‘Hope matters’: Ukrainian and international authors on why literature is important in times of conflict

Ten writers appearing at the Lviv BookForum, run this year in partnership with the Hay festival, discuss why we need books more than ever

Tetyana Ogarkova: ‘We write and read to understand reality’

Ukrainian literary scholar and journalist

War takes away the ability to speak from many. Many writers say that they cannot write. A number of readers claim that they cannot read. The reality of war is something that can deprive you of the most important things – your life, your time and your capacity to think. It is difficult to write, to think and to dream when a missile hits the very heart of your reality.

But literature is still important. We write and read to understand reality. We write and read to invent a reality. When there is a war, you desperately need both.

When there is a war and you lose something valuable, if not everything valuable, you might think that everything is meaningless. In a way, war and violence are the pure absence of meaning.

That’s why there is no excuse for someone who starts an aggressive war. But those who defend themselves have to search for the meaning of their resistance every single day.

They say that wars are won by those who stand on the battlefield under heavy artillery fire and do not retreat. But no one can bear this if he does not understand the meaning of his resistance. Before being invincible on the battlefield, you have to find the words to justify your future victory.

Literature, among other things, provides us with an opportunity to find these words.


Yuval Noah Harari.
Yuval Noah Harari. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Peace begins in the mind of a poet’

Israeli professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of books including the global bestseller Sapiens

Wars are usually fought over stories. People think that like wolves and chimpanzees, we fight over territory. But that is rarely true. Wolf packs and chimpanzee bands fight over hunting grounds and fruit trees, without which they would starve to death. Humans fight over the fantasies that they attach to certain places. Israelis and Palestinians don’t really need Jerusalem in order to eat. Hitler didn’t invade Poland because Germans ran out of space to build houses. If people really fought over territory, then Russia – the largest country in the world – should also have been the most peaceful. What do Russians need more territory for?

Most wars originate in the mind of some poet. The generals come much later, and while they think they obey the laws of realpolitik, they actually follow the dreams of a mythmaker. What drove Putin to invade Ukraine are fairytales about imaginary threats, and fantasies about power and glory. The war can ultimately be traced to the stories Putin loved as a child in the 1950s, and to the stories Russian children still learn at school today.

But peace too begins in the mind of some poet, able to see a better world through the smoke of war. When the cannons roar, the muses must speak louder than ever, and be extra careful about what they say. In the midst of carnage, we are tempted to sow the seeds of future hatred. But it’s our responsibility to sow the seeds of future concord.


The second Crimean Fig anthology.
The second Crimean Fig anthology. Photograph: Crimean House

Alim Aliev: ‘The written word is an island of freedom in the storm of repression’

Ukrainian deputy director general of the Ukrainian Institute and co-founder of CrimeaSOS

Last week, the Russian occupation court of Crimea sentenced my friend Nariman Dzhelal to 17 years in prison. Dzhelal was falsely accused of blowing up the gas pipeline on the peninsula, but the real reason he was sentenced, I believe, is that he was the most powerful and courageous voice of Crimean Tatars – the indigenous people of Ukraine..

Dzhelal has been behind bars for a year, and during this time he has become an author of prose and poetry. There are more than 140 Crimean political prisoners like him, and some of them write texts in Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages, which my colleagues and I have published in the anthology Crimean Fig. The written word has become an island of freedom in the storm of repression.

Crimean Tatar literature has gone underground, with authors writing under pseudonyms and using Aesopian language to write about life under occupation, as well as historical topics. Some writers get together and hold meetings in private apartments where they read poetry and prose for a limited circle of “their people”. This helps preserve the Crimean Tatar language, which today is endangered, according to Unesco, and is a cornerstone of the identity that Russian colonial policy is trying to destroy.


The Last Colony by Philippe Sands.
The Last Colony by Philippe Sands. Photograph: Orion

Philippe Sands: ‘Literature allows us to imagine across time and place’

British and French lawyer and author of books including the recently released The Last Colony

A month after the war against Ukraine began, a friend wrote to say that the Russian language translator of my book East West Street, on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity in Lviv, in Ukraine, had been arrested. A lifelong defender of human rights, she was detained on the edge of Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square, heading for the spot associated with acts of solitary, peaceful protest. She wanted to read a poem, written out on a large piece of paper.

The police spotted the rolled-up paper poking from her backpack. They stopped her and asked to see the paper. They read lines drawn from a poem, Listening to the Horrors of War. They were written in 1855, by renowned poet Nikolay Nekrasov, owner and editor of Sovremennik, a literary magazine, who had been inspired by stories submitted to him by Leo Tolstoy, recently returned from the war in Crimea. Nekrasov published them as the Sevastopol Sketches.

The translator was duly arrested. She was charged with “discrediting the current special operation by reading the text that Nekrasov wrote at the tail-end of the Crimean war, having been influenced by Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches.”

Literature allows us to think and imagine, across time and place. It helps us to understand, as Tolstoy hoped with his Sketches, that the horrors and futility of war allow only one hero: truth.


Rachel Clarke.
Rachel Clarke. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Rachel Clarke: ‘Bearing witness in a time of war is profoundly necessary’

British palliative care doctor and author of Dear Life

Even in a chaotic, overwhelmed NHS hospital, I am struck anew every day at work by the medicinal force of storytelling. There is morphine for pain, silk for lacerations, electricity to jolt broken hearts back to life – but so often a doctor’s most transformative act is the one in which they stop and listen to a patient’s story. In turn, a doctor’s words can encourage, console, instil hope, assuage fear. Titrated carefully, dosed just right, words can even take a dying patient from the depths of despair to a place of hope or serenity. I’m not sure any drug has more power.

War, in this respect, is surely like illness. Amid the fracturing of normal life, the losses and upheavals, the new uneasy state of uncertainty and fear, telling one’s own story has immense therapeutic potential. Bearing witness in a time of war may be perilous, courageous, reckless or defiant. It is also profoundly necessary.


Samar Yazbek.
Samar Yazbek. Photograph: Ed Alcock/MYOP Diffusion

Samar Yazbek: ‘Writing truth offers justice to the oppressed’

Syrian author of novels including The Crossing and Planet of Clay

When facing destruction, our weapons are our words and our freedom to use them. Literature exposes the ugliness of war and its impact on human destiny, always looking to the future. It will not stop the war, but it will confront its ugliness with its aesthetics and imaginative vision. Literature strips the face of war and delves into the horrors of its brutal machine and its impact on the tragic fate of man.

For me, when the popular uprising began in Syria and then the war followed, I did not hesitate for a moment in my full commitment to the act of writing – about war and against war – through my novels, my documentaries and my journalism, not only because writing against war and violence is part of inventing a better future, but because writing against war and about war is an attempt to make our words part of an act of justice and a movement for change. No matter how slight, writing truth offers justice to the oppressed. ***

Volodymyr Yermolenko: ‘Literature during the war is both a blasphemy and a duty’

Ukrainian philosopher, journalist, and presenter of the podcast Explaining Ukraine

Literature during the war is a blasphemy because the reality of the war cannot be expressed in words. The war makes you speechless, silent. You can never express the pain of loss of your beloved ones. Or the horror of the mass graves and burnt cars with people inside. Or the abyss of mothers who lost their children. Any attempt to break this silence of mourning seems to be blasphemous.

Yet literature during the war is also a duty. We have a duty to speak, to witness, to confess, to make testimonies. Evil which is buried in silence is an evil that will return. Ukrainians know this all too well. The attempt of genocide we are facing now from the Russian invaders is horrible not only because it is an embodiment of cruelty, but also because it is an embodiment of the repeated cruelty. Previous crimes in this region were kept in silence for too long, and people who attempted to tell its stories were sent to jails or killed en masse. Therefore, we should break this vicious circle of silence. This makes literature an act of revolt against evil.


Victoria Amelina.
Victoria Amelina. Photograph: May Lee/Lviv BookForum

Victoria Amelina: ‘There are wounds only stories can heal’

Ukrainian novelist, essayist and human rights activist

War erases stories: war criminals kill, then hide the evidence in hopes that the world will never learn even their victims’ names. After liberating each town, Ukrainians work hard to recover the names of the dead, bury them with dignity, and tell the world their stories. Often we succeed, but not always. As I write this, on my way to Izyum to document war crimes, the occupiers may well be destroying the evidence of genocide in Mariupol. Despite all our efforts, too many stories will never be known. As a human rights activist, I document war crimes and advocate for justice. Yet, as a writer, I know there are wounds only stories can heal.


I Will Mix Your Blood with Coal by Oleksandr Mykhed.
I Will Mix Your Blood with Coal by Oleksandr Mykhed. Photograph: Nash Format Publishing

Oleksandr Mykhed: ‘Without the ability to write, I wouldn’t be here’

Ukrainian literary scholar, curator of art projects, and author of I Will Mix Your Blood with Coal

With a full-scale invasion, it’s difficult for me to focus on reading and listen to the undertones of moralising in great literature. A full-scale war shows everything with crystal clarity and adds fragility to the usual way of life and the people themselves.

A library of several thousand books is a burden that you cannot take with you while being evacuated. Only the memories of the books read can fit into an emergency bag. And with frequent relocations of a displaced person, these memories get lost.

However, the fear of Russian invaders of our books and culture restores my faith in the power of literature. Every time, the first thing they do in the occupied territories is rename the settlements in the Russian manner, bring back Soviet symbols, and purge libraries. The occupiers seek out “harmful” books as if they were as dangerous as flesh-and-blood “subversives”.

Literature does not fight, but writers have gone to war and are defending the country. At the same time, defenders who have not tried their hand at writing previously are trying to articulate their experience through books.

I still find it difficult to read. But without the ability to write and record the horrors of a full-scale invasion, I wouldn’t be here.


Margaret Macmillan: ‘Books can help us understand war’

Canadian history lecturer at the University of Oxford and author of The War that Ended Peace

Do we need to ask? War makes us confront our own mortality as well as the best and the worst in human nature. Books can help us understand. In the first world war ordinary French soldiers ordered copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace to try to make sense of their grinding war in the trenches. Or we can escape, at least in our imaginations, our own wars. In the second world war two of the most popular books in English were Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, about lives and sorrows in a declining Welsh mining town and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about that earlier great war. You may love or hate Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fable The Little Prince, published in the dark days of 1943 and one of the world’s best-sellers of all time. While it ends in the death of the wandering prince it also promises that wisdom can be found and love may, in the end, triumph. Hope matters too.

• Lviv BookForum features the world’s greatest writers in conversations around free speech, war and hope, available to view for free around the world with Hay Festival, live online 6-9 October. Register now at hayfestival.org/lviv-bookforum


Tetyana Ogarkova, Yuval Noah Harari, Alim Aliev, Philippe Sands, Rachel Clarke, Samar Yazbek, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Victoria Amelina, Oleksandr Mykhed and Margaret MacMillan

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