Article: Book Purges as a Weapon of War

Via Swedish blog. Biblioteket tar saka #librarycase

Although the article discusses Russia & The Ukraine  I suggest the topic could currently equally apply to large swathes of the US



By Anders Ericson and Mikael Böök

On 7 February, at a Swedish professional forum for librarians, the first, incredulous, reaction was given to the claim that Ukrainian librarians are now dumping Russian books in their millions. The source was But we also found the story on Newsweek, and they were in doubt: “Has Ukraine Banned 19 Million Russian Books From its Libraries?” They wrote that the claim “is missing important context”.

Others mentioned the figure 11 million. Rumours also varied about what kind of literature is or will be removed. Newsweek summarises: “Without more detailed information, we cannot know whether all the banned books were by Russian authors or about Russia, whether 19 million separate books were banned, or how much of the Russian-language books will be replaced by Ukrainian editions.”

But as early as 23 May last year, Interfax-Ukraine published (in Ukrainian) a very comprehensive plan to discard not just pro-Russian literature, but most Russian literature, including classics, totalling 100 (one hundred) million books. The Ukrainian Istitute of Mass Information (IMI) published a summary of the interview here.

The following quotations from the interview are based on our own translation (with help from of the interview from Interfax-Ukraina. The interviewee is Ms Oleksandra Koval who is the head of the Ukrainian Book Institute and the title of the interview is: “Director of UIK Koval: Books are weapons, either defensive or offensive.”

Based on what we get from our translation, Koval provided other figures, more context and fuller information than Euractiv and Newsweek revealed or discussed almost one year later.

The Ukrainian authorities might have modified their plan since last May, but we see no reason to believe so. On the contrary, a recent report in The Times with the title “On the front line of Ukraine’s cultural de-Russification” suggests that the plan is currently being put into full effect.

Oleksandra Koval, The Director, says that

“primarily anti-Ukrainian books with imperial narratives and propaganda for violence, pro-Russian and Chauvinist politics [are] being removed from public libraries.

The second round … will include books by contemporary Russian authors published in Russia after 1991. Probably of different genres, including books for children, romance novels and detective stories. This is an obvious requirement of the times. Although I understand that they may be in demand.”

Asked whether this process means removing “the so-called Russian classics” from libraries, the director said there were many opponents to this, but according to her, no one has given enough reason why this should not be done:

“We read all these books.In my school some Russian classics were regarded as the high point of world literature. Because we had a rather mediocre knowledge of the world classics, many of us were left with the belief that without this literature it is actually impossible to develop the intellect and an aesthetic sense, to be an educated person. This is actually not true,”

According to her, it was Russian poets and writers like Alexander Pushkin and Fyodor Dostoevsky who laid the foundations for the “Russian world” and Russian messianism.

“This is actually very harmful literature, it can really influence people’s point of view. Therefore, my personal opinion is that these books should also be removed from public and school libraries. They should probably be kept in university and research libraries so that experts can study the roots of evil and totalitarianism,”

Koval also said:

“I think there will be many witty reflections and studies written about how the Russian classics affected the mentality of Russians and how this indirectly led to such an aggressive attitude and attempt to dehumanize all other peoples in the world, including Ukrainians.”

We should, however, take into account, Koval adds, that librarians are paid in accordance with the book-lending rate:

“In my opinion, the most important obstacle in the process of eliminating literature is not the defence of Tolstoy, but the simple, economic, but at the same time comprehensible interests of librarians.

Then Koval is asked “What about public libraries abroad? Since it is highly probable that Russia has worked to fill them with its own stories?

“- The Ukrainian state cannot impose this directly. But there is a public that can go to any local library and demand that certain books be removed. … During the first days of the war, we also appealed to the world, to various institutions, for a complete ban on Russian books in the world. Many supported the boycott, but he did not get much support among foreign librarians. Therefore, we must continue discussions with them.

>> On 3 March last year Mikael Böök wrote on this blog about «What librarians are saying about the war in Ukraine».

There is also talk about the balance between languages, as there are many people in Ukraine who have Russian as their main language. One of the questions the director is asked is: «Won’t there be more changes in this area, will the publishers be able to print Russian-language books?»

– We are a democratic country, we can publish in all languages. The only language law is that if a book is published in Russian, the same number of copies must be published in Ukrainian. Perhaps it is the implementation of this law that has led to a significant reduction in the number of Russian-language publications. Obviously, it is not possible to print two editions, so they are printing the Ukrainian edition only.”


This story about the book purges in Ukraine connects in a longer historical perspective with Amanda Laugesen’s book Taking Books to the World: American Publishers and the Cultural Cold War (2017). However, the interview with the head of the Ukrainian Book Institute highlights a tragic and dangerous cultural decline.

For post-World War II US “book diplomacy” was not about purging books, but about giving access to American books, often of high scientific or literary quality, to countries and peoples that were still part of the colonial empires of the European Great powers or that had recently gained independence.

Of course, that project also aimed at counteracting the growing influence of the Soviet Union and at creating goodwill for America. The project was carried out by “Franklin.Inc”, a militant cultural organization whose activities Laugesen brings to light in her book. But that’s nothing for librarians to complain about. That books may compete with and even fight against each other is not only inevitable but desirable.

The purging of “100 million books” in Ukraine because they are in Russian or written by Russian authors, on the other hand, is avoidable and should be condemned.

Addendum about languages in Ukraine

The National Centre for Multicultural Education (NAFO) in Oslo: “The population of Ukraine is composed of several population groups. The largest of these are Ukrainians (77.8%) and Russians (17.3%). The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, which is reported to be the first language of about two-thirds of the population. About one third of the population declare Russian as their first language, regardless of whether they identify themselves as Ukrainians, Russians or others. There is also a large proportion of Ukrainians who know Russian as one of their foreign languages”.

Reuters: “Russian still plays a large role in business, culture and the media. And it is still very widely spoken in many cities, including Kyiv, although the use of Russian has been increasingly restricted”.


Book Purges as a Weapon of War