For Ukrainian readers, Western criticism of Elizabeth Gilbert’s deferral of her new novel is mean-spirited – and also alarmingly myopic.
When Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame announced her upcoming novel, The Snow Forest, which portrays Russian characters hiding out in Soviet-era Siberia, she was met with a wave of criticism from Ukrainians: it was tasteless to be releasing a novel romanticising Russia during its ongoing horrendous invasion of Ukraine. She took heed and went on to make a statement on 12th June 2023 that she would be holding back on publication of the novel until further notice:
I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced — and who are all continuing to experience — grievous and extreme harm.
I read about this development and, not being too familiar with Gilbert’s work, sort of shrugged and moved on with my day. It only became an issue for me when I logged into Twitter (rookie mistake!) and happened upon some rancid takes from big names in US literature. For some reason, they were making it all about themselves: from complaints of “censorship” to cocky displays of moral relativism (severe circle-jerk warning for this thread and its replies), and even making dehumanising statements such as the insinuation that Ukrainians “don’t read”.
All in all, their message to Ukrainians was resounding: this is how it works in our world. You wouldn’t know, because you’re too hysterical and primitive.
Let me first be clear about one thing: I have minimal interest in this book. What disturbs me here is the sheer self-serving snark and nastiness from members of the anglophone literati in response to somebody making a decision out of sensitivity to Ukrainians, who’ve been surviving Russia’s war of aggression for 16 months (plus nine years of partial annexation, plus hundreds of years of various methods of oppression and attempts at conquest). Why, exactly, do these Americans, with their coveted magazine columns and their MFA fiction degrees, their reciprocally blurbed books and their creative writing teaching jobs and possibly also their mortgages, feel so threatened by someone making a clear stand with those who are losing everything they have? Why don’t they feel embarrassed about measuring war-related topics according to a scale of “cringe”?
These pampered critics seem to have one thing in common. In their haste to position themselves against “cancel culture” and “virtue signalling”, and to criticise US imperialism, they have achieved, in fact, exactly that: impelling a chauvinistic, US-centric lens onto the world; specifically, dissecting the terms on which Ukrainians, struggling to survive, are allowed to have a voice. In a supposed quest for free speech, they end up silencing some of the most vulnerable by projecting their cultivated version of objectivity onto them. (In an essay for the New Yorker, it clicks for Elif Batuman: “‘The enemy is Putin, not Pushkin’: was that objective? Such thinking had long formed a part of my own mental furniture.”)
If not taken to task, their failure to grasp the role of literature in the perpetuation of real-world cultural hegemony will shatter any possibility of a level playing field with those living outside the imperial core who also wish to partake in the same literary sphere.
The bottom line is this: Ukrainians and other victims of Russian imperialism require even the most well-intentioned Westerners to consume Russia-centred art critically. Generally, but especially now. The problem, however, is that they have sufficient proof that they cannot trust people to do this, due to a combination of stubbornness and lack of knowledge. Ukrainians are used to being talked over, they are used to excuses being made for Russia(ns). That alone is why it probably would have been irresponsible and insensitive for Gilbert to release her novel at this time, and therefore why her approach could even be considered radical.
You’re not being cancelled just for reading Dostoyevsky. (Yes, I know he was exiled. Also, I’m going to be honest with you and say that with Ukrainians being killed right now, I’m not prioritising discussions about some long-dead Russian author.) Rather, the problem is the way that Westerners still tend to take Russian culture at face value despite Russia’s ongoing war crimes and numerous unpunished violations of international law; the way they centre and celebrate it, in the same moment that counterpart Ukrainian cultural artefacts go relatively unnoticed or ignored. The consequence of this is a garnered sympathy for the aggressor, while war victims become increasingly invisible, speculative figures. Furthermore, these layers of soft power subtly present Russia as a level-headed peer with rational, legitimate interests.
This can be seen in several examples. The 2023 Oscar for Best Documentary for Navalny was accepted by the family of Alexei Navalny, incarcerated leader of the Russia of the Future political party. Quite aside from the fact that Navalny himself has come under scrutiny for expressing racist, imperialist views, it was a slap in the face for many Ukrainians that in the midst of a brutal war waged by their country, Russians are invited to Los Angeles to enjoy pats on the back from some of the most prominent people in showbiz, then return to a home that is safe from missiles and, for the most part, any sign of war at all.
The August 2022 publication of Russian soldier Pavel Filatyev’s memoir, ZOV, was met with similar rage. Rightly so: Filatyev is a war criminal and should not be presented to the world as some sort of hero! He terrorised Chechens in the 2000s before helping invade Kherson, Ukraine, where it only occurred to him that something was off when he noticed how poor the food, military equipment, and general conditions for the Russian soldiers were. After his eventual desertion, Filatyev sought asylum in France and got a €300,000 book deal. He would theoretically go on to live a peaceful life in Paris, possibly under police protection, while allegedly concealing the war crimes he had witnessed and participated in. As for his book: the money was supposed to go to Ukrainian charities, but Filatyev ended up suing the organisation who helped him get to France so that he’d get it all back. (I haven’t read the book and obviously don’t plan to, but apparently Filatyev also partly blames Ukraine for the war and believes the EU attacked Russia. Great guy!)
Following their December 2022 show in Berlin, Russian punk band Pussy Riot were accused of appropriating Ukrainian pain to advance themselves and their brand. Notably, they displayed the name БУЧА (Bucha) as a stage backdrop. This alone betrays a certain navel-gazing on Pussy Riot’s part; while it might have been a controversial, impressive act at a show taking place in Russia, for a German audience, it’s useless and superficial, not least because most people will have heard of Bucha and have at least a vague idea what happened there. Journalist and researcher Maksym Eristavi said:
What’s remarkable to me about this now, in the wake of Gilbertgate, is not just that Ukrainians angry with Pussy Riot had to counter Germans who insisted that the band had done a good thing by drawing attention to Russian war crimes (again, if you live in a country with a free press, yet only find out about a recent massacre on your continent because you went to the theatre one evening: yikes). It’s the fact that when one journalist got negative feedback for praising the show, he blamed it on “trolls” and a “coordinated action to discredit this tweet”, even deeming it “naive” to be sceptical of Pussy Riot… failing to realise that just because it looks like a dissident, doesn’t mean it actually is.
Similarly, when a Literary Hub staffer took it upon herself to declare that “the internet” had “decided” Gilbert’s choice was a flop, part of the article was based on the idea that mass disagreement with Gilbert’s initial announcement of The Snow Forest was written off as some sort of bot attack. Referring to a large number of one-star ratings on the as-yet-unreleased book, she wrote (before the article was covertly reworded):
While I agree that one-starring books you haven’t read isn’t a great way to express your dissatisfaction, and that sending abusive Twitter DMs isn’t okay, for me, this clear, specific pattern of reactions to being called out by Ukrainians is very worrying yet somehow unsurprising. Is the typical Western writer really so fragile that when confronted with their privilege, it’s easiest for them to cry “online mob”, expose their belief that these people don’t use popular websites or speak English, or think the oppressed are just nitpicking?
By now, it’s because of exactly this type of ignorance and unwillingness to reflect, even from allies, that Ukrainians know they cannot assume widespread, self-evident support for their cause. After initial attention waned following the first months of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainians have been the subject of open debates that essentially boil down to the value of their lives. In the online space, it’s become fashionable to dunk on them: even if it’s not outright pro-Kremlin agitation, or the whataboutism that frustratingly persists in so-called progressive environments (usually with the crude suggestion that only white people support Ukrainians because “Ukrainians are white”), there is a tendency to casually brush off the crimes Russia is committing against Ukraine.
What tellingly underlies the comments of these medium-to-big-platformed literary figures ridiculing Elizabeth Gilbert is the guarantee that none of them said a word about Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on 6th June 2023, just the previous week; nothing about the ensuing ecocide, nor the dead and displaced people and animals in the 600km² flooded area. On top of that, help from international organisations like the UN and the Red Cross was initially scarce, forcing local Ukrainian volunteers to be the first responders and carry out rescue missions in the deep, toxic waters while trying to dodge Russian shelling and shooting, as well as unexploded mines.
As activist Mariam Naiem points out, this blow was worsened by Western media’s both-sides slant on the disaster. In the news reports’ search for impartiality, they disregarded fundamental facts such as under whose control the dam stood at the time of explosion (Russia’s), and under which circumstances it would even be in danger of being blown up in the first place (perhaps a foreign superpower invading and occupying a neighbouring sovereign country?). Ukrainians, who had been warning everyone for months about the catastrophic potential of the Russian-controlled dam, once again felt gaslighted by the world.
One wonders why these people are prompted to get so bothered about the sanctity of literature only when another American writer holds a mirror up to their faces. Do these principles still apply to people they can’t see — or don’t want to see? These self-appointed custodians of culture and freedom of expression have been markedly silent as Russia, following its centuries-old tradition, burns Ukrainian books, murders Ukrainian authors, and destroys Ukrainian museums, galleries, and heritage sites. But sure… a powerful, established author just trying to do better is the “dangerous precedent” here!
Of course two things can be bad at once: writers and artists being targeted and killed by occupiers in one country, while in another, their output might be “merely” regulated. However, possibly the biggest flaw in these writers’ responses is the false equivalence they are leaning on. Yes, there is a very troubling movement of banned books and censorship in the US, and that is a valid discussion to have within that context. But it’s simply disingenuous to act like Gilbert’s decision must be yet another symptom of that.
I don’t know who else needs to hear this, but Ukrainians online are not Republican lawmakers striving for an environment of restriction and hostility, nor some foreign manipulator looking to meddle in US affairs (on that note: Russia). They are real people trying to survive a genocide of bombs, bullets, drowning, freezing, and starving, while striving to maintain their visibility in the world. They would simply like those who are comfortably removed from these dangers, and have the liberty to make such calls, to consider refraining from whitewashing a state currently committing atrocities with almost total impunity.
Crucially, Ukraine isn’t the first time Russia has got away with it. How do you think the Russian Federation got so massive? (Just a cheeky bit of “shuffling of borders”, if that Literary Hub article is to be believed.) Gilbert’s novel concerns the following:
A group of individuals who made a decision to remove themselves from society to resist the Soviet government and to try to defend nature against industrialization.
On first look, this may sound like it could be an excellent novel of resistance; how could anyone be offended by that? Yet the description poses further questions. For one, even though The Snow Forest’s characters are anti-Soviet, they are presumably ethnically Russian. As such, they are still settler-colonists in Siberia. Indigenous Siberians, whose own nations have been swallowed up by Russian expansionist policies, routinely lament the colonial-minded tendency to imagine the geographical region of Siberia as a wild, untouched, unpeopled, uncivilised, yet above all, inherently Russian or Soviet space. Such thinking absolutely has transferred to Western minds. Otherwise, they’d never have got away with making films with Siberia-adjacent countries like Kazakhstan as a whole punchline, which had knock-on effects in the real world. The rich, ancient cultures of Central Asia, also colonised by the Russian Empire, wouldn’t be routinely bundled into “the Stans”. And this racism does have continuations into the present war in Ukraine: members of certain Siberian ethnic groups, such as the Buryats, join the Russian army for the money, then are disproportionately killed on the front line.
A novel that manages to erase indigenous people and their realities under Russian domination, from both a Russian-colonial and a Western-lazy perspective, helps neither these Siberian peoples nor Ukrainians, who share largely ignored histories of Russian oppression.
On top of this, a narrative obsessed with past “good Russians” at our precise present historical moment does a complete disservice to the truth. While the characters in Gilbert’s novel fight the Soviet regime, and thus ostensibly the forebears to Putin’s regime, in reality there is sadly no robust, credible political opposition that offers a chance for a decolonised, demilitarised, free Russia (I’ve already touched on the problems with Navalny, who in the West is widely viewed as the opposition to Putin). This fact is not merely a nuisance for the very few Russians who do fully comprehend the depravity of their country’s status quo and genuinely despise it. It is deadly for all Ukrainians, who continue to suffer and die because of the “ordinary Russians” who will not speak out. The true anti-war work being done by Russians comes from a small minority who understand what’s at stake: for example, the anarchists giving their lives in battle alongside Ukrainian soldiers, and the indigenous peoples highlighting the colonial and imperial nature of the war that is inextricable from their own struggle.
In short, while this kind of work is risky and invaluable, when fictionalised uncritically by an outsider, it glorifies the Russian “fight for freedom” yet makes no mention of at whose expense this actually comes. The belief that the fight of Ukrainians and of Russians is the same one—whether historically or currently — is erroneous and demonstrates another common Western failure to understand colonial hierarchies. Consciously or not, it operates from a baseline assumption that Ukrainians and Russians are different shades of the same people, i.e. the “brotherly nations” narrative pushed in Russian propaganda.
It sounds implausible to many Westerners, but to Ukrainians it’s absolutely par for the course that a Russian might stand against Putin yet endorse Russian supremacy through their unaddressed imperialist views (I recommend investing 12 minutes into this video by a Soviet Russian-born Brit who walks you through the philosophy of how this works. Obligatory disclaimer that I don’t necessarily agree with all his past content). Equally, in history, it was fully possible for a Russian to oppose Stalin—or whoever else was in power—yet to either tacitly or explicitly support the oppression of Ukrainians, Finns, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Koreans, and many more.
In the words of the first Prime Minister of Ukraine, Volodymyr Vynnychenko: “The Russian liberal ends where Ukraine begins.” Please read these letters from readers of liberal Russian news outlet Meduza if you still think Ukrainians and anti-Putin Russians are fighting for the same cause.
Gilbert does not specify the exact years in which the novel is set, but it’s a very safe bet that at the same moment her Russian characters voluntarily holed themselves up in the forest and played revolutionary, the Soviet Union was oppressing Ukrainians and others based on their nationality or ethnicity: whether it was through orchestrated famines, repressions and bans of languages, or deportations. Are those people represented in this book, or do they continue to be overshadowed by Russian fantasies of heroism?
In other words: fictional Russians of the past, even if they are based on real people, are doing absolutely nothing to help modern, living Ukrainians. There is no point perpetuating myths. Anything that is not actively helpful is unhelpful. Yes, unfortunately, in times of war, it really is a zero-sum game. Against this backdrop, the selfishness of the Western concern that publishing one less russocentric novel “will not help Ukraine” comes to light.
If you have the luxury of judging the mechanics of a real-time genocide through the binoculars of the internet, but do not apply the key tenets of solidarity to your words and actions (this includes educating yourself), you are at high risk of exhibiting classic cultural chauvinism. With informational exchange on the war largely taking place in the volatile, uncurated online space, most citizens of the US are detached from it all, even those in supposedly well-informed, liberal literary circles. They are free to assume that the Gilbert affair is a mere knee-jerk denunciation of anything Russian; free to assume that Ukrainians are so foolish that they seriously believe if we all close our eyes and reject books related to Russia, it will disappear.
In turn, we are free to assume that these people are afflicted with cynicism and insecurity to compensate for the fact that they don’t really know much at all about what’s been going on beyond their bubble.
A few days after Elizabeth Gilbert announced her decision, I went to see a punk band whose name translates as “Zhadan and the Dogs” play in Berlin. The band is fronted by Serhiy Zhadan, Ukraine’s most famous contemporary poet, also a political activist and something of a national treasure.
Through their musical ambassadorship across Europe, they’ve been collecting donations for the army (but in fact, this time, the German organisers of this festival forbade the band from doing this— just another way that the Ukrainian cause is often misunderstood and silenced in the arts world). The show was a display of unadulterated Ukrainian joy: not only from the band members and particularly Zhadan himself, with his energetic, undeniable charisma, but also from the multigenerational diaspora audience (many of them certainly refugees). Ukrainians of all ages were singing along and shouting the choruses, cheering as the frontman promised they would one day be able to see the band play in the currently occupied cities of Eastern Ukraine — among them Zhadan’s own birthplace, Starobilsk. After the set, as always, legions of fans were waiting for Zhadan, to speak to him, to let him sign their copies of his novels and poetry books.
Last year, Serhiy Zhadan was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his decades of literary contributions — recently his diaries about resisting the war in his home of Kharkiv, now available in English — and for his humanitarian commitments over the years. “Ukrainian culture working towards Ukrainian victory,” Zhadan sometimes writes cheerfully on Instagram, as he documents where the donations from concerts and readings go: usually cars and drones for defenders. Perhaps if Zhadan and others, along with their contexts, were better known and revered in the English-speaking world (and beyond), Ukrainians wouldn’t be having to waste energy convincing people of their humanity. Both offline and online, both inside and outside pretended sophisticated circles.
In his acceptance speech for the prize, Zhadan said:
And by castigating Ukrainians for being unwilling to surrender and perceiving that as an element of militarism and radicalism, some Europeans (I must note that this number is rather insignificant, but still) are doing a bizarre thing; by trying to stay in their comfort zone, they venture beyond the bounds of ethics. And this is no longer a question for Ukrainians — this is a question for the world, for its willingness (or unwillingness) to swallow yet another manifestation of utter uncontrollable evil in favor of dubious financial gain and disingenuous pacificism.
Even if Gilbert had ignored comments from Ukrainians, and ultimately proceeded with the book’s original publication schedule, she is a multimillionaire. As such, any losses incurred from anyone boycotting the book as a result would have been water off her back. For all intents and purposes, she doesn’t have to care. She could release just about anything and still make money and retain her status.
Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the professional writers’ organisation Authors Guild, says that every author has the right to decide when and how to publish their work:
To be clear, we would not, however, support the decision of a publisher to pressure a writer to not publish the book. Authors should never be required to withdraw books but must have the right to speak or not speak when they wish.
That’s why it’s so extraordinary that Elizabeth Gilbert chose the path of humility and kindness. It’s a sad state of affairs that her critics think this could only be a marketing tactic or some kind of conspiracy. Certainly, as they sneer at her, and hence at Ukrainians, many of them are clearly confident that they will keep shifting copies of their own work while being openly spiteful and ignorant. And that is the literary scene I don’t want.
If “self-cancellation” in fact means:
- listening to others and showing compassion
- questioning and challenging your artistic choices and biases along the way
- holding yourself responsible for how your work may uphold the complex, tenacious after-effects that history has on today’s ongoing events
Then fuck yeah, I’m aiming to self-cancel myself all day long.