The Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and the Ukrainian Institute is currently running Ukraine Lab, an online residency for six emerging writers based in the United Kingdom and Ukraine (or displaced by the war). Sasha Dovzhyk, curator of Ukraine Lab, writes:
The ongoing successful resistance to Russia’s war of aggression on an unprecedented scale has made the value of Ukrainian knowledge and experience undeniable. The urgency to learn from Ukraine is now existential for the rest of the world, and Ukraine Lab presents such an opportunity.
Working in cross-cultural pairs, the participants of Ukraine Lab will produce creative nonfiction pieces tackling global challenges in the areas of modern warfare, disinformation, and environment through the prism of Ukraine. Ukraine Lab is supported by the British Council as part of UK/UA Season.
Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov’s set design for Mob (adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel They Call Me Carpenter), 1924. Mystetskyi arsenal, Kyiv, Ukraine.
As part of the project, the writers took part in an online workshop with Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and East European collections at the British Library. We encouraged the participants to engage critically and creatively with the Library’s rich Ukrainian collections, and to record their responses to some of the items they encountered.
Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). ZK.9.d.258
Jonathon Turnbull (United Kingdom)
Cultural and environmental geographer at the University of Cambridge researching the return of nature to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone
From original copies of CIA-sponsored radical newspapers born from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster to a traditionally-bound book celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, the British Library’s Ukrainian collections are packed with gems. Equally well-preserved are the stories behind these items, whose histories were richly conveyed by Katie McElvanney, curator of Slavonic and Eastern European collections. In the collection, we can trace the history of Russia’s imperialistic attempts to erase Ukrainian culture and language, an endeavour which is more apparent than ever since February 24th 2022. But equally, we can find the perseverance and strength of the Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism. We were shown, for instance, a rare pocket-sized edition of Taras Shevchenko’s famous poetry collection Kobzar, published in Geneva and designed to be easily smuggled into Ukraine at a time when Ukrainian language was prohibited by Russian colonialism. Some editions were even disguised as cigarette papers to avoid detection. Items like this remind us of the power of literature, poetry, and other documentary forms in fostering community, protecting culture, and enabling resistance. It was a privilege to access such items and to learn about their history from Katie McElvanney who gave a wonderful insight into the British Library’s Ukrainian collections.
Front cover of Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children’s book, Brysko, huska i lysychka [Munich, 1949]. Awaiting shelfmark
Olena Kozar (Ukraine)
Journalist, editor, and copywriter
The book that stood out for me was Mariika Pidhiryanka’s children's book, Brysko, huska i lysychka, published in 1949 in a displaced persons camp in Germany and doodled by a kid’s hand. I couldn’t help thinking back to a cramped school library which I frequented and where doodling in books was strictly forbidden. Of course, it was. But after all, what else can bring a book to life and closer to us if not a mischievous message sent through time? I hope that the young reader of Pidhiryanka’s book didn’t witness or remember World War II and doodled care-free in a world where the evil was defeated. I salute you, little monkey, from the new Europe, torn apart by a new war. The evil came back but we are fighting.
Title page of the British Library’s copy of the 1881 Kobzar (volume one). 1451.a.42.
Kris Michalowicz (United Kingdom)
International volunteer and writer focusing on Eastern Europe
I was struck by the wealth of history and human experience contained in the collections. The eclectic range of items made a powerful impression on me, and made my connection to Ukrainian history all the more vivid. One item that stood out to me was the portable copy of Shevchenko's Kobzar, designed to be smuggled. It highlighted the ingenuity, determination, and bravery Ukrainians have needed to preserve their culture across the centuries under the threat of imperialism.
Page from Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine (Kyiv; Tallinn, 2007), YF.2017.b.1282
Kateryna Iakovlenko (Ukraine)
Luhansk-born visual culture researcher and writer exploring cultural and artistic transformation during the war and violence
I have always been fascinated by library collections: how they are formed, how curators distribute and catalogue books. It was interesting to observe how carefully the staff treated each book as a separate independent story. But among all that Katie McElvanney spoke about, I was most inspired by the collection of environmental sound recordings. While we grow up surrounded by the sounds of birds, frogs, and animals, it seems that nothing can change, that they will always be with us. Unfortunately, however, climate change and wars affect the environment. Some plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. For this reason, it's crucial to preserve them by all possible means.
Cover of the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm by ‘Ivan Cherniatynskyi’, Kolhosp tvaryn: kazka, with an introduction by George Orwell. ([Munich, 1947?]) 12593.f.40.
Phoebe Page (United Kingdom)
University of Cambridge Languages and Literature graduate, preparing for a Masters degree in Political Sociology
I was blown away by the breadth and variety of the collection, spanning so many styles, genres, places, and periods in history. I was particularly struck by the story each piece told, and the layers of experience you could divine from items which must have passed through several different hands, and which still bear the marks of previous owners. We were shown a rare edition of Orwell’s Animal Farm, translated into Ukrainian in 1947 and distributed throughout the displaced persons camps at the end of the Second World War. It was incredible to learn that Orwell wrote a special introduction for the Ukrainian version of Animal Farm, which became a message of hope for Ukrainians in the DP camps. Political independence was a matter of survival for Orwell and for Ukrainians facing Soviet oppression, and that such an iconic author would write a special introduction personally addressed to a tiny audience (only around 2,000 copies of this edition were distributed) is to me incredibly powerful.
Sofia Cheliak (Ukraine)
TV host, Programme director at the Lviv International BookForum, translator from Czech
I was surprised by the approach to the process of collecting items and the very diversity of the Ukrainian collection. I studied Ukrainian Philology (Literary Studies) for my degree and only read about the books that were published by Mykhailo Drahomanov. At the British Library workshop, I was able to actually see them, at least online.
Edited by Sasha Dovzhyk, Curator of Ukraine Lab and special projects curator at Ukrainian Institute London