Moscow's Libraries Are Experiencing An Unexpected Revival

22 hours ago
Originally published on January 11, 2019 2:06 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the Soviet Union's lasting legacies in Moscow was a dense network of hundreds of public libraries. After Russia's rocky transition from communism and the rise of the Internet, the city's libraries looked like they were doomed to become relics of an analog past. But as NPR's Lucian Kim reports, Moscow's libraries are experiencing an unexpected revival.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Moscow is a noisy place, its boulevards jammed with impatient drivers. But it's still possible to find some peace and quiet.

I'm at the Dostoevsky Library in one of Moscow's hippest neighborhoods. The main reading hall has wooden floors, white walls and large windows facing the street. But what's most impressive is that every seat here is taken, and almost everybody looks like they're under the age of 35.

ALSU GORBATYUK: It's one of the best libraries here in Moscow just because it has changed so much.

KIM: Alsu Gorbatyuk is an English teacher and a frequent visitor.

GORBATYUK: I suppose that right now, Moscow is one of the centers of library culture.

KIM: The Dostoevsky Library is a showcase for the sweeping overhaul of Moscow's libraries from musty houses of Soviet learning into bustling workspaces for 21st century city dwellers. Andrei Akritov, an aspiring stand-up comedian from out of town, says he spent three to four hours a day in the library.

ANDREI AKRITOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says he lives in a hostel, so he appreciates the solitude to concentrate on his work. Russian designers based in the Netherlands were responsible for the library's renovation. Students and freelancers tap away on their laptops by day. Young professionals attend foreign language clubs, readings and lectures in the evenings. Maria Rogachyova, a 39-year-old musician by training, is the city official in charge of rejuvenating Moscow's libraries.

MARIA ROGACHYOVA: (Through interpreter) Our job is to develop the most democratic and accessible cultural locations for Muscovites. This isn't about libraries for the sake of libraries as it sometimes seemed in the past. We need to listen to what Muscovites' needs are so they start loving us.

KIM: Rogachyova says that's meant expanding opening hours to accommodate working people and families, putting catalogs online and even opening coffee shops on site. There were certainly employees who preferred knitting in empty libraries, she says. But most of the changes have taken place thanks to the initiative of the librarians themselves and not because of any extra funding.

ROGACHYOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Rogachyova says the rise of electronic media shouldn't spell the death of libraries as public spaces where people can experience, as she puts it, living literature.

ROGACHYOVA: (Through interpreter) We have a different idea from the way things used to be. A library can be a loud place. Of course there should be some quiet nooks where you focus on your reading, but our libraries also host a huge amount of loud events.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Russian).

KIM: Back at the Dostoevsky Library, a theater group is rehearsing in one of the halls.

LIDIYA AREFYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Actress Lidiya Arefyeva says the library is a wonderful location to practice because of its intimate atmosphere.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Vocalizing).

KIM: A few years ago, a boisterous rehearsal would have been unheard of in a Moscow library.

(LAUGHTER, CROSSTALK)

KIM: Now it's as normal as surfing the Internet, drinking a coffee or checking out a book. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.