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Books We Read About Ukraine

When the world wakes up to the news, the librarian ponders: What do we know about Ukraine? What do we have in our collection? Preferably in English?

PoemA lot? Not enough? Anywhere in between? An advanced search with QuickSearch, the Rutgers University Libraries search engine, on (Ukraine OR Ukrainian) as “Subject” narrowed down to books in English retrieves 2,123 titles, with 1,364 available online. Sorted by “date-newest,” i.e., reverse chronological order, the titles alone might provide a glimpse of what has led to us waking up to the news of Russia invading Ukraine.

By the way, is it ”Ukraine” or “the Ukraine?” If you learned (or taught) English as a second language a while ago, you may still remember the iambic drills of verbs, miss, delay, postpone, deny, tra-da, tra-da, followed by an -ing form, or names of certain countries always preceded by the definite article: the Netherlands, the Philippines, and so on. But not Ukraine, not any more.

The lack of the article before the country name “Ukraine” sends a strong political message: it’s an independent country now. The definite article before the name of the country refers to a time when the proper noun was used to denote a region, a territorial part of the Soviet Union, rather than a sovereign country. Since the country gained its independence in 1990, adding the definite article to Ukraine is outright offensive (see more in the Washington Post article from 2019).

One might further note that the Ukrainian language has no definite or indefinite articles at all. I suggest reading the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine (1991) or English version of the Конституція України (Constitution of Ukraine) dated 1996, which clearly use the name as Ukraine in English.

Circling back to the 2,123 titles in the Rutgers collection, a wide range of disciplines are represented––history, political science, international relations, social science, ethnology, economic conditions––in addition to topics related to Ukraine: politics and government, history and foreign relation with the United States and the Russian Federation, democracy, Ukraine conflict, and last but not least, books on the “Chernobyl Nuclear Accident,” as the Library of Congress Subject Heading calls the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster.

There was no social media in 1956, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, Hungary. There was no TikTok to post images of Operation Danube in Prague in 1968. There was no StopJaruzelski hashtag on Twitter in Poland in 1980. But I vividly remember a famous poster from the first free elections in Hungary in 1990, when the presence of Soviet troops “temporarily stationed” in Hungary (since 1956) was still palpable. In the absence of a copy in the archival collection, here is the world-renowned poster by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, a provocation at first blush that quickly became a bitter joke about Russian refusal to end an occupation they had never acknowledged as such in the first place. The caption on the general’s back, borrowed from the closing credits of every Russian film, manages at once to channel both Hungary’s defiant message and Russia’s disingenuous reply: “Tovarischi [Comrades], it’s over!”