Gareth Davies

Yesterday Ukraine announced that it has banned 38 Russian authored books. The books, which largely concern the ongoing war in Ukraine, have been deemed by Ukrainian officials as “a method for information warfare and the disinformation of Ukrainian citizens.”

The official announcement singled out a number of authors who were accused of right wing, imperialist, facist, xenophobic, and separatist ideology. The banned books which have been deemed Anti-Ukrainian, include works by Eduard Limonov, former leader of the National Bolshevik Party; Russian TV journalist Sergey Dorenko, and fascist political scientist Aleksandr Dugin. The official press release from the Ukrainian ministry does not offer a comprehensive list of all 38 texts, but does name some of the titles as Buntovskiy and Kalashnikov’s ‘Independent Ukraine: The Collapse of the Project’ (Независимая Украина: крах проекта), Eduard Limonov’s ‘Kiev Kaput’ (Киев капут), and the Russian eugenicist text ‘The Superman speaks Russian’ (Сверхчеловек говорит по-русски).

Ukraine’s decision to ban books from Russian authors represents just one part of a broader campaign to combat Russia’s information war which has been waged since the Maidan uprisings in November 2013. Attempts to combat Russia’s cultural influence have come in many forms. Just a few months ago Ukraine signed off on a series of de-communisation laws, that, according to the Guardian sought to “rewrite Soviet History”. The laws put a ban on Nazi and Communist symbols in the country, in order to make space for “an official version of Ukrainian history.” Since these laws have been passed, the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory has also published a list of 22 cities and 44 towns that should be renamed. A large cluster of these cities and towns are based in the contested East of Ukraine.

The map above shows the location of all cities and towns proposed for re-naming, including areas in Crimea and the East of Ukraine via Euromaidan Press 

The ferocity of Ukraine’s backlash against Russian cultural influence must be understood in the context of the annexation of Crimea, the ongoing conflict in the East of Ukraine, and the powerful disinformation campaign that Russia has launched since the beginning of the Maidan uprisings. Many of Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov’s speeches in the past year have sought to shake public confidence in the current Ukrainian government by constructing Ukraine as a state in need of Russia’s assistance (whether economically, or politically). Indeed, the discursive creation of Ukraine as a failed state under the threat of far right Neo-Nazis has been at the core of this disinformation campaign. 

It is understandable that Ukraine wants to distance itself from Russia, but the means through which it is pursuing this separation are worrying. Banning books, in any context, is alarming. Attempts to conceal or erase particular versions of history have been a trademark characteristic of totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century.

Although banning books sets off alarm signals, Ukraine is caught in a catch-22 between allowing Russia’s cultural output to flow freely through the country which may contribute to disinformation or banning Russian knowledge production outright as a means of combatting information warfare.

Ukraine is faced with the difficult task of weeding out a deeply rooted Russian cultural influence in its country. Although banning disinformation at its source may seem to prevent disinformation, there is a strong case for arguing that this might be just what Russia wants. The banning of books only feeds the flames of Russia’s disinformation campaign, which has largely thrived on the image of Ukraine as a totalitarian state of hard-line nationalists. Russia’s response to the ban has so far been limited to statements that “this was apparently done without any kind of judicial process”, but it would be surprising if this move isn’t capitalised upon by Russia to further portray Ukraine as a nation which is set on a deeply antagonistic path of cultural cleansing.

An anti-government protester is pictured inside the occupied House of Ukraine on European Square while searching for some books at an improvised library on February 14, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. Via Alexander Koerner at Getty Images.

Ironically, Ukraine’s attempts to dictate an official version of history, and to control the media entering into the country are strikingly similar to the many steps Vladimir Putin has taken in pursuit of a ‘unified information space’ within Russia. Control over the press greatly facilitated Putin’s rise to power, and is an important tool for influencing opinion and dictating truths about certain issues. Only last week Russia engaged in its own censoring activities, when it banned histories by Antony Beevor and John Keegan on claims that they promoted Nazi stereotypes.

Russia and Ukraine are locked in a battle of ideologies, and Ukraine is in a uniquely difficult situation. Disinformation campaigns carry so much power precisely because they operate covertly. It is incredibly difficult for a state to quantify or manage the effect of disinformation campaigns which seek to blur the truth about issues. Such techniques are notoriously difficult to combat effectively without proposing strong counter-narratives to disinformation, or, as in Ukraine, banning its source.

Many post-colonial and post-imperial states have built new and empowering national ideas on reclaimed histories, and such nationalist movements have provided the basis for political rebirth. Ukraine’s recent attempts at nation building have largely involved re-invoking its Soviet heritage through de-communisation, re-naming of towns and cities, and more recently, banning books which portray a history that clashes with the state sanctioned version of events. Ukraine must recognise the reality on the ground: that it is, like Russia, a deeply complex nation., Denying its past, stifling cultural output, and limiting free speech only serves to further alienate Russian separatists in the East of the country.

Banning books is not a productive way of countering Russian influence in the country especially if Ukraine wishes to retain its control in the East. Banning books only serves to fuel Russian information campaigns further, providing an opportunity to mobilise discourses around Ukrainian limits on free speech and the threat of radical nationalism to bolster further support from separatists. Rather than taking drastic action like banning books, Ukraine should continue to expose Russian propaganda for what it is. In this way it might be possible to get an upper hand in this battle of ideologies, without feeding the Russian troll machine

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. Twitter @garethaledavies