The image of the Havana Book Fair this year was quite similar to those of previous years; a mass of people of all ages began arriving at the Cabaña fortress early in the morning and stay until the late afternoon engaged in all types of activities.
For many people, the fair is an excuse for hanging out with friends, for enjoying the host of food stands or an opportunity to sit in the grass and sing with the accompaniment of guitars at the expansive fort, which —like the books— is full of life.
The guest country of honor this year is Russia.
Consequently, Cuban publishers came out with books that haven’t been seen in Cuba for more than 20 years; among them Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and stories of Anton Chekhov.
For many years Cuba was tied culturally with Russia. A number of generations of Cubans did their university and other types of studies in several of the republics that made up the USSR.
As a result, for many older people I saw at the fair, the Russian language is not strange (though it’s perhaps somewhat forgotten by them due to a lack of practice).
Like all countries selected to head up the fair, Russia has a pavilion for the presentation of its books, which —to the displeasure of many youths who travelled there— were all in Russian; one could only enjoy the elaborate bookbinding and pictures.
In a certain way, to me the most uncomfortable aspect about the Russian pavilion were the titles and authors they chose to exhibit at a book fair in Cuba, a socialist country.
Everywhere one could find books by Russian authors from the aristocratic epoch. The majority of children’s stories dealt with the age of czars and princesses, and the sense of alienation in current Russian modern magazines was on par with those of countries like the United States.
In short, the Russians came in the shining suits of their capitalism. There was not a single book on the socialist revolution in that country; nor was there anything by writers of the Soviet period, though they had previously distinguished themselves in many forms of literature such as science fiction.
Russia didn’t bring a single book about socialism or Marxism. I didn’t find one book by Lenin or Trotsky, though I did see a volume titled “Stalin’s skyscrapers” – incredible but true.
I went away from this 19th annual fair with a bitter taste in my mouth. What for me could have been an interesting search for information about another culture, left me frustrated. The Russians have forgotten a part of their history whose memory is indispensable for the world in these times of crisis.
They came with the sole intention of selling us the image of their capitalism.