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Yuval Noah Harari Insists The Russian Edition Of His Book Doesn’t Change The Facts

The exact content, if not the nature of the lessons, in Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” may be lost in translation. Harari has faced a backlash in recent days after news broke that the Russian edition of his latest book elided criticisms of Vladimir Putin and substantially changed a portion dealing with Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimea.

The discrepancies between different versions of Harari’s book were noticed by Andrei Chernikov, an IT specialist from western Ukraine, when he switched from a hard copy Ukrainian edition to a Russian-language e-book, The New York Times reported.

Where Chernikov had found references to Putin in Ukrainian, he discovered the same chapter — one illustrating the danger of “Fake News” — in the Russian version began with a discussion of President Trump. Chernikov noted the difference on a widely-read post on Facebook on July 20. The Russian news site The Insider picked up the story on the 22nd and Newsweek ran an analysis in English on July 23, noting further differences.

In the English edition, Newsweek noted, Harari cites the Crimean invasion as a prime example of a successful misinformation campaign, noting how Putin, denying the military was involved in the offensive, referred to Russian troops marching into the region as “spontaneous ‘self-defense units.’” “When they made such rather ridiculous statements, Putin and his associates knew perfectly well that they were lying,” Harari wrote.

In the Russian, Trump and references to his many false public statements are subbed in for the admitted lies of the Putin regime. The Russian version also states that it is the Kremlin’s official position that the annexation of the Crimea did not constitute an invasion of a foreign country, Newsweek reported.

In a July 24 interview with Haaretz, Harari admitted to approving changes for the Russian edition of his book, placing a greater value on getting his book and its lessons to Russian audiences than defying the censors.

“I was warned that due to these few examples [the invasion of Crimea and the sharp critique of the government for breaking international laws] Russian censorship will not allow to distribute a Russian translation of the book,” Harari explained. “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.”

Harari also noted that the book is “still very critical of the Putin regime – just without naming names,” and that “The Russian translation still warns readers about the dangers of dictatorship, corruption, homophobia and nationalist extremism.”

The book’s substance, Harari maintained, was not changed. “I did not authorize changing any of the book’s main arguments, and I certainly didn’t authorize writing untrue statements,” Harari said.

Harari defended himself a day later in a Newsweek op-ed titled “Why I Allow Local Adaptations of My Books – Including Under Authoritarian Regimes.”

“To enable my ideas and messages to easily reach people from various countries and cultures, over the years I have authorized and even initiated adaptations of all my books for different audiences,” Harari wrote, noting that he acknowledges the different cultural, religious and political contexts of his readers. “When making adaptations, my guiding principle is to adapt the examples I use to explain my ideas, but never to change the ideas themselves.”

As in the Haaretz interview, Harari claimed that he decided to use a different examples to get through the censor rather than accept not being published or the official Russian version of events. He also reaffirmed that his decision was not a financial one, noting that the market for Russian books is not very profitable.

“The only thing guiding that decision was the hope of bringing new ideas to diverse audiences, and in particular to audiences living in non-democratic countries that suffer from censorship,” Harari concluded.

Speaking to The New York Times on July 30, Harari mentioned specific changes to the Russian edition that he only recently learned about. The changes, which he did not approve of, included altering the language of the book’s dedication to his spouse, Itzik Yahav, by identifying him as Harari’s “partner,” rather than his husband.

“If that’s true, I’m really furious,” Harari said. “I’m openly gay. I go around the world speaking about it.”

Harari also told The Times that he recently discovered that additional parts of the book which make mention of Russia’s hawkishness in the Crimea had been changed. He said he would contact his Russian publisher to object.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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