British historian and best-selling author Antony Beevor says he is dumbfounded at a decision by Ukrainian authorities to ban the import of a Russian translation of his award-winning account of a major tipping point in World War II and that he expects an apology.
"I must say, this sounds absolutely astonishing," he told RFE/RL on January 17 in response to Ukraine's refusal to allow the import of 30,000 copies of his book Stalingrad. "There's certainly nothing inherently anti-Ukrainian in the book at all."
The State Committee for State TV and Radio Broadcasting announced the ban on a Russian translation of Stalingrad along with 24 other books, mostly by Russian authors, including crime novelist Boris Akunin, historian Boris Sokolov, and ultraconservative Russian Orthodox priest Vsevolod Chaplin.
Kyiv has imposed media and other bans to counter a perceived information campaign by Moscow as fighting between Russia-backed separatists and pro-government forces in eastern Ukraine nears the four-year mark in a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people.
Beevor's book is a deep dive into one of the most brutal battles in history, the Battle of Stalingrad, when the Red Army and Soviet citizens fought off advancing Nazi troops to maintain Soviet control over the symbolically and strategically important southern Russian city now renamed Volgograd.
The head of the State Committee for State TV and Radio Broadcasting's licensing and distribution-control department, Serhiy Oliyinyk, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that "several paragraphs did not allow us to give permission for [the import of] this book" and accused Beevor of falling for a "provocation" that was never confirmed by war crimes prosecutors after the conflict.
He cited a passage that purportedly said "Ukrainian nationalists were tasked with shooting the children" in order to "spare the feelings of SS Sonderkommando," a reference to forced work units made up of death-camp prisoners.
"We are not aware of such facts being revised at the Nuremberg tribunal. It's a provocation," Oliyinyk said. "When we checked the sources he used, we found out he used reports of The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. It was enough to discuss the issue at expert council and we are happy they supported us."
In an e-mail to RFE/RL, Beevor said that Oliyinyk’s statement is untrue and that the source for the report was a highly respected anti-Nazi officer, Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, who was a witness to the atrocity and who reported it to another German officer. He said those details were recounted in a book written by Groscurth and published in 1970.
"He wrote to his wife at the time, so shocked was he by what he had witnessed, ‘We cannot and should not be allowed to win this war'," Beevor said in his e-mail. "I expect an immediate apology from Oliyinyk and a reversal of the decision by the ‘expert council.'"
Stalingrad's 1998 publication closely followed new access for Western scholars to Soviet archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The book incorporated "primary sources never used before," according to its U.K. publisher, "including reports on desertions and executions from the archives of the Russian Ministry of Defense, captured German documents, interrogation of prisoners, private diaries and letters from soldiers on both sides, medical reports, and interviews with key witnesses and participants."
Stalingrad has won prestigious awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson History Prize, and the Hawthornden Prize.
Kharkiv-based rights group Human Rights In Ukraine has described the ban on "renowned English historian and others" as "baffling."
Beevor recalled to RFE/RL one passage in the book when "I think a German officer, when being interrogated, remarked about how unreliable their Romanian allies were and, as far as I remember, some sort of Russian officer said something about, 'Oh well, that's probably like our Ukrainians,' implying that they did not fight as well as the Russians. But this was just a quote from the period, and I cannot imagine any government organization taking that seriously or as a reason to ban a book."
Critics have warned that Ukrainian officials' book bans, frequently in connection with charges that works promote separatism or hatred, are a "slippery slope." Russian-made films, television series, and other cultural projects have also been banned.
Beevor said he was broadsided by confirmation of the ban, which he initially dismissed as possible disinformation in the context of Ukrainian-Russian relations.
"It first of all seems to have been reported, if that's the right word, on [Russian state information agency] Sputnik or whatever, which has some rather, shall we say, dubious elements which might often be fake news," Beevor told RFE/RL, "and I assumed it was fake news coming from the Russian side."
He also expressed doubt as to whether errors or misrepresentations might have been introduced in the Russian version targeted in the Ukrainian import ban, citing the thorough approach of publisher Azbooka-Atticus, a joint venture between French Hachette and Aleksandr Mamut's A&NN Group.
After discarding a flawed translation by another publisher, Beevor said, Azbooka-Atticus "thought that really a proper translation should be done, and they translated it again from the start."
"I'd be very surprised if anything had been slipped in there on the Russian side or anything had been distorted, because they are extremely responsible publishers."
In a 2012 interview, Beevor told RFE/RL that he thought books like his contributed to a greater understanding of the Eastern Front in World War II, particularly among Westerners accustomed to focusing on the Western Front.
Word of a ban on Beevor's book by officials in the Russian region of Sverdlovsk emerged in 2015.