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© RIA Novosti. Kirill Kallinikov

Moscow’s library makeover starts with Dostoevsky

by Kevin O’Flynn at 26/09/2013 12:17

The library at 23 Chistoprudny Bulvar first opened in 1907 on the first floor of an apartment block built for Moscow's growing middle class. Renamed in honor of Fyodor Dostoevsky after the Revolution, it has had many lives since. Its newest began last month as one of the city's new showcase libraries.

It is a world away from its cramped previous incarnation, most of which was inaccessible to the public. Huge glass windows now open onto the boulevard, and the rooms inside are airy, exploiting its high ceilings. The chief librarian welcomes those who enter, signing them up for a library card and telling them about the history of the building.

The man leading the library revival is Boris Kupriyanov, the owner of Falanster, the independent bookshop just off Tverskaya Ulitsa that specializes in radical, political and intellectual literature. It has been raided by police, and once was forced to move after it burned down in a suspected arson.

Sergei Kapkov, the city culture head who transformed Moscow's parks, asked Kupriyanov to take on the libraries.

There are more than 400 libraries in Moscow and a number are excellent, Kupriyanov said, but the majority are uninviting places with iron doors, strict rules, inconvenient opening hours and a design that is a leftover from Soviet times.

Some libraries closed or were forced out in recent years - most famously the Nekrasov Library, the city's main library, near McDonald's on Malaya Bronnaya Ulitsa. But miraculously, most remain intact.

"We have been left with a treasure," Kupriyanov said. "[But] this [library] network has been on the defensive for the past 20 years. It closed itself off from the city... The city wanted to take away its premises, turn it into a cafe or a strip club.

"Thanks to the librarians - they are brave - it has come to us with few losses," he said.

Now Kupriyanov aims to get people back into the libraries. All city libraries will eventually get a makeover, he said, offering multimedia content, hosting film screenings and lectures, and staying open much later.  Two are already complete: the one at Chistoprudny Bulvar, and Prospekt Library at 127 Leninsky Prospekt.

 "The library should be open for the city, for people. It should be visible, it should be noticeable," Kupriyanov said. "It should be the cultural enclave in the area."

Few people go to libraries these days, apart from pensioners. But the city somehow spends approximately €43 on every library visitor each year, compared to €4. 5 per library visitor in the Netherlands.

"If you judge by those figures, then libraries in Moscow should be 10 times better than those in Holland, and it is clear that they are 100 times worse," Kupriyanov said.

The library project is not to simply get people to read more, but has the wider aim of getting those who live in Moscow to become part of the city. Kupriyanov says that most Muscovites are "zhiteli," or inhabitants, rather than "gorozhane," or townspeople. The library will be a place for people to gather, for groups to discuss the area's problems and make the city better.

Moscow has a huge deficit of places where people can gather, he said. The only places now are food courts in malls, for the young, and health clinics, for the elderly.

"We don't want the place of interaction to be food courts or clinics, to be about food or sickness, but books and culture," he said. "We want for our city to become more and more comfortable to live in."

One of the ways the libraries were closed off was to insist that only those who were registered in the area could use them. It was an illegal move. Kupriyanov says that anyone can use the libraries now. The Dostoevsky Library registered one foreigner with no questions asked. Eventually, Kupriyanov hopes to introduce city-wide library cards.

There have been some voices against the makeovers. Residents in one apartment building objected as it would mean more people going to the library. Others have worried that those who do use the libraries now will be pushed out.

"We do not want to make a library that excludes anyone. We want all those who come to the library to keep on coming," he said.

He hopes that the Nekrasov Library, now renting a space near Baumanskaya metro station, will eventually move back to its old location, too.

"Its fate is very important to us," he said.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #37"
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