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Interview with Archivist Katia Davydenko about the Ukraine Exhibit at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library
June 24, 2022

Katia Davydenko, an archivist at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library (RBML) and Kyiv native, has been helping the library collect materials about modern Ukrainian history for years. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Davydenko saw the world’s swift and united reaction to the war. But as an activist who’s been protesting Russia’s aggression since its annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas in 2014, she was bitter that the global community had not acted earlier.

“For most of the world, Russia’s war started in February 2022, but in reality, it’s been going on since 2014,” Davydenko told me when I visited her at the RBML in June. “And most people don’t know the whole story.”

As Russian forces and missiles ravaged Ukraine, RBML wanted to do something to bring attention to the war and educate the public about the historical context and decided to create an emergency exhibition. Tanya Chebotarev, the curator of the Bakhmeteff Archive, and Davydenko thought about all the artifacts collected over the years, including paraphernalia and newspaper clippings from the 2004 Orange Revolution and protective equipment worn by protesters during the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity. Davydenko also reached out to her Ukrainian friends and community for more materials for the exhibit that would contextualize the history surrounding the war.

The result is four carefully curated vitrines. One dedicated to the Orange Revolution, another to the Revolution of Dignity, and another to the volunteer efforts that arose in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas. The last, and most poignant, is a reminder to viewers that Russia’s ongoing military aggression, which has been dubbed a “hybrid war” by the global community, has actually caused real bloodshed: 14,000 casualties,  including civilians, before Russia’s full-scale invasion. This display commemorates the life of Mikola Ilin, a Belarusian refugee to Estonia (by way of Kyiv) who volunteered as a combat medic in Ukraine and was killed and badly mutilated by Russian forces in 2020 while trying to evacuate a wounded soldier.

“These artifacts are one of a kind,” Davydenko said gesturing toward the exhibition vitrines, which take up a corner by the entrance of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library. She pointed to a display containing the artifacts from the Revolution of Dignity: a gas helmet, a mask that had been worn by a close friend who had participated in the revolution. A badly charred blue and yellow scarf with the word Ukraine on it was front and center. “Look at this,” she said. “You can still smell the ashes of Maidan.”

Davydenko emphasized that the exhibit documents events that are still unfolding. “We are living history,” she said. “And we can still make a difference.”

The exhibit, which will run through the end of July, is located in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library on the 6th floor of Butler Library. To visit, please email Yekaterina Davydenko (ys289@columbia.edu).

(Photo: Katia Davydenko at a protest in front of Carnegie Hall in 2019 against the appearance of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who signed the letter in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Photo by Alex Buzunov)

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