Ask Vladimir Putin. The current destruction of Ukraine’s electricity grid by Russian missiles is literally a war crime, as it will badly damage the lives of millions of Ukrainian civilians, and lead to many deaths. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s video message on Holodomor Memorial Day 2022 drew comparisons with the millions of deaths from starvation in Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. He said “Ukrainians went through very terrible things… Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger — now, with darkness and cold.”

But long before they started shelling the power stations, the Russian forces began destroying libraries and archives. As reported by Stephen Marche in ‘Our mission is crucial’: meet the warrior librarians of Ukraine:

“The libraries are on the frontline. The Russians targeted them from the beginning. In the initial invasion, Russian forces demolished the state archives in Chernihiv, a target containing sensitive NKVD and KGB information about Soviet-era repressions that the Russians wanted erased from the historical record. They ransacked the archives in Bucha just as they looted every cultural institution they conquered. They gutted the archival department in Ivankiv for no good reason. “Those who burn books will eventually burn people,” the German poet Heinrich Heine said. But in the Ukrainian war, the Russians burn books and people together.”

Why are the Russian military targeting libraries and archives? The orders come from the top, from a Russian president who has always denied that the country now known as Ukraine has had its own language and culture for hundreds of years. The Russian state has been attempting to suppress the Ukrainian language and culture for the past two centuries, even banning the language from use in schools in the nineteenth century.

Every book in Ukrainian, and/or about Ukrainian realities, is therefore an affront to Russian imperialist ambitions, as well as a valuable resource for those who want to live in a peaceful Ukraine with a rich culture. Marche’s article goes into the subject in greater depth, and documents the extraordinary lengths that Ukrainian librarians and their foreign supporters are going to in order to protect the books and other documents in their care. It’s well worth a read – and some pondering on what relevance, if any, it has for New Zealand.

New Zealand’s book and library culture is much younger than Ukraine’s. Is that why the central and local government authorities here don’t seem to value it as much as they do in Ukraine? Why they are happy to see civic libraries and the National Library repurposed into meeting, display and ‘information’ spaces, with far fewer books on open shelves, and hence far fewer opportunities for exploring subjects and experiencing the serendipity of books found by browsing. Why they are even prepared to dispose of over half a million books in the National Library’s public access collection without careful consideration of what those books can still contribute to building an inclusive and robust and distinctively Aotearoa New Zealand culture?

When President Zelenskiy addresses the New Zealand Parliament on December 14 he is very unlikely to touch on the subject of books and libraries, but we can be pretty sure that protecting them, as with everything else Ukrainian, is dear to his heart. Would that protecting our books and libraries were dear to the hearts of our leaders…

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