Saturday, March 7, 2015

Library in Flames

By Stephen Wilson

Fire devastates historic Russian Library. (CNN photo)

(Moscow, Russia) - 'For me, this represents a very symbolic event in Russia. A certain line has been passed. It is like the barbarians who burnt down the Alexandrian library. It is a sign of a confrontation between two distinct values systems  where one culture highly prizes books, and another which doesn't and so is prepared to burn them. This new generation
doesn't value books at all. When I pass by my local rubbish skip I see it full of discarded books',  stated  Mairi Koroleva, a linguist and academic based in Moscow. Mairi was referring to a recent lethal blaze which broke out on and devastated one of the world's most legendary libraries; the Library of the
Russian Academic of Sciences known as ' The institute of Scientific information of social sciences'. The catastrophe was by any standards awesomely staggering. The fire lasted for 25 hours engulfing 2000 square metres. Many rare books perished forever. They can't be retrieved or redeemed in any way!

When I visited the scene of the fire it was a sight for sore eyes. It reminds you of an overfilled and unemptied ash tray. Metal railing sprouted out of the top of the huge stone building and were crowned by falling snow. You could still smell smoke. The whole building was cordoned off by police who would not let anyone enter without a pass or an appropriate phone call from the top. A solitary tractor was
lazily plodding and shifting through the debris and a tent had been erected to gather and place  some books.

This building is not just any library. It represented a priceless treasure trove of knowledge. It was a mecca for scholars and students. The library, founded in 1918, comprises 14 million documents such as rare documents relating to the establishment of the American constitution as well as the French Revolution of 1789. It had books in at least 120 languages and kept 4000 foreign Journals. Estimates of
the exact damage are perhaps premature but some experts believe as many  as 15 to 20% of the books were destroyed. A recent assessment claims 5.42 books were burnt. From those, 1.2 million had been prepared for copying, 0.8 million had been duplicated by other libraries while 1.1 million had found homes in other libraries. As many as 1.2 million have been lost forever or written off. That is they are utterly erased! Furthermore, experts maintain it will be extremely difficult to restore 2.32 damaged books. If the books have not been damaged by fire then dampness is certainly finishing them off.


It is a testimony to the growing gulf between the intelligentsia and the state officials that so many people are convinced that the fire was no accident but the result of carefully  premediated arson. While I was speaking to Mairi she seemed so certain saying, 'Yes, I think, and also most of the staff who work in this library think it was arson. Developers
have been attempting to get hold of this building for years and would like to build a trading centre on the territory.' Anatoly Chernyaev states, 'Yes, this is like arson, now it is already a painful to see straight across from the metro. This is a prestigious locality. What an attractive trading centre could be built here! The library, or what is left of it can be sent to a new part of Moscow.'

Not everyone accepts the explanation of foul play. Some officials speculate the blaze arose from a faulty electrical short circuit'.

However, the library director Yuri Pivovarov thinks it could have been caused by a firework being tossed into the building as children often played within the vicinity of the library. It seems silly  that one of the worst fires in Moscow's history could be caused by a bored teenager setting off a stray firework. People prefer more profound explanations
for disasters rather than the banal.

Nevertheless, all kinds of colourful and at times outlandish theories as to why it was burnt down are in the air. One theory claims that since the library housed compromising records of a contract where America would be obliged to hand over an old loan of 48.6,000 tonnes of gold due to be paid at the present. However, it is difficult to believe that all
the six copies of this contract have been burnt!  It appears doubtful that the Americans would worry so much about this long forgotten debt never mind honouring it. How many contracts did the American government break with the native Indians?

Another explanation is that the church sought to build a cathedral on the premises or that the local officials were after real estate. This library comes under the authority of the Russian president and only a reckless idiot would risk provoking president Putin. Not too convincing!

Perhaps a more credible  explanation points to negligence along with insipid corruption which pervades the Academy of Sciences at higher levels. Those managers, instead of using state grants to carry out much needed repairs, employing archivists and keeping the building in proper condition are busy leasing the buildings to businesses. Business takes
more precedence over books.

Vera Misina, a Russian scientist and anti-corruption activist believes the fire was deliberately made to conceal the corruption of those in charge.

The fire has destroyed damning evidence of how badly run the library was in terms of sheer incompetence. She believes that the director of the library, Yuri Pivovarov, has a lot to answer for!  She states, 'Yuri Pivovarov wasted 5 million of the budget on anti-fire measures that either were not carried out, or were carried out in an unreliable way just  a little over a month after completing before the outbreak of the fire.'

She states that under his 17 year management there was not even a proper catalogue of books as well as proper copying facilities for academics. Vera Misina has sent a letter to the legal authorities demanding a proper investigation of all the agreements signed between the director and local fire inspectors, companies which rented or sought to rent parts of the building '. She suspects that much of the money intended to upgrade the building had been ill-spent or vanished. Yuri Pivovarov naturally resents those grave allegations and claims they are politically motivated. Some people hate his 'liberal' political views. Vera retorts that this claim is nonsense.

She clearly resents that people view the Library as just another piece of convenient real estate whereas it is something much more; a price less vibrant cultural monument.

For Vera, and many other people, a new generation of people have grown up who don't respect books as much as earlier generations.

Mairi Koroleva stated, 'When I was young, books were revered and respected. Now I hate it when every time I pass a rubbish dump I see rejected books'.

I too, like Mairi, have found poetry books lying in rubbish tips or on pavements. In my locality of aeroport, near central Moscow, there used to be two bookshops. Now there are none. Instead, clothes shops, coffee shops and chemists line the streets. A few months ago I attempted to visit two of my favourite English bookshops in Moscow but they had been closed down. One had been taken over and turned into yet another coffee shop. In my home town near Glasgow the last and only bookshop has just been closed down and the local libraries are threatened with imminent closure.

The deliberate destruction of libraries and contempt for books is far from new. The English historian Michael Wood writes in his book, 'In search of England', that many great libraries were plundered, ravaged and destroyed during the reformation of the 16th century. He states how one library, at Glastonbury, which housed 2-3000 books which had been hand written over a period of 10,000 years were destroyed in just a few years by myopic religious fanatics. At other libraries he records how the pages from priceless books were ripped out and used as candle-lighters or even toilet paper. Hans Christian Anderson may not have been joking when he wrote in his story 'Aunty Toothache' that, 'Many a good and rare book has ended up at the grocer's or at the delicatessen, not as reading material but as a basic necessity. 

They need it to make paper twists to hold starch and coffee beans, and as wrapping paper for salt herring, butter, and cheese. Hand-written materials can also be used.

Things often end up in the bin that shouldn't be in the bin'.


Mairi told me 'There is something good which has come out of this fire. We have reached a point where we won't put up with those attacks on books. A line has now been crossed where people have decided that enough is enough! Already volunteers are offering to help the library.'

Indeed, at this moment of time, in response to a recent public appeal one week ago for volunteers, people have turned up to the library to help recover and rescue the damaged books. A collective salvage operation is being undertaken. This is not easy work. The volunteers must put on special clothes, masks and handle the frail books carefully.

For example, they can't place a damp or wet book amongst dry books or let their attention wander even for a moment. They must work in stifling, stuffy and cold air. One volunteer stated, 'the air is warmer outside the library!' The idea to organise such a volunteer brigade may be due to people like Aleksei Safronov who declared, 'I would like to attract volunteers to protect the books from suffering from fire and water. Now, in our group there are almost 2000 volunteers.
If every person gave 50 books this would add up to giving 100,000 books to the library.' Another student Marina offers to bring a full box of America sociology books to the library!

But even before this incident, I experienced some incredible events showing some people are not indifferent to the fate of books. Once I stepped into a Moscow metro train where I was mesmerised by the sight. All the compartments of the train had beautiful illustrations along with texts from the great English and Russian classics. The aim of the project, 'Reading Moscow', was to inspire people with a love of literature. It was one of the best train trips I had undertaken for years.

Those people who are holding up a candle to defend books are attempting to generate excitement which attracts children to reading books and so creating an infectious buzz. The great writer Kafka understood the alluring magic which books could retain. He wrote, ' I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound and stab us. We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us'. It is this kind of spirit that sees books as profound weapons which can
save libraries!

Not 'Everything end up in the bin', as the despairing Hans Christian Anderson once wrote. Sometimes we can pull rare chestnuts out of the burning fire.

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