CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / To Russia with books: Mrs Tiggywinkle on her travels: Emi Bulman reports on reactions to the Book Aid initiative

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'ZACHEM? (What for?)' my Muscovite friends exclaimed on hearing that I was in Russia to help co-ordinate the distribution of one million English books to schools and libraries across the former Soviet empire. The intonation implied 'What on earth for?' I looked up from my black, sugarless tea and stared at them in disbelief. The question was rhetorical: they wished me luck, chuckled and changed the subject. Yet these were artists and poets, people whom I had imagined would be excited by books they had been denied access to for so long through political or economic restrictions.

When I mentioned perestroika and the thousands of British donors sympathetic to it, there was more laughter: 'Perestroika? What perestroika?]' This was a country where faith in anything that might prove beneficial had long ceased to exist. While recognising that 'book aid' to a nation with a proud indigenous literary tradition was a delicate matter, I had not been prepared for the extent of their cynicism. However, one artist did quietly confess that he could find no Russian books that he liked for his 3-year-old daughter, Marta. There were few picture books, and the texts were the worst of the dreary, old-fashioned fairytales.

Here was a chink in the armour, somebody who was at least prepared to show genuine interest. I was gaining a perspective and I was not going to lose heart.

By the time I arrived, a few months into the Book Aid project, seven middle-aged women at the Moscow Library for Foreign Literature had already posted out more than 50,000 books - in small inconspicuous parcels, to avoid theft - to schools and libraries in all 15 republics. The distribution looked impressive on paper, but my task was to find out what was really happening to the books at their destination.

My voyage of enquiry took me from the cold, desolate suburbs of Minsk to the heat and mysticism of Samarkand. But neither blue mosaic domes in Uzbekistan nor traditional 'yurts' in Kazakhstan could disguise the Soviet uniformity that years of central planning had achieved. All the libraries and education departments had the same, minimal selection of dusty English classics: Dickens, Galsworthy, Jack London and Somerset Maugham. Decades of this literary diet have resulted in Russians using archaic English speech, as well as harbouring outdated images of an England engulfed in smog. Now that English is an essential part of every school curriculum, rather than an academic discipline mastered only by a privileged few, the need for contemporary literature is greater than ever.

At the end of each of my many hair-raising train and bus journeys, I found that, against all the odds, the parcels had arrived safely. For the excited children, the books were brighter and newer than any they had seen. Titles that proved particularly popular were British cultural histories (Ladybird especially), encyclopaedias, Sainsbury's Home Learning series and Walker picture books ('rasskozhnie' - stunning). One Minsk school was using hundreds of copies of Highdays and Holidays, about folklore and customs around the world, and children who were about to celebrate Christmas (officially) for the first time were keen to learn how it is celebrated in other cultures. Even publishers' cast-offs were enthusiastically received. A teacher in Kiev heard me cursing at a pile of books entitled something like Off the M1, but she was adamant that even such ostensibly dreary guides were useful. At least, she said, they provide students with an alternative view of Britain, beyond Jane Eyre and Buckingham Palace.

Second-hand copies made up the bulk of children's book donations, and proved that old-time favourites know no boundaries: Winnie the Pooh (actually translated into Russian in the Fifties, though without Shepard's illustrations) and Beatrix Potter were among them. One Moscow librarian was overjoyed: Mrs Tiggywinkle had reached Russia. A class of 6-year-olds in St Petersburg sat enraptured as they chanted their way through 'The Three Little Pigs' (Russian children still chant in class). And it was not only the text that caught their eye; one small boy pointed at an old scribble on one of the pages and shouted: 'Look] English children are just like us]'

This same little boy later offered to walk me to the tram stop. He strolled confidently beside me, beaming, along the banks of the river Neva and through the Summer Gardens in all their serene splendour. I beamed back, feeling suddenly indescribably happy; here, perhaps, was the first in a new generation of optimists.

Book Aid's six-month charity initiative has now ended, but Ranfurly Library Service, a permanent book-aid charity operating worldwide, is always grateful for book donations. For further information, please ring Sara Harrity on 071-733 3577.

(Photograph omitted)

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