Private book collectors try to preserve history

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Nov. 3, 2011, 9:05 p.m. | Books — by Oksana Lyachynska

Ukrainian historian Sergiy Bilokin has some 50,000 books on Ukrainian history, culture and art.
© Ganna Bernyk

Oksana Lyachynska

Kyiv Post staff writer


At first sight, the room looks like a messy library. With books stacked on the floor, desks, shelves and even a bed, one can hardly walk, let alone live in this room.

But historian Sergiy Bilokin proves that he can by taking them off his bed before going to sleep. This devoted 63-year-old book collector says he has 50,000 books mostly on Ukrainian history, culture and arts.

In this digital age, Bilokin is not the only maverick who refuses to let go of his hard copies.

Businessman and politician Oleksandr Prognimak, 53, devoted two rooms in his spacious mansion in Koncha Zaspa, the Kyiv suburb favored by the elite, to host his 10,000 books, mostly expensive antique copies.

In addition to this glamorous storage, he runs a museum in the city center where people can come in and sample the books freely.

Preserving the need of the world to express themselves through writing, these collectors represent perhaps the last generation of people who prefer books to computers. Their major worry today is that there’s no one to bequeath this treasure to.

The history of Bilokin’s collection is nearly 100 years old. It was started by his father, Ivan Bilokin, and his teacher Fedir Maksymenko. Other books Bilokin purchased by himself using his modest salary of a science research associate at the Institute of Ukrainian History. Some books he received as gifts.

Oleksandr Prognimak, a businessman and a head of the Green Party, owns a library of 10,000 books, almost half of which were published before 1917.

“This is the only place where I feel natural,” Bilokin says quietly about his modest Ukrainian flat overflowing with books. His eyes light up when he talks about his hobby.

The oldest book in his library dates back to the 16th century, but most of the works were published in the 20th century and can tell you almost everything a scientist needs to know about Ukraine.

He also has books signed by famous Ukrainians, including Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a historian and Ukraine’s president from 1917 to 1918.

Thanks to this collection, Bilokin published more than 1,300 research articles on Ukrainian history, including his thesis “Mass Terror as an Instrument of State Management in the USSR, 1917-1941,” which in 2002 was awarded the Taras Shevchenko Prize, the highest award in literature and humanitarian science in Ukraine.

Unlike Bilokin, Prognimak acquired his collection. “It’s good to begin collecting when there is no crisis in the global economy and business goes well,” says Prognimak, the former minister of ecology.
I believe we are the last generation of people who read books. Young people think they can find an answer to any question on the Internet. But that’s not true.

- Sergiy Bilokin, historian.

Today, he heads the Green Party and owns legal and real estate businesses. “There was such a period between 2004 and 2008 when I was buying books every day. It was a kind of a literature boom in the country.”

Some of his antique Prognimak bought from Ukrainian relatives of Lazar Kahanovych, one of the Communist party leaders who was close to Josef Stalin. The collector refused to reveal the price of his collection but said that he wouldn’t sell it even for a million dollars.

Among the most treasured pieces, Prognimak points to Apostolos [a liturgical book containing various Apostolic Readings] published in 1564 by Ivan Fedorov in Moscow, one of the fathers of printing in Eastern Europe. A similar copy was sold at Christie’s fine art auction three years ago for some $400,000, he said.

The collector says he owns another copy of Fedorov’s Apostolos. Dated 1574, it is believed to be the first book published in Ukraine. Another treasure is the 1581 Ostroh Bible, which is considered the first complete printed edition of the Bible in the Old Church Slavonic language.

Some of these books tastefully decorated in exquisite leather or soft velour one can see in Alex Art House at Podil.

Neither Prognimak nor Bilokin want to transfer their collections to the state, because of poor management of libraries and poor funding.

“I have realized long ago that I wouldn’t be able to take my library with me,” Bilokin said. “I know the value of a book and I know real collectors who share the same problems with me. After they die most of their books will be most likely thrown away or sold.”

Bilokin’s dream is to unite private book collections under one roof to have a museum of private libraries in Kyiv. Bilokin said he knows up to a dozen private collectors in Kyiv. Worries about funding are secondary to the question of who will use the books.

“I believe we are the last generation of people who read books,” Bilokin said. “Young people think they can find an answer to any question on the Internet. But that’s not true.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Faryna can be reached at

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