LONDON-BASED American filmmaker Roger Graef stood in the rain at a village fete in Dorset contemplating a pile of novels which were not even selling at a marked-down price of 25 pence, and realized they would end up being pulped. To him such an act would be "a cultural crime."
Into his mind came the image of Russians in Pushkin Square fighting and kicking, even parting with a month's salary, to get hold of a book. "There such books would be honored rather than ignored," he thought.
Mr. Graef knew firsthand the thirst of Russians for reading matter of all kinds. And 20 million of them could read English. He also knew what had happened to books under communism. Censorship had created a book famine. And his latest film, "The Secret Life of the Soviet Union," records what had happened to writers during the last 70 years.
"Suddenly, rather like a light bulb going on," he told me, when I visited him in his home, "I wondered if the books could be sent to Russia."
From that humble beginning less than a year ago the idea has burgeoned to the point that every week now 40-foot containers stacked full of books are being shipped to St. Petersburg.
After getting the initial thought, Graef spoke with Vyacheslov Ivanov, director of the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature, who immediately told him that if books could be got to Russia he would see that they were distributed to 1,000 libraries in 275 cities. "We need to learn how a free society works," said Mr. Ivanov. "Books from the West can help us enormously."
Graef talked it over with his wife, the writer Susan Richards, whose critically acclaimed book, "Epics of Everyday Life," is about the experience of ordinary Russians confronting the collapse of their world. By fortuitous timing she was about to have lunch with Raisa Gorbachev, whose husband was in London for an economic summit.
Then things moved swiftly. With the backing of the Gorbachevs and through them Aeroflot, and with the promised support of Ivanov and his library system, an appeal was made to British publishers. A warehouse was given in central London, the European Community contributed 50,000 European currency units toward costs, and 23 publishers responded by giving 150,000 books.
"I had the idea in the middle of June, and by the middle of September books were in Siberia," Graef said.
The filmmaker says that the response from the Russians has been most moving: "People were weeping, thrilled, astonished; they couldn't believe it was free."
At the beginning of 1992, Book Aid, the charity formed to promote the operation, along with Waterstone's, the bookstore chain, and The Times of London, gave the public the chance to join the action.
Last month I stood in the vast warehouse in King's Cross, large enough to house a jumbo jet, and as far as one could see there were books. A team of volunteers was working night and day to sort and repack them. In three weeks more than a million books had been received, everything from "The Aeneid" to "Agatha Christie."
The public had been asked to provide books in good condition, particularly on topics like the environment, technical issues, and education, also general fiction and children's books, and to avoid sending books whose subject matter was out of date or only applied to Britain.
As The Times wrote, " 'A Guide to Gourmet Eating' and 'Fat Is a Feminist Issue' are unlikely to appeal to today's babushka while she waits in the bread queue ... and please, no 1960s guides to the better management of a planned economy."
This week I spoke to Susan. She was off to Russia doing research on another book and checking up on the distribution. She reports that in Moscow a staff of eight has been working unceasingly for months to get the books out to the country. On the home front, Book Aid is continuing its weekly trawl for fresh volunteers to sort the books so that they can be sent off as soon as possible: London's radio stations, its libraries and bookshops, its dentist's and doctor's waiting rooms are all plied with informat ion to that end.
Book Aid, she says, is also urgently needing to raise extra transport money for two reasons. Aeroflot is no longer able to honor the commitment made to them last year. And many more books have come in than anticipated. "The generosity of people - 1.5 million books - has thrown our calculations," she says.
Raising money in Britain during a recession, she told me, "is like getting blood from a stone, and the last drops are the hardest." She hopes that there may be some in the United States who will help.