Prof. Yuval Noah Harari Responds to Censoring Russian Translation of His Book

Facing criticism sparked by Russian edition of '21 Lessons for the 21st Century,' which included changes that could be seen as lenient toward Putin's policy, Harari answers the questions that arose in the public firestorm

Yuval Noah Harari
Rami Zarnegar

Did you authorize the changes that were made to the Russian translation of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”?

I authorized some changes. For instance, in the chapter on “Fake News” I authorized to replace an example about the Russian invasion of Ukraine with an example about President Trump. However, during the last few days I was told that there might have been other, unauthorized changes in the text, done without my knowledge and approval. If this is true, I strongly object to these unauthorized alterations, and I will do my best to correct them.

Why did you authorize any changes whatsoever?

To illustrate the book’s arguments, I use examples from diverse regions of the world. On two occasions – when speaking about the threat of global war and about the problem of “fake news” – I use examples from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In these examples I sharply criticize the conduct of the Russian regime and the way it broke international laws and threatened the peace of the entire world.

I was warned that due to these few examples Russian censorship will not allow to distribute a Russian translation of the book. I therefore faced a dilemma. Should I replace these few examples with other examples, and publish the book in Russia – or should I change nothing, and publish nothing. I preferred publishing, because Russia is a leading global power and it seemed to me important that the book’s ideas should reach readers in Russia, especially as the book is still very critical of the Putin regime – just without naming names. The Russian translation still warns readers about the dangers of dictatorship, corruption, homophobia and nationalist extremism.

When encountering the wall of censorship, you can do three things. The best is to knock down the wall. But you need a lot of power for that, and I don’t have that kind of power. The second option is to give up. That may be good for keeping my conscience clear, but bad for the people trapped behind the censorship wall. The third option is to try and bypass the wall. And here the main question is the price. What do you have to pay, and what do you get in return? I believe that replacing a few examples is worth reaching the Russian public.

But the Russian translation doesn’t just change a few examples. At least in one case it also provides a watered-down description of the conquest of Crimea.

In the chapter that discusses the dangers of war, I did not agree to completely delete all references to the conquest of Crimea. It is too important. Instead, I authorized shortening the two-pages description that appears in the English edition to a much briefer description that gives only the main facts, but still treats events as a “conquest” that breaks international law and endangers the peace of the world. I hope that no further unauthorized changes were made to this passage – if they were made, this is something I strongly object to and will do my best to correct.

But even the changes you authorized still constitute a kind of endorsement for the Putin regime. What is the point of reaching the Russian audience with a book that praises the regime?

The book absolutely does not praise the regime. In my books, articles and lectures throughout the world I criticize the Russian regime as one of the most corrupt and dangerous regimes in the world. The Russian translation of “21 Lessons” still criticizes the Russian regime. I did not authorize adding a single word of praise for the regime, and if this was the price of publication – then I would have decided not to publish the book in Russia.

Even if you refused to make any changes, surely the book could have avoided the Russian censorship and reached the Russian readers.

How? I would love to know how to do that. Remember that a book is papers – not an electronic blog on the internet. You need to print the book, drive it in trucks, sell it in stores. It is very easy to sit in Israel and talk about ignoring the Russian censorship. But Russian citizens that print and sell an illegal book might pay a very high personal price. I would not like to endanger them.

Does that mean anything can be done in order to reach the readers? What would you say about an author, who in order to reach a religious audience deletes references to evolution and claims that the world was created 5000 years ago?

We need to look carefully into each and every case. In the Russian translation I authorized replacing one true example with another true example: instead of illustrating the “Fake News” phenomenon through Putin’s actions, I illustrated it through Trump’s actions. I did not authorize changing any of the book’s main arguments, and I certainly didn’t authorize writing untrue statements. Replacing references to evolution with a claim that the world was created 5000 years old isn’t replacing one true example with another – it is replacing truth with fiction. It changes our entire view of reality. When I tried to publish “Sapiens” in the Arab world, I was told this is impossible, because censorship in countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia will ban any book that attacks religion forcefully and justifies the theory of evolution. In that case my reaction was not to publish. I would not change the main arguments of my book just in order to reach readers in Cairo or Beirut.

Even if the changes to the Russian edition are small, aren’t you misleading the Russian readers? They don’t get the real book.

What’s “the real book”? My books try to convey ideas. It’s not as if every word there is sacred. You can convey the same idea using different examples. In the original Hebrew edition of “21 Lessons”, I gave examples about Miri Regev and El’or Azaria – who are famous figures in Israeli politics. In the English edition I replaced these examples, because most Americans never heard about Regev and Azaria. I don’t think the Americans consequently missed “the real book”.

Aren’t you doing all this just to sell books and earn a few more dollars?

The Russian book market isn’t very profitable. Many of the books sold there are pirated copies, for which I don’t receive any royalties. The Russian regime is strong in censorship, but when time comes to protect copyright, it isn’t the best. Anyhow, if I only wanted to sell books, I could have made life easy for myself by deleting the problematic examples about Putin and Russia already from the original English edition, knowing that one day I would like to publish the book in Russia. That way there would have been no differences whatsoever between the English and Russian editions, and nobody would have complained. Those who think that there should not be any differences between different editions are actually pushing the censorship to the global level. Instead of Russian censorship influencing only books published in Russia, it would have the power to influence the entire world.

Were you asked to censor anything in the Hebrew version? Which kind of censorship would you approve of in Israel?

I wasn’t asked to censor anything in the Hebrew edition. Luckily, Israel is still a democracy that protects the freedom of expression. And I don’t approve of any kind of censorship. Not in Israel, and not in Russia. I need to deal with censorship. The Russian regime did not ask for my approval for censoring things. They just go ahead and do it. Many newspapers presented the case as if I am the censor. What actually happens is that I have to deal with the censorship of others. One way to deal with it is to refuse publishing. I respect those who think like that. But I think differently.