took about two days, said Cheliak, who helped organize the booth. “Everything was closed because of the attacks. It was quite difficult to find a car and organize the whole process.”

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But the stand is there, with a wide range of Ukrainian books of all kinds. It also has a stage over which a big red light flashes when air raid sirens go off in Ukraine.

“I didn’t join the army, but we can fight with our art,” says Gryshchenko OTHER PAIN AFP

46 Ukrainian publishers will take part in the five-day fair, which opened on Tuesday. Among the many participating authors is the well-known “punk poet” Sergiy Zhadan.

Ukrainian officials see high-profile events like the fair as key to cracking down on Russia’s attempts to erase the country’s identity.

“Russia uses culture as a weapon,” said the Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, in a video message on the Tuesday of the fair.

He accused the Moscow armed forces of having burned Ukrainian books and replaced them with Russian literature. “Russia is fighting against the Ukrainian people and our identity.”

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Emerging from Russia’s shadow

While Ukrainians have top billings at the fair, Russian state institutions that normally run their country’s stand have been banned. Instead, prominent opponents of President Vladimir Putin got the stage.

While Ukraine’s publishing industry initially ground to a halt following the Russian invasion in February, it has since revived.

Sales may not be as high as they were before the conflict, but some types of books are proving popular, Cheliak said: Ukrainian history, for example – and how to deal with trauma.

Bringing Ukraine's material to the fair was not an easy task
Bringing Ukraine’s material to the fair was not an easy task OTHER PAIN AFP

Pictoric sees the fair as a chance to show the world that Ukraine is about more than just war – their exhibitions include not only conflict-inspired illustrations, but also others from the pre-war era, covering a range of themes .

“A lot of people didn’t know anything about Ukraine, and now we have a chance to show them what Ukraine is,” said one of the group’s illustrators, Anna Sarvira.

“For a long time we were in Russia’s shadow… We’re trying to change that.”

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