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Librarians bring Yeltsin to book

Land of Tolstoy and Chekhov faces a crisis of literacy, writes Phil Reeves in Moscow
There must be days when Boris Yeltsin wonders whom he is going to annoy next. The miners complained, so he promised to pay them off. So did the pensioners. And the teachers. Now, shuffling owlishly on to the horizon with their hands outstretched, comes yet another unhappy knot of people. Russia's librarians are in a fury.

This week librarians from across the country gathered in the Siberian city of Omsk for a conference to air their grievances. The conclusion was brutal: if, as the British liberal Lord Samuel once said, libraries are "thought in cold storage", then Russia - the nation that produced Pushkin and Chekhov - is becoming senile.

Their buildings were falling down, they complained. Their book stocks were in terrible condition. Their pay was miserable. They had received no government funds since January. "The lagging behind of Russian libraries in the sphere of information technologies is a source of special concern," they said, in an appeal to President Yeltsin; Russia was at risk of becoming isolated from the "world information space".

The wrath of librarians may not cause much sweat to break on the brow of the president's advisers - with an approaching election, they have bigger problems to worry about. It is also a theme they have heard before. The Lenin Library in Moscow, with at least 30 million publications in 247 languages, has been plagued by problems; tunnelling for a metro station some years ago cracked the book-storage block in half. In the late 1980s, the hot water pipes at Pushkin House in St Petersburg, a repository for manuscripts and books of 19th century Russian writers, burst no fewer than 40 times within two years. And four of the city's libraries were severely damaged by fire or flooding.

But the collapse of the library system is part of a broader malaise that has become a source of resentment and nostalgia. The Soviet Union used to boast the highest literacy rate in the world, along with Iceland (a by-product of long winters, perhaps). You only have to spend a week or two in Moscow to see this was more than propaganda. Russians know authors like Indians know cricketers. For every drunk or cauliflower-eared security guard, there is an avid reader, occasionally in the same shoes. "Ah, you're western," a scruffily dressed woman said to me during a May Day march through Moscow. "Kurt Vonnegut! I have all his books!"

Authors are still considered a legitimate conversation-opener; books are still held in awe, although now because of price and unavailability. A few weeks ago, I went abroad, returning to find that a Russian friend had borrowed 20 books from my flat. A few days later, they were returned, each one carefully wrapped in newspaper. He was extravagantly grateful.

Yet the climate is changing. Less than a decade has elapsed since Russians were so forcibly starved of knowledge that they would type out copies of banned books and pass them from hand to hand. Groups would gather illegally in Moscow's parks to swap samizdat - literally "self-published" materials - until the KGB arrived to break them up. Aficionados of the most sensitive material, like George Orwell's 1984, would think nothing of copying the entire novel out by hand, complete with illustrations, and circulating it, hidden in the covers of a child's exercise book.

In its place have come piles of pirated editions of thrillers and romances. When glasnost began, commuters on the metro could be seen reading the once-banned Pasternak and Akhmatova, fearful the censor would snatch it away again. Now they rattle round the city reading Barbara Cartland and pulp thrillers. "It is inevitable," said Irena Semenenko, an academic. "Intellectual circles are shrinking, because people are going into professions that are paid."

She is not starry eyed about the days when there was at least one flourishing library in every town. Although often the hub of intellectual life,they were also a thermostat which the authorities used to exercise thought control over the masses. Books deemed of interest to the party elite, but too dangerous to release en masse, came out in strictly limited editions, kept on the spetskhrany - the secret shelves - of specialist libraries. Anyone wanting to read questionable foreign material - like Life magazine or the works of Bertrand Russell - had to obtain a special permit.

Russia's library crisis is the result of a lack of money. Others, like the miners and the pensioners, exercise far greater political muscle and so have better access to a government purse already blighted by debt, corruption, hugely inefficient tax-gathering, war and economic decline.

But the crisis in Russian literacy has its roots elsewhere. "My kids say that they are not interested in reading," said Vitaly Matveyev, a Muscovite with six children. As a boy he remembers going to the library at least twice a week, to pore over Pushkin and Tolstoy. Not so, for the next generation. "They tell me books are just a load of black marks on pieces of white paper. The television is so much more interesting to them." And when was the last time his kids went to a library? "Oooh," he sucked in his breath, and pondered. "Long, long ago."