The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the latest violent development in a long and turbulent history in the land of the steppes, and the Library has international resources on the region that go back for hundreds of years.
You can learn a lot here, from one of the first maps that used the name “Ukraine” for the area (in 1648), to the poetry and writings of national hero Taras Shevchenko in the 19th century, to up-to-the-minute news and analysis from the Congressional Research Service. You can also watch an hourlong seminar, Putin, Ukraine, and What’s Likely to Happen, hosted by the Library’s Kluge Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recorded just before Russia invaded.
This article is a brief summary of the Library’s holdings regarding the region. Some descriptions are from official Library documents.
First, it helps to know that Ukraine roughly translates as “frontier” and its location between Europe and Asia has meant that human beings have traipsed through it, going east or west, for thousands of years. It has been included in any number of empires, divided into many different configurations and called by any number of names before it declared independence in its current boundaries in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our primary documents thus refer to the region by the name (or names) it was known at the time. The maps, lithographs, books and manuscripts shine through with illuminations and hand-coloring from centuries long past.
The Library’s overview to its Ukrainian collections is a backbone of reference material, but you may want to get started with the CRS reports that will keep you abreast of breaking news. The CRS is the branch of the Library that provides non-partisan news and intelligence to members of Congress, and analysts have filed dozens of short- and long-form reports on the situation in Ukraine.
For example, Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: New Financial and Trade Sanctions brings together the world’s latest response to the Russian invasion. Curious about exactly how much of Russian financial reserves are being tied up by sanctions? Here’s a chart that spells it out as of this week:
If you’d like to know what the Ukrainians have to defend themselves, there’s a summary of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Earlier, CRS analysts reported on Russian Military Buildup Along the Ukrainian Border, as well as U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine. More in-depth analysis can be found in a 40-page report from last October, Ukraine: Background, Conflict with Russia, and U.S. Policy, including this summary:
“Ukraine has undergone dramatic changes since the country’s 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Euromaidan Revolution). Forced to confront a Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, a Russian-led separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, and a tightening of Russian control in the nearby Sea of Azov and Black Sea, Ukraine has developed a military capable of territorial defense, reversed a decline in economic growth, implemented reforms, maintained a democratic path, and gained formal independence for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”
If you’re interested in law, from the country’s constitution to its form of government and international treaties, this guide is a concise starting point. From the Law Library, there are also the collected legal reports from Ukraine (and many other countries) that include copies of legislation and national government programs.
No one looms larger in the national identity than Shevchenko, the poet, writer, artist, intellectual and nationalist leader. Born into serfdom in 1814, he railed against the Russian empire and its oppressions, wrote, painted, dazzled and rebelled with poems that forecast a revolution. He was imprisoned and exiled, sent into harsh labor at a remote work camp for years. It wrecked his health. He was released, wrote feverishly for a few years and died in St. Petersburg at the age of 47.
The Ukrainian Weekly, in a 1934 editorial, put his legacy this way: “Rarely in the world’s history has an individual gripped the hearts, the imagination, and the intellect of a nation to such an extent and degree as Taras Shevchenko has done to that of the Ukrainian people.”
The Library holds more than 800 items by and about Shevchenko, copies of his poems in multiple languages and works about his influence. His is the Ukraine of the steppe and blue skies, the rolling land and the yearning people, written in a cadence and vision that would remind many Americans of Walt Whitman.
Here are the opening lines of “My Testament.”
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
There is a statue of the man in Washington, at 22nd and P Street NW, built with congressional funds during the Cold War (it was seen as a rebuke to the Soviet Union, which then controlled Ukraine). The unveiling in 1964 drew a crowd of 30,000 marching for Ukrainian independence. The keynote speaker was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former President and, during World War II, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, who held up Ukraine as one of the “captive nations” of Russian rule. There were critics — the Washington Post editorialized the statue was a folly, devoted to “the implausible goal of Ukrainian nationhood.”
Historically, the Library’s collections go back centuries. Amid dozens of books, histories and manuscripts from the 16th and 17th centuries, the Library holds two major items that are important to Ukrainian identity.
First is a copy of the Ostrog Bible, the first complete Slavic Bible, published in Ostroh in 1581, in Cyrillic type. This is in modern-day Ukraine, but was in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time. The printer Ivan Fyodorov published it with the Ruthenian (another name for parts of Ukraine) Prince Konstantin Ostrogski. It became a foundational text of Orthodox Christianity, hugely influential in the faith’s development.
Second is the Beauplan Map of 1648, one of the first maps to denote Ukraine as a unique entity. Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan was a French military engineer and architect, working for Wladislaw IV Vasa, king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania, who ruled much of the territory at the time.
The Library’s 19th century holdings on Ukraine are anchored by the remarkable collection of Gennadii Vasil’evich Yudin, a Siberian businessman and book collector. The Library acquired the collection in 1906, and while it spans the tsarist Russian empire, it contains a wealth of material on Ukraine, such as the complete set of an important journal of Ukrainian history, literature, folklore and language, “Kievskaia Starina.” The Library is the only library in the Western Hemisphere that holds a complete set of Kievskaia Starina with the index. Remarkably, we have the tsars’ copies of books on Ukrainian geography and history, including the Crimean War in the mid 19th century,
There’s Jewish history in the region, too, partially stemming from the Pale of Settlement era, when imperial Russian policy forced Jews to live in mostly rural areas in the western parts of the empire, including modern-day Ukraine. A researcher has used Library maps as part a historical collection, “An Atlas of the Shtetl,” that shows where Jews lived across the region. The Library also has some of the only copies of the world’s first illustrated children’s books in Hebrew, published in Odessa in 1917, chronicled in The Russian Revolution and Jewish Children’s Book Publisher. There’s also a fascinating look at Jewish cultural and publishing history in Ukraine during the early 20th century in “The Mystery of Yakiv Orenshtain’s Little Red Riding Hood.”
In politics of past eras, you’ll find original documents in the papers of presidents, diplomats, national security and foreign policy experts in the Manuscript Division. They trace the arc of U.S. relations with Ukraine, from the limits of Woodrow Wilson’s principles of self-determination, at least as they applied to Ukraine following World War I, to former Jimmy Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s leadership of the American-Ukrainian Advisory Committee and his defense of Ukraine’s right to choose its own political identity — a decision that reverberates today.
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