Beautiful, young, independent, green, music-loving, book-friendly Vilnius, celebrating its 700th anniversary, and Ukrainian heroes fighting for their priceless freedom . The theme of next year’s Book Fair, “700 Lines for Liberty”, should serve as a reminder that each of us is responsible for protecting it. The 23rd Vilnius Book Fair takes place on 23-26 February at the Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre LITEXPO.
“As of now, it is hard to predict what stage of war or peace we will have reached by the beginning of 2023, what challenges we will have met and which particular topics will become relevant as, once again, life has become turbulent and unpredictable,” says Gytis Vaškelis, head of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore and one of the organisers of the 23rd Vilnius Book Fair.
Lolita Varanavičienė, President of the Lithuanian Publishers Association and a long-standing organiser of the Vilnius Book Fair, brings up the changed state of the world as well: “Whatever the situation on the front may be, we have amassed so many talking points that those four days of the fair might prove to be insufficient. After all, despite our fatigue, outrage, and the scope of lies and deception, the situation remains in flux.”
What does a changed world look like? Varanavičienė hopes to examine it both through books and live conversations. “The preparations are in full swing”, she says, and claims to have no doubts that the next year’s fair will be vibrant and stimulating, and that truth and Ukraine will prevail in the end.
The next year’s Vilnius Book Fair will turn the spotlight on Ukrainian creators, Ukrainian literature, and literature of European wars of independence. The organisers will be inviting the guests and participants to in-depth talks on political and social issues with renowned Lithuanian and foreign writers, political scientists, historians, and other experts.
The topic of Ukraine is predicted to remain relevant in 2023. This year, the joy of reuniting with the writer and reader community after the pandemic was eclipsed by Russia’s war on Ukraine that broke out on the first day of the fair. “We were in shock,” Aušrinė Žilinskienė, the Director of the Lithuanian Culture Institute and one of the fair’s organisers, recalls. “Every event, every meeting that took place at the fair began and concluded with words of support for Ukraine. On the other hand, this plight sparked an outburst of solidarity. Vilnius Book Fair not only became a space of support for Ukraine but also mobilised the community to take collective action. During the course of one day, we managed, in collaboration with 13 organisations from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, to deliver a message to international book fairs of Frankfurt, London and Bologna, calling on them to block Russia’s international delegations from participating in fairs of international importance. We urged them to support Ukrainian writers, illustrators, and publishers. One day later, we received a positive reply.
Žilinskienė believes that solidarity, like-mindedness, and freedom of thought and speech were the strong points of this year’s Vilnius Book Fair. Varanavičienė is of the same mind as the Director of the Lithuanian Culture Institute: “Despite the shocking news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that came out on the opening day, and despite the diminished book sales, we consider this year’s fair a success. Against the backdrop of widespread fright, it became a celebration of solidarity and contemplation that blurred the lines between authors, listeners, buyers, and casual visitors – within a few hours, we all stood together as fellow citizens and supporters of Ukraine. The fair has once again demonstrated its galvanising potential. We parted in hope to meet again “in the sixth hour after the war “.
For the next year’s Vilnius Book Fair, the organisers have decided to combine two important ideas: the 700th anniversary of Vilnius, and freedom, whose fragility we felt so acutely this year. Vilnius and freedom go hand in hand, and it is impossible to grasp the significance of this historic anniversary without the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine and our solidarity with Ukraine.
“Today’s Vilnius is a modern hub of freedom and democracy: it is home to the European Humanities University and a growing number of independent media outlets. Just as the city granted political asylum to the Belarusian opposition, its citizens opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees, as did the rest of the country. The creative effort of Vilnius artists, aided by the creative influence of the city’s cultural character, is paramount to spreading the message of support for Ukraine to the world”, states the Director of the Lithuanian Culture Institute.
The 700th anniversary of Vilnius is a fitting occasion to re-examine the city’s history within the context of that of Lithuania, Europe, and the rest of the world. A city’s history is embodied by more than just its grand buildings, memories of landmarks that no longer exist, famous figures, or the daily life of its communities. “Vilnius is a tolerant and multicultural city that has been shaped over centuries. Its history is marked by numerous battles for freedom. The zeitgeist of present-day Vilnius remains inseparable from the yearning for freedom. This is why we are proposing to dedicate the next year’s Vilnius Book Fair to the topic of liberty. We will be inviting visitors to talk about the core value of democratic Europe that enables people to build society and cater to it. We are going to examine the importance of thought, self-expression, and public gatherings, and discuss the ways Europe is being shaped by the Russia-Ukraine war,” says Žilinskienė.
Gytis Vaškelis agrees with the Director of the Lithuanian Culture Institute. He maintains that a city is, first and foremost, its people. “Our Vilnius is a city of free and creative people. During those three decades of independence, we have proven, time and again, our commitment to liberty and upholding the freedom of self-expression as an unshakeable value. As a UNESCO City of Literature, Vilnius is a manifestation of this ideal. Current events have only strengthened our resolve. As the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska writes in her poem “Children of an Epoch“: “Like it or not,/ your genes have a political past,/ your skin has a political hue,/ and your eyes a political aspect.” (translation by Walter Whipple). Due to constantly getting caught in the political, ideological, civilisational and cultural crossfire, both foreign and domestic, we have grown immune to various forms of oppression, while remaining free people. On that account, we stand for freedom, as we always have,” declares Vaškelis.
Vilnius Book Fair – the largest literature festival in the Baltic states – is an expression of our freedom, too. “People come here of their own free will, led by a desire to engage in conversation, share their thoughts, learn something new, and meet like-minded people and inspiring individuals”, says Aušrinė Žilinskienė. She adds that the organisers of the fair are already preparing topics for the “Discussion Club”, a favourite of many visitors, where thinkers will delve into the most pressing cultural, social, and political issues. Other activities include “15 min shorts” tournament (short conversations on the latest books), meetings with foreign and Lithuanian writers, poets, translators, illustrators and book artists, a special programme for teen visitors, educational programmes for children and parents, and a return of themed tours of “The Art of the Book” exhibition.
The 23rd International Vilnius Book Fair, “700 Lines for Liberty”, will take place on 23-26 February at the Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre LITEXPO. It is organised by the Lithuanian Publishers Association, the Lithuanian Culture Institute, and the Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Centre LITEXPO.