Scholar in USSR Faults "Upside-Down Glasnost" after Library Fire Destroying Half-Million Books

By Kimmage, Dennis | American Libraries, May 1988 | Go to article overview

Scholar in USSR Faults "Upside-Down Glasnost" after Library Fire Destroying Half-Million Books


Kimmage, Dennis, American Libraries


A visitor to Soviet libraries last summer, Dennis Kimmage is head of reference at the Feinberg Library, NY State University College, Plattsburgh. Fluent in Russian, he is tracking Soviet comment on the Leningrad fire for AL, and a the author of "Soviet Libraries and Glasnost,- to appear in AL later this year.

ON APRIL 1, THE NEW YORK Times reported on a mid-February fire in Leningrad that devastated much of the National Academy of Sciences of the USSR library, a vast research treasure built around a collection donated by Peter the Great in 1714. While investigating the cause of the blaze, library officials said that "400,000 books were destroyed, 3.6 million were damaged by water, 10,000 became infected with mold, and 7.5 million are in need of preventive care to block the spread of fungus."

The Times also reported charges made by a leading scholar, Dmitri S. Likhachev, that library administrators tried to cover up the extent of the damage and called in bulldozers to clear away debris that included salvageable books. Library officials have denied Likhachev's charges. The March 27 issue of Moscow News (Moskovskie Novosti), a weekly Soviet publication available in limited quantities in the USSR but widely circulated abroad, included an article by Likhachev with details of his charges and fears for the safety of other great Soviet collections.

A list of disasters

Likhachev said he has warned more than once about dangerous conditions in some of Leningrad's important libraries. Among recent disasters he listed fires in the rare book section of the Krupskaya Institute of Culture library, the history department library of Leningrad University, the Rostov Scientific Library, and the Plekhanov archives (inundated by water). He also feels conditions are bad in the State Lenin Public Library in Moscow and has expressed particular concern for the Institute of Russian Literature ("The Pushkin House") in Leningrad. This structure, which has not had extensive repairs since 1832, contains 500,000 items, including the priceless manuscript collections of Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, and other important 19th and 20th century cultural figures. Between 1986 and 1987, according to Likhachev, some 40 accidents in the heating and plumbing ducts of the Pushkin House could have turned into disasters.

Likhachev notes that in response to much "glasnost" and public criticism of inadequacies in Soviet libraries, officials have promised to make repairs, punish administrative negligence, and provide more funding. But Likhachev remarks with bitterness that "in those same cities where libraries have been perishing and where book collections have been flooded, splendid buildings have been built for district party committees and regional executive committees in whose offices those who signed the official responses [to criticism] discuss the problems of leisure time and debate the declining thirst for books and the crisis of moral integrity. …

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