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Russian library fire wreaks havoc on rare 14-million book collection

04/08/2015 05:06 EDT | Updated 06/16/2015 01:59 EDT
It's close to midnight in Moscow and Zoya Metlitskaya, 54, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon history, has been slogging it out in the slush for hours, hauling 18th-century books from a heap of construction rubble and packing them in boxes.

For weeks she has been working every evening, alongside about 50 volunteers, all of them dedicated to saving the vast collection of books and journals left lying in the ruins of one of Russia's great libraries after a devastating fire in late January.

Working around the clock, they have rescued about a million books, transporting them out of the wet. For Metlitskaya and the others, saving the books represents something larger.

"I am very depressed by the political course of my country," she wrote in an email from Moscow recently. "But our volunteer group gives me hope for civil society in Russia. That stays with me in the burnt building."

INION, the Soviet-era acronym for the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Science, was founded in 1918 as one of Russia's top libraries and research centres.

It's known for its vast holdings of rare Russian books and magazines from the 18th and 19th centuries, and for its big collection of foreign-language books, many not found in any other Russian library, as well as League of Nations documents, papers from the UN and UNESCO and books dating back to the 16th century, seized as war booty from Germany during the Second World War.

The fire that ripped through the third story of the building on Jan. 30 destroyed about two million books, an estimated 15 per cent of the collection. The roof also caved in, putting the rest at risk.

A book lover's Chornobyl

Almost immediately after the fire, INION's librarians swung into action and created a Facebook page aimed at salvaging the books.

In a country where tragedies are commonplace, news of the near-destruction struck a chord.

The head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, likened the fire to a kind of book lover's Chornobyl.

"INION is a very important Russian library," says Harold Leich, a Russian specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress, in an email.

"In the field of humanities it is the chief Moscow library of the Russian Academy of Sciences — the institutes, laboratories and libraries of which are the most important locus of original research in Russia."

Generations of foreign scholars have worked there, too.

"It represents a repository of the whole intellectual enterprise of the Russian federation," says Piotr Dutkiewicz, a political science professor at Carleton University, who worked at INION as a graduate student in the 1980s.

Back then, it was known as a genteel, well-resourced haven away from the rest of mostly impoverished Moscow.

"Not only did it have one of the best reading rooms in the country, but it had the best cafeteria, where you could get the best cigarettes and the best sausages," Dutkiewicz said.

Stepping up

The devastation at INION and the ad hoc salvage process that followed the fire raise questions about the commitment of today's Russian government to the funding of its archives and libraries, which were near collapse during the financial crisis of the 1990s and have never really been properly resourced since.

As so often happens in Russia, ordinary people have stepped in to fill the vacuum. The librarians are recruiting anyone who is willing to lend a hand hauling books.

"There's been almost no help from the central government," says Metlitskaya, adding "we are also collecting computers, scanners from Russian citizens."

The library has hired about 20 workers to move the soggy, smoke-damaged books from the 14-million volume collection, says Metlitskaya. But a substantial amount of the packing is being done by untrained volunteers — book lovers from all walks of life.

Over the course of three weeks in March, the volunteers packed and moved about a million books to a suburban facility in Lybertsy until the INION building is rebuilt.

The daily effort, which is chronicled in the INION volunteer Facebook blog, is reminiscent of 1941, when staff at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), packed one million paintings and art objects over six days and nights and shipped them off to the Ural Mountains to escape an expected Nazi invasion.

More state control

The passion of the INION volunteer group isn't surprising, says Dutkiewicz.

"There are pockets of Russian intellectuals who love what they do. For them, these libraries are their whole world."

Volunteers have stepped in and "are resolving things with their own hands, because there's a vacuum left by the government," says Elena Eremeeva, an opera singer in Toronto who has followed the progress of the INION librarians.

"The government says it's going to provide lots of assistance, but there is a lack of action."

Gleb Albert, a scholar specializing in Soviet-era history and who often works at INION, has been watching the progress from Germany.

"Besides the books themselves, one of the most grave concerns was the card catalogues," he says. "No matter how little damage is done to an archive or a library itself, if the catalogue is destroyed, the institution is paralyzed for years."

In this case, he says, "when the news came in that the INION card catalogue survived the fire virtually untouched, it felt like a miracle."

Still, as Albert sees it, the primary problem for libraries generally is poor funding, which allows everything to become run down.

In INION's case, he says, "the wages are so low that hardly any young professionals want to work there, and those who still continue to work there are doing it out of love for their profession and are true heroes.

"It's not unusual to see people well beyond pension age behind the counter."

There's also been increasing state control in recent years, and "reclassifications of archival documents as 'secret' over the last 10 years, which can only be described as absurd," he says.

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