Laughter and Strength Featured at Kyiv’s Book Arsenal

Mystets’kyi Arsenal Director Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta tells Oksana Smerechuk how the annual Book Fair is a showcase for Ukraine’s intellectual landscape

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk


Олеся Островська-Люта

Laughter and Strength Featured at Kyiv’s Book Arsenal
Laughter and Strength Featured at Kyiv’s Book Arsenal

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.

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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Mystets’kyi Arsenal Director Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta tells Oksana Smerechuk how the annual Book Fair is a showcase for Ukraine’s intellectual landscape

Smerechuk: If you are a person who likes to visit bookshops and travel to other cities or who idea of a lovely Sunday afternoon is just browsing through bookshops, this event is for you. If you started to learn about Ukrainian literature but got only as far as Taras Shevchenko and are wondering what on Earth there is to read, this event is for you. To explain this event we have a guest in our studio Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta, General Director of Mystetsky Arsenal or “Art Arsenal” cultural complex. The Art Arsenal is a home of Kyiv Book Arsenal. So welcome Olesia Ostrovska!   

Ostrovska-Liuta: Thank you very much.

Smerechuk: First, I want to bring you to experience I had yesterday when I visited the Kyiv Book Arsenal. I just want you to imagine how it looks like. You have this fabulous centuries old arsenal building build in a shape of quadrangle with high vaulted ceilings, long galleries, long hallways that seem to go on forever. Then you enter inside and you see this huge hall with stands full of books. There are about 150 different book publishers presenting their new publications.  Thousands of people are coming through the doors each day. There are also strategically placed coffee corners where you can have coffee, tea and something to go with that to refresh yourself and keep looking at books.  Apart from that, dozens of presentations, discussions, workshops, and even art exhibitions are going on. Five days like these. This something that I saw yesterday but I think Olesia can fill us in on what else is going on. Could you tell me how many people you are expecting in general?

Ostrovska-Liuta: Yesterday we had 6,000 people, which is a lot even for such a big building as Arsenal is. As you saw it yourself, it was full of people. There was a lot of all sorts of sounds, movements, activities. It was very busy and lively.

Smerechuk: How many are expecting? How many did come last year?

Ostrovska-Liuta:  We do not have a very precise data at this moment. We will check this year how many people we actually have. Then we will take this year data for a benchmark. For example, in March we had tremendously popular exhibition about the nature of TV-news. It was attended by 100, 000 people during a month.

Smerechuk: So you are expecting on the same level…

Ostrovska-Liuta: Maybe less because it is only 5 days and then it was a month and a very busy one.

Smerechuk: I actually saw the first floor covered with bookstands but I was told there are many other things are going on, and not just book selling.

Ostrovska-Liuta: The Book Arsenal is integrating book scene, literature, other art, and cultural practices. That is why we also have a musical program on the first floor. You saw only the ground floor, which is huge enough already but there is also the first floor and exhibitions. For example, we have an exhibition of old Soviet Ukrainian satirical magazine “Perets (Pepper)”. It used to be very funny magazine, people laughed for 50 years but when you look at it today, it’s not funny anymore. The context that brought that laughter has changed. It was a huge propaganda machine. Then we also have an exhibition of illustration to Ivan Kotliarevsky’s “Eneida” by Anatoliy Bazylevych.

Smerechuk: This take you to Ukrainian literature lesson because Kotliarevsky’s “Eneida” was the first book written and published in vernacular Ukrainian.

Ostrovska-Liuta: It’s its anniversary this year. That is why we chose it to talk about laughter.

Smerechuk: When you look at Kotliarevsky’s “Eneida,” you suddenly realise Ukrainian printed language originates from a funny text and that is something to talk about.

Ostrovska-Liuta: These are our roots, and our first text. The Ukrainian language that we are using today is a satirical text, a parody. We also decided to focus our discussions on the subject of laughter and humour in times of crisis. We are living in a crisis –driven world. A world that is very different from what we saw five years ago. It is changing from Syria, to Poland, to Ukraine, everywhere. Things are very vulnerable. Borders are changing. It is a very strange crisis, tragic in many senses in Ukraine.

Smerechuk: You were saying “laughter … and strength.” So how do you laugh in such a situation? Because Kotliarevsky also published his book at a time of crisis, when Ukraine was vanishing as an entity. Kozaks were declining…

Ostrovska-Liuta: Yes, it was in the 18th century. The Russian Empire was getting stronger. A lot was changing. And now this is a question: is it moral to laugh today? Can you go on, or carry on, without laughing at all? How do we laugh today? Is it irony? Because in the 1990s in post-Soviet countries, at least in Ukraine, the main laughter was irony. People were detached, very ironic. Is it still irony now? Is it different type of laughter? This is what we want to talk about during the Book Arsenal. It is main theme, but its only one of the themes to talk about. We have about 150 events, discussions, lectures, workshops, theatre and other type performances, music, poetry readings, all sorts of things. As my colleague Oksana Khmeliovska said, the Book Arsenal actually serves as a showcase for Ukrainian intellectual landscape. So this what we wanted to do.

Smerechuk: I am getting a sense what is the main attraction for so many people. It’s not just book shopping, you can do that in Kyiv anywhere. What other aspects you find attractive that bring the crowd in?

Ostrovska-Liuta: I think two things. One is that you do not often see so many publishers in one place. It’s like super-mega-bookstore. It’s huge. Also, most publisher prepare their publications to appear either for our book fair, or the publisher’s book fair in L’viv in September. So this is a period when you have many new publications. For example, for this Book Arsenal we have about 1,000 of new publications. So you will find new books here. You have authors who will talk about their books. You can meet friends to share your opinions and observations. You will have lectures and discussions related to those books. So you are getting not just a book, you get all the context around this book. It’s a richer experience than just going to a book store…

Smerechuk: You mentioned the L’viv Publishers’ Forum, so is that the competition for your event, for the Kyiv Book Arsenal? Because they’ve been going now for twenty years. I think they started in 1993. Ukraine hasn’t had a tradition of having book festivals or book fairs for Ukrainian books, compared to Leipzig where it goes back to the 17th century. So how does Kyiv Book Arsenal compare to Publishers’ Forum in L’viv?

Ostrovska-Liuta: That’s always a question. No, we are not competing with Publishers’ Forum; we find it a very important partner. We are trying to collaborate and cooperate more than compete. I’m full of respect to the Forum of Publishers president, Oleksandr Koval, who is the pioneer of this field, and who’s been carrying on with Publishers’ Forum for more than 20 years. Even at a time when we didn’t have many books, it was much harder to do it than today for the Book Arsenal. And we’re a bit different because the Book Arsenal, as I said at the beginning, also integrates other cultural practices. It originates from the story of Mystetskyi Arsenal itself, which is combining and integrating different cultural practices and arts. It’s contemporary visual art, it’s academic art as well, historical art. It’s problem based exhibitions as well, it’s literature, as we are talking now, it’s theatre and music occasionally, not as much as we’d like, but we’re working on it. So, as Mystetskyi Arsena functions as a multi-dimensional centre. That’s why also the Book Arsenal has this multi-faceted approach. The Forum of Publishers, it’s not just a formal event in one place, it’s the city that becomes a reading city. The Forum of Publishers it somehow inhabits L’viv as a whole city- everyone everywhere reads. It’s different with Kyiv Book Arsenal, we’re more localized.

Smerechuk: In one location only?

Ostrovska-Liuta: Yes.The Forum of Publishers and the Kyiv Book Arsenal are going in slightly different directions.

Smerechuk: There are readings in cafes all over the city.

Ostrovska-Liuta: They go out to the city and reading is everywhere. Our strategy is a bit different, we’re trying to get as many cultural practices in one place.

Smerechuk: I see. This is the 7th year that Book Arsenal is being held. Have you and your team noticed how it has changed, say, from the previous year? Has the idea been more refined, has there been growth in some areas, in terms of books?

Ostrovska-Liuta: This is what we are trained to do, we’re trying to focus on the intellectual dimension. That’s why we are introducing a focus for discussion on laughter. Also, the number of new publications has grown. Just a year or two ago, we were all complaining that there are not enough, for example, books for teenagers. And now we have a lot of books for teenagers. Then we were complaining that we have very little non-fiction, and look, today we have a lot of non-fiction by Ukrainian authors and translated from different languages. And they are not the old best sellers, but the current ones. We also have non-fiction for children, which we didn’t have some time ago.

Again, I would like to stress the important thing is that we are starting to have Ukrainian authors, both writing non-fiction, this intellectual type, and writing also for children. And this is very important because that’s how the writers’ scene is developing as well. There is one more thing we are trying to do very slowly: we are trying to connect the literary process and scene with teachers. There is a huge debate in Ukraine about schooling. We are all very unhappy about it. One of the opinions is that school teachers are often very detached from the literature process, and it’s very hard for them to make children like reading. You have to understand the literature scene, you have to love it to pass this love to children. That’s why we initiated a few workshops for teachers of Ukrainian and foreign literature, so that they can talk to professors — all those professors are also writers of fiction — to immerse, to understand better the literature process. This is just a small thing we started this year. But we are really motivated to develop it further.

Smerechuk: I certainly noticed that the presence of very eager children looking at books and the section with children’s literature has certainly grown and seems to be thriving. Also, I noticed that you mentioned there’s a lot of non-fiction in Ukraine being produced now. A lot of it is recent translations from English, for example, items from the New York Times bestseller list. Growth and translation, does this mean it makes it tougher for authors of Ukrainian fiction? Then they’ve got more competition, and if the publisher can do something that’s a translation and much cheaper, then the Ukrainian authors then have to produce better.

Ostrovska-Liuta: Yes, then they have to shape their writing, they have to become better. But they are very interesting for Ukrainian authors. It is is a benefit living in an open society when you have open access to the international literature scene, either in original or translation, and you just become a better reader and a better writer.

Smerechuk: Also, one thing I noticed that wasn’t there. I didn’t notice any state publishing houses, or publishing houses, which, I guess, started as state owned then developed further. It seemed to me that all these stands, all these groups, are new publishers that probably a lot of them had been founded in the past 10 years or perhaps 20.

Ostrovska-Liuta: Yes, perhaps 20. In Soviet times, all the publishing was state owned. Since that time, the industry has developed tremendously, which is a very, very good sign. And if state publishing houses cannot compete… Well, it’s not the focus of our attention to help some publishing houses through the state. We need to have good books. We need to have jobs. We need to have books developing. Those are important things. If the private sector is doing that, then it’s great.

Smerechuk: What is the feedback from the book publishers on discussions etc.? What are the challenges in particular the Ukrainian book publishers face?

Ostrovska-Liuta: Well, one thing is the level of reading is not as high as one would like to..

Smerechuk: But wait a minute, I think in Soviet times people, Ukrainians, felt very proud that they were such a reading oriented people. There was great culture of reading. And then what happened? Is it the electronic age? Everyone is just writing things on the internet, social media, instead of reading?

Ostrovska-Liuta: I couldn’t tell you. It might be that this idea of Soviet reading people was a myth. Also cultural proposal was very low. So, you didn’t have many things to choose from. Right? So, people read something, maybe. I don’t know any serious book or any publication on that, so, couldn’t give you better arguments. But when you take the latest research that we have about the reading level, it is as not high as we would like it tobe. If you look at the number of publications, or number of bookstores outside of Kyiv, and I am not talking about Kyiv and L’viv because these cities have readers and they have bookstores, but Ukraine is not just two cities. And there you will find not enough bookstores, and not enough readers. One of the reasons for that might be, again, our system of education. How we teach our children to read. Our post-Soviet system of education, which was inherited from the Soviet Union, is a very common base and the process of learning to read for little children is not a very pleasant process in our schools. So, this is how we develop people who do not read later. This needs to be changed and this needs to be addressed. But what is very positive is that the last few years we started to talk about it loudly and openly. The Ministry of Education is very open for such debate. They have started changing things and programs, they have started working with the teachers as well, to change that. So, I am quite optimistic, but there is a lot of work to do.

Smerechuk: Possibly, it would help, I think, if a general business environment was more open, because, after all, publishing is also a business just as much as selling shoes is. I guess everybody then has to deal with all these other restrictions and try to figure out the bureaucracy and try to, I guess, figure out marketing. Someone mentioned to me that there was a need of prurient market analysis to figure out how to sell, but these things still need to be developed. I was also very positively impressed that attention is being brought to new areas such as tolerance towards other people, to handicapped people and, for example, an interest in Braille. I noticed they was a hall room devoted to books, Ukrainian books, in Braille. Perhaps something that is a bit exotic for people who are not visually impaired and don’t read Braille. But that’s another area where this focus on the needs of handicapped children or specially in children’s literature. Do you see that has been developing in The Arsenal?
Ostrovska-Liuta: Oh, yes. On the publishing scene in general year or two ago there was a lament that we don’t have Ukrainian books in Braille. And see what happens! That has changed. What is very positive at the moment, we start talking about sort of niche that is an empty, or about certain needs that we have in the publishing field. Some time passes, and something happens to this niche and new books arrive. New authors appear. And we have been observing that for a number of years, which is very good, positive tendency.
Smerechuk: Growth in general.
And more diversity also.

Smerechuk: And another discussion is that there is also a ban now on, particularly, Russian books that are anti-Ukrainian in nature and that there have been steadily fewer books imported, which means books from Russia in essence. And imports are down in general. So, has that has an impact on the growth and demand for Ukrainian books?
I hope so. What do Ukrainian publishers do now? They have started developing the intellectual sector of the book market with intellectual books. Those were the books that were imported from Russia for many, many years.
Smerechuk: Are those technical things?
Well, philosophy, for example, sociology, also business training books. And that is changing now, because Ukrainian publishers are paying special attention to this part of the publishing market. There is also a huge part of the book market, which is devoted to mass literature and that was imported from Russia. I am not a specialist, so I cannot tell you in detail what is happening there, but we have seen a number of Ukrainian mass market books, detective stories, written by local authors or translated from other languages, which is good again, I think.
Smerechuk: Well, that was certainly convincing and I went there yesterday and just saw the crowds and the faces of people and the enjoyment and simply the atmosphere was so positive. So, to sum up, I can say, I think it is fair to draw a conclusion that Ukrainian book is alive and thriving, despite electronic media, despite the iPads and right now there is a great book event happening in Kyiv. So come and join in, if you can. And thank you for coming and talking to us, Olesia.
Thank you very much for having me.


Day of Remembrance of the deportation of Crimean Tatars

May 18th is the Day of Remembrance of the deportation of Crimean Tatars. Russia banned the commemoration ceremony after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Yet throughout the day, there were reports coming out of peninsula that Crimean Tatars nevertheless made efforts to commemorate, by displaying their flags, going to lay flowers. And were detained and arrested for their efforts. For example, journalist Anton Naumliuk posted this on his Facebook page: “The Day of Remembrance of the Deportation of Crimean Tatars has begun. In Bakhchisarai, a police car has blocked the stone people have always laid the flowers to. In Simferopol, the court hearing in the trial of Akhtem Chiygoz, which the Crimean Tatars were going to attend, was canceled for alleged technical reasons. Two buses with policemen are now parked by the Supreme Court of Crimea.” Hromasdke Radio reported that Server Kerametov was detained in Simferopol in Lenin Square while holding a Crimean Tatar flag, and later 10 others. 

Tamila Tasheva, co-founder of CrimeaSOS was in Kyiv. She reported that since Russia occupied Crimea, about 55,000 people, including almost 25,000 Crimean Tatars, have left the peninsula. She explained that they were not leaving for economic reasons. “The Crimean Tatars leave Crimea because of unprecedented persecution. This is something we have never seen before. At least 19 people are now missing or kidnapped. About 60 criminal cases have been opened. 40 people have been imprisoned. 20 people have been released from custody on condition not to leave a town or house arrest. Dozens of searches take place every week. During the occupation of Crimea, several hundred searches were detained.”

In Kyiv, exiled Crimean Tatar leaders organized a rally on the Maidan, the city’s central square. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko made two key statements on that day. He called the forcible deportation of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula in 1944 a crime without a statute of limitations. And that Ukraine is committed to returning Crimea through diplomatic means.

Visa Free Regime for Ukraine with the EU is Now Official!

On Wednesday 17 May, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko was in Strasbourg. Along with EU Parliamentary President Antonio Tajani and Minister for Home Affairs and National Security Carmelo Abela, he signed the document that allows Ukrainians visa-free travel to the EU.

After the signing Poroshenko said, “Today is a historical day for Ukraine, for my 45 million nation. And I am absolutely confident that this is a historical day for the EU. Ukraine returns to the European family. Ukraine says final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire.” Chatter on social media was along the lines of, ‘what was once called ridiculous has now become reality.’

Russian Websites Banned by Ukraine

On Monday Ukraine expanded sanctions against Russia because of the annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas. They now include 468 companies and 1,228 individuals. This was on the recommendation of the National Security and Defense Council, but this latest round of sanctions caused a bit of a stir. Since they include two of the most popular social networks in Ukraine (VK and Odnoklassniki), a popular e-mail service ( and a widely used search engine (Yandex). President Poroshenko explained the move, saying, “An important part of this war for Russians is hybrid war waged by information troops of Russia. Enormous budgets are spent for propaganda to destabilize the situation in both Ukraine and Europe.” According to Voice of America, the US was scrutinizing this decision and we calling on Ukraine to ‘find a way to protect its national interests that does not undermine its constitutional principles.’ 


Four civilians were killed this week in Ukraine’s war zone, and one wounded. The OSCE reported an increase in explosions from banned weapons. On the 18 May alone, 3 residential buildings were destroyed in Avdiivka, and a school in Krasnohorivka. Ukraine’s Parliament chose not to debate the draft law proposed by the Health Ministry that would provide free medical care to those serving in the war in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And during the week, 24 more Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, and 2 killed.


The talented Crimean Tatar actor/director Akhtem Seitablayev has released a new film on the anniversary of the deportation of his people by Stalin in 1944. It’s called Чужа Молитва, which means Foreign Prayer. It’s a dramatization of a real life story about a Crimean Tatar woman who saved the lives of 88 Jewish children in Bakhchysaray, Crimea, when the peninsula was occupied by Nazi Germany. It hit Kyiv’s movie theatres on 18 May, the day when Crimean Tatars mark the anniversary of the deportations. On Saturday there will be a special screening of the film in Kyiv’s Zhovtnevyi Movie Theatre, where the audience will have an opportunity to meet Seitablayev and his production team. We’ll post a link to the trailer and details about the special screening on the show’s website. 



May 18 was also Ukrainian Embroidery Day. The day when all Ukrainians are encouraged to wear their national symbol. Parades were held in many cities, including Mariupol that is on the frontline in the Donbas. Some people had to go to work, so they wore their embroidered shirts to the office. Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has Ukrainian roots and she chose to wear her embroidered shirt on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. That day she introduced a Canadian Magnistky Act, which will expand sanctions against gross human rights violators. The act takes its name from the Odesa born Russian lawyer and auditor who died in Russian custody after his investigations into state sanctioned corruption. The US had passed a Magnitsky Act back in 2012.

And in Canada, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress has recently launched its “Canada 150” Community Animator Project. Across Canada, five Ukrainian-Canadian youth will organize 50 events within their provincial communities to celebrate 150 years since the confederation of Canada. They will work in to engage and inspire youth; work with Indigenous peoples to support reconciliation; connect Canadians with nature and encourage environmental stewardship; and celebrate diversity and inclusivity in Canada. Hromadske Radio Ukraine Calling team member Nykole King is part of the project. For more information, please visit:


Guzel Kirim means beautiful Crimea. It is a song performed by Crimean Tatars, about their homeland. Here’s a Ukrainian language version for you, by the Kyiv band Zhurboriz. Enjoy!


Next week we’ll bring you a feature interview with Professor Peter Solomon about judicial reform in Ukraine. And we’ll be following the headlines for you, as always. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected] I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, Ilona Szieventseva, Max Sviezhentsev. Headlines and Culture, by Marta Dyczok. Music selected by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.