Interview with the festival director Yulia Kozlovets
On June 22, the Book Arsenal, one of the largest book festivals in Ukraine, starts in Kyiv. It is an annual project of the Ukrainian cultural institution Mystetskyi Arsenal, founded in 2011 for the artistic community and lovers of books and reading. The festival is centered around books but is multidisciplinary, offering exhibition projects, theater performances, film screenings, music concerts, and much more alongside literary discussions and presentations. Regarding its format, the Book Arsenal is an international festival, as it constantly cooperates with European institutions: Goethe Institute, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Cheltenham Literary Festival.
In the context of a full-scale war, the Book Arsenal consists of fewer events than in the past but remains one of the most anticipated cultural events of the year. This year's focus theme, When Everything Matters, emphasizes the meanings we turn to in wartime and the need to keep looking for them.
This year's Book Arsenal consisted of about 100 events: discussions, lectures, presentations, poetry readings, book signings, concerts, performances, film screenings, and exhibition projects. The festival was attended by 28 thousand people.
We talked to the director of the Book Arsenal, Yulia Kozlovets, about how the festival began, what famous guests and participants it had, what this year's program is like, and why the Book Arsenal is important for Ukraine and the world.
How it all began
The first curator of the Book Arsenal, Olha Zhuk, came up with the idea that the festival was not primarily a fair or some professional activity but an experience for a broad audience who would gather in the space of the Mystetskyi Arsenal National Cultural, Art, and Museum Complex and enjoy the event, the main reason for which would be books.
So today, the Book Arsenal aims to bring together as many different people as possible who are interested in books, reading, or other intellectual leisure activities related to books. From the very beginning, the festival was conceived as a multidisciplinary project that, in addition to purely literary events, included content from related arts and artistic practices that would reflect on book issues. That is why the Book Arsenal hosts exhibitions, concerts, performances, and music evenings.
The book fair became a part of this festival because publishers were very dependent on sales for a long time due to the lack of a functioning book distribution system in Ukraine. Many visitors who came to attend the events of the festival program also came to buy books. Publishers joined the program events, setting up stands with their own books and new releases.
We worked hard to create this unique festival atmosphere people wanted to experience. Every year the festival grew and took up more and more space.
How the Book Arsenal is organized
Each year, the festival's preparations began around November, with a publication on its website of the terms of participation for the late May or June of the following year. We described the entire mechanism by which one could participate in the festival, either as a publisher or as a creative organization that proposed ideas for events for the program to be considered by the festival's curatorial team. An organizing committee consisting of the heads of Mystetskyi Arsenal's departments was in charge of the festival.
Around the fifth Book Arsenal, we came up with a focus theme. When the festival began to grow rapidly, we realized that it needed to be focused in some way to make it easier for visitors to navigate the event, understand better what it is about, and feel the pressing issues that require additional discussion or attention. So we started working with guest curators who developed the focus theme in various festival programs. There were programs from partner institutions, such as PEN Ukraine or the Dovzhenko Center. In the end, we had about 500 events and 15 stages.
For many years, the Book Arsenal has been building partnerships with the leading international cultural institutions operating in Ukraine, as well as with book fairs and festivals worldwide. Thus, we became partners of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Bologna Book Fair, the Cheltenham Literary Festival, and the Prague Book Fair. Major cultural institutions such as the Goethe-Institut Ukraine, the Polish Institute in Kyiv, the Czech Center, and the British Council have also always actively supported the festival, helping to attract foreign participants, bring authors, and organize meetings with writers whose books were published with the support of translation programs in different countries.
From the first year, the Book Arsenal was an international event visited by international guests. The curators put a lot of effort into personally inviting a large number of people from other countries. Over time, the festival gained popularity and reputation, and speaking about the event in the international community became easier after 2019. It was then that the London Book Fair awarded the Book Arsenal as the World's Best Book Festival of the Year. Once this happened, when we needed to introduce ourselves as a part of the Book Arsenal, everyone answered: "Yes, we know this festival.”
Throughout its existence, the festival has been visited by people from many countries and different cultures, such as historian Anne Applebaum, Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, Finnish writer Sophie Oksanen, Italian writer Alessandro Baricco, and children's writers Ulf Stark and Marianne Dubuc. The festival always attracted a diverse range of authors, and each year the Book Arsenal brought together about 100 international guests.
This year's Book Arsenal is a wartime festival
Due to martial law and security restrictions this year, we are returning to a limited format. The festival will be much smaller in scale than in recent years. The event will have fewer stages, events, speakers, and a different organizational structure of the fair - that is, everything is different this year. All in all, our lives have changed a lot under the influence of the full-scale war, so the events we organize are also changing.
This year's focus theme is When Everything Matters. It was curated by Ukrainian journalist and author Natalka Humeniuk. This topic is about the fact that for the Ukrainians, at this moment of their country's history, everything takes on a specific, very defined, and literal meaning. When we say good night to someone, we literally mean good night without air raids and shelling. When we talk about freedom, we are talking about the liberation of the Russian-occupied territories, the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war, and the right to do what we want in our own country.
In other words, we are talking about a moment of heightened reality when every word takes on a particular primary meaning. And on the one hand, all these words already have concrete meanings, but on the other hand, they are not fully articulated or require finding new definitions and some practice in talking about them.
This is a very multifaceted topic, which will include eight events. They are also multidisciplinary, featuring discussions on important issues, both international and domestic.
Global support for the Book Arsenal
The Book Arsenal has always worked with its partners, and this ultimately helped us in the face of a full-scale war. When we were forced to cancel the festival because of the Russian invasion, we were immediately approached by all our incredible partners, offering information, project, and financial support at their venues and in their countries.
The Frankfurt Book Fair, the main event of the professional book industry, offered us its support, and we presented our stand there. Participation in the Bologna Book Fair, a program partnership with the Cheltenham Festival, and the Ukrainian Day in Cheltenham are also important for our team.
On February 24, 2022, the Lithuanian Institute of Culture and the Lithuanian Book Publishers Association were hosting a festival. Literally in the morning, when they learned about the full-scale Russian invasion, they completely reprogrammed the opening day, and it was held in solidarity with Ukraine. All this geography of partners and support gives us the opportunity to speak out loudly, to talk about what hurts us, about topics that are important to us, and to open Ukrainian voices to the audiences of these festivals. People know us from our previous partnerships and trust us because they know we can make a great program and do the job well.
Why the Book Arsenal is needed even in times of war
This year we are doing the festival in Kyiv. Many people have left Ukraine, many are abroad or have evacuated to safer areas in Ukraine, but many internally displaced people have also arrived in Kyiv. Although there are not many events at the Book Arsenal this year, people's demand for cultural events is very much felt.
Our visitors live and work in conditions of anxiety, constant lack of sleep, stress, loss, and fear. They need this safe place, this opportunity to come together, to feel the shoulder of a friend, to be among excellent, high-quality content, to feel the unity of people who share their values and preferences, love to read like them, and admire Ukrainian authors.
Holding the festival means continuing the struggle for the existence of Ukrainian culture
Waiting for everything to fall into place as it was is not an option. Accordingly, we are trying to adapt, experiment, and try other models of events. I never thought we would hold the Book Arsenal during martial law, but this is happening to us, and we really need it. People who live here, who publish, write or read books, need it. The world needs to see that Ukraine is standing and fighting; Ukraine is alive, and despite everything happening to us, we are holding an intellectual event because our culture and identity are currently under threat. They are the objects of attack, the things that our enemy wants to destroy. So we demonstrate that we are alive — we are fighting, working, organizing festivals, and coming together.