Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Extremist Literature List Forces Russian Libraries to Revive Soviet-Style Spetskhran System

Paul Goble

Fairborn, June 23 – In 1969, Bertram Wolfe published his classic study, “Krupskaya Purges the People’s Libraries” in the London-based journal “Survey,” an essay in which he described the way Lenin’s wife began putting a straightjacket on intellectual life in the Soviet Union by “purging” library shelves of works the Bolsheviks did not approve of.
That effort continued throughout the Soviet period and resulted in the creation of a special institution in USSR libraries, “spetskran” or “special collections,” in which books and publications that the regime did not approve of were retained but not made available to any but those in the special services and at the top of the Soviet political system.
Many had hoped that the end of the Soviet Union marked the end of that system, but now, with the ever greater number of works declared “extremist” by Russian courts and registered by the Russian Ministry of Justice, librarians there are being asked to take steps that resemble or at least anticipate those of their Soviet predecessors.
The Moscow SOVA human rights center this week has published an instruction to the employees of the Russian National Library on how to work with materials that have been placed on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, an instruction that the Russian Library Association suggest is a model for all Russian libraries (
As SOVA notes, the association is “not a government organ but rather a public organization.” But because this instruction reflects what the Moscow powers that be want to accomplish, the internal contradictions in their approach, and the high probability that they will not enshrine this in law, SOVA decided to publish it.
The 600-word instruction is taken from the “Information Bulletin of the Russian Library Association,” no. 55 (2010) as posted at and is intended to make sure that librarians live up to the provisions of the law by “excluding the possibility of the mass distribution of extremist materials.”
Librarians, the instruction specifies, are to monitor the List of Extremist Materials and to send all publications “included” into special collections that are not to be accessible to the general public except under special conditions and are not to be shared through inter-library loan or copied lest the libraries fall afoul of the law.
If a library patron asks for such a publication, it can be given to him only on condition that it is used in the library and not copied and only after the patron is warned by librarians that the book or article he has requested is on the extremist list and only after the patron has filled out a special form identifying himself and why he seeks access to that publication.
The filling out of such a form – and the instruction includes a model of what it should look like and contain – will by itself exert a chilling effect on those who might want to gain access to such materials for research, especially since many of them would reasonably assume that such forms would be passed on to the special services.
Many Soviet-era librarians and archivists, as readers of Veniamin Kaverin’s novel, “The Larger View,” will certainly recall, were often among the chief defenders of the right of all people to read what they wanted, often paying an extraordinary price for their efforts to support that right.
And consequently, it is possible that the authors of this latest instruction were not so much trying to curry favor with the powers that be but rather to call attention to the ways in which the extremist list by its very nature has a pernicious effect on intellectual life and thus to support those who oppose it.
But even if that is the case, the appearance of this instruction will likely lead to the widespread introduction of the system it calls for, an especially dangerous development because, just like Krupskaya’s “reforms” in the 1920s, such a step will create both the conditions and the precedent for other and even more pernicious “innovations.”

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