As the War Drags On, a Race Is Afoot to Preserve Ukraine History

How librarians in the U.S. and Europe launched a program that could save pivotal collections of the country’s past

As the War Drags On, a Race Is Afoot to Preserve Ukraine History
An employee walks past a protectively-wrapped display cases and furnitures in one of the galleries of the Potocki Palace, one of the architectural gems of western Ukraine, on May 13, 2022 / Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP via Getty Images

March 17, in Ukraine, was day 22 of the war. But in Northern California, it was just a Thursday. Quinn Dombrowski, a Stanford University librarian with short purple hair and big geometric glasses, was skimming through a spreadsheet, a color-coded list with thousands of websites, each the online presence of a Ukrainian cultural institution at risk of erasure. From her home, she could do nothing to preserve the folk museums, libraries, Orthodox churches and equestrian statues that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war was claiming in Ukraine. What she could do — and was doing, along with 1,300 other volunteers mostly in the United States or Europe — was save a copy of whatever existed online, protecting websites from Russian hackers or from shutting down as their distressed owners struggle or forget to pay the fees that keep them online.

Or she could protect them from the same bombs that destroy buildings. Even if websites live in a ubiquitous, infinite space called the internet, the servers that host them are just computers — tangible, fragile objects. These computers often reside inside or close to the buildings of the institutions whose websites they hold. If the buildings of these institutions collapse, their websites might disappear, too.

On that Thursday, Dombrowski opened a message from Dena Strong, an information design specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Strong had been struggling to archive a website with Browsertrix Cloud, a software newly developed for the purpose.

Usually, Dombrowski would have delegated the archiving of the website to someone else. She is one of three founding members of Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO), an initiative that emerged somewhat spontaneously just days after the war started. Dombrowski knew the Cyrillic alphabet (as a child, she took all the Spanish classes her school offered and then learned Russian) and was, as she said, “pretty decent at sending emails” and so became a sort of SUCHO captain. Matching tasks to the computer scientists, librarians and curators in her roster was her specialty.

For the page sent by Strong, however, she decided that the archiving could not wait and started doing it herself. It was the website of the Novgorod-Siversky Museum-Reserve, a small and relatively unknown exhibition hall surrounded by forests in the Chernihiv region, northeast of Kyiv. The institution honored “Igor’s Tale,” a medieval epic poem that conjured happy memories. During her years studying Slavic linguistics, her class discussed the choices that author Vladimir Nabokov made in his English translation of the poem: “vatic” instead of “prophetic,” the word that sounds closest to Russian instead of the word that English speakers would likely understand. She had even named her digital camera Boyan, after “Vatic Boyan,” a bard in “Igor’s Tale.”

“It is one of the most memorable and colorful texts that I have read,” Dombrowski said. “I just imagined the thought and care and work [that] went into constructing such a space, and then imagined what must have been going on there at that moment — with the city under attack.”

“Igor’s Tale” is described as a “masterpiece of Old Russian literature” and a work “familiar to every educated Russian” in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Technically, it is Ukrainian. More accurately, the poem predates both nation-states, Russia and Ukraine, but narrates an unsuccessful military campaign that occurred in Novgorod-Siversky, where the Ukrainian Chernihiv province is today. It takes place in the 12th century, when the epicenter of Eastern Europe was Kyiv.

In 1795, a monk found the manuscript in the library of a cathedral in Russia and sold it to Alexei Musin-Pushkin, a collector who realized its value — the text was ancient, the writing beautiful — and transcribed it for Catherine the Great. The empress was delighted: Many European powers could flaunt a great national medieval epic — France had the “Song of Roland”; Spain had “The Song of My Cid” — and now Russia could too.

The discovery of the manuscript seemed to fit the empire’s nation-building projects so conveniently that many scholars, in Russia and beyond, have theorized the text was a forgery. The Soviet Union, which was also eager to trace a straight line between an ancient knightly culture centered in Kyiv and itself, censored those who claimed the poem was inauthentic. Hence, the debate became political. Saying that the “Igor’s Tale” manuscript was a forgery meant challenging a mythology that the Soviet Union perpetrated to aggrandize itself. As the debate sobered up, however, most historians and linguists around the world went back to the consensus that the piece of literature was authentically medieval.

“It serves as documentary evidence of a rich cultural history,” said Bill Darden, professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, where he taught Dombrowski. “It is clear that part of the culture that Putin wants to claim by invading Ukraine includes the ‘Igor’s Tale.’”

To many Ukrainians, however, the literary classic represents a portion of national folklore appropriated by Russia. In 1990, Chernihiv established a museum dedicated to “Igor’s Tale” in Novgorod-Siversky, the locus of the poem. The museum exhibits original copies of Ukrainian translations, knightly armors and paintings that commemorate Prince Igor.

Before the war, it also housed a space where literary scholars from all over Ukraine convened to obsess over nuances and discuss new interpretations of “Igor’s Tale.” Whereas academics in the rest of the world debated whether the text was a forgery or what it said about Russia, this secluded museum was a place where Ukrainian scholars could give this poem their own meaning.

“‘Igor’s Tale’ is not just a heroic poem,” wrote the administrator of the museum’s Facebook page, who did not feel safe disclosing their name in a private message to me. “It is a literary monument that is the property of all Ukrainian people — like an ancient encyclopedia that can be used to study customs, rituals, flora, fauna, folklore and finally the language.”

Since the war started, the doors of this and most museums in Ukraine have been closed. The administrator of the Facebook page added that the building has not been damaged and that they are staying in Ukraine and preserving it, possibly to reopen it in peacetime.

This administrator was unaware that elsewhere, librarians were preserving a copy of the museum’s website — with its calendar of events, its bimonthly publication “Antiquities” and its sporadic blog posts. Few volunteers at SUCHO, including Dombrowski, care to share their opinions on whether “Igor’s Tale” was forged or not, a Russian classic or a testament to Ukrainian history. They maintain their mission is preserving and cataloging what exists. Other people can study it.

The first big web archiving initiative started in San Francisco in 1996. Computer scientist Brewster Kahle founded the Internet Archive, a nonprofit, to foster “universal access to all knowledge,” as the tagline puts it. In 2001, the archive launched Wayback Machine, a repository for historic versions of websites. Its users can simply type in a URL and Wayback Machine will return all the dates and times for which a snapshot of the website has been stored. It lets you see what the homepage of nytimes.com looked like on Feb. 20, 2003, at 2:37 a.m., for example.

Initially, the goal was to contain a memory of the internet — all websites, all times. The Wayback Machine would be programmed to browse through each website and download a copy. But quickly, websites started resisting, complicating the process by adding videos, interactive graphics, paywalls and links that ramified endlessly. The internet grew too much, and the Wayback Machine’s ambitions became more modest. Now users must save websites themselves by submitting them, and the platform stores a copy. But the copies Wayback Machine manages to store are often just the most superficial layers of the website.

In 2014, Ilya Kreymer, a programmer who then worked at the Internet Archive, created an alternative called Webrecorder. Because the new tool required more manual effort, it was also more thorough and could archive deeper layers of the website. And unlike Wayback Machine, Webrecorder enabled users to download copies of websites onto their computers instead of storing them in the huge online repository.

“Without relying on institutions — just your own archives,” said Kreymer, who is passionate about the concept of “open source,” digital tools available to anyone.

Webrecorder did not immediately gain momentum, however. Its usefulness remained dormant until Putin’s army invaded Ukraine.

In the wake of war, a librarian in Boston felt anxious. Anna Kijas, the head of Lilly Music Library at Tufts University, started wondering about the unique music scores or rare manuscripts that the Ukrainian war imperiled. She searched Ukrainian collections in an international index and started listing the most special ones. Then, it occurred to her that the upcoming Music Library Association Conference could host a workshop, “Data Rescue for Ukraine,” since nobody else was doing this (she had asked around).

Kijas’ plea for people to sign up for the workshop traveled fast through Digital Humanities Twitter and landed on the feed of Sebastian Majstorovic, a German historian and technology consultant at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. It was Feb. 26, day three of the war.

Majstorovic responded to Kijas’ tweet with helpful advice: “Maybe the great folks at @webrecorder_io could get involved.”

That is how Kreymer joined the initiative. Other volunteers started joining too, adding their contact details into a Google spreadsheet that circulated on Twitter.

After tweeting, Majstorovic could not sleep. During his insomniac night, he used Webrecorder to archive the websites of the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies, then the digital museum collection of the Kyiv Fortress. In two nights, he archived seven websites, which are still the first seven rows in a spreadsheet that now has 1,169 rows. “It was the only night that I was crawling on my own,” said Majstorovic.

On Twitter, Kijas, Majstorovic and finally Dombrowski found one another. The trio spoke in a video call and came up with the name for the initiative. On March 1, one week into the war, the SUCHO website launched, standardizing the forms to recruit volunteers, sharing manuals to use the Webrecorder and allowing strangers to submit suggestions for websites to archive. By the end of March, 2, 419 volunteers had joined the channel on Slack, a co-working platform.

Kreymer began receiving continual feedback on his newly revived creation and fixed the glitches as soon as they showed up. On March 15, he launched Browsertrix Cloud, a web-archiving program that did not demand coding from its users, just the clicks of a few buttons. Since then, the children of the librarians, including Dombrowski’s 8-year-old, have begun archiving websites too.

The decentralization of efforts has an advantage. Since people archive the sites using laptops, not an automated bot, the process does not overwhelm the servers in Ukraine, preventing websites from crashing.

SUCHO has a mantra: “Lots of copies keep stuff safe.” Ideally, these copies will not become necessary. They are made unobtrusively, kept online and returned to the owners of the website if asked. The method circumvents a peril that comes with archiving physical objects during war: that saving something often requires removing it from its endangered home.

“It is such a nice thing to do, to save something that belongs to Ukrainians, but they don’t have the time and energy to do,” said Chris Milson, a librarian at the University of Manchester who volunteers for SUCHO and specializes in archiving websites with tridimensional tours of museums and cities. “This is the way the internet would be if everyone was nice.”

March 15 was day 20 of the war in Ukraine. From College Station, Texas, the curator Erica Peaslee monitored Ukrainian social media to work out the geography of the latest air raid alerts. That had become her niche: “Situation Monitoring.” She would spend her free hours on Twitter and Instagram and Telegram channels, trying to map destruction occurring in real time. Then, she would add priority cities and towns to a spreadsheet so that SUCHO volunteers knew where to start archiving.

“Morning @channel! First up, new round of air strikes, I am trying to put as many as I can on the ‘Alerts’ tab,” Peaslee wrote on Slack at 11:30 a.m. on March 15.

From his home in Kansas City, Missouri, Nathan Gerth, who works remotely for a library at the University of Nevada, read Peaslee’s Slack message and started searching websites of institutions in Kharkhiv and Chernihiv, the priority areas of the day. Both northern cities stood in the way of the Russian army’s ultimate target of Kyiv and had been bombed since the early days of the invasion. Their libraries had archived historic documents about the Holodomor – the manmade famine in Soviet Ukraine – as well as names of Ukrainians persecuted by Stallin and the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB), records pertaining to the Nazi occupation and church records of births, deaths and marriages.

But those were not necessarily Gerth’s primary task. Equipped with fluency in Russian that he learned as a language-prodigy child and then perfected as a Russophile doctoral student, Gerth was looking for the lesser-known sites: institutions that were not the first to pop up during a Google search. Unlike the rapidly changing social media universe that Peaslee was monitoring, the sites on Gerth’s orbit were eerily quiet, frozen since the day the war started.

“It got to February 24 and then sites were not updated as people had to move to other considerations,” Gerth said. “We were capturing that moment before everyone had to change their lives.”

Of the 10 websites originating from Kharkhiv and Chernihiv that Gerth found that day, one belonged to the Novgorod-Siversky Museum-Reserve, a tribute to “Igor’s Tale.” Gerth recognized the poem, of course. But he had given little thought before to the setting where the story unfolded — a place so close to the border between Ukraine and Russia, a time before this border existed. The poem commemorates a war that united Slavic peoples; now the museum in its honor might be destroyed by a war among them. “There is a sort of irony to the fate that it had,” Gerth said.

Later that day, when Strong found Gerth’s additions to the spreadsheet, she tried to use Browsertrix Cloud, the newly released, easiest-to-use version of Webrecorder, but failed. She does not know why. She supposes that every website has intricacies and quirks that defy SUCHO’s attempts at a universal method.

Dombrowski received Strong’s message the day after and searched the website on the spreadsheet. She clicked and found a museum dedicated to a poem she loved. Before going to sleep, she manually made a copy of the 83 pages on the website, downloaded them to her computer and uploaded them to the cloud.

Then, Dombrowski marked the website as “done” on the spreadsheet. She meant it was done for now. A volunteer with fluency in Ukrainian would later have to confirm her archiving was done correctly. Then, SUCHO would have to figure out how to catalog it: find a place for this website in a classification and system that is still under construction. Once it’s part of a system — a collection — the website will be part of a body of knowledge about Ukraine before the war.

SUCHO is succeeding. When I started reporting on this story, I imagined the internet as a mysterious, unquantifiable ocean. The thought that anyone would try to catalog and archive even a portion of it — the websites of Ukrainian cultural institutions — amazed me; the task seemed laudable and overwhelming.

“But can this be done?” I asked Alex Gil, a digital humanities scholar and librarian at Columbia University and the first volunteer I interviewed.

“Of course it can be done,” Gil responded. “We are doing it.”

Similar things had been done before. In 2016, the Data Refuge Project at the University of Pennsylvania started archiving websites with climate change data that some feared the Trump administration would erase or overwrite. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Gil participated in the Puerto Rico Mapathon for Hurricane Relief, an initiative that mapped the unmapped areas of Puerto Rico for the Red Cross to use. Gil’s philosophy is that librarians have power and can use it to step up as emergency respondents when tragedy strikes — like nurses or firefighters “but maybe not as important.”

Still, SUCHO is the first large-scale initiative to archive websites as a war unfolds. Its newness daunted even the most experienced volunteers. For the archiving of physical objects, “there are practices and protocols, organizations like UNESCO, documentation from World War II, you know you are supposed to put sandbags around statues,” Peaslee said. “It’s the digital part that is more nuanced; that’s where it gets weird.”

Why it was the war in Ukraine that galvanized this first project and not any of the recent conflicts that have ravaged other countries and their websites may be a topic of speculation. Some of the SUCHO volunteers happened to be followers of Slavic culture, which explains why they were moved to do something to save the archives of Ukraine. But what remains unanswered is why news of wars in other nations had not spurred a similar initiative, given that the technology that enables it has existed for years. “It’s a good question,” said Kreymer. “Clearly, this has not been the first war in the past few years. I wonder about this too.”

Moving forward, the founders of SUCHO are proposing to UNESCO a framework to protect cultural heritage online as a matter of course, in Ukraine and elsewhere. To Dombrowski, SUCHO is a lot like a Molotov cocktail, a make-do that seems grassroots and inspiring but exposes the absence of an infrastructure that should have already existed. If a big institution takes control, which is what SUCHO’s founders are aiming to happen, theirs could be the last web archiving effort to improvise during a war.

“There is a register of historical places that nobody can tear down — like my building,” said Ben Schmidt, a SUCHO volunteer and director of digital humanities at New York University who takes advantage of the school’s enviable faculty housing in downtown Manhattan. No system protects websites of cultural significance for a country, however. Even if the servers of these websites reside in safety, the companies that host them can take them down if their owners cannot pay rent. “Landmarking virtual sites is an idea that we have had in our minds for a while, but what’s happening now adds an urgency.”

Many Ukrainian websites would have disappeared if SUCHO had not saved a copy. On any day, between 14% and 20% of the listed websites are offline, though they often come back online when the connection stabilizes, but not always. Such was the case of the Kharkhiv State Archives, which contained the records of an entire region: births, marriages, documents of the people whom the Soviet Union banished to Siberia. Just hours after Majstorovic finished archiving the library’s website, the library itself collapsed and half of its website went offline.

“It was weird that library work suddenly became exciting,” said Majstorovic. “Librarians do very important work that they get little credit for: archiving, saving, cataloging. But it’s usually not James Bond work.”

In the archival efforts for the website of the Novgorod-Siversky Museum-Reserve, which pays tribute to “Igor’s Tale,” nothing that would entice James Bond happened. This website was never even in danger and the SUCHO volunteers had always known it. Gerth wrote in the spreadsheet that its servers were located outside Ukraine, far from the war zone. Still, the group went ahead and archived the website in the way that a team of librarians can operate — calmly, rigorously, methodically and, perhaps most important, acting long before an emergency required hasty improvisation. It was a cool-headed endeavor — perhaps the best approach to archiving some of humanity’s most pivotal moments.

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