Is Hosting the World Cup More Important than Keeping Libraries Open? Russians Ask

July 10, 2015
Visit of Nicholas I to the library in 1853. | Painting by Stefan De Ladveze (1817-1854), via Wikipedia

Staunton, July 10 With all the other problems Russia faces from demographic collapse to the economic crisis, it may seem that the accelerating closure of libraries for children is not high on the list, but Viktor Barakov, a commentator for Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya says that it means “we are losing our youth and that means we are losing the future of Russia?”

“Can it be,” he asks in despair, that the world cup competition is more important” than keeping these libraries and that future in place – a question that challenges one of Vladimir Putin’s most cherished policy goals: mass spectacles on which enormous sums are spent in the name of PR for himself and his regime.

“Russian libraries are now being closed in massive numbers,” he writes, and now those concerned about the remaining ones are speaking “not about survival but rather about a slow death.” Every year, “several hundred libraries for adults are disappearing” in Russia along with “several dozen children’s libraries.”

In Karelia alone between 2001 and 2009, 85 libraries were closed; and in Kaliningrad oblast in 2009 alone, 25 more were closed. Countrywide closures are so numerous that Moscow does what it can not to advertise the fact by failing to provide an accounting of what is happening every year.

Until recently, Barakov says, most of the closures were in rural areas, dealing a devastating blow to local residents but generally remaining out of sight of the central media. Now, libraries are being closed not only there but in oblast centers and even in the Russian capital.

According to library workers, 15 percent of the libraries in Moscow have been classified as “unprofitable,” meaning that they cost too much to keep open given the number of patrons. Among these are unique collections, and it is unclear what is going to happen to them when they are, to use the current euphemism, “optimized.”

Over the last decades, 400 children’s libraries have been closed, and that number continues to grow: In Leningrad and Voronezh oblasts, 15 such libraries are now being closed, in Chuvashia and Tatarstan ten each, and in Perm seven. And this is occurring despite the fact that children represent a third of all visitors to libraries and even more in rural areas.

Often children’s libraries “disappear” because they are combined with adult libraries, but “sociological research shows,” Barakov continues, “that children are less willing to visit such libraries.” They want their own space. Moreover, once combined with the adult institutions, the children’s needs generally are less well financed.

Vologda oblast is not atypical. There, despite this being the year of literature, the authorities have decided to close the oblast’s youth library, despite its outreach and Internet presence.

In an open letter, the staff of the library appeal to the public and to the administration: “We understand the complicated political and economic situation in the country, the oblast and the world as a whole. In reality, the processes of optimization taking place everywhere in the country have objective causes, and ineffective institutions must be liquidated.

“But how can one explain to Vologda residents the closure of one of the most successful and effective libraries of the oblast?” “In 1939, on the eve of the second world war, our government took the decision to open in Vologda a special library for young people … The impact on youth [of this institution] is impossible to overstate.

“In the 21st century and in an era of information wars and an intensifying struggle for the hearts and minds of the rising generation,” the letter continues, “the role and importance of youth libraries has grown by many times.” Closing such a library as the authorities now plan to do will cast a shadow far darker and larger than those taking this step imagine.