Home Globe Inside a Russian dystopian library

Inside a Russian dystopian library

by editor

Steve Rosenberg,Russia Editor, in Ivanovo

BBC A sign in Russia reading To VictoryBBC

Russian propaganda tells people the country is marching on to economic and military success

If the billboards in Ivanovo are to be believed, Russia’s really going places.

“Record harvest!”

“More than 2000km of roads repaired in Ivanovo Region!”

“Change for the Better!”

In this town, a four-hour drive from Moscow, a giant banner glorifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine covers the entire wall of an old cinema. With pictures of soldiers and a slogan:

“To Victory!”

These posters depict a country marching towards economic and military success.

But there is one place in Ivanovo that paints a very different picture of today’s Russia.

I’m standing outside it. There’s a poster here, too. Not of a Russian soldier, but a British novelist. George Orwell’s face stares down at passers-by.

The sign above it reads The George Orwell Library.

George Orwell library in Ivanovno

The small library keeps books about totalitarianism and dystopian worlds

Inside, the tiny library offers a selection of books on dystopian worlds and the dangers of totalitarianism.

There are multiple copies of Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; the story in which Big Brother is always watching and the state has established near-total control over body and mind.

“The situation now in Russia is similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four,” librarian Alexandra Karaseva tells me. “Total control by the government, the state and the security structures.”

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party manipulates people’s perception of reality, so that citizens of Oceania believe that “war is peace” and “ignorance is strength”.

Russia today has a similar feel about it. From morning till night, the state media here claims that Russia’s war in Ukraine is not an invasion, but a defensive operation; that Russian soldiers are not occupiers, but liberators; that the West is waging war on Russia, when, in reality, it was the Kremlin that ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve met people who are hooked on TV and believe that Russia isn’t at war with Ukraine, and that the West was always out to destroy Russia,” Alexandra says.

“That’s like Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it’s also like Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. In that story the hero’s wife is surrounded by walls that are essentially TV screens, talking heads telling her what to do and how to interpret the world.”

Alexandra holds a copy of 1984

Alexandra Karaseva thinks Orwell’s novel is now the reality in Russia

It was a local businessman, Dmitry Silin, who opened the library two years ago.

A vocal critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he wanted to create a space where Russians could “think for themselves, instead of watching TV”.

Dmitry was later prosecuted for “discrediting the Russian armed forces”. He’d been accused of scrawling “No to war!” on a building. He denied the charge. He has since fled Russia and is wanted by police.

Alexandra Karaseva gives me a tour of the library. It’s a treasure trove of literary titans from Franz Kafka to Fyodor Dostoevsky. There is non-fiction, too; histories of the Russian Revolution, of Stalin’s repressions, the fall of communism and of modern Russia’s failed attempts to build democracy.

The books you can borrow here are not banned in Russia. But the subject matter is very sensitive. Any honest discussion of Russia’s past or present can bring problems.

Copies of 1984

Although not banned, the contents of the books at the library can bring problems

Alexandra believes in the power of the written word to bring change. That’s why she is determined the library stays open.

“These books show our readers that the power of autocratic regimes is not forever,” Alexander explains. “That every system has its weak points and that everyone who understands the situation around them can preserve their freedom. Freedom of the brain can give freedom of life and of country.”

“Most of my generation had no experience of grassroots democracy,” recalls Alexandra, who is 68. “We helped destroy the Soviet Union but failed to build democracy. We didn’t have the experience to know when to stand firm and say ‘You mustn’t do this.’ Perhaps if my generation had read Ninety Eighty-Four, it would have acted differently.”

Eighteen-year-old Dmitry Shestopalov has read Ninety Eighty-Four. Now he volunteers at the library.

“This place is sacrosanct,” Dmitry tells me. “For creative young people it’s a place they can come to find like-minded citizens and to get away from what’s happening in our country. It’s a little island of freedom in an unfree environment.”

As islands go, it is, indeed, little. Alexandra Karaseva is the first to admit that the library has few visitors.

By contrast, I find a large crowd in the centre of Ivanovo. It’s not Big Brother people have stopped to listen to. It’s a Big Band.

In bright sunshine an orchestra is playing classic Soviet melodies and people start dancing to the music. Chatting to the crowd I realise that some Russians are more than willing to believe what the billboards are telling them, that Russia’s on the up.

“I’m happy with the direction Russia’s heading in,” pensioner Vladimir tells me. “We’re becoming more independent. Less reliant on the West.”

“We’re making progress,” says a young woman called Natalya. “As Vladimir Putin has said, a new stage for Russia has begun.”

But what about Russia’s war in Ukraine?

“I try not to watch anything about that any more,” Nina tells me. “It’s too upsetting.”

Back at the George Orwell Library they’re holding an event. A local psychologist is finishing a lecture on how to overcome “learned helplessness” and believe you have the power to change your life. There are ten people in the audience.

Getty Images Russia propaganda posterGetty Images

Pro-invasion propaganda is a fact of daily life in Russia now

When the lecture ends, librarian Alexandra Karaseva breaks the news.

“The building’s been put up for sale. Our library has to move out. We need to decide what to do. Where do we go from here?”

The library’s been offered smaller premises across town.

Almost immediately one woman offers her van to help with the move. Another member of the audience says she’ll donate a video projector to help the library. Others suggest ideas for raising money.

This is civil society in action. Citizens coming together in time of need.

Admittedly, the scale is tiny. And there’s no guarantee of success. In a society with less and less space for “little islands of freedom,” the library’s long-term future is uncertain.

But they’re not giving up. Not yet.

Source link

Related Posts