Chauvinism Won't Save Leninka From Gloom

Both my mother and grandmother worked at large state museums, the Historical Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery. When I visited them at work as a boy, they always brought me to the libraries, which resembled each other with their ancient oak shelves of old and new books that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. The librarians seemed to go with the books. They were also old, kind and dignified. They did not simply work there but served as priestesses in a temple. In our atheistic family, knowledge and books were rated higher than God.

These people deserve to be remembered. One librarian recently confessed to me: "We had to raise our children and at the same time preserve our cultural traditions. Somehow we had to teach you something else besides communist morals." They quietly and conscientiously preserved the culture that the Revolution had dispersed and understood that they were working for eternity. There were no computers then, but they managed to keep track of and acquire new books and looked after them as they would their own children.

Such librarians were still to be found in the 1970s when I was studying history at Moscow State University. They went on working well past retirement age. Maybe they simply could not live without dusty bookshelves, without communicating with the young, and indeed those mastodons and pterodactyls of knowledge and culture were priceless for the newcomers. It was certainly not for the money that they continued to work.

Then everything changed suddenly and dramatically. Perestroika set everything at breakneck speed and, during the past 10 to 12 years, while the country has been undergoing violent changes, libraries have also been affected.

Every country has one main library that not only stores books but acts as a scholarly institution and coordinates the activities of other libraries. Russia happens to have two such libraries: the Lenin Library in Moscow and the Saltykov-Shchedrin Library in St. Petersburg, known as Leninka and Saltykovka. By law, they have always had equal status. Three copies of any publication, be it a small brochure, magazine, newspaper or book, are supposed to be sent to these libraries before they are distributed to bookstores. The system functioned impeccably. The collapse of the Soviet empire, however, caused many large state-owned publishing houses to close down, fall apart or be appropriated dishonestly. The more intelligent and ambitious private publishers still send their books to Leninka and Saltykovka, but most publishers stopped bothering.

Big libraries are like government ministries, with thousands of employees and almost great-power ambitions. During the Soviet years, St. Petersburg, Russia's pre-Revolution capital, was a proud foil to bureaucratic Moscow, the seat of the Communist Party nomenklatura. St. Petersburg's resistance was quiet but firm. The city was a kind of intellectual Fronde to the regime. Hard-working, educated and enterprising people could more easily succeed there than in Red Moscow, which was ruled by an obtuse bureaucracy. Leninka, for its part, became increasingly inflated by its "mission as the Russian library." During the last years of the Soviet Union, Leninka's management was made up of openly ignorant and chauvinist bureaucrats. The directors appointed by the Communist Party Central Committee were invariably demoted party functionaries who might have previously headed a factory or a bus depot, for example. But the party leaders were not concerned about their lack of culture; what counted was devotion to the communist ideas.

Leninka kept up its standards thanks to its old guard of librarians. Bosses sat in their offices while the staff worked hard for the sake of the country's culture and world culture.

Today neither the Leninka nor the Saltykovka have any money. Yet the museum in St. Petersburg carries on with conferences and symposiums. Saltykovka could now very well become Russia's No. 1 library. Doom and gloom reign in Leninka, although things are not as bad there as they were in 1990 and 1991. During that time, reading rooms were left in semi-darkness because half the bulbs were missing from the table lamps. Thank God, they've fixed and cleaned the toilets. And readers are returning to the library. In the early '90s, you could count the number of people reading in the library on one hand.

At the foot of the library's front staircase, there is now a huge safe with a slit in the middle and a pathetic appeal above it: "Help! We are short by 500 employees. We owe billions of rubles for electricity and water. But we are holding on!"

They are not holding on, but dying. Librarians are leaving Leninka because of the unpleasant atmosphere and because the salaries are not enough to support even one person, let alone an entire family. Last summer, the Lenin Library, now called the Russian State Library, marked its 135th anniversary. It was a gloomy gathering of strange people who made laudatory speeches. I felt I could cry. By contrast, the Foreign Literature Library recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. It was a cheerful occasion attended by many diplomats and prominent people. Five years ago, the Foreign Literature Library, famous for its scholarly staff, received a new director, Yekaterina Geniyeva, a fine scholar and ambitious person. And things got going. People frequent this library, and they feel welcome there.

Leninka is still very much a Soviet institution. It can still be resurrected, but under one condition: that its managers assume responsibility for what is happening in Russia. As long as they continue to make plans for constructing castles on sand, beg for money and lament the death of Russian culture, nothing much will improve there.

I have visited many libraries in my travels around Russia -- in Barnaul, Sakhalin, Irkutsk, for instance. Some of them look almost like those in Europe: They are completely computerized, use plastic library cards and have clean walls and ceilings. They acquire new books, both domestic and foreign.

Russia is distancing itself further and further from communism in many complex and strange ways. It seems that Moscow-centrism is coming to an end, which is a very good thing. The younger generation is already using the Internet. Young people know that the world is one and they are prepared to act on their ideas. God only knows if they will be allowed to have their way. It seems possible, however, because there is no other way. Russia knows how to be patient. It is the old who have taught us this.

I wanted to end on a cheerful note, but a friend of mine has just called to tell me about an accident in the Historical Library, in which, since my student days, I have loved to work. A beam collapsed in the reading room. Nobody was hurt, but you can now see the roof through the ceiling. It is snowing outside and it promises to be a particularly cold winter.

Peter Aleshkovsky is a writer whose book, "Skunk: A Life," has just been published in translation. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.