Putin’s War on Ukrainian Memory

As repositories of national culture and consciousness, the libraries and archives of Ukraine have become a target of Russian aggression.

An illustration of a blue-and-yellow book disintegrating
Matt Chase / The Atlantic

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.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Ukraine formed a distinct part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Documents relating to Ukrainian lands, known as the Ruthenian Metrica, were compiled from original sources and collated into registers in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. As Poland gained regional supremacy over Lithuania in the 1740s, these registers were moved to Warsaw. In 1795, Poland underwent one of its successive partitions, and the registers were seized by Catherine the Great and transported to St. Petersburg.

Following the First World War, the records were returned to Warsaw—except the parts that related to Ukraine, which were torn out of the registers and retained in Moscow. Their presence there came to light only after 1989, when the new policy of openness admitted researchers to the archives. These records could arguably be considered artifacts of Ukraine’s history, of Poland’s, or of Lithuania’s. Clearly, though, they cannot be considered documents of Russian history. The fact that they have remained in Moscow shows Russia’s enduring contempt for the idea of an independent Ukrainian identity.

During the Second World War, the Nazi regime took a close interest in the archives of their enemies. The Reich Security Main Office and an operational unit known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) were tasked with identifying and seizing library and archival collections from across Europe. Those deemed important were sent to Germany; the rest were destroyed.

The ERR took its name from its founder, Alfred Rosenberg, one of the chief architects of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies. He was tried at the Nuremberg trials, and hanged in 1946, for crimes that included the plunder of archives, museums, and private collections. At war’s end, when Soviet forces established control over Central and Eastern Europe, the future of the region’s memory became once again the center of a struggle for political control.

Much of the material looted by the Nazis and discovered at the end of the war was returned to the countries from which it had been seized—more than 3 million books and documents were recovered at the Offenbach Archival Depository outside Frankfurt and restored to their sources by American forces. Records found in Soviet-occupied territory were requisitioned a second time. More than 40 railway wagons carried off millions of books and documents (most of them not originally from Russia) to a massive archival center in Moscow, which is now part of the Russian State Military Archive and notoriously difficult to access.

The Russian Federation has followed the U.S.S.R.’s position on seized archive and library collections, either denying their existence or viewing them as reparations for the devastation inflicted by German aggression on the Russian people during the war. The official ideology of the Russian state has altered, but its iron grip on archival material that can be used to dictate an official historical narrative has not changed.

In the post-Soviet era, however, Ukraine has behaved very differently. In 2002, one of Europe’s most important musical archives was returned to its home in Berlin after an absence of more than 50 years, having been presumed lost or destroyed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Sing-Akademie, founded in 1791 as a choral society, had an outstanding collection of Bach materials, but also manuscript scores by Buxtehude, Froberger, Haydn, Handel, and Mozart.

Originally removed from Berlin in 1943, as the tide of the war turned, the city’s cultural and scientific institutions began to move collections away from the danger brought on by the ever more frequent bombing raids. The Sing-Akademie archive was found by Red Army troops in a Silesian castle in 1945. From there, Soviet authorities moved the collection to the Kyiv Conservatory, where it was secretly housed before being transferred to the Central State Archive–Museum of Literature and Art of the Soviet republic of Ukraine.

Finally, in the 1990s, intrepid researchers tracked down the Sing-Akademie archive’s presence in post-Soviet Kyiv. Three years of diplomacy then followed in order to secure its return to Berlin, against some domestic opposition in Ukraine and severe pressure from Russia. Although Ukraine did not demand any compensatory payment, the German government made a substantial donation to the reconstruction of a church in Kyiv.

The Sing-Akademie archive, now fully available to scholars, has enabled numerous performances, broadcasts, and publications; the renewed access to its materials has enriched world culture. Although not all Ukrainians approved at the time, the return of the archive did play an important part in a process of cultural and political reconciliation, helping Ukraine to become European again.

For many librarians and archivists, the scenes in Ukraine are a catastrophe. For our colleagues there, the uncertainty of whether they will have a building, a collection, staff, or a community to serve are taking a severe emotional toll. Foreign professionals like me have been doing what we can. Along with other cultural-heritage organizations across the U.K., my own institution, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, along with the university’s museums, sent a truckload of conservation supplies and equipment to Ukraine, and we’ve been encouraged by the images we’ve seen of the crates opened and the supplies put to good purpose. Many international library and archival institutions have been working together to defend Ukraine’s digital space and the electronic-archival collections of its memory institutions from Russian cyber attacks.

“Libraries are currently playing an important role in bringing Ukraine closer to victory,” Lyusyena Shum told me. She runs the organization Library Country Ukraine, which supports libraries across the country. Libraries have become humanitarian and volunteer centers—some helping support displaced persons, others providing aid to the armed forces. “Librarians are the drivers of the struggle on the intellectual front for the brains of Ukrainians,” she said.

We all need them to succeed. Ukraine is fighting a vicious war of extreme violence. But it is also fighting a war of memory and identity. Librarians and archivists are playing a crucial role in the battle for control of the country’s past—for the sake of its future.