“Help save our library! It is going to be thrown out on the street with all its books!” This was the gist of the appeal that was sent to The Day by Mykhailo VORONTSOV, an instructor at a Kyiv military college. Like many of his colleagues, he has been a member of the Lesia Ukrainka Public Library for years.
“There are over 270,000 documents in the library collection. There are well-stocked sections on art, foreign-language literature, regional histories, and books about Kyiv. This is where scholarly council sessions and all kinds of events and book launches are held. The handy search program, Exlibris, was installed in the library with funds from the Soros Foundation. Thanks to this grant, we were able to provide our readers with Internet access. And now we are going to be evicted with all this,” said Liudmyla KOVALCHUK, the director of the Lesia Ukrainka Library.
Kovalchuk has managed the library since 1964, so she knows this institution like the back of her hand. “Archival documents show that on Dec. 17, 1943, 40 days after the liberation of Kyiv, the City Council passed a decision to establish eight free libraries in the capital of Ukraine. The war was still going on and the city lay in ruins, but the people of Kyiv began bringing books that they had saved from the Nazis. Libraries were needed even in wartime, and now what? They should be closed?” she asked indignantly.
The beginning of the history of the library’s eviction goes back to the 1970s, when a building housing the Soiuzhazproiekt Institute stood next to the library. There was no private property at the time, and the library and the institute cooperated: the librarians carried out cultural and educational work among the institute’s employees, while the institute helped the library by furnishing transport, providing a hall for artistic events, etc. Kovalchuk said the real problems began in the mid-1990s, when Soiuzhazproiekt became a public limited company. Then in 1996, it suddenly privatized the entire premises, including the part housing the library.
When Kovalchuk found out, she appealed to the highest government bodies, and the conflict was resolved for some time. The State Property Fund signed an eight-year lease with Ukrhazproiekt, but when the lease expired, the library’s powerful neighbor demanded that it either move out or pay 15 dollars per square meter.
“As the vice-president of the Ukrainian Library Association, I appealed to the Parliamentary Committee for Culture and Spirituality, the Cabinet of Ministers, and President Yushchenko. We finally managed to extend the lease for another three years. But now Ukrhazproiekt doesn’t even want payment anymore: we were just advised that Dec. 31, 2007, is the last day that the library will be functioning in these premises. There is no place for us to move to: no matter how much I have asked City Hall to give our library a building, there has been no positive response,” Kovalchuk explained.
In the past few months Ukrhazproiekt representatives have made several visits to the Lesia Ukrainka Library, where they took photographs and measurements, and discussed new designs. On March 11, 2008, the Kyiv Economic Court handed down a ruling to evict the library.
“The case was heard in our absence: we asked the judge to adjourn the court until we could find a defense attorney, but the servants of Themis turned a deaf ear. Then we filed a complaint with the Court of Appeals - I would like to thank our attorney Andrii Fedur for agreeing to defend us free of charge. But if this court rules against us, I don’t know what to do next,” said the director of the Lesia Ukrainka Library of Kyiv.
In their letter to President Yushchenko, the library administrators say that Presidential Decree No. 157/2008, which forbids depriving cultural institutions, including libraries, of their premises, is being violated. The librarians are asking Ukraine’s head of state to intervene and protect them.
A similar request to save “Lesia’s library” was sent to the president by Borys Oliinyk, Hero of Ukraine and chairman of the Ukrainian Foundation for Culture, who has repeatedly, if unsuccessfully, requested the city authorities to curb the real estate appetites of Ukrhazproiekt. It is not clear how this case will be resolved. But we would like to believe that justice and common sense will ultimately prevail.