When Russia launched its war on Ukraine six weeks ago, a frenzied attempt to save the country’s cultural heritage from destruction began: Religious artifacts were moved underground to secret bunkers in Ukrainian cities.
But across the world, in bedrooms in Berkeley, Boston, and Vienna, another rescue mission was beginning for Ukraine’s digital artifacts.
In the aftermath of the Russian invasion, a team of digital humanities experts and volunteers formed a group called SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online). At its helm is Quinn Dombrowski, who since March 1 has been co-running an online archival mission out of their house in Downtown Berkeley. (Disclosure: Quinn Dombrowski invested in Berkeleyside’s 2018 Direct Public Offering.)
Together with Tufts music librarian Anna Kijas and German historian Sebastian Majstorovic, Dombrowski helped create SUCHO, which now counts 1,300 volunteers around the world and has been featured in publications from The Washington Post to NPR to Gizmodo.
The group works to create digital backups of Ukrainian cultural websites in case the servers are destroyed in attacks or the websites are hacked. The archived websites range from national treasuries to tiny museums, including one of Dombrowski’s personal favorites— a museum devoted to one Ukrainian poem.
“We think of the internet as something that exists out there,” said Dombrowski, an academic technology specialist in the Division for Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and the Library at Stanford. “But at the end of the day, it’s all hardware. There are physical servers connected via physical cables that make the whole internet work.” SUCHO uses a web scraper to crawl a website, download its entire contents, and upload to the Internet Archive, which stores digital copies of websites.
On March 2 and 3, SUCHO volunteers downloaded the entire online contents of the State Archive of Kharkiv. The same day, the State Archive was bombed, damaging parts of the building. The site went down, but was still accessible via SUCHO’s archives.
The project’s also designed, Dombrowksi said, to guard against historical revisionism should hackers take control of servers and try to “subvert the narrative of Ukrainian national identity and culture,” redefining Ukrainian cultural heritage as evidence of “great manifestations of Russian culture.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed Ukraine’s efforts to establish a national identity as an effort to “divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.”
In the last 20 years, as museums have begun moving their collections online, the digital sphere is often the primary or even only way that people access the content. The website of the Holodomor Museum contains testimonies and online maps of mass burial sites from the man-made famine of 1932-33 that killed millions.
To date, SUCHO has downloaded more than 3,000 cultural websites of museums, archives, and libraries — the work all tracked via a massive Google spreadsheet. At any time, there is bound to be a volunteer adding a new site to the list. “I go to bed just as Western Europe is waking up, and I sort of pass the baton to them,” Dombrowski said.
The perfect project for a Slavophile
This isn’t the first time archivists have jumped in on an emergency project.
After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a group started archiving government websites that people expected could be taken down after he took office, including sites related to climate change or LGBT people.
In another open-source project in 2017, librarians and data scientists collaborated to create more accurate maps of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria to help emergency responders.
Dombrowski watched these efforts unfold and this time, was uniquely suited for the project. Digital humanities tends to be “very academic, sort of ivory tower work,” Dombrowski said. But there are times when the right combination of technical knowledge and passion for the humanities is needed in times of crisis.
A self-identified Slavophile, Dombrowski won the Washington state high school Olympiad for spoken Russian. They have a Masters degree in Slavic linguistics from the University of Chicago, where they met their husband, Andrew, also a high school Russian language champion.
“It occurred to me that if there ever is going to be a project where like I can be useful — not only because of the technical skills that I have, but also my weird academic background that’s getting increasingly weird as area studies continues to be underfunded and Slavic programs are disappearing and dwindling — this is it,” Dombrowski said.
Lover of all things Slavic, Dombrowski has taken pleasure in the niche Ukrainian cultural objects they have encountered along the way. One favorite: a ceramic, smiling, two-faced lion found on the website of the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art. The figure has become a joyful symbol of Dombrowski’s work with SUCHO.
A skilled tailor who sews eclectic, patterned outfits for their husband and three children (their children often ask for items like bottoms with one pant leg long and one short), Dombrowski made a dress and t-shirt emblazoned with the lion to commemorate the project.
Kids take on web archiving
Dombrowski’s latest inspiration is to get kids involved in the Ukrainian data rescue mission.
On March 17, Dombrowski was inspired by a SUCHO volunteer whose 6-year-old daughter successfully archived a website. He posted a picture his daughter drew describing the project on Twitter.
“This got me thinking: This is something that is within the grasp of kids to be able to do,” Dombrowski said. “Kids can actually do things to help with this horrible situation.”
My second-grader really wanted to archive even more sites all by himself, and now he wants to work on SUCHO every day when he gets home from school. 7/8 pic.twitter.com/nQ6P7dwld5
— Quinn Dombrowski (@quinnanya) March 30, 2022
Last week, Dombrowksi hosted a virtual digital archiving workshop for a handful of Malcolm X Elementary students and their families through the school’s Parent Teacher Association. Each family chose a Ukrainian cultural heritage website, ran it through SUCHO’s web scraper, and updated a spreadsheet with the archive.
“Just like how if there was a war here, you’d want to make sure that people captured some of the things that were important to you, like videos of your school plays,” Dombrowski told the kids over Zoom, Dombrowski’s own children giggling in the background of the call. Soon after, their son Sam took over the computer and archived the website for a city park.
As the project enters its seventh week, the websites left to archive are becoming harder to find.
Dombrowski recently thought up another project for high school students: walking down the streets of Ukrainian cities on Google Maps to find museums the group might have missed, small websites that are nonetheless worth archiving.
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described Quinn Dombrowski’s past contributions to open-source data projects. They were inspired by these efforts, but were not directly involved.