Moscow Shutters Ukrainian Library, Escalating Culture War

Ukrainian Library remains open without books

The culture war betweeen Russia and the Ukraine continues to escalate, and once again literature finds itself in the crosshairs. According to a report from Reuters, Russian authorities have closed the Ukrainian Literature Library, a Moscow-based institution that has found itself at the center of the controversy. Until recently, the Library housed some 52,000 books and offered Ukrainian lessons. In 2015, local officials deemed a number of books in the Library’s collection to be anti-Russian propaganda. The former head of the Library, Natalya Sharina, was arrested in October 2015 and charged with distributing extremist literature and embezzlement. Last month, we wrote about Sharina’s trial and her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Amnesty International has labeled Sharina a “prisoner of conscience” and has condemned her prosecution and imprisonment.

According to Reuters, Moscow officials have not yet made a formal announcement regarding the Library’s closure, despite acknowledging that its works will now be housed in a new center of Slavonic culture. When the news outlet reached out to a Moscow city spokeswoman, they were told the decision “had no political element….on the contrary, by transferring the books…we are not only preserving the Ukrainian Literature’s books, but also believe it will facilitate the polularization (sic) of the Ukrainian literary legacy.” The new Slavonic cultural center is on record that it only has room for 12,000 additional books.

The Ukrainian Library — formed in 1918 — is no stranger to institutional pressure. It endured crackdowns on Ukrainian literature both during World War II and at the peak of the Stalinist era. Suppression measures have generally coincided with efforts to promote Russian cultural hegemony (the tact often includes the proclaimed supremacy of the Russian language). Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov expounded on this notion, writing for Radio Free Europe, “they want to prove that we are ‘one people,’ to do that, you need to destroy everything that constitutes the cultural uniqueness of the Ukrainian people.”

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In a plot twist that seems ripped from the pages of Gogol or Kafka, the structure that once was the Ukrainian Literature Library remains open and staffed. However, inside there are no books or language lessons, just a staff monitoring empty shelves. “We’re keen to find out what kind of new life the library can have without any books,” employee Tayana Muntyan said to Reuters, “we come to work each day and don’t know what awaits us.

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