A war on Russian literature, one book at a time

A book-exchange program that encourages readers to trade in certain books for more 'patriotic' ones reminds some of Soviet times.

From the street corners here, a group of activists is waging a battle against what they say are the pernicious effects of modern literature.

"Democracy doesn't mean the open sale of books with foul language, indecent thoughts about one's country, or pornography," says Vasily Yakimenkov, the founder of the group, called Moving Together. "True democracy is when a person can bring in a bad book and exchange it for a good one. That's what we're doing."

While the Kremlin insists it has no connection to the group, Mr. Yakimenko is a former member of President Vladimir Putin's staff, and one of the goals of Moving Together, founded last year, has been to build political support for Mr. Putin among Russia's notoriously apathetic youth.

Well-funded and pro-Kremlin, Moving Together claims a membership of 50,000. The book campaign, launched earlier this month, aims to persuade people to hand over their books from a list of targeted authors - and receive in return a volume by approved "patriotic" writers.

Critics say the operation amounts to old-fashioned book-burning, despite the voluntary facade. "This is fascism lite," says Viktor Yerofeyev, one of the modern authors under attack. "I'm sure these are good kids who want to do something useful for their country, but who gave them the right to impose cultural standards? I'm really worried about where this is going next."

Yakimenko says the exchange is just an "educational exercise" to help young people think about the destructive spiritual effects of dark and pessimistic psychological novels, erotic literature, Marxism, and detective fiction.

Thousands of people have already turned in their old books at street posts manned by the group's activists in a dozen Russian cities, he says.

Among the targeted authors is Viktor Pelevin, a Russian Booker Prize-winner whose widely acclaimed "Generation P" is a dark, philosophical exploration of the post-Soviet Russian soul. Mr. Yerofeyev, whose psychological thrillers have been translated into 30 languages, was slammed as a "pornographer" by Yakimenko during a recent TV debate - because he often spices his gritty prose with obscene words. Polina Dashkova, regarded by many as Russia's best writer of detective mysteries, is also on the list, as is Karl Marx, the intellectual founder of communism. Presumably because he was a patriotic Russian, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin is not.

The volume being offered in exchange, printed in 10,000 copies by Moving Together, includes stories by such classical Russian writers as Anton Chekhov and Soviet-era war novelist Boris Vasilyev.

The books collected in the campaign will not be burned, the organizers insist, but eventually will be returned to the authors. The 100 or so copies of Marx's works collected by late February will be sent to the German city of Chemnitz, formerly known as Karl Marx Stadt. "Let the people who wrote these books think over why people are asking for them to be returned," says Yakimenko. "We hope this will gently influence the course of Russian literature for the better."

If nothing else, the controversy serves as a window into the perplexing and often contradictory politics of the Putin era. The tough-talking former KGB agent who came to power two years ago pledged to enact sweeping liberal reforms - by authoritarian methods if necessary.

Experts say the Kremlin was behind the founding of Moving Together - Yakimenko was a presidential staff functionary - until just before the group was founded as a way to mobilize youth support. Before launching its campaign to prune back Russian literature, the group organized a big pro-Putin rally in Red Square and later sent out hundreds of youth to clean the streets.

"We are worried about the state of our country and its social health," says Konstantin Lebedev, the movement's spokesman. "We choose our actions to address the problems we see. And the response from the people has been very warm, very grateful."

But the specter of regimented youth marching in "good causes" reminds some of the Soviet Young Communist League. And the anti-intellectual overtones of the book program strike many Russian ears as echoes of Stalinism.

"Not so long ago, artists in this country quaked in their shoes when a Communist leader said he couldn't understand their work," says Nadezhda Shapiro, a literature teacher in the Moscow public-school system. "When I see this idiotic campaign unfolding today, I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. I hope it does not reflect the mentality of today's leaders. This possibility is the only aspect of the whole business that scares me."

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