Putin Also Making War on Ukrainian MemoryRoundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, historical memory, libraries
Richard Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian, at the University of Oxford, and the author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.
Librarians and archivists in Ukraine today are fighting to retain control of the country’s institutional repositories of memory. The bodies of knowledge for which they are responsible are under attack from Russian forces. According to the Ukrainian Library Association, three national and state libraries, including the National Scientific Medical Library of Ukraine, as well as some 25 university libraries, have been severely damaged or destroyed. The most shocking statistics relate to public libraries: 47 have been completely destroyed beyond repair; another 158 are badly damaged and in need of repair; and a further 276 have received less serious damage.
The toll of ruination includes several buildings of the Karazin University Library in Kharkiv, which held more than 3 million volumes, including many early printed books and manuscripts, as well as important Ukrainian archival collections. In March 2022, a missile exploded in the Rare Book Library, destroying or damaging more than 60,000 precious volumes, and leaving the University Library staff with a daunting task to rescue books damaged by fire, water, and shrapnel. The Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan is among those who have pledged funds to help rebuild the library.
The destruction of libraries was inevitable given such frequent and heavy bombardment of Ukrainian towns and cities, but some evidence suggests that Russian forces not only targeted universities, but homed in on their libraries—and deliberately so. The day after the Tarnovsky House and Library for Youth in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine, was hit by Russian ordnance in March last year, the governor, Vyacheslav Chaus, went to inspect the damage and caustically remarked on his Telegram channel, “A stadium and a library. Such strategic objects.” His sarcasm missed the point: The destruction of knowledge and erasure of memory has always been a war aim for those who seek to impose their own version of history on the next generation.
An even more stark example was the attack in March 2022 on the archives of the State Security Service of Chernihiv Oblast. Tens of thousands of records of Ukrainians, collected by KGB agents during the Soviet era, were destroyed by occupying Russian forces. These archives had been one of the most accessible sources of declassified KGB records from the former Soviet Union. There are also reports of archival documents being seized by Russian occupiers, and that the Russian state archival agency, Rosarkhiv, has been active in occupied territories. Many of these archives contain records of Ukraine’s centralized rule during the Soviet period, including accounts of the oppression and torture of Ukrainian citizens—an uncomfortable story for today’s Kremlin.
Speaking recently from Kyiv, Oksana Bruy, the president of the Ukrainian Library Association, told me, “With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, new challenges related to this war were added to those that Ukrainian libraries already faced.” She highlighted “the damage and destruction of library buildings, equipment, technology and collections by Russian rockets and bombs. In this context, preserving valuable and rare documents, which are the heritage not only of Ukraine, but of the whole world, is particularly acute.”
In occupied Ukraine, Russian troops are taking books from libraries and ruining them by dumping them in brine. To Bruy, this is a systematic attack on the very idea of Ukraine. “The Russians are destroying Ukrainian historical literature and fiction,” she said. In the district of Kupyansk, in Kharkiv Oblast, the Russian occupying forces ordered all school-library books published after 1991 to be registered and destroyed, even children’s books and fairy tales. They were replaced with officially sanctioned materials brought in from the Russian Federation.