Surviving the Siege

“I Only Want to Take a Bath, Nothing More”
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
May 15, 2017

Anna Yegorova is ninety-eight years old. She defended Leningrad all nine hundred days of the Nazi siege of the city during the Second World War. On the seventy-second anniversary of Victory Day, the combatant did not even get postcards from the government. But there was a time when she wrote to Brezhnev—and got a reply. 

Anna Yegorova. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Anna Yegorova was born in 1918 in the Kholm-Zhirkovsky District of Smolensk Region. When she was ten, her parents decided to set out in search of a better life and moved to Leningrad with their daughter. They settled in a wooden house near the Narva Gates on New Sivkov Street, now known as Ivan Chernykh Street. Yegorova finished a seven-year primary school and enrolled in the Factory Apprenticeship School, where she graduated as a men’s barber.

“Oh, what beards didn’t I trim in my time,” the Siege survivor recalls.

After acquiring a vocation, the 19-year-old woman married Alexander Vesyolov, a worker at the Kirov Factory. As soon as the war broke out, her husband volunteered for the first division of the people’s militia. Nearly the entire division fell in battle during July–September 1941 on the southern approaches to Leningrad. Vesyolov is still officially listed as missing in action.

Yegorova was drafted into the air defense brigades at the war’s outset. The young woman served in a basement, equipped with seven cots, in one wing of the Kirov Factory. It was the headquarters of the local air defense brigade.

Yegorova still remembers the war’s outbreak, her military service in the besieged Leningrad, and victory in May 1945.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Anna Yegorova as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

“How did the war begin? We were going to the cinema, but my mother told me I should go to the factory instead. Then I got a notice stating I had been drafted to serve in the headquarters of the local air defense brigade at the Kirov Factory. I spent all nine hundred days there. I was able to come home only once a month. My parents starved to death. Dad passed away on February 3, 1942. He was a first-class carpenter. His comrades made him a wooden coffin: they could not bury a carpenter without a coffin. Mom died a month later. They just carried her off to the Volodarsky Hospital in a blanket. I don’t even know where she is buried. Maybe at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, maybe in Moskovsky Victory Park,” says Yegorova.

Her duties included running to other parts of the city to deliver dispatches, carrying the wounded, and standing on guard at the factory, armed with a rifle. The young woman would look into the sky and watch what planes were flying overhead: planes emblazoned with red stars or planes bearing black crosses. Once, during a heavy bombardment, she was shell-shocked.

“I still remember how we chopped up houses in the Kirov District. Once, a girlfriend and I were dismantling a house near a railroad bridge, and a woman called out to us, ‘Girls, girl, come here, come.’ We didn’t go: we were scared. There were all kinds of people back then, you know. Once, this girl stole my food ration cards, and my mom’s earrings were also stolen,” recalls Yegorova.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Yegorova’s collection of war medals. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

The Siege survivor recounts how she would travel to the Krasnoarmeysky Market to buy linseed cakes and oilseed meal.

“The oilseed meal was like sawdust. Oh, how I gagged on that oilseed meal! But we had nothing to sell. We were poor.”

When Victory Day arrived, her house was nearly totally destroyed. Only an ottoman was rescued from the ruins.

Yegorova remarried after the war. Her new husband was a military officer, Nikolai Yegorov, who had fought not only in the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) but also the Finnish War (Winter War). In peacetime, Yevgorov became a first-class instrumentation specialist. In 1946, the Yegorovs gave birth to a daughter, Lydia. Yegorova worked as a secretary at the Kirov Factory, latter becoming head of a bread and confectionery department at a store.

In the late 1960s, Anna Yegorova wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The essence of the message was as follows.

“Leonid Ilyich, no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten. But it has so happened that I, a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad, awarded the medal For the Defense of Leningrad, and my husband, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, have to huddle with our daughter in a sixteen-square-meter room on Lublin Alley.”

Image courtesy of slideshare.net

Yegorova does not believe her letter reached Brezhnev personally, but she does think it wound up in the hands of a “kindly” secretary who helped the family move into a one-room flat in the far southern district of Ulyanka. She lived in the neighborhood for around thirty years. She was civically engaged, working with Great Patriotic War veterans. She says she even worked as an aide to Sergei Nikeshin, currently an MP in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was then quite young. Nikeshin and she inspected the fields then surrounding Ulyanka.

The certificate accompanying Anna Yegorova’s medal For the Defense of Leningrad. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

In 1996, Yegorova took seriously ill. She was struck down by deep vein thrombosis. Her left leg “was like a wooden peg.” Her husband Nikolai died in 1999.

“After that, Mom stayed at home. I took care of her. This is my cross. We would take her to the dacha only in the summer. Otherwise, she would move about only in the apartment. She would get up in the morning and make her bed, come into the kitchen and sit down on the couch. She would turn on  and call the station to request a song. She loved Boris Shtokolov’s “Dove.” Or she would request “A White Birch Weeps,” or something by Nikolai Baskov. But a month ago she took to her bed. Now all she does is lie in bed,” recounts her daughter Lydia Kolpashnikova.

Boris Shtolokov, “Dove” (a Russian adaptation of “La Paloma”)

Kolpashnikova is herself a pensioner. She has a third-degree disability. According to her, Petersburg authorities have practically forgotten her mother. True, three years ago, the Moscow District Administration called and said she could get a wheelchair. The women’s joy was short-lived. It transpired that the wheelchairs were used: they had been brought to Petersburg from Holland. To make use of the chair, they would have had to pay to have it repaired. The women decided to turn the gift down the gift.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин
Congratulatory cards and other memorabilia sent to Anna Yegorova over the years as a Siege survivor. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt

Yegorova has received no substantial help from the local Siege survivors society. The organization can only offer trips to museums and theater tickets. This is not an option for Anna Yegorova, who is in no condition to leave her apartment. On memorial days—the Day of the Lifting of the Siege and Victory Day—however, cakes used to be brought to her. But this time around, however, she was completely neglected. According to the pensioner, the city did not even congratulate her.

Yegorova’s daughter Lydia decided to remind the authorities of her mother’s existence after hearing President Putin’s speech on TV. The president demanded that the heads of the country’s regions do a better job of caring for Great Patriotic War veterans.

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

“I clung to Putin’s words that veterans needed help, for example, if they needed help with home repairs. I called the district administration and asked them to repair our bathroom,” says Kolpashnikova. “Mom is completely ill. She is almost completely out of it. She has gallstones, heart failure, and atrial fibrillation. She is classified as a first-class disabled person. She survives only on sheer willpower. But now she cannot make it to the bathroom. I wipe her off in bed. She talks to me about the bathroom all the time, however. She wants to take a bath, but wants the bathroom repaired. The tile has crumbled in there. I called the Moscow District Administration and asked them to repair the bathroom, but I was told that ‘sponsors’ deal with these issues. Now, however, there is a crisis, and there are no sponsors. What sponsors were they talking about? Mom also needs medicines and diapers. There are social workers willing to run from one office to the next to get hold of diapers for free, but they also need to be paid to run around. The local Siege survivors organizations cannot do anything: they are the weakest link. I have no complaints against them.”

Фото ИА «Росбалт», Александр Калинин

Anna Yegorova gets gifts from the authorities only on round dates. When she turned ninety, they gave her a towel, and they presented her with bed linens when she turned ninety-five.

“I called them in the autumn. I said that Mom would be turning ninety-eight on November 25. I suggested they come and congratulate her. They said to me, ‘We don’t have the right. When she turns one hundred, we’ll congratulate her,” recounts the Siege survivor’s daughter.

Anna Yegorova does not want to ask the authorities for anything.

“I have no strength. What should I do? I cannot stand up straight. I fall. I just want them to fix the bathroom. I want to take a bath. That’s it.”

All photos courtesy of Alexander Kalinin and Rosbalt. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

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The Kids Are Alright: “We Don’t Want to Live in a Country Where the Regime Robs Its Own People”

“We Don’t Want to Live in a Country Where the Regime Robs Its Own People”
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
March 28, 2017

High school and university students talked about why they went to the anti-corruption rallies and whether they feared a crackdown.

A huge number of university and high school students attended the anti-corruption rallies in Russia. It was the first time many of the young people had gone to a protest rally. Some protesters even wound up at police stations along with their older comrades. Some high school and university students told our correspondent what had made them take to the streets.

Anti-corruption protesters on the Field of Mars, Petersburg, 26 March 2017

Kristina, 16, tenth-grader from Gatchina
This was my first protest rally. I came to the Field of Mars because, like most of the people here, I wanted to get through to the regime. After watching the film by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, many people had questions. Besides, I see how my relatives, acquaintances, and friends get along. We are often cheated. For example, a relative was illegally sacked from work, and campaigning for United Russia goes on at my school. There are party flags in the health and safety classroom. I argue about it with my teacher all the time. He says he’s a member of the party.

Have you heard the recording in which teachers give high-school students in Bryansk a dressing-down? Basically, the same thing happens at our school. I get D’s and F’s when I talk like that, and I’m sent to the principal for “disrupting class.”

I was wondering how many people would come to the rally. My parents tried to persuade me not to go. They said, “There will be ten people there, and you’ll waste your time.”

I went to the rally with my boyfriend. We made a placard about Shuvalov’s dogs. We drew Welsh corgis against a backdrop of clouds and wrote, “Happiness if flying like a bird in the sky but without wings.” A man on the Field of Mars asked to look at our placard and was surprised we hadn’t unfurled it.

I had never seen such a huge crowd before. I was even a bit scared we would be trampled.

When we went to Palace Square, I heard the roar of sirens. I saw the riot police (OMON) in all their glory for the first time on the square. They formed a line and advanced on the protesters.

A policeman approached us and asked for our papers. We replied by asking him to identify himself and show us his badge number. He looked away from us and went over to detain a man holding a placard. I was ready to be detained. I had read all the posts on the topics and memorized all the articles about what to do when you’re detained by police.

When we went to the Legislative Assembly, people broke up into groups. Some demanded freedom for Oleg Navalny, others talked about what was happening with St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and still others chanted anti-corruption slogans. Then there were people who went to the subway or to a café.

After hanging out at the Legislative Asssembly, we had decided to go home, when we were again approached by a police officer. He asked to check our papers and wondered whether we had been at the rally. We answered that we had.

“Good going!” he said. “I would have gone myself, but I was on duty and I’m afraid of losing my job.”

We were stunned, but it was nice to hear.

My parents knew where I had gone. They followed the news. When I got home, we joked about what would have happened if the police had nabbed me.

I don’t want to be compared with truant schoolchildren (shkolota). The rally was not entertaining in the least, and we had to go to it. We realize this is our future. We keep a close eye on grown-ups. They regard what’s happening with desperation. It doesn’t scare me if the order comes down to give lectures in the schools about the current political situation. I expect it to happen. I love discussing the topic. It’s fun to argue when you are well versed on the subject. Although maybe I won’t be invited to these lessons. The thing is we had a session of the Leningrad Regional Youth Parliament at our school to which regional MPs were invited. The teachers rehearsed the event with us, and the questions were prepared in advance. But when I was going to ask my question, I was politely shut up. They realized I could cause a conflict.

Anti-corruption protesters marching down Nevsky Prospect, 26 March 2017

Ivan, 16, ninth-grader from Kolpino
This was my first protest rally. I made the trip from Kolpino to Petersburg by myself. I was curious how folks would react to Alexei Navalny’s exposé film. I wondered whether people cared or didn’t care about what the powers that be were up to. I didn’t bring a placard with me, but I shouted slogans with the other protesters, although it felt awkward at first. When somebody chanted a slogan from far off, I kept my mouth shout. But I plugged into the process when people next to me shouted.

There were lots of young people, so I didn’t feel alone. At first, police dispersed the people who had climbed atop the memorial next to the Eternal Flame, but then they gave up. When the rally on the Field of Mars was over, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep going

When we marched towards Palace Square, I didn’t hear any negative feedback towards us. On the contrary, individuals supported us by smiling, laughing, and photographing us, while drivers honked their horns. Only the police were upset. They asked us why we had come out.

I felt more confident on Palace Square. I even started some chants first.

The “cosmonauts” (riot police) made their first appearance on the square, but they were very few in number. They didn’t do anything. It was only when the crowd pressed against them that they asked us to disperse, but no one was listening to them. Generally, the police behaved decently.

When we walked towards Insurrection Square, we were followed by police cars and paddy wagons. The arrests took place on the approach to the square. A lot of people were kettled opposite a building on Nevsky Prospect.

I want to watch the arrests, and then go home, but I accidentally bumped a riot cop with my shoulder. He said something about my being broad-shouldered. I probably did the wrong thing. I said to him, “Yeah, I’m broad-shouldered.” Right then, three paddy wagons drove up too the crowd. The cosmonaut grabbed me and put me in one of them. It was my first arrest.

Our ride to the police station was cheerful. No one was upset. We were taken into the station. We stood for around in a hour in the hallway, and then we were led into this weird basement. We were allowed to make a phone call. We chatted with the policemen about whether we had done the right thing by taking to the streets or not. They weren’t aggressive.

The voyage to the police station revved me up. At the precinct, I met a lot of kids. Human rights advocates helped us. They found the precincts where we’d been taken, brought us food, and advised us on how to behave. It was a tremendous feeling of support.

Then Mom came to get me. She and I left the station at 10:00 p.m. I was told only to write a statement, and I was given a report that I had been delivered to the station.

My parents had known I was planning to go to the rally. They told me I might be detained. When I telephoned Mom from the precinct, she was a bit peeved, but there no heavy discussions at home.

I don’t think there will be any blamestorming sessions at school. Most of our teachers say that Russian isn’t a very good country. I think they would have supported my trip to the rally.

The high school students who went to the Field of Mars shouldn’t be dubbed “truants.” Spring holidays had begun. There are lots of dissatisfied young people, so that was why, apparently, they attended the rally. We think about our future. We don’t want to live in a country where the regime robs its own people. But people who are older could not care less anymore, it seems. They’re too lazy to go outside in bad weather.

“Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev], we can’t hear you.” Photo courtesy of Denis Goldman/Rosbalt

Mikhail, 16, tenth-grader, Moscow
I had already been in the Boris Nemtsov memorial march and the protests against the Yarovaya package. Like any sensible person, I don’t like the fact our official steal, accept bribes, and build themselves enormous castles in Italy and palaces in Russia. The corruption schemes in Russia are no different from the ones used by the now-ex-president of South Korea. She also laundered money through charities.

The authorities have not reacted to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigation. All that happened was Medvedev banned Navalny on Instagram.

After watching Navalny’s film, I had questions and I wanted answers to them. The Anti-Corruption Foundation argues that the rally was authorized in keeping with the Constitutional Court’s ruling. I consider my arrest illegal, although I was ready for it to happen.

I was walking down the street with my friends. We weren’t shouting slogans, but we were carrying placards featuring Zhdun and the Rubber Duck. Apparently, I was arrested for carrying a placard. My arrest sheet said I had been waving my arms, grabbing people, and running out into traffic. But they wrote that in everyone’s arrest sheet. The only thing they changed was people’s names. Eleven hours passed from the moment of my arrest until I left the police station, although I’m a minor. I should have been released as quickly as possible.

No one told my parents I was at the police station. I telephoned them myself. The police charged me with me violating Article 20.2 of the Administrative Procedures Codes (“Violation of the established procedure for organizing or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, march or picket”). There will be a court hearing. I imagine the verdict will be guilty. I will appeal it to the European Court of Human Rights.

My parents knew I was going to the rally. They reacted differently to my arrest. My father took it lightly. He remembered his brother, who back in the day had been involved in the events outside the White House. But Mom was upset because I was unable to go to a relative’s birthday party.

I’m glad so many people showed up to the rally. People realize that corruption is an evil, that something has to change. I hope the teenagers who went to the rally will keep involved in civic activism and fight to make our country law-abiding. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll see young people taking to the streets.

As for the consequences, I don’t think there will be a crackdown at my school. I hope the Moscow Education Department doesn’t apply any pressure.

Students confront riot police on Palace Square, 26 March 2017

Svetlana, 17, first-year university student, Petersburg
This was the first protest in my life. I had wanted to attend the rally against transferring St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Orthodox Church, but it didn’t work out. The reason I attended the rally was Navaly’s exposé film. I didn’t want to stand on the sidelines.

I saw lots of indignant people at the Field of Mars. Initially, I didn’t want to stand out. I even felt uncomfortable chanting with everyone else. Then I went and stood next to some young activists. I felt comfortable with them. Of course, I didn’t want my university to find out I’d been involved in the rally. They don’t like it when students start “uprisings.”

When we were walking down Nevsky Prospect toward Palace Square, I was already in the front. I took the subway to Insurrection Square. When I came out, I saw the police had blocked the road. I didn’t see any of the arrests myself. Friends told me about them.

There is nothing extraordinary about the fact that young people came out for the rally. It’s not the first time they’ve been called a driving force. It is always young people that kick everything off. Lots of people are now talking about what happened. I was pleased to be involved in the beginning of the big fight against corruption.

“Corruption isn’t such a great tradition.” “Let’s explain to little Dima that taking other people’s things is bad.” Two protesters holding placards on the Field of Mars, 26.03.2017

Victoria, 18, 2nd-year university student, Petersburg
I used to go to rallies mainly dealing with educational problems. I had been to rallies in defense of St. Petersburg State University, the Publishing and Printing College, and the European University. As a student, I take this issue to heart. I wouldn’t want to find myself in a situation in which my university was being closed.

As for the topic of the March 26 rally, corruption is on everyone’s minds. There is corruption in Petersburg’s universities and colleges, too. Everyone has seen Navalny’s exposé film. It was no longer a question of going to the Field of Mars or not. I had to go. Naturally, I realized the police could nab us, but I didn’t go looking for trouble. I didn’t provoke the police indiscriminately.

I don’t understand, for example, why people had to climb on the monument. But painting one’s face green was a completely innocent gesture.

What I liked about the rally was the spirit of unity, the sense of belonging to a common cause. Ultimately, I went with everyone else from the Field of Mars to Palace Square, and then I went home. I was freezing.

I don’t think there will be crackdowns in the schools and colleges after something like this. First, the teachers and lecturers are themselves dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. Second, none of them wants to find themselves in the role of the Bryansk schoolteachers. After all, high school and university students record all preventive discussions and then post them on the internet. No one wants to be a laughing stock on the web.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Except where indicated all photos courtesy of Alexander Polukeyev/Rosbalt. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up

Civilization Won’t Be Destroyed by Extraterrestrials: On the Possible Merger of Russia’s Two Largest Libraries

Tatyana Shumilova. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt

Civilization Won’t Be Destroyed by Extraterrestrials
The consequences of merging Russia’s two largest libraries would be disastrous, argues the Russian National Library’s Tatyana Shumilova
Alexander Kalinin
Rosbalt
February 1, 2017

The idea of merging Russia’s two biggest libraries was proposed to culture minister Vladimir Medinsky by their directors, Vladimir Gnezdilov (the Russian State Library in Moscow, aka the Leninka) and Alexander Visly (the Russian National Library in Petersburg, aka the Publichka). The proposal has hardly garnered universal approval. The country’s leading authorities on librarianship have sent a letter to President Putin asking him to stop the merger from going ahead. They have been supported by Russian philologists and historians.

Tatyana Shumilova, chief bibliographer in the Russian National Library’s information and bibliography department, spoke to Rosbalt about how staff there have related to the possible merger with the Russian State Library, and whether the issue has been broached with them.

What are the possible consequences of merging the country’s two biggest libraries?

Our library would simply cease to exist in its current shape. Many people have made much of the fact that the RNL’s executive director Alexander Visly has said the changes would not give rise to a new legal entity. Of course, they wouldn’t. One legal entity would remain: the RSL. So everyone realizes it’s not a merger that is at issue, but a takeover.

So we could equate the words “merger” and “destruction” in this case?

Yes, definitely. A merger would be tantamount to the death of our library here in Petersburg. After the RNL became a branch or appendage of the RSL, our work with readers would cease to be funded. We would not be able to provide them with the full scope of services. Plus, we would have to switch to the RSL’s system, and that would be undesirable. We are told the catalogues in both libraries are structured on the same principle. That is not true. There is a big difference between them. It would be quite complicated to restructure the system. The different approaches to librarianship should be preserved.

Moscow has the administrative resources. The government is located in the capital, as is the Culture Ministry. Moscow and Moscow Region are the home of the RSL, the Russian Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (VINITI), the Russian National Public Library for Science and Technology, the State Historic Public Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature (aka the Inostranka). And, until recently, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION RAN) was running at full steam. But the Northwest Federal Region has only two major libraries, the RNL and the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences (aka the BAN). After a merger, there would be one.

I understand that, after the merger, publishers would not have to send an obligatory copy of their books to the RNL. Only Moscow would get new books?

That is one of the cost-saving measures. Allegedly, money would not have to be spent on two sets of obligatory copies. It would be enough to have one hard copy and a digital copy. But the outcome would be that Petersburg would simply stop receiving most new books. It’s a rather cynical cost-cutting measure that would affect only our library, not the RSL, which was founded much later than the RNL. And all because it’s located in Moscow. No one says it outright, but it’s clear anyway.

But the RNL would still get a digital copy.

I really don’t understand the idea of sending a digital copy instead of a hard copy. We have a huge number of readers who for medical reasons cannot and should not use a computer. Why should we deprive them of hard copies? It’s simply indecent. Besides, we know what natural disasters electronic resources are prone to. A blackout, a power surge in the network, a server failure, and everything is lost. A library should not be dependent only on one type of resource.

People who take far-reaching, momentous decisions like to base them by alluding to the know-how of other libraries and even other countries. But nowhere do national libraries receive only digital copies of printed matter. You can probably merge libraries in Denmark, but the Russian Federation is a different country, a much larger country with a much larger population. Although the name would stay the same, the RNL would in fact cease being a national library. We already have municipal and neighborhood libraries in Petersburg. People come to us as a last resort, when there is nowhere else to go.

Nor is anyone probably really aware that digital copies relate not only to books but to magazines and newspapers as well.

Apparently, the shots are being called by people who don’t read and don’t go to libraries. Just how did the culture minister write his dissertations and books? By using the Internet? Or did someone else do it for him?

Where did the idea to merge the libraries come from?

Rumors about the merger have been circulating for a long time. They are all we have to go on, for no one has said anything officially. It’s still too early to draw any conclusions from the available facts. Now no one denies that merger talks are underway. Earlier, apparently, they were too busy to reveal this, or maybe they were ashamed or embarrassed. But now they’re not ashamed anymore.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Vladimir Zaitsev, the then-director of the Publichka, was worried about the library’s potential plight. That was when the name Russian National Library was coined. Lots of people didn’t like it, but Zaitsev thought it would give us stability and protect us from attacks. As we see now, it didn’t work for long. The opportunity to save millions of rubles has now been identified as grounds for merging the libraries. Indeed, you could probably calculate the worth of the books and the real estate by eye. But how do you evaluate the intangible assets? How many people have been educated here? How many people, from university students to scholars, have grown up here? They wrote their dissertations and books here. If you write a research paper based on more than two sources, you are going to need a library. This is serious work.

It is believed the RNL’s current director Alexander Visly was sent to Petersburg on a “temporary assignment” in order to merge the two libraries. Do you agree?

Officials rarely condescend to explaining the reasons for their actions directly. They believe they should not be accountable to the taxpaypers. No one has announced anything to us officially. But talk of a possible merger started after Anton Likhomanov left the director’s post at the RNL in early 2016. Visly wasn’t the only person tipped for the vacancy, after all. The director of the Lermontov Interdistrict Centralized Library System, in Petersburg, and the director of the National Library of the Republic of Karelia were identified as possible candidates.

Several months passed between Likhomanov’s departure and Visly’s arrival. We don’t know what was discussed during that time. Apparently, there was some kind of horse trading underway. According to the rumors in Moscow, Visly really didn’t want to move to Petersburg, but he was nevertheless talked into going in order to perform certain functions. The fact that an executive director has not yet been appointed at the RSL, and they only have an acting director, causes one to reflect grimly on the subject.

Indeed, Visly has not taken an interest in day-to-day affairs in Petersburg. He is busy with construction, renovating the Lenin Reading Room, and he has visited the cataloguing and acquisition departments. By the way, officials have been saying the functions of these departments overlap at the RNL and RSL. So he hasn’t been dealing with the library as a whole, although he is the executive director and should be responsible for everything that happens in the RNL. Apparently, this circumstance has been agreed upon with someone. No one would reproach him for it.

Has the issue of the possible merger been discussed with RNL staff?

There have been no meetings on the topic with the workforce, and none are planned. No one keeps us in the loop. There are no general staff meetings.  There is the practice of informational meetings, to which the heads of the departments and units are invited. My comrades once expressed a desire to take part in one such meeting, but they were simply booted out. Staff members only talk about the merger amongst themselves.

What do they say?

Very little that is positive. Everyone fears for his or her future. But what can rank-and-file library staffers do? Some signed the letter supporting the library, while others didn’t. Some have signed a petition. What else can we do?  We need large-scale outside support, but how do we get it? People know very little about the merger of the libraries, after all. Even if they wanted  to  find out about the consequences of the mergers, where would they look? Yandex News. And what would they find there? News about fires, missing schoolchildren, pedestrians run over by cars, and people falling from tall buildings. There is almost no news about culture.

And how do we explain to university lecturers, university students, and schoolchildren what could happen to the library? How do we convince them that the problem concerns them, too? Even university students come to us for textbooks, because the university libraries are shortchanged when it comes to new acquisitions of books. But our customers, people to whom provide information, include the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, the Investigative Committee, the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and other organizations. So it turns out they could not care less, either. Or they naively believe nothing will change. Maybe they don’t understand the consequences?

Have you thought about organizing a protest rally?

Few library staffers would attend such a rally. Everyone is scared redundancies will kick off, and his or her department will be eliminated. There is the chance of winding up on the streets. There are people working here who went through the hungry 1990s on miserly wages. At least they were paid regularly. Director Vladimir Zaitsev, who constantly traveled to Moscow and literally sat in the minister’s waiting room, deserves the credit for that.

So a lot of people would not attend a rally. No one wants to lose their job. Take a look, for example, at how many people came out to defend St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A lot fewer than could have come out.

People today are surrounded by informational noise. They hear about Crimea, Ukraine, and America. Old ladies at bus stops don’t discuss cultural issues, but US Presidents Obama and Trump. Everyone in Russia is totally confused.

What consequences would the merger have for readers? For example, one of the plusses that has been mentioned is that people with RNL cards would be able to use the RSL in Moscow.

Initially, readers would have no sense of any change. They just wouldn’t understand anything. After all, we would continue to acquire some new books. Qualitative negative changes build up unnoticed. They’re not visible immediately. In Germany in 1933, not everyone realized immediately what exactly was happening, either.

Aside from the issue of conservation and security, replacing hard copies with digital copies would cause yet another exodus of readers, especially elderly people, who often don’t like or cannot read e-books. Indeed, many young readers, when you suggest they use a digital source, reply, “I don’t need your Internet. I came here to read books.” Reducing the numbers of live readers to a minimum would probably lead to the next step: closing the library altogether. “Why keep you open?” officials would say, “Nobody visits your library.”

As for a single library card for the two libraries, there wouldn’t be much advantage to it. RNL readers can easily get a card for the Leninka, and Leninka readers can easily get a card for the RNL. It’s a snap: you just need your internal passport. You don’t even have to bring a photograph to the registration desk anymore.

So is there any way out of the situation, or is the RNL’s takoever inevitable?

I don’t want to accept the fact it could happen. But RNL staff are hardly in a position to do anything. They have almost no influence on the situation. Respected people, prominent scholars and cultural figures, have to speak out, people with whom the authorities have to reckon. As it is, only Arkady Sokolov and Valery Leonov, out of the entire Petersburg library community, have spoken out on the topic. None of the museums or universities have openly supported us. It is sad.

I don’t think the city could solve the problem by talking the library under its wing. That would only delay its death. The city could not fund the RNL properly. I don’t know what other options we have for saving the library. We have let the moment passs when we could have looked for sponsors to support us financially.

What do RSL employees think of the merger?

They are silent because the merger wouldn’t affect them. They would continue to function as before and do the same things they did earlier, such as acquiring the obligatory copies, hard copies and digital copies, of everything published in Russia. The negative consequences would only affect us, meaning the Russian National Library.

The most concise definition of culture is this: culture is the transmission of tradition. Breakdowns in the production, concentration, and reclamation of the national heritage (a process in which libraries are an inalienable and quite important component) have led to the collapse of civilizations throughout history. Then people go looking for the extraterrestrials who flew in and destroyed everything. The perpetrators are actually much closer.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

UPDATE. Sadly but predictably, the Russian National Library has now decided to dismiss Tatyana Shumilova from her job there for granting this frank interview to Rosbalt, although ostensibly, as follows from the letter below, dated 3 February 2017 and signed by E.V. Tikhonova, acting director of the RNL, she is threatened with dismissal for, allegedly, being absent from work for four hours and thirteen minutes on 30 January 2017. Thanks to Comrade VA for this information and the scan of the letter. TRR

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UPDATE 2. Today, February 7, there have been corroborated reports that Tatyana Shumilova has been summarily dismissed from her job at the Russian National Library in Petersburg. TRR