A Futile Attempt. Valery Panyushkin on the banning of books by Akunin and Bykov

23 December 2023

by Valery Panyushkin

Source: Spektr.press

Books live longer than states. Significantly longer. That’s an immutable fact. Therefore, when a given ruler bans a given writer, or a given book, it’s not criminal so much as it is simply foolish. It’s like banning the Milky Way or Ursa Major.

You can, of course. You can ban people from looking at the stars, you can rewrite the astronomy textbook and argue that Ursa Major is by no means an actual existing constellation of stars but the speculative construction of ancient astronomers—and even that would be the truth. But Ursa Major is still there, it shines in the sky, a spectacular dipper, and absolutely does not care about its popularity.

Right now this is hard to believe. Writers’ political statements seem too vital and important. But in fact they don’t mean anything, only books do, or rather the stories they tell.

Right now Putin’s supporters think that Akunin and Bykov are behaving terribly and should be banned, but you can’t ban them. Books live longer than states. Putin’s opponents, on the other hand, think that Zakhar Prilepin is behaving terribly and so his books should be relegated to oblivion. But no. There’s nothing you can do about books. It’s not that they’re eternal, but like stars they live much longer than people and even significantly longer than states, and that’s regardless of whether their authors’ political views are progressive or not.

If there were no Russia, the books would remain—as would Akunin and Bykov and Prilepin. They might have print runs in the millions, they might become a subject of interest for just a handful of narrow specialists, they might continue to exist for centuries in obscurity and a few centuries later they may suddenly gain popularity, as happened with the music of Bach, for instance, which was completely forgotten for two hundred years and then suddenly became the cornerstone of European culture. It is important and insurmountable that Russian books are going to exist after the Russian state ceases to.

Don’t get too worked up. The same is going to happen with Ukraine, too. Right now it seems impossible to forgive Pushkin his poem “To the Slanderers of Russia,” and it seems natural to pull down the monument to him in Kyiv, but time will pass and there will be no Ukraine but there will be Pushkin. It’s always that way. Books live longer than states. So it’s not that banning them is barbaric, although it is barbaric, of course. It’s simply foolish.

For books to exist they don’t even have to be written necessarily. Take Homer, for instance. He didn’t write the Iliad or the Odyssey. He may just have sung them, unconcerned about preserving the text. Or it was some other old man, also blind. But there has been no ancient Greece for a long time, while the Iliad and the Odyssey exist, and, moreover, they are so relevant that Hollywood movies with Brad Pitt are made based on them.

Books’ longevity, I repeat, in no way depends on their authors’ political views. Virgil, for instance, was a loyal subject, and besides the Eclogues and Aeneid he also wrote the Georgica, a practical guide for veterans about the right way to adapt to peacetime life and farming. Virgil, if you like, did the same thing Anna Tsivileva is doing now, the only difference being that Tsivileva isn’t writing books and consequently will not outlast her era.

Whereas Dante was an insurgent and died in exile. No one other than specialists now remembers exactly which emperor Virgil helped deal with the PTSD that afflicted his soldiers after an idiotic war. No one can tell for certain exactly how the White Guelphs in medieval Florence differed from the Black ones or exactly which Guelphs exiled Dante. But the fact is that there is no more Roman Empire but there is Virgil. Nor is there any Florentine republic. But there is Dante, and a monument to this exile stands in the city that exiled him, on the piazza Santa Croce.

And so it always is. So it was and will be. Books live longer than states. And anyone who bans them, anyone who does not understand the frailty of states and the permanence of books, is simply a shortsighted fool.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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