A good infection – remembering Bookaid


Against the backdrop of Soviet disintegration, a grassroots campaign was launched from Britain to send hundreds of thousands of books to libraries across Russia and its ex-colonies. As Bookaid celebrates its twentieth anniversary, two of its organisers, Susan Richards and Ekaterina Genieva, consider a venture that still has resonance today – the struggle to establish civil society across the territory of the old Soviet empire. 

Susan Richards
29 June 2012

When an earthquake erupts in a distant land, the images of devastation trigger our collective empathy. No such traumatic images accompanied the ending of communism. That ideological earthquake left the appearance of things intact. But the tremors of that quake did reach Britain. Our response was Bookaid, which drew to a close 20 years ago this year. We aimed to send a million books to libraries across the old Soviet empire. In the end, we sent 1.4 million. Bookaid also served a symbolic role. It reconnected the cultures of two worlds which politics had kept apart. And in so doing, it prefigured the way the Internet would soon wrap us all in a single web of communication.

The Bookaid campaign resulted in more than a million books making their way to Russia and the former Soviet republics 

Ekaterina Genieva was responsible for distributing those books across the territory of the old Soviet Union. She was running Moscow’s Library for Foreign Literature, as she still does today. She recalls being invited to lunch at the British Embassy when John Major was Prime Minister: ‘”They’ve been telling me that we sent a million books to you in Russia. Are you sure we did that?” he asked me doubtfully. “Yes,” replied Genieva, “We did do that. But it deserves to be remembered because the initiative came from the (British) people, not government.”’ That was what made Bookaid special. Ours was a popular initiative. So popular that it was imitated by the governments of the US, Germany, France and Austria, which sent a further 3.1 million books.

Looking back from the vantage point of the current crisis of capitalism (which is all about the use and abuse of money) one other feature of Bookaid seems extraordinary. People in Britain gave not only books. They gave their time, they gave office space, bookshops, a warehouse, fleets of lorries. Very little money was involved. Nor did Bookaid succumb to the corruption that was so pervasive in Russia and the republics.

It was my husband Roger Graef who had the idea. He knew that when I was researching my own book Epics of Everyday Life people kept asking me to bring them English books. The requests were sometimes surprising. In rural Stavropol, for instance, a young man urged me to find him a copy of George Rawlinson’s Travels in India – published in 1931. ‘But you can’t speak English!’ I pointed out. ‘Ah, but I can read it...’was his typical response.

We were at our village fete in Dorset. When it began to rain, Roger’s impulse was to save the books on the book stall from the rain by buying them. When I remonstrated, he replied: ‘Well, let’s send them to Russia! There are fetes across Britain with bookstalls like this. We could send a million books to Russia!’ Things started happening. Our friend Bill McAlister joined us and Tim Waterstone, who owned Britain’s largest chain of bookstores, offered his help. Less than a month after that village fete, Mikhail Gorbachev came to London to ask the (then) G7 countries for financial help. He had no luck, but I did. At a lunch thrown in honour of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, I sat next to his chef de cabinet. He liked the sound of Bookaid.

Back in Moscow, out of the blue, Ekaterina Genieva received a call from someone in the Kremlin.  ‘He informed me that the Library for Foreign Literature would shortly be receiving a million English language books! “You’ll get help,” he said.’ It would have been an extraordinary call at any time. But with the Soviet empire on the brink of collapse, it must have sounded like fantasy. 

The Archbiship of Zagorsk (now Sergiyev posad) flew to London to bless the donated volumes

A few weeks later, on 19 August, just as the Communist Party was attempting to topple Gorbachev’s government, Roger and I were at the Soviet Embassy, discussing our plans with the cultural attaché. Unflappable, he promised his support ‘if we survive this assault.’

By September, books were already arriving at the Library in Moscow. For at the British end, Tim Waterstone had persuaded the big publishing houses to donate books they would otherwise have pulped. And Aeroflot, in its last weeks before privatisation, agreed to transport the first 70 tons free on their Ilyushin freight planes, which returned empty from Tokyo via Stansted airport.

By the end of October, 110,000 books were stacked up in the Library for Foreign Literature. As word of Bookaid started reaching the libraries, those within reach of Moscow sent librarians in to choose books.  ‘Then one day when I came into work,’ recalled Genieva. ‘They said someone was waiting to see me. I found this little woman sitting in the library, looking grim. “I’m from Magadan, from the library,” she said. Magadan, on the far coast of Siberia, some 6,000 kilometres from Moscow, was an infamous hub of the Soviet GULAG. “I want to know about this programme Bookaid,” she said crossly. “Fine,” I said, “Come upstairs and choose your books.” “But – are you really doing it?” “Yes,” I told her, “Come and see!” She took some persuading. It turned out she thought the whole thing was a scam. When I showed her the books and told her to help herself, she just wept. She couldn’t believe the books were for free...

Back in England, Bookaid’s young team – three women aged 21 led by Rachael Barraclough - was already planning the second phase of our operation, the national appeal for books. It was scheduled for January 1992, only weeks after the Soviet Union was due to be dissolved.

This pace posed problems for Genieva. Where was she going to put all the books, for a start? The help promised by the Kremlin had not materialised. ‘Then one day one of Yeltsin’s people came and asked what we needed,’ said Dr Genieva. ‘By this time I was really angry. “What I need is somewhere to house a million books, somewhere in central Moscow! Let me have the Lubyanka – that’s got tons of room!” “Don’t push your luck!” he growled. But Genieva got her space.

Her next problem was more intractable. Russia was in chaos. The communist party had been banned and its systems breaking up. Inflation and rising prices were devastating people’s lives. Only crooks and scavengers were thriving. How could the Library deliver so many books to public libraries across the territory of the ex-Soviet empire? The Library had no links with these libraries, and it was certainly no longer safe to send anything of value through the postal system.

‘Then one night I woke up with an idea,’ Genieva recalls. ‘There was this Soviet department called the Department for the Methodological Approach to Language. It was Orwell’s Newspeak department – they were the ones who used to instruct libraries how they were to handle Western literature. They were in touch with the whole network of public libraries. I rang them up and suggested they distribute Bookaid. They were horrified. So I played my trump card: “I hope you realise your department’s facing extinction.” That hadn’t occurred to them. “Bookaid might just give it a new lease of life...”’

It was a brilliant move. Soon, a team of ten modest middle-aged women from the Newspeak Department were responding to requests, wrapping our books and sending them off to libraries. By December, all but two of the first 1760 parcels had arrived safely. Apparently, it did not occur to the scavengers that those dowdy brown packages could contain anything valuable.

British bookseller Waterstones offered its network of stores as drop-off points

Back in Britain, backed by the Times newspaper, National Bookaid Week was a roaring success. We had to extend it. 83 branches of Waterstones acted as collecting points with boxes in the centre of their shops. In towns that had no Waterstones, independent bookshops offered to help as drop-off points.

Books poured in. People brought in whole libraries, complete with first editions and family Bibles. In Bournemouth, two old ladies turned up three times a day for a week in a taxi, bearing hatboxes full of Greek and Latin classics. On Charing Cross Road, an old man brought Tess of the D’Urbevilles with notes taped in, drawing the attention of Russian readers to salient passages.

The donations were sprinkled with affectionate messages – inscriptions, letters, yellow post-it notes. In Bristol, a four-year old wrote in a complete Shakespeare: ‘To the Russian people, wishing you a peaceful future’. Children bought gift-wrapped copies of their favourite books. Lloyds Bank gave 15,000 copies of How to Start Your Own Business. The House of Commons library donated a complete Hansard. The Bodleian library, the CBI and the Chief Rabbi’s office shook out their shelves. Still people kept coming - by bus, by moped, by bicycle, bringing carloads of books.

At the end of each day TNT’s articulated trucks would arrive at each bookshop, collect the books and bring them to our warehouse in Kings Cross, normally the National Theatre’s scenery storeroom. At the start of the week, Bill, Roger and I had stood in that cavernous space, dismayed by the size. But as load after load poured in, a Himalayan range of brown cardboard boxes rose up around us, filling the warehouse.

For the next phase, that of sorting and packing these books, the army of volunteers came into their own. ‘That first day it seemed we were trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon,’ recalls one librarian. There were retired librarians, young offenders, elegant ladies, students, the lost and the unemployed. All through the winter this motley crew, wearing woolly hats and gloves, came and went on four-hour shifts, categorising, filling box after box. The wind blew through the tin walls and it was bitterly cold.  ‘The books may be for the Russians, but the giving of time and energy for them from people who have next to nothing – except the next day at the warehouse – is enough to cheer the soul,’ one volunteer wrote afterwards. ‘I shall never forget those characters, especially one called Ivor who rocked backwards and forwards and dressed like Smike from Nicholas Nickleby.’

Each day brought its surprises. There was the day when the Archbishop from Sergiev Posad turned up at the warehouse in his tall hat and flowing gown to bless the books. There was the raw February afternoon when Bookaid’s ancient fax machine, grumbling, coughed up something frankly uncanny. It was a clipping from an American magazine, dated 1945, which Genieva had found it in the Library’s archives. Nazi Germany had just been defeated, leaving European Russia devastated, and its libraries sacked.  Moscow’s Library of Foreign Literature had responded by sending the West an appeal – for, yes, one million English language books. ’It took you 45 years,’ ran Genieva’s barely-legible message. ‘But you did respond! Thank you.’

Day after day there were arguments between the volunteers: could it be right to send lavishly illustrated cookery books to a country where inflation had reduced most people’s diet to potatoes and porridge? Should we really be sending novels by Catherine Cookson, Jackie Collins and ‘trash’ from Mills and Boon? What was the point of sending Marx to Russia? Was it wise to dispatch gay literature to a land so famously intolerant of homosexuality? Genieva’s answer was consistent: ‘Send it all! We’ve had enough of censorship!’

Of course she was right. ‘Books are like dynamite,’ wrote the Soviet writer Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1923. ‘But dynamite explodes once. A book explodes many times.’ We witnessed some of those explosions. The lesbian and gay books furnished a complete library for Moscow’s first gay support group. A consignment of large-type reference books for the partially sighted inspired a Russian entrepreneur to found the country’s first publishing venture for the blind. The books that went to universities bridged a gap when the old Soviet textbooks had lost their traction and new ones had yet to appear.

Our books, with their affectionate inscriptions, were reaching libraries as various as Memorial, the Institute of Hydro-Irrigation, the Technical Patents Library and the Synod Library in Danilovsky Monastery. They travelled as far afield as Abkhazia in the south, Kaliningrad’s Town Library in the west and Birobidzhan’s Regional Library in Siberia 

Most importantly, the books were making new connections. They reached prisons, which had until recently been part of that great secret – Russia’s Gulag. They landed on the shelves not only of Sverdlovsk’s public libraries, but of Sverdlovsk’s dark double S-k 44: ‘We were sending books to this place called S-k 44,’ Genieva recalled. ‘I didn’t know why I was getting such resistance from the Ministry of Culture. I’d vaguely heard that there were these secret military towns, but it was only when I went there that I realised what it was. It was through Bookaid that we built a relationship. The Ministry was furious. We were breaking down walls.’

The highest walls were those thrown up by the new nationalism. Russia’s ex-colonies wanted nothing to do with Russia at all. ‘When we sent books to Estonia, they just sent them back,’ recalls Genieva. ‘Relations were awful. My librarians were desperate. “What shall we do?” they asked me. “Send them back again!” I said. On the level of culture, at least, Bookaid helped restore a relationship.’

A shipment of books awaits loading at London's Stansted airport. The soon-to-be-privatised state carrier Aeroflot agreed to transport the first 70 tons of books on freight planes returning to Moscow en route from Tokyo.








There were dark times, too, I admitted to Genieva. I was by this point spending a lot of time in provincial Russia, researching my next book.  Proud though I was of what Bookaid had achieved, I learned to keep quiet about it. For Bookaid defied the experience of ordinary people. Right then, at that moment, Russia’s leaders were engaged in ‘privatising’ the nation’s wealth. Democracy had turned out to be a fairy tale. Bookaid was another one. Like that librarian from Magadan, they were not going to be taken in again. I was either a fool, who had been taken in by some Russian scam. Or I was crooked myself. Yes,’ Genieva sighed. ‘We were conditioned to think like that. To believe that the outside world was conspiring against us. “Someone must have profited.” That mentality dogs us to this day.’

Twenty years on, that conditioning is fading. ‘Now, when I talk to our librarians they think it’s perfectly normal to have books in English on their shelves,’ Genieva recalled. ‘They don’t remember the time when you could get 10 years in camp for owning a foreign book.’

‘An initiative like Bookaid can become like a good infection,’ concluded Genieva. The Soviet Union had maintained control by compartmentalising, keeping apart people and organisations, atomising society. Bookaid kick-started the long, slow process of mending the broken social threads, creating the innumerable connections and networks which underpin a civil society.

Today Vladimir Putin, faithful to his Soviet training, may be doggedly resisting the emergence of that civil society, emasculating political opposition, imprisoning protestors. But his time is running out. The Russia we set out to cultivate twenty years ago will prove stronger.


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