Vienna, March 17 – In handling published works Russian courts have declared extremist, Russia’s libraries find themselves caught in an increasingly difficult position, one that reflects the contradictory requirements of various Russian laws, on the one hand, and the absence of legal and other infrastructure, on the other.
And the problems Russia’s libraries are experiencing in dealing with such materials highlight both Moscow’s inconsistent approach to what the powers that be there call “extremist literature” and broader problems with the development and application of Russian laws and government decisions.
At the end of last month, a group of Russian libraries, government officials and rights activists met in Moscow to discuss these issues. Part of the stenographic record of that meeting has now been posted on the SOVA Center portal, and it provides some fascinating details on the struggles of all involved (xeno.sova-center.ru/29481C8/CA4B75F).
Mikhail Afanasyev, the director of the State Public Historical Library of Russia, said that “libraries are law-abiding institutions” but that “recent years have created an uncomfortable situation for them” because Russian legislators have passed so many laws which require different actions and have ignored many issues that librarians need guidance on.
Nowhere are these contradictions and gaps more obvious, he suggested, than in the Russian government’s efforts at various levels to prevent the further dissemination of literature that Russian courts have found and the justice ministry has confirmed as “extremist” and thus subject to suppression.
Afanasyev was followed by Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the director of the SOVA Center, who sought to explain what Russian law says and what it does not say on these issues. He began by noting that according to the law, “extremist activity is only the mass distribution if these materials and not [their] individual transfer or possession.”
But he acknowledged that many officials reject those distinctions and that the law itself does not define clearly just what is prohibited: “the work as such” or “its specific edition.” Moreover and more critically, Verkhovsky said, the law does not contain any definition of what constitutes “mass distribution and at what point distribution becomes mass.”
As a result, libraries could under some interpretations of the law be held liable for keeping such books on their shelves or signing them out to patrons. But Verkhovsky said that he did “not think that a library could be liquidated” for signing out such works, “but according to this law, [such an] organization could be liquidated in principle.”
The next speaker was Svetlana Budashkina, the deputy director of the Kirov State Oblast Scientific Library. She described in more detail the conflicts between Russian laws requiring that depository libraries like her own retain and make available all publications and demands by prosecutors that librarians violate that law in the name of obeying anti-extremism legislation.
Another speaker, Yuliya Nenkova, the deputy director of the Voronezh Oblast Scientific Library, called attention to still other problems, including the absence of specific directives from Moscow as to how librarians should behave and the fact that many of the materials that officials want taken off library shelves can be easily found on the Internet.
Following a discussion in which representatives of the prosecutors’ office took part, Afanasyev raised two more issues: the difficulties librarians have in knowing just which things are “extremist” – the lists are sometimes vague and often repetitive – and the lack of rules governing materials already accessed as compared to those that might be accessed in the future.
As far as access is concerned, he pointed out, the Russian law on library permits restrictions on use only on the basis of classification as state secrets or if the materials are in poor or delicate condition. Otherwise, he pointed out, librarians are directed to make the materials in their holdings available to those who want them.
He also pointed to the difficulties librarians have in finding out just what has been banned. Only nine percent of Russia’s libraries are connected to the Internet, and many local libraries do not subscribe to “Rossiiskaya gazeta” where the combined lists of materials courts have declared “extremist” are published.
“In other words,” Afanasyev concluded, “our libraries are in quite a difficult situation,” and he suggested that the best way out of the current impasse would be a government decree or other legal act setting clear rules as to how libraries should behave in this area, a step needed to ensure that they remain “law-abiding.”
And Elena Strukova, who heads the non-traditional publications section of Afanasyev’s library, said that “the federal list of extremist materials” in its current form “is not acceptable for conducting checks in libraries. Many of the items are poorly described, she noted, and some of the entries duplicate other entries
This discussion shows how far Russian laws and librarianship have come from Soviet times when officials simply ordered materials off the shelves and into largely inaccessible “special collections” (spetskrany) and how many of the issues the Russians are grapping resemble those in other countries.
But it also shows in the 5,000-word SOVA excerpt how far Russian laws and librarianship have to go, given not only problems with the laws themselves but also the extent to which some prosecutors and FSB officers appear still to believe that they can unilaterally determine what anyone, including librarians, will be allowed or required to do.