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“We have reached a point of no return” Russia’s most renowned librarian talks to ‘Meduza’ about state inspections, foreign agents, and cultural exchange

Meduza
08:50, 10 july 2015

Photo: Yuri Mashkov / TASS

Renowned librarian and cultural critic Ekaterina Genieva passed away on July 9 in Israel after a battle with cancer. Genieva had served as the head of the All-Russia State Library of Foreign Literature for nearly a quarter of a century, right up until her death. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she also worked as the President of George Soros’ Open Society Institute in Russia. This week, the Open Society Institute came under government scrutiny for “threatening Russia’s interests.” Authorities had also been paying special attention to Genieva’s library, asking her to shut down the American Cultural Center, one of many international organizations her library hosts. Shortly before she passed away, Ekaterina Genieva was interviewed by Katerina Gordeeva for Meduza. Genieva shared her thoughts about the Ministry of Culture, about Russia’s “spy fever,” and about the importance of cultural exchange.

Requirements imposed on public educational and cultural projects are becoming ever more stringent. Against this backdrop, the Library of Foreign Literature looks almost provocative: it’s a whole community of intellectuals, you have books about tolerance, you host concerts with musicians who have gone out of favor with the state, you also host a dozen foreign cultural centers in this building. How close are you to becoming a “foreign agent?”

I have been the head of this library for almost a quarter of a century. I hope we’ll avoid the “foreign agents registry” since we are, after all, a government structure. But if we look at this from the point of view of today’s heightened quasi-nationalistic consciousness, then of course, we’re a huge foreign agent. We have fourteen foreign cultural centers, including – and I shudder to say it out loud - an American one. But I have to say, neither the library nor myself have ever suffered any dramatic consequences as a result of this.

Does this mean that rumors that the American Center is set to close are simply rumors?

It’s not a quick process.

So they aren’t just rumors?

You see, this is a kind of battle. And we don’t know what the outcome will be. When the request came from the Ministry of Culture to close the American center, I told them, “You want to close it? Fine, go ahead and close it. But first give me the official document that says ‘due to tense relations between the two countries, we have decided to close the center.’ That kind of conversation will have take place in a different setting and in a different tone.” Predictably, nobody has given me any documents like this. The decision to close the American Cultural Center has never been seen in writing by anyone.

The whole story over the decision or non-decision to close the center unfolded in a complicated way: first, someone from the Ministry of Culture called one of my deputies and said: “You know, the American Center really needs to close.” To which my deputies said, “This is a question for Genieva.” Then, I called my supervisor at the Ministry of Culture asked them what all of this means. They answered that this decision was made at a very high level. I asked: “May I ask, what level exactly?” No answer followed. The whole thing came to a halt, no news since then.

Американский культурный центр, занятия летней школы сценаристов. Июнь 2015-го Фото:
Photo: American Center's vk.com page

And there was no conversation about you personally?

There were some uncomfortable conversations. “If you don’t do what we tell you, we’ll fire you,” they told me. I asked them what they mean by that. Again, I got no answer. But a very interesting conversation with the Minister of Culture followed. During a private conversation, Minister Medinsky told me twice: “I haven’t given you any instructions to close down the American Center.” As the saying goes, no further comment here.

As it stands today, it’s business as usual for the American Cultural Center. And though the people who delivered the request to close the center said that the closure had to happen by May 28 (why?), over a month has passed from the designated date, and nothing has happened. No coercive action, if you don’t count endless inspections. We’ve had about six inspections this year. Just today [July 1st] we had one.

I don’t know how this whole thing will play out. My point is that even during the worst times of the Cuban missile crisis, culture remained a platform where some negotiations were still possible. And I remain convinced that cooperation in the cultural field is the most important thing for the prestige of any country.

I never get tired of saying this during every inspection: “the American Cultural Center has existed for 27 years. Every single year we sign an agreement with the State Department.” At this point, as I admit to signing an agreement with the State Department, officials usually get tense. I calmly answer: “Sir, the ‘State Department’ is the US Ministry of Foreign Affairs, nothing more.”

That frightens them. In the minds of some people (perhaps in the Security Committee, for example), the American Center is dangerous because it’s related to the USA. They immediately get images in their heads of spies working from the heart of one of Russia’s libraries. I tell them: “Maybe there are spies. But our department does not work on this issue. That’s a question for a different group of people.”

But such spy mania can go a long way: the Library of Foreign Literature itself could start looking like a dangerous place.

Of course. Because this whole library is one big product of nasty enemy influence over our wonderful [Russian] culture, ideology, and so on. There’s a lot of absurdity surrounding the story [about closing the American Center]. Closing the center would cause a scandal. Of course, you could say that nobody is afraid of any scandals anymore, since there are so many and we have nothing left to lose. But who needs it? Nobody, I believe. No one will profit from closing a library. But it’s impossible to explain such things to people who dream of closing the center or of restricting library work. They just don’t understand. Although I’ve tried to explain these things, I’ve honestly tried. I even wrote a letter to Vladimir Putin, which, I think, is lying somewhere on his desk. I wrote, “You say and postulate that you are ready for dialogue. The foreign cultural centers in our library are platforms for such dialog. And that is why I hope the decision to close one of the centers or even several of them isn’t your doing.”

Do you really think that all of these initiatives are local ones?

I think that in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere higher up, there’s always pressure from several sides. There may not even be a single decision on any serious issues.

Hasn’t it always been this way in Russia? In your opinion, is the present time reminiscent of a past time we’ve already been though? Some people talk about the 1960s, others mentions the 1940s.

Sadly, my associations go further back in history. It scares me to look at how quickly the country is sliding back towards the ideology of the late 1930s. It’s frightening. Genuinely.

Do you think that what’s happening in Russia now is the result of some special plan which has its own author?

It’s terrible to imagine that for someone, the complete and utter isolation of the country is really their plan. I hope, and am almost certain, that this plan is not shared by everyone, and that even at the top there is no single point of view. This contradiction, this inconclusiveness, is apparent everywhere. On the one hand, the Red Square is open to the public for the book festival, which in itself is great, with crowds of people coming to buy not just anything, but books. Books! But on the other hand, we hear endless edifying talk about which history textbooks to allow, what to read, what not to read, which books are dangerous, and so on. In general, the whole anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian rubbish which we hear constantly is very dangerous. And this kind of talk has spread all over the country. Hate is everywhere. It’s unclear what to do with all of it.

And this wasn’t a plan either, it’s just something that’s happened by itself?

I don’t think it’s a consistent system. Judge for yourself: on January 1, 2016, Doctor Billington (the 13th Director of the Library of Congress) will retire. Here, in Russia, a decision was made at the highest level to give him a state award. He;s a US citizen, someone who, from the point of view of everyone consumed by this spy mania, doesn’t fit with the general trend. Moreover, not so long ago the highest honor, the Pushkin Medal, was awarded to the great granddaughter of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. She too, as a matter of fact, is not a Russian citizen, but a citizen of Ireland. So, to answer your question, it’s not an air-tight system. And my personal feeling is that there's a much greater battle going on – much bigger than the story of the American Center.

The efforts to isolate Russia are intensifying. We hear more and more about special Russian values and about evil foreign values..

(Laughs) I recently learned at a meeting in the Ministry of Culture that kindness, love and compassion are our values. I always thought of these as common values, but no, it turns out — they are native to us Russians.

Photo: Andrei Mishurov / Open Library

And, in your opinion, why does your immediate superior, Minister of Culture Medinsky, have such a controversial reputation?

You know, this is also an ambivalent issue. Medinsky is one of the busiest ministers. But his tragedy lies in the fact that he has a number of different and often bad advisors: they give him bad advice.

He wrote an article in the newspaper Izvestia about how the state shouldn’t have to support anything associated with Tannhäuser [a Novosibirsk production of Wagner’s opera which was taken to court for offending religious people]. Maybe he’s right, but he’s not necessarily right. It’s hard to tell what he wants to say. But many things he does say are followed by a scandal.

Also, this debate he initiated about whether Russia is part of Europe or not – no liberals in Russia were enthusiastic about the question.

But there is another side to this issue. For example, we hosted a Makarevich concert [Andrei Makarevich is a singer-songwriter who has gone out of favor with the state] at a time when the scandal was at its peak. They told me they could ban it. But Medinsky and I had a completely normal conversation about it. He said: “Let’s move the Makarevich concert from the main hall to the courtyard.” I said: “What does that mean?” He said: “Well, that’s not actually the library itself, not strictly speaking state property.” I said: “Lets do it”. And what was the result? Makarevich resounded through Taganka square [a central square in Moscow]. Nothing happened. People discreetly collected money, which they quietly sent to Ukrainian children and to refugees. So that’s one example of how I built my relationship with Medinsky.

So it’s not humiliating for you to go to the Ministry of Culture, to pretend, to persuade them, to cajole them into doing things?

It’s my job to go to the Ministry and talk to the Minister. That’s not the worst part of my job, either. A great number of obstacles to good things emerge due to an army of very ambitious but uninformed and uneducated people. They certainly all contribute to the triumph of the dark and frightening over the bright and fearless. One official from the State Duma called me: “Genieva?” I say, “Yes, good afternoon.” He tells me, “We want to inspect Soros’ Foundation. I say “Good idea. Only, it’s not here.” - “Oh yes? Well then, we want to inspect you.” I say, “Well, that’s also a good idea, but I don’t work there anymore.” - “Oh yes?” And then he hung up.

I have the sense that we may have reached a point of no return, a complete dead end, with no escape. But you can always pray and work. While you still have the chance to.

Katerina Gordeeva