Question 5

Four and half years ago, I had to renew my Russian permanent residence permit. The procedure had changed considerably since the last time I’d applied for the permit. Among the changes were two written exams that applicants were now required to pass — a Russian language exam and a Russian civics exam. I decided to study for them by doing practice exams that I found online. One of the civics question was “Question 5,” screenshotted above. It’s a multiple choice question. The examinee must decide whether the “RF” (the Russian Federation) is a) a totalitarian state, b) an authoritarian state, c) a hybrid state, or d) a democratic state. To be honest, I no longer remember whether this particular question came up in the actual exam, which I passed with flying colors. But I thought that you, my readers, might find it productive to ponder this question while reading the following three items, ripped straight from this week’s headlines in the Russian media. At the end of this post, you’ll see what the “right” answer was (in 2018, at least) and the answer I tried to give when taking the online practice quiz. ||| TRR


The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation has identified 17 priority topics for state financial support of film production in 2023.

The procedure and conditions for selection competitions in 2023 will be announced at the end of December 2022.

“We publish a list of topics before the start of competitions for financing production, hoping that filmmakers will take into account the priorities of state support for film production when developing projects. The Ministry of Culture continues to support such important topics for society as the protection of family values, patriotic education, preservation of the traditions of Russia’s regions, the success of domestic science, and popularization of the professions of engineer and teacher. Given modern realities, we consider it necessary to focus as well on countering attempts to falsify history and modern manifestations of the ideology of Nazism, to talk about the heroism and dedication of Russian soldiers during the special operation and the work of front-line brigades and volunteers,” said Olga Lyubimova, Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation.

Some priority topics have been established pursuant to the Decrees of the President of the Russian Federation: “On the Approval of the Foundations of State Policy for the Preservation and Strengthening of Traditional Russian Spiritual and Moral Values,” dated 09.11.2022, No. 809; “On the Announcement of the Decade of Childhood in the Russian Federation,” dated 29.05.2017, No. 240; “On the Announcement of the Decade of Science and Technology in the Russian Federation,” dated 25.04.2022, No. 231; and “On Holding the Year of the Teacher and Mentor in the Russian Federation,” dated 27.06.2022, No. 401.

The list of priority topics includes:

1. Russia’s culture. The preservation, creation and dissemination of traditional values.

2. The decade of childhood. Families and children, their protection and support.

3. Russian science: innovations, technologies, priorities.

4. Historical cinema. History lessons, memory lessons. Countering attempts to falsify history. Russia’s peacekeeping mission of Russia. Russia’s historical victories. The eightieth anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet soldier’s mission of liberation Generational conflict, generational continuity.

5. Russia as a modern, stable and secure state that provides opportunities for growth and self-realization.

6. The heroes among us. Stories of modern Russia’s outstanding individuals. Popularizing the teaching profession. School and college as important stages in social adaptation and personal orientation. The role of teachers and mentors in shaping the individual.

7. Motivating young people to master manual trades and engineering jobs. Improving the social status of the manual worker and the engineer, of research and innovation.

8. Film chronicle. The current state, culture and traditions of Russia’s regions. Development of the Far East and the Arctic. The life of small towns and villages, life in the provinces. Little Russia as a historical region of Russia.

9. Adaptations of works of Russian classical literature, including with the use of animation.

10. Films about outstanding figures in history, culture, science and sports. Popularizing the medical profession. Films about sporting achievements and victories.

11. Countering modern manifestations of the ideology of Nazism and fascism. Popularizing heroism and the dedication of Russian soldiers during the special military operation.

12. Popularizing service in the Russian Armed Forces of Russia. Society’s unanimous support of the army (front-line brigades and volunteers). Strengthening the status of the military profession as based on historical events and recent history.

13. The spiritual, moral and patriotic education of Russian citizens. Countering extremism. Images and models of behavior and creative motivation for modern youth. Spiritual leaders. The volunteer movement in Russia and the CIS countries as an international popularization of volunteerism.

14. The neocolonial policy of the Anglo-Saxon world. The degradation of Europe. The formation of a multipolar world.

15. Society without borders: the self-realization of people with disabilities. Volunteering in Russia. Active longevity.

16. Films about teenagers. Formation of values in life and guidelines while growing up. Disorientation in public space, information overload, forming one’s own way of thinking.

17. Modern society. Moral and ethical choice. Civic engagement. Social unity.

Source: “The Ministry of Culture of Russia has identified priority topics for state support of film production in 2023,” Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, 30 November 2022. Thanks to Radio Svoboda for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader


At a secondary school in the Leningrad Region, the Agalatovo Education Center, students were quizzed about racism, Russophobia and the emotions provoked by songs about the Motherland. A photo of the questionnaire, entitled “Patriot and Citizen,” was sent to Rotunda by the parents of one of the schoolchildren. Here are some of statements the children had to evaluate by answering “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.”

🇷🇺 Those who criticize what is happening in the country cannot be considered real patriots.
🇷🇺 I owe a lot to my country.
🇷🇺 Sometimes I get very excited when I hear songs about my Motherland.
🇷🇺 We are a strong military power, and that is why we should be respected.
🇷🇺 If I go abroad, I will try not to be seen as Russian.
🇷🇺 I am ready to defend my Motherland in case of serious danger.
🇷🇺 Most of the crimes in our city (village) are committed by outsiders and immigrants.

🇷🇺 Our athletes are often judged unfairly at international competitions, because no one likes Russians.
🇷🇺 If we take into account all the pros and cons, the storage of foreign nuclear waste in Russia brings more financial benefits than it does environmental harm.
🇷🇺 There are nations and peoples who do not deserve to be treated well.
🇷🇺 Vandalism is one of the forms of youth protest.
🇷🇺 It is unfair to put people with dark skin in charge of white people.
🇷🇺 There can be only one true religion.

🤦 The school confirmed to Rotunda that they had conducted such a survey. They agreed to communicate with us only by mail. In a written response signed by the vice principal, they claimed that the questionnaire was needed “as background for a faculty meeting.” The school did not answer questions about how correctly or adequately the questionnaire was worded. Rotunda was unable to contact the school’s principal, Svetlana Sergiyenko. She is a supporter of the United Russia party and has run for election several times on the party’s ticket.

📌 The questionnaire itself seems to have been found by the educators on the internet. In 2014, Belarusian media reported that a similar survey (only with Belarus instead of Russia) was conducted in schools in Minsk.

Source: “Schoolchildren in Leningrad region surveyed on whether they’re ashamed to be Russian,” Rotunda (Telegram), 28 November 2022. Thanks to Leda Garina for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader


There is a belief that the Russian elite under President Vladimir Putin has only ever been interested in money. Yet Putin’s militant, anti-liberal, anti-Western, isolationist, paternalistic, and harshly authoritarian regime has always had an ideology.

This ideology is not systematized, but it does exist, and snippets of it can be found throughout Putin’s speeches, articles, and interviews. Now the war in Ukraine has necessitated a more articulated ideology, however.

The initiative to systematize and codify Putinism has led to a presidential decree listing Russia’s “traditional spiritual and moral values,” as well as the development of a new ideological curriculum for colleges.

It is no longer enough to indoctrinate children in kindergartens and schools. It is now time to unify the worldviews of college students, and, by extension, those of their professors, whose ranks will inevitably be purged. A similar course taught during the Soviet era was known as “Scientific Communism.”

The name for this new curriculum is “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” though it might as well be called “Scientific Putinism.” It is composed of four units: “History” – historical policy as the imposition of a mythologized official version of history, which is one of the instruments for manipulating the mass consciousness of Russians; “Cultural Codes” or the “traditional spiritual and moral values,” around which Putin has ordered federal and regional governments to unify; “Russia and the World” — a justification of isolationism, anti-Westernism, and jingoism; and “Vision for the Future,” which sets out what the state hopes to achieve beyond victory in Ukraine and the destruction of the “fifth column.”

The curriculum justifies the cult of the eternal leader and doubles down on the idea that Russia is fighting the forces of evil in Ukraine in an effort to “de-satanize” the country. However, at the same time, Scientific Putinism lacks key components such as development goals or a vision for Russia’s future, focusing as it does almost exclusively on the past.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, there were teams working on a future-oriented ideology and making road maps based on the idea that Russia would fast-track the modernization of the state and society. Putin’s ideology, however, is one that fundamentally opposes modernization.

Putin has successfully convinced a significant portion of the population that Russia must regain its status as a great power, and that Russia is under attack by both the liberal West and traitors at home. As the regime has grown more authoritarian, its ideology has also become more archaic, its propaganda more obtrusive, and any hopes of modernization have dwindled. 

An ideology that consists of historical, cultural, and religious myths, bogus traditions, and resentment seeks to legitimize an authoritarian regime and delegitimize those who oppose it.

Such an ideology makes it possible to label nonconformists as enemies, and to divide people into “us” and “them.” The division into “us” and “them” doesn’t just provide a marker for self-identification, it also serves to convince the public that there is a certain majority from which they should not stray.

In the past, the only requirement for being part of the “us” was passive, silent, conformist support. Today, however, this is not enough: Russians must surrender their very bodies to be cannon fodder in the supreme leader’s holy war against the “satanic” forces of the West. This is no longer authoritarianism; it is totalitarianism.

Imperialism and colonialism are key components of Putinism and key factors in the war. There is nothing new about this ideology; it comes almost verbatim from Stalinism and from earlier Eurasian and Slavophile narratives.

The war is being passed off as striving to restore historical fairness, as defensive and preventive, and as liberation. According to Putin, the land of the empire must be “returned and reinforced.”

In just a few years, the regime has evolved from a cult of the victory of 1945 to a cult of war itself, and Putin has managed to persuade a large segment of Russian society that the “special military operation” of 2022 is a natural continuation of World War II. In essence, it is an existential war between Russian and Western civilizations.

Putin has started to refer to Russia as an entire civilization. The state is not just sacred and worthy of the ultimate sacrifice; it is also a separate and superior civilization with a “thousand-year history” and its own special path.

Within this history, cultural codes are being passed down from generation to generation as part of the country’s political DNA. This state-civilization has its own pantheon of heroes unchanged from the Soviet era: Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Yuri Gagarin.

This state-civilization has always been under attack by enviers and foes, making its state of permanent conflict critical, and not simply limited to the battlefield. The state must win in all aspects — in culture and in sports, in the construction of Olympic facilities, and in the war against Ukraine and the West.  

To defend the sovereignty of this state-civilization, the Kremlin is counting on the security services, or siloviki, who have been given additional funding and are reinforced by spin doctors and so-called “journalists” in the Kremlin’s service.

The Culture Ministry, the communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, and the Russian Orthodox Church are becoming de facto siloviki themselves, enjoying as they do the right to block or ban media, restrict the sales of books by authors who oppose the war, and decide who can perform on theater stages.

The ideology has become corporeal, bolstered by political and military acts, such as the annexation of Crimea and the “special military operation.” In short, the special ideological operation is ongoing, and it seems to be faring rather better than the military one. 

This article was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.

Source: Andrei Kolesnikov, “Scientific Putinism: Shaping Official Ideology in Russia,” Moscow Times, 27 November 2022. Thanks to Mark Teeter for the heads-up.


Back in the summer of 2018 I tried to answer Question 5 truthfully, replying that the Russian Federation was an “authoritarian state.” But the right answer, then, was “democratic state,” as it turned out. Again, I don’t remember now whether this question on the actual civics exam that I took, but there were several other “ideological” questions like it, which I would have answered “incorrectly,” thus jeopardizing my chances to get a residence permit, if I hadn’t been schooled in advance by the practice quizzes I’d found online. ||| TRR

Shorthand for Fascism (The 9th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art)

A view of the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Photo: Mikhail Japaridze (TASS). Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Russian authorities have canceled the 9th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art, which was supposed to take place at the New Tretyakov Gallery.

In a press release, the Russian Ministry of Culture said the reason was “the absolute discrepancy between the caliber of a number of the exhibits and the venue’s status […] The Tretyakov Gallery is a treasure trove of Russian art. The desire to hold the project [t]here, and not at a private or corporate venue, should go hand in hand with responsibility for the exhibition’s artistic and ethical context.”

In addition, with reference to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Ministry of Culture noted that the management of the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art Foundation had not fulfilled its obligations under the contract. Among other things, they had failed to meet the deadlines for installing the exhibition and not provided the necessary paperwork, which, in turn, led to a violation of fire safety rules.

The biennale was to begin on November 7. In connection with the news that the exhibition had been canceled, a statement by the organizers and a video from the exposition, now closed and sealed off, appeared on the biennale’s website.

The event’s organizers and participating artists say they do not dispute the decision to close it, but do not agree with the “terrifying wording” of the explanation for its closure.

The exhibition’s spokespeople note that they were going to show, in particular, Sergei Bugaev’s project on the demolition of Soviet war monuments in Europe, the works of Anastasia Deineka and Adelina Shabanova, who are artists from Donetsk and Lugansk, and other projects on timely topics.

“Contemporary art is considered to be outcasts [sic]. We are suspected of hooliganism and nihilism in advance, of giving people the finger with our hand stuffed in our pocket. But we did no such thing. We decided in march 2022 that we were working for our viewers. We are all going through perhaps the most difficult test for our country and in each of our lives, and we need to at least try to go through it with dignity. We tried,” the organizers said in their statement.

Source: “Biennale of contemporary art canceled in Moscow,” Radio Svoboda, 4 November 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader


A video survey of 9th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art at the New Tretyakov Gallery, closed by order of the Russian Ministry of Culture before its scheduled opening date of November 7, 2022.

DEAR COLLEAGUES!

LAST NIGHT, WE, THE TEAM AND THE ARTISTS OF THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE LEARNED FROM THE NEWS THAT THE MINISTRY OF CULTURE OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION HAD DECIDED TO CLOSE THE EXHIBITION. ONE DOES NOT ARGUE WITH THE MINISTRY, BUT WE CANNOT HELP BUT OBJECT TO THE HORRIFYING WORDING “THE DISCREPANCY BETWEEN THE CALIBER OF A NUMBER OF THE EXHIBITS AND THE CHOSEN VENUE’S STATUS.”

BY DECISION OF THE MOSCOW BIENNALE’S ADVISORY BOARD, ONLY RUSSIAN ARTISTS — 27 CREATORS — ARE PARTICIPATING IN THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE. FOR SOME, THIS IS THEIR FIRST SERIOUS EXHIBITION, WHILE FOR OTHERS IT IS JUST ANOTHER IN A LONG LIST OF EXHIBITIONS AT LEADING VENUES AROUND THE WORLD. THEY HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON: EACH IS A TALENTED ARTIST:

TATIANA BADANINA,
MARINA BELOVA AND ALEXEI POLITOV,
YEVGENIA BURAVLEVA,
SERGEI BUGAEV,
DMITRY VOLODIN,
THUNDER GROUP:
ALEXEI LOGINOV
ARTYOM LOGINOV
OLGA MICHI
ANASTASIA DEINEKA,
VASILY ELSHIN,
PLATON INFANTE,
ANDREI KARTASHEV,
DARIA KONOVALOVA-INFANTE,

THE EXHIBITION IS CALLED “SHORTHAND FOR FEELINGS”. THE VIEWER WAS TO MOVE FROM “TENSION” THROUGH “RESPECT,” “NOSTALGIA,” “SURPRISE,” “INFINITY,” “FAITH,” “HOPE,” “TRANQUILITY,” HISTORICAL “MEMORY,” “REVERENCE,” “GRATITUDE,” “BITTERNESS OVER WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN,” “LOVE” AND “BELONGING” TO “LIGHT” AND “PEACE.”

CONTEMPORARY ART IS CONSIDERED TO BE OUTCASTS. WE ARE SUSPECTED OF HOOLIGANISM AND NIHILISM IN ADVANCE, OF GIVING PEOPLE THE FINGER WITH OUR HAND STUFFED IN OUR POCKET. BUT WE DID NO SUCH THING. WE DECIDED IN MARCH 2022 THAT WE WERE WORKING FOR OUR VIEWERS. WE ARE ALL GOING THROUGH PERHAPS THE MOST DIFFICULT TEST FOR OUR COUNTRY AND IN EACH OF OUR LIVES, AND WE NEED TO AT LEAST TRY TO GO THROUGH IT WITH DIGNITY. WE TRIED:

HOPE BY TATIANA BADANINA. PART OF THE PROJECT IS A SERIES OF WHITE SHIRTS, SIMILAR TO CHRISTENING SHIRTS, BUT IT IS CLEAR THAT SOME OF THEM HAVE SOMETHING IN THEIR POCKETS. IT IS DEDICATED TO THE NOTES CONTAINING PRAYERS THAT WIVES AND MOTHERS SEW INTO THE CLOTHING OF SOLDIERS AS THEY SEE THEM OFF TO THE FRONT, HOPING THAT HER LOVE AND HOPE FOR A REUNION WILL HELP HER HUSBAND OR SON STAY ALIVE. AND ON THE WALL NEXT TO IT IS A LETTER FROM THE FRONTLINE OF THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR, FROM THE AUTHOR’S FAMILY ARCHIVE.

MEMORY BY SERGEI BUGAEV IS A PROJECT ABOUT THE DEMOLITION OF OUR MONUMENTS IN EUROPE. MOST OF THEM ARE MEMORIALS TO THE LIBERATING SOLDIERS, ERECTED AFTER THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR IN COUNTRIES LIBERATED FROM FASCISM: ESTONIA, LATVIA, LITHUANIA, UKRAINE, POLAND, CZECH REPUBLIC. BUT THE BUSTS OF ALEXANDER SERGEYEVICH PUSHKIN AND THE PLAQUE ON THE HOUSE WHERE MIKHAIL BULGAKOV WAS BORN HAVE ALSO SUFFERED. WE HAVE COLLECTED 102 IMAGES OF DEMOLISHED AND DESECRATED MONUMENTS: FROM MEMORIAL CEMETERIES TO BUSTS OF THE POET AND BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER IN ONE VIDEO, AND IN THE FINALE THERE IS FOOTAGE OF THE SAUR-MOGILA MEMORIAL COMPLEX IN DONETSK, RESTORED IN 2022 AFTER SIMILAR DAMAGE.

THE WALL TEXT WITH THE FULL LIST OF TITLES TOOK UP 4 METERS.

ANASTASIA DEINEKA’S PEOPLE ARE PORTRAITS OF PEOPLE LIVING IN DONETSK, PEOPLE WHO DID NOT LEAVE THE CITY EITHER IN 2014 OR NOW. THE ARTIST’S STORY ABOUT THE PERSON IN THE PORTRAIT SUPPLEMENTS EACH PORTRAIT. “THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF HEROES IN THE WORLD, ABOUT WHOM THOUSANDS OF BOOKS AND STORIES HAVE BEEN WRITTEN. NO ONE TALKS ABOUT THE PEOPLE YOU WILL SEE DEPICTED ON MY CANVASES, BUT YOU CAN UNDERSTAND THEM WITHOUT WORDS.”

THE CREATOR OF THE STORY OF THE BLUE HARES, ADELINA SHABANOVA, WAS BORN IN LUGANSK IN 1998. WHAT SEEMS AT FIRST GLANCE TO BE A CHEERFUL STORYBOARD FOR A CARTOON PROVES TO BE A SCARY FAIRY TALE WHEN EXAMINED CAREFULLY. THE BLUE HARES ARE LIVING THEIR NORMAL LIVES, BUT ARE IN CONSTANT TENSION. AT ANY MOMENT A BIRD OF PREY CAN BLOW UP A QUIET FAMILY DINNER, A MATH LESSON, SITTING ON THE COUCH IN FRONT OF THE TV, AND THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE.

PART OF THE PROJECT “LIGHT” IS ANTHONY VAN DYCK’S “PORTRAIT OF THE APOSTLE PETER,” 1618, AS A SYMBOL OF THE ETERNAL LIGHT OF GREAT ART.

PEACE — TWO ARTISTS: SASHA KUPALYAN FROM MOSCOW AND NASTYA DEINEKA FROM DONETSK, FOR TWO WEEKS COLLABORATED ON PAINTING A PEACEFUL SKY AS OUR COMMON PRAYER FOR PEACE AND CALM.

THE 9TH MOSCOW BIENNALE IS READY. WE NEEDED 1 MORE DAY TO FINISH 3 INSTALLATIONS, TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE, SET UP THE VIDEO, HANG THE CURTAINS AND SOLEMNLY MOUNT THE VAN DYCK.

MIKHAIL BORISOVICH PIOTROVSKY, A MEMBER OF THE MOSCOW BIENNALE’S ADVISORY BOARD, WAS DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN SELECTING THE CREATORS FOR THE PROJECT AND GAVE THIS QUOTE FOR THE OPENING DAY PRESS RELEASE: “RUSSIA PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN SHAPING THE ART OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. THE MOSCOW BIENNALE IS A CHANCE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.”

WE WEREN’T GIVEN A CHANCE. IT IS ESPECIALLY A PITY THAT MOSCOW WILL NOT SEE THE WORKS OF ARTISTS FROM DONETSK AND LUGANSK. NASTYA DEINEKA, IN ADDITION TO WORKING WITH SASHA KUPALYAN, REPPRODUCED IN HER ROOM “THE ANGEL OF DONBASS, WHICH SHE PAINTED FOR THE FIRST TIME ON THE WALL OF A KINDERGARTEN BOMBED ON JUNE 1, 2022. AND WE HUNG A VIDEO OF HER WORKS ON THE WALLS OF DONETSK NEARBY.

WE MANAGED LAST NIGHT, BEFORE THE ROOMS WERE SEALED, TO FILM THE EXHIBITION AND ARE POSTING THE VIDEO. PLEASE TAKE A LOOK.

Source: 9th Moscow International Biennale of Contemporary Art. The original text was printed in all caps. The punctuation of the original text has also been preserved where possible. Translated by the Russian Reader

Locos In Loco Parentis (Perfecting the Russian Police State)

DSCN1069

Making as many ordinary people as possible de facto accomplices or targets of thoroughgoing injustice, an endless series of crimes great and small, daily repression, and ubiqitous surveillance smacks more of totalitarianism than it does of the run-of-the-mill authoritarianism that, if you believe the most progressive political scientists, currently rules the roost in Russia. TRR

Culture to Be Equated with Cigarettes and Alcohol
Fontanka.ru
October 17, 2017

The Culture Ministry has drafted a bill which, if adopted into law, will vest ticket sellers and ticket takers at theatrical and entertainment events with the authority to check people’s passports. In addition, the Culture Ministry wants to legally forbid persons under the age of eighteen from attending events with an 18+ rating. Currently, the rating is advisory in nature, and parents make the final decision.

The media were informed on October 17 that a document containing such provisions had been drafted by the Culture Ministry. They were referred to Natalya Romashova, head of the ministry’s legal and regulatory department. According to Romashova, the draft amendments to the law “On the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” will shortly be submitted to the State Duma.

“The organizer of an entertainment event containing information prohibited for children is obliged to take measures eliminating the possibility that persons under 18 years of age attend the event,” the draft bill reads. “Failure by the organizer of the entertainment event to take the measures indicated shall entail liability as established by Russian federal legislation.”

At the same time, the draft law bill specifies that the documents checks will also affect foreign nationals and stateless persons. The list of admissible documents should be established by an executive body authorized by the government.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. 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