Click Here podcast, episode 90, Chernihiv library
Illustration by Megan J. Goff

Saving Ukraine’s cultural heritage with a click

Tetiana Shyshova’s life seemed to revolve around the twin suns of Chernihiv and the city’s historic Youth Library. When she was child, she would sign up for book readings and attend Christmas concerts at the library. She’d have tea in the garden in the back, or spend hours walking through the stacks.

“To me it was never just a library,” she told us recently on a reporting trip to Ukraine. “It was a place where everyone gathered to meet writers, find people who shared our interests and there were so, so many books.”

The library’s official name is the Chernihiv Regional Library for Youth and it’s a small Gothic revival building painted creamsicle orange with white trim that looks like icing. Chernihiv is one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, sitting about two hours north of the capital of Kyiv, 30 miles from the border of Belarus, and about 400 miles, as the crow flies, from Moscow.

The library hadn’t always been a library. At one point, it was an orphanage, and at the turn of the 20th century, it was a stately house owned by a rich collector named Vasyl Tarnovsky who had filled it with more than 1,500 portraits of prominent historical figures, rare manuscripts and Cossack antiquities.

Librarian Tetiana Shyshova: “Events in my life always seemed to bring me back here.” Image: Sean Powers / Recorded Future News

“The Library for Youth was built for a personal collection of Tarnovsky as a museum of Ukrainian antiquity, the first one of its kind in what was then part of the Russian Empire,” Kateryna Goncharova, a Ukraine Heritage Crisis Specialist with the World Monuments Fund said recently. “It’s the spirit of this place that makes Ukrainian identity so vivid.”

Tetiana Shyshova certainly felt that spirit. So much so that she never really fully left the Youth Library. She grew up to be one of its librarians.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why she seemed totally unprepared for the events of March 2022, when Russian warplanes buzzed overhead.. When the bombs began to fall, she did what she had been instructed to do.

“I fell to the floor and covered my head with my hands, closed my eyes and opened my mouth,” she said. The Red Cross says if you open your mouth you equalize the pressure for your eardrums when the blast wave washes over you. She was at home with her brother at the time, and he ran to the window. “He’s the kind of person who would run to a window,” she said smiling.

He could see Russian planes screaming across the night sky. “‘Get up, get up,’ he kept saying to me,” she remembered, “‘look outside.’” When she finally got up to look, she put her hand to her mouth in horror. “I could see the orange fires against the dark sky,” It looked like the Youth Library of Chernihiv had been hit, and as she saw flames lick at the side of the building, she couldn’t have possibly imagined there would be a new technology to help her save it.

Culture war

At the heart of the Russian invasion is a culture war, specifically President Vladimir Putin’s contention that Ukraine is a part of Russia — a breakaway region without its own heritage or traditions — all of which is untrue.

In the nearly 20 months since the war began, Russia appears to be targeting cultural sites in Ukraine in bid to destroy anything that smacks anything uniquely Ukrainian. This past Spring, UNESCO, the United Nations culture arm, confirmed that some 250 Ukrainian cultural sites have suffered damage as a direct result of the Russian invasion. Everything from art museums to churches to memorials to libraries, like the one in Chernihiv.

Tetiana Shyshova with Click Here’s Dina Temple-Raston and Sean Powers at a “book hospital” near the library. Image: Daryna Antoniuk / Recorded Future News

That March morning after the bombing, Shyshova rode her bike over to the library to see the damage herself. “The ground was covered with pieces of wood and glass. I was horrified by what I saw,” she said. The building’s stained glass windows were blown out; the roof looked stuck in mid-collapse, and the force of the explosion had scattered books all over the road.

“I saw one book and wanted to collect it, and then I wanted to collect others, and I kept doing that as I cried,” she said. She piled them on the curb, trying to smooth out pages, straighten spines. Other residents came to help her make neat stacks of books. It smelled, Shyshova said later, of death.

“Dead books,” she said.

Books damaged in the Chernihiv attack will eventually be part of an exhibit. Image: Daryna Antoniuk / Recorded Future News

For the people of Chernihiv, the bombing of the library was unimaginable. It had survived The Bolsheviks in 1918, Nazi bombings in the 1940s and now it seemed to have finally succumbed. When Shyshova looked back at the collapsed building, it looked like an old face missing teeth.

What Shyshova didn’t know was that a young man named Sergey Revenko had an idea about how to bring the Youth Library back from the dead, and it involved some architectural know-how and a relatively new technology called photogrammetry.

A digital twin

Sergey Revenko drove into Chernihiv a few days after the bombing to deliver boxes of food to the city’s survivors. What he saw looked like something out of a newsreel from another era. “There were people standing in line waiting for food” and the line seemed to stretch for a mile. “It really upset me, made me mad.”

He’d heard about the destruction of the Youth Library on the news, so he walked over to get a closer look. He was shocked by the damage. It had been a near miss. A giant bomb had left a crater where the library’s garden had once been. The hole was the size of a school bus. The building looked like it was going to slip down into it.

Revenko pulled out his camera and snapped a picture. This wasn’t just wartime voyeurism, this is what Revenko does. He’s an architect, a surveyor and a specialist in 3D scanning and photogrammetry.

Sergey Revenko photographs the Lukashivka church in Ukraine’s Chernihiv region. Image: Courtesy of Sergey Revenko

Photogrammetry literally means the act of deriving precise measurements from photographs, and it involves taking a set of overlapping photos of an object, or a building or a person and then rendering them in three dimensions by using computer algorithms.

After he took that first picture, he looked around, wondering if someone might shout at him and tell him to stop. Was this like filming a crime scene? “I was really nervous at the time because maybe I was doing something illegal,” he said. Policemen were close by, and they were eyeing him. He snapped more and more pictures. “I took a thousand photographs that time,” he said.

He had images from every conceivable angle. “It's really necessary for photogrammetry to work to have each photo capture at least 60 percent of the previous photo,” he said.

Sergey Revenko with Click Here’s Dina Temple-Raston. The digital scan on his phone “is like having a digital twin of a building,” he says. Image: Sean Powers / Recorded Future News

Think of it as the modern day equivalent of those old panorama photographs collaged together from single prints. If you wanted the whole horizon, you took one picture, made a mental note where it stopped and then you’d take another, until you captured the whole thing. When the photographs came back from the lab, you’d lay them out in order and tape them together. Revanko’s digital version — produced with the help of an algorithm — was much more precise.

“It is like having a digital twin of a building you can see in the real world,” he said. An incredibly accurate, explorable blueprint of whatever you photographed.

All the cracks we cannot see

But Revenko wanted to go a step further. So he got together with some other architects and laid his hands on a laser scanner — it looks like a miniature R2-D2 robot — to capture every piece of the library inside and out to help with the reconstruction.

If that technique sounds vaguely familiar, it should. About 10 years ago, an art professor at Vassar named Andrew Tallon took a Leica scanner to Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and created a digital record of the building (he took high-resolution panoramic photos, like Revenko did, as well). What he could not have known was that there would be a devastating fire in the cathedral almost a decade later and his scans would prove to be crucial in its reconstruction.

Drawings or archival material don’t provide the same sort of blueprint that laser data does. “The laser scan gives you millions of points that are incredibly precise measurements,” he said. “Better than a human could ever do.”

The scanning process is pretty simple: The laser sends out a beam, and the beam bounces back providing all kinds of information about the object it just hit. Not just measurements, but details about building materials, because the time it takes for the laser beam to return depends on the type of material it hits.

Revenko pointed to the ceiling in the hotel room where we met. “If you look at the plaster on the ceiling,” he said, “we can’t see minor cracks or if it has been repaired with plaster that’s been sanded smooth. With the laser scan, I can see all these things. It’s really revealing things you cannot capture with the human eye.”

And all this happens in fractions of a second. “Imagine how much time it would take you to measure all of these points if you were doing it by hand,” he said. “Probably a couple of months, right? With a laser scanner you can get it done in a few hours.”

So if you’re trying to save cultural and historic sites from Russian attack in Ukraine, being able to capture a digital blueprint of something like the library, scanning makes future restoration much easier and less expensive.

“How can you preserve a culture against such a formidable foe?” Tao Thompsen, director of the Innovation Lab at Vice Media told me later. “You do what anyone does with things that are important to them. You back up and put it in the cloud. It can't get lost, it can’t get flooded and also it can't get bombed.”

It has this other advantage too: it can make rebuilding and reconstruction faster and less expensive.

“When we started to calculate the budget, it became obvious that his 3D scanning and the model that was built based on the clouds of dots reduces the budget up to 20%,” said the World Monuments Fund’s Kateryna Goncharova. “You do not need to conduct an architectural survey, all measurements are there. So we started with a perfect plan of the building, we had facades. It all was in Sergey’s model.”

Which goes a long way toward explaining why the Library for Youth was only the beginning. Revenko started working with a roster of architects and NGOs to start doing laser scans all over Ukraine. With donated scanners, they are surveying cultural sites that have been casualties of war, and those that might be targets in the future.

“There are serious and deliberate attacks on cultural heritage sites in Ukraine,” Goncharova said. “Not just the Library for Youth in Chernihiv, but cultural heritage sites like the Museum of Priyachenko in Ivankiv, like the Museum of Skovoroda next to Kharkiv … I don't think that's a coincidence — this is a war on Ukrainian identity. And those sites are the absolute pivotal points of Ukrainian identity as well. So they’ve become a target.”

Three-dimensional love

After the attack on the Library for Youth, people around the city started appearing at the ruins with what could be only described as offerings. Some held cakes in the shape of the building. Others brought flowers and poems written for the library. Volunteers offered to take its books in a kind of foster care until they could be returned to the shelves.

Tetiana Shyshova started setting up ways to get books to patrons or anyone who wanted them. Shyshova said she was surprised by the outpouring. “We didn’t know, I think, how much people loved the library,” she said.

Goncharova from the World Monuments Fund said she’d seen this kind of reaction before, “When you almost lose something, you start to appreciate it more,” she said.

The people of Chernihiv had come to appreciate it in the way Shyshova always had. She was standing in the back garden with me when I mentioned this. And she smiled.

Reconstruction begins on the library. Image: Daniel Pochtarov

The school-bus-sized crater has been filled in, and if you narrowed your eyes, you could imagine the garden and the cafe. If all goes well and the funding comes through for reconstruction, the library and cafe could reopen by the end of 2024.

“When it is rebuilt and this is the cafe, we’ll have mint tea together,” we told Shyshova.

“And we’ll go bike to the river and deliver some books,” she added, and for the first time during our interview, she allowed herself a laugh.

Daryna Antonuk contributed to this story.

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Dina Temple-Raston

Dina Temple-Raston

is the Host and Managing Editor of the Click Here podcast as well as a senior correspondent at Recorded Future News. She previously served on NPR’s Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology, and social justice and hosted and created the award-winning Audible Podcast “What Were You Thinking.”

Sean Powers

Sean Powers

is a Senior Supervising Producer for the Click Here podcast. He came to the Recorded Future News from the Scripps Washington Bureau, where he was the lead producer of "Verified," an investigative podcast. Previously, he was in charge of podcasting at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, where he helped launch and produced about a dozen shows.