May 6, 2016

Russian writers petition widely reported state-sponsored book burning, state responds: We aren’t doing that


Russia has deemed Open Society Foundations an Undesirable Foreign Organization

Russia has deemed Open Society Foundations an Undesirable Foreign Organization

Hey, so what’s going on with books in Russia? Last month, we reported on that weird thing where shirtless Russian teens filmed themselves burning copies of Henry Miller books that they (allegedly) stole from their local libraries. More notably, in January, Hayes Brown at Buzzfeed News reported that state authorities in the Komi Republic of Russia burned dozens of textbooks because they were deemed “alien to Russian Ideology.”

Now, as reported in Publishing Perspectives by Eugene Gerden, the Russian Union of Writers is speaking out against the state’s actions. In order to make themselves heard, the Union has submitted a petition to Vladimir Putin requesting that he step in and prevent the further destruction of books.

The destroyed books in question, it is worth mentioning, are not just any books; nor are they the kinds of books that American’s might consider the usual suspects: Harry Potter, E.L. James, Ulysses. Rather, as Brown reported back in January, the books are notable primarily for their unpopularity:

The books that were destroyed weren’t exactly flying off the shelves, according to Yeleva Vasilyeva, director of the library where the books were confiscated. “These books were brought here a very long time ago,” she told 7 × 7. “I’ve been working here 11 years and the books were brought before I arrived. Nobody ever borrowed them, they were actually kept in a storeroom.”

So what are these very unpopular but nonetheless very dangerous books? Well, they were all published with the support of the philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, an organization that the Russian state has deemed, according to RT, “a threat to national security.” Naturally, threats to national security are not to be tolerated under the explicitly titled Law on Undesirable Foreign Organizations. Real details as to how a foreign organization is deemed undesirable, however, are scarce:

The package of amendments imposed a ban on so-called anti-Russian activities of Western scientific and social foundations in the country. According to the report, “Other groups on the list included the National Endowment for Democracy; the International Republican Institute; the National Democratic Institute; the MacArthur Foundation; and Freedom House.”

Nonetheless, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the immediate response to the Union of Writers’ question, “Why are you guys burning books?” was not: “Oh, because they were published with help from an Undesirable Foreign Organization,” but a resounding: Huh? We are not burning books. Gerden reports:

Olga Yarilova, Director of the Department of Tourism and Regional Policy of the Russian Ministry of Culture, tells Publishing Perspectives that books published with the support of the Soros Foundation have not been destroyed, as union writers say they have. Yarilova says that instead those books are currently in the collections of regional libraries. She says the concerns of the writers are groundless.

Guess we’ll just have to check the libraries.


Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.