A long awaited reading and public appearance in Odessa by Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature, was abruptly cancelled at the last moment this week in the wake of a threatening provocation. The cancellation of the reading by the most famous living Russophone writer, one who had been a staunch supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty in the midst of the ongoing conflict with Russia, was a serious blow to the city. Odessa’s literati and cultural elites have fantasized for a long time about organizing an Alexievich reading in the city, and this spring, after it became apparent that the Green Theater amphitheater, the venue that would host the Nobel Prize winner, would not be able to afford the customary reading fee she charged, the entire city went about crowdfunding a sum of several thousand dollars in order to cover the honorarium and Alexievich’s traveling costs.
About four hours before Alexievich was scheduled to take the stage, an anonymous individual had added her name to the list of anti-Ukrainian activists on the controversial nationalist Mirotvorets website. The website—the name means “Peacemaker”—is run by Ukrainian nationalists and affiliated hackers, and has become internationally infamous in 2016 when it leaked the names and private contact information of more than 4,000 journalists who had reported from occupied Donbass. Those journalists all had to go through press accreditation processes with self-declared authorities in the occupied region in order to have access to the war zone. Although the site removed Alexievich’s name from the list several hours later, the writer and the theater decided to cancel the event “to avoid possible risks for Alexievich and the audience in the theater.”
Alexievich was born in Ukraine, and is herself half-Ukrainian on her mother’s side, and has always been pro Ukrainian in her public pronouncements over the course of the last four years. The incident that the perpetrators of this latest provocation used as their pretext seemed to be taken from comments that Alexievich made during her 2016 public lecture in Brooklyn, during which she spoke about the involvement of Ukrainians in ethnic killings that took place in Belarus during the Second World War.
“I will tell you this as well,” she said at the time. “The same sort of, the ‘executioners’ who worked in Belarus, they were from Ukraine, and moreover, not only in Lithuania, they themselves destroyed the Jews even before the Germans arrived. It was also the same in Ukraine. ”
The Myrotvorets site took down the offending material about her as quickly as it was put up, but the damage had already been done. Right before the event was scheduled to begin, Alexievich issued her own statement explaining that for the sake of public safety, she would be canceling the public appearance. The identity of the individual who had contacted the Green Theater with the information before the event remains unknown.
Aleksander Babitch, a well known Odessa tour guide and local personality, who showed the Nobel Prize winner around town during her visit, wrote on his Facebook page that he had “called all the leaders of the pro Ukrainian groups in town and all the guys swore that they had no intention of undermining the meeting with the Nobel Prize winner, as her visit was important for both Odessa and Ukraine. They were ready to come out to the Green Theater to take Alexievich and the event under their personal protection.” Babitch went on to apologize personally to Alexievich on behalf of the city for the provocation, and expressed his hopes that the planned reading would take place soon enough and that the “individuals who so grotesquely embarrassed the city would burn in hell.”
While the cancellation of the public talk was surely a blow to the public and the literary spirit of the city, as well as a great disappointment to the young people who had spent months working to make it happen, it is in many ways a much bigger embarrassment for the Ukrainian nation as a whole. The Ukrainian government authorities, especially some who are close to the interior ministry, had long tacitly tolerated and encouraged the Myrotvorets website, and the scorn that it had heaped on journalists, for the sake of shortsighted political positioning. On another level however, this whole sordid and unfortunate episode is part of a global cultural problem, that of the colonizing of the separate and sacral space reserved for the arts by insidious and very crude forms of identity politics.