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Mayakovsky Library. November 23, 2022.

‘You can resist much more than it seems’ St. Petersburg librarians on Russia’s book bans and the ways they fight back

Source: Bumaga
Mayakovsky Library. November 23, 2022.
Mayakovsky Library. November 23, 2022.
Yulia_И /

After Russia’s financial monitoring service added popular contemporary Russian writer Boris Akunin to its list of “terrorists and extremists,” his books disappeared from most online stores, and many libraries pulled them from circulation. However, libraries aren’t officially banned from having Akunin’s books in their collections, and there have yet to be any major cases of authorities pressuring libraries over their books. Libraries haven’t been fined for promoting “LGBT propaganda” or for violating the “foreign agent” law, and in many of them, you can still find works that are no longer sold in stores. The independent news outlet Bumaga spoke to librarians in St. Petersburg to find out how censorship and the war in Ukraine have affected their work, and how they are pushing back against state propaganda. Meduza is publishing an English-language adaptation of the article.

‘Allowed to store extremist materials’

On December 19, the day after the Russian authorities declared writer Boris Akunin persona non grata, the head of one of St. Petersburg’s district library systems got a message from the local cultural department: “Dear colleagues, Akunin has been added to the list of ‘terrorists and extremists.’ Put [his books] into deep storage immediately. Do not issue them!!! When books of his are returned, mark them with Category 5.”

A librarian from the district told Bumaga that “Category 5” is assigned to books that aren’t lent out at all, for various reasons. The designation is often given to very expensive or very old books, or to new books that haven’t been cataloged yet. After someone else called for the removal works by both Akunin and poet and writer Dmitry Bykov, who’s also spoken out against the war, their books were put up on a far shelf, out of view.

But these requests don’t appear to have been official. Representatives from all city library systems’ acquisition departments first met to discuss the “Akunin question” on December 22, after the district’s “ban.” The librarian thinks that library management isn’t behind the push to remove Akunin from circulation, but that the people who work there are “system conformists.”

Despite some libraries removing Akunin and Bykov’s books, there’s no official city-wide ban. Local news outlet Rotonda reported that another St. Petersburg library issues Akunin’s books “upon request,” but they can’t be found on the shelves. “Apparently, all the district libraries were just scared to different extents. Some were less scared than us,” says the librarian from the district that removed Akunin’s works. The ban on Akunin is the first major restriction of its kind in her memory.

The Mayakovsky Library, which doesn’t belong to any of St. Petersburg’s library systems and reports directly to the city’s Culture Committee, still has Akunin’s books, a source told Bumaga, but they’ve been removed from general circulation and are issued only on request. And the electronic catalog of the Russian National Library, which is also located in St. Petersburg, doesn’t show any of his works.

Back in December 2022, Meduza wrote about a “banned books” list sent to Moscow libraries after the law on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” came ito force. By that time, some libraries had already hidden a number of books that could potentially run afoul of the new anti-LGBTQ+ laws. In early 2023, social media posts showed a new list for Moscow libraries — this time, with authors whose books were prohibited. The list included both so-called “foreign agents” and writers openly opposing Russia’s war against Ukraine. (Russia’s Culture Ministry denied compiling any such lists.)

In St. Petersburg, however, things are dealt with in a more localized fashion. There’s a general list of banned or “offensive” literature, but the head of each library system decides what to do with the books on it.

On December 20, the European University at St. Petersburg was fined 70,000 rubles (about $770) for possessing books published with the support of “undesirable” organizations. The university claimed that the books were kept in a closed collection and were not lent out to readers. The local news outlet Fontanka reported that during the court hearing, a university representative showed screenshots from the Russian National Library website with the same books. In response, the prosecutor said that the Russian National Library is allowed to store extremist materials.

Censoring Boris Akunin’s work

‘Why are we publishing enemies?’ Censorship of Boris Akunin’s work could signal a new wave of persecution against cultural figures displeasing to Russian authorities

Censoring Boris Akunin’s work

‘Why are we publishing enemies?’ Censorship of Boris Akunin’s work could signal a new wave of persecution against cultural figures displeasing to Russian authorities

No set rules

In November, Russian Deputy Justice Minister Oleg Sviridenko announced plans to tighten the laws on “foreign agents.” Organizations caught distributing content created by a “foreign agent” without the required disclaimer would face fines of 300,000 to 500,000 rubles (about $3,300 to $5,500). Libraries are currently defined as “third parties” under the “foreign agents” law. As such, they could face fines of up to 300,000 rubles if they don’t label things “properly.”

But there aren’t any uniform rules regarding books by “foreign agents,” and the procedure for dealing with them varies from library to library. The Mayakovsky Library has a strict protocol in place. An anonymous employee there explained how it works as follows:

“If a writer is recognized as a ‘foreign agent,’ a sticker that says ‘Foreign Agent. 18+’ is put on the cover [of their book], and the book is taken out of general circulation and provided only on request. The book is also marked as a ‘foreign agent’s’ book in the library catalog. For example, if a reader comes and says, ‘I’d like to read Dmitry Bykov’s novel June, the librarian brings the book out from ‘special storage’ and gives it to them with the words, ‘You’re taking a book by a foreign agent.’”

The library only lends books by “foreign agents” to adults, even if the book is intended for children, and staff are prohibited from mentioning books by “foreign agents” on library social media or in reading lists. According to the employee, soon all books by “foreign agents” will have disclaimers on their covers. When asked if the rules were put in place by library management or by city authorities, the employee answered, “Both.”

In the Russian National Library catalog, books written by “foreign agents” also bear the corresponding label, but patrons can still check them out, and those written for children don’t say “18+.” However, a staff member at one district library told Bumaga that they display books by “foreign agents” openly on shelves and librarians in their branch aren’t required to notify anyone if the author of a book is a “foreign agent.”

Russia’s ‘LGBT movement’ ban

Police raids, preemptive closures, and an 18+ label for ‘My Little Pony’ Russia’s ‘LGBT movement’ ban hasn’t come into force yet, but its chilling effect has been immediate

Russia’s ‘LGBT movement’ ban

Police raids, preemptive closures, and an 18+ label for ‘My Little Pony’ Russia’s ‘LGBT movement’ ban hasn’t come into force yet, but its chilling effect has been immediate

‘The library needs us’

“I’ve been working in the library system for three years, and for all three years, we’ve been getting completely unreasonable orders,” says a district librarian. Employees are told to hang pro-war posters and show videos promoting the war in Ukraine in the library halls. But, according to her, no one in their library does this or plans to do so:

They demanded that we hang up a portrait of the president, but we didn’t want to. The library management and administration spent three days thinking about where to hang it. We came up with arguments why it couldn’t be hung: here there was one sign, there another, here there was a bathroom. In the end, it’s in a closet in the far corner. I can’t say I’m happy that it’s there, but at least it’s not hanging by the entrance like they wanted.

She says colleagues also managed to refuse to participate in the voter’s committee for Putin’s presidential candidacy nomination, but this meant another library might have to send four people instead of the usual two. 

“We have a very strong team, great projects, grants, and the library system needs us. And they know that we’ll leave. We really will leave if necessary. It turns out you can resist much more than it seems,” she told Bumaga.

There have been times the librarians have had to make some concessions, but they’ve tried to walk a fine line. On the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, at management’s insistence, they published a post about the peninsula. But they wrote about an artist born in the region, not politics.

A staff member at the Mayakovsky Library said things are different there:

You have to do it, that’s all. Posters and leaflets saying ‘Everything for Victory,’ about contract service, seem to be placed almost everywhere in adult libraries. We’ve gotten used to it. Librarians all react differently to book bans, but overall, it’s sad that we have to remove something from open access, especially the often-requested Akunin and Bykov.

Librarians told Bumaga that there have been almost no complaints from readers about specific books or their absence. However, one recalled a patron’s surprise at finding foreign authors on the shelves, and another said a visitor once complained that there wasn’t enough Russian literature in the library.

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Story by Anastasia Zhigulina for Bumaga

Abridged English-language version by Emily ShawRuss

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