Hundreds of laptop-toting professionals and students line up outside the public library in the Ukrainian town of Irpin, desperate to get plugged in and online amid the latest energy blackout.
The library, on the ground floor of a nine-story apartment block in the town center of the Kyiv suburb, has become the locus and a symbol of a tentative recovery following the horrors of Russian occupation.
Once inside, Irpin residents jostle for seats in the area newly designated as the town’s first free co-working space, sometimes spilling over into the children’s books section.
With much of Irpin still in ruins, the library is also functioning as an alternative classroom for displaced schoolteachers, a makeshift office for psychotherapists or even a base for the town’s Saint Nicholas to greet and take pictures with children.
It is providing a touch of normalcy to a town that, because of its location in the pine forests on Kyiv’s northwestern edge, bore the full force of Russia’s advance on the capital in the war’s first weeks.
“As soon as the library reopened, we gave people the opportunity to recharge their phones. We gave people the opportunity to stay in warm conditions while watching the city rebuild,” said Yevgenia Antonyuk of the Irpin city council. “What happens in the library touches all aspects of people’s lives.”
Wreckage and ruin
Olena Tsyganenko, 75, has been the head of the Irpin library for four decades, ever since the days when, as she recalls proudly, its photocopier was the only one in town.
“We are in the heart of the town, on the central square, and we were always popular,” she said. “When there was no internet, our halls were filled with readers.”
Not even during the pre-internet era, however, was the library the hive of activity it has become today, a reflection of just how badly the rest of Irpin has suffered.
After a monthlong battle marked by heavy urban combat, Russia pulled out of Irpin in late March, leaving behind hundreds of dead civilians, according to official estimates.
Once leafy parks were strewn with bodies, and barely a building had escaped the violence unscathed.
“It seemed to me there was no one but us in the city,” said resident Victoria Voskresova, recalling the first weeks after the Russians fled, when some houses in her neighborhood were still ablaze.
With winter conditions worsening, maintenance workers are now focused on repairing buildings that sustained only light damage, saving for later those that require more extensive rehabilitation.
Excavators, meanwhile, were still clearing the rubble of buildings that are no longer standing.
The library got off much easier — only some windows were broken — and now offers a refuge from the misery elsewhere.
On a recent morning, as young professionals sipped cappuccinos and tapped away at their keyboards, teachers taught a group of middle-schoolers about “the musical culture of Ukraine.”
With her 7-year-old daughter Maria in tow, Voskresova approached the entrance somewhat sheepishly, mindful she had three overdue books, checked out before the war, that she had not finished.
But the library was the only place where Maria could meet Saint Nicholas.
“We received some sweets, and that’s why we come with our children on this occasion, in order to lift our spirits,” she said.
They lingered well after an air raid siren prompted other mothers and children to leave and seek shelter.
Ukrainian officials have tried to encourage Irpin on its road to recovery, designating it a “Hero City,” an acknowledgement of the resolve it demonstrated during Russia’s advance.
A mural by the elusive British artist Banksy also honors Irpin’s resistance.
Placed on a pockmarked building with burned-out balconies, it depicts an injured gymnast in a neck collar performing a ribbon routine.
Yet these high-profile odes to Irpin pale in significance to the daily work of the library in boosting public morale.
Last week, the library hosted a book launch for Sergey Martyniuk, who fought to defend Irpin and then wrote about the experience in a collection titled “13 Poems, or The Battle for Irpin Changed the World.”
“Irpin is really recovering now,” Martyniuk told AFP after the event, crediting the library with reinforcing the town’s “invincibility.”
He added: “I think that the people who have returned should be given the opportunity to work and feel like normal Ukrainians.”