A couple of weeks ago I was at the Lviv Publisher’s Forum, talking about the Ukrainian translation of my novel Dream Land. This annual forum in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv fills libraries, universities, coffee houses and theatres with a bewildering array of readings, discussions, concerts and lectures. Highlights for me were an all-night poetry slam, a Crimean Tatar-Ukrainian jazz fusion performance, meeting Lviv publishers Stary Lev, and a session with authors Oksana Zabuzhko from Ukraine and Katerina Tuckova from the Czech Republic held in a fabulous, faded Baroque theatre than could have been a Hammer horror film set.
In-between, there was time to wander the cobbled streets with their glorious central-European architecture. Over the last hundred years Lviv has changed its name four times as it has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, the Soviet Union and Ukraine. It’s seen its fair share of 20th century horrors, and has a largely undeserved reputation for extreme nationalism. In fact, it feels like a city that is confident and at ease with its identity: consciously cultured; literary; tolerant; polyglot; central-European.
This is a sign I noticed on a Lviv trolleybus window. Printed by the nationalist political party Svoboda, it is instructions in public transport etiquette: how to buy a ticket, ask the driver to stop and so on in polite, correct Ukrainian. “This may be a case when the term ‘grammar Nazi’ isn’t exactly an exaggeration,” a non-Ukrainian friend commented when he saw it.
It made me think about the line between being proud of one’s language and heritage, and wanting to impose it on those from other heritages. Much of the publisher’s forum was about cultural exchange and translation, a celebration of how literature can bridge national divides. But this year, for the first time in 23 years, Russian publishers were not invited to attend.
The decision roused much furious debate and anxious soul-searching in literary circles. Russian and Russian-language books, publishers and bookshops have dominated the Ukrainian literary market for 23 years. A recent spate of openly anti-Ukrainian literature from mainstream Russian publishers undoubtedly influenced the forum decision. But when does pride and protectionism become chauvinism and censorship? Does wanting to protect one’s own language, and encouraging people to speak it correctly and beautifully, make someone a ‘Nazi’?