MOSCOW (Reuters) - First, armed police seized some of its books. Next, its director was put on trial accused of stirring up ethnic hatred. And now, quietly, its shelves have been emptied and its volumes packed up, ready to be merged into another library’s collection.
A year and a half after Russia’s only state-run Ukrainian language library, Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature, was dragged into a political dispute between the two countries, Reuters has learnt that authorities are quietly winding it down.
Officially, what is happening to the library — its 52,000 books are being transferred to Russia’s main foreign language library — is “a change of address” not a closure.
But the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, some of the library’s employees, and members of Russia’s large Ukrainian diaspora say it is a closure in all but name.
Tatyana Muntyan, a library employee, said that even before the transfer its director had reduced opening hours, stopped home lending, halted acquisitions, and made readers show passports to gain entry. The library’s director declined to comment.
The saga, along with other measures, suggests political differences between Moscow and Kiev are driving a wedge between two peoples whose cultures have been interwoven for centuries. It is likely to stoke Ukrainian fears that their culture, as well as their territorial integrity, is under siege.
Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and Kiev accuses it of backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, an allegation the Kremlin denies.
Russian officials have often cast doubt on Ukraine’s status as a separate country, recalling much of it was once part of the Russian empire. Some Ukrainians say the library’s fate is another example of their nationhood being undermined by Russia.
“They want to prove that we are ‘one people,’” wrote Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukrainian commentator for Radio Free Europe. “To do that, you need to destroy everything that constitutes the cultural uniqueness of the Ukrainian people. In such a situation why have a Ukrainian library in the center of Moscow?”
Estimates of the number of Ukrainians in Russia range from five to ten million, making them Russia’s third-largest ethnic group. Since Moscow annexed Crimea, some Ukrainians say they feel insecure in Russia.
A Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, is serving 20 years in jail for “terrorist attacks” in Crimea after what Amnesty International called “a show trial.” Diplomatic ties between the two are, as one Ukrainian official put it, “almost zero”.
Ukraine warned its citizens in October against traveling to Russia, saying they were at risk following an increase in harassment and detentions by Russia’s security services.
The Ukrainian library’s problems got serious in October 2015 when armed, masked police carried out a pre-dawn raid and arrested Natalya Sharina, then its director, confiscating books the authorities called illegal anti-Russian propaganda.
One of the books, by Dmytro Korchinskiy, a Ukrainian nationalist author banned in Russia, was on a list of “extremist” literature. Library employees said at the time that investigators had planted extremist books to frame them.
Investigators have declined to respond to that allegation.
Sharina, 59, who denies wrongdoing, has been under house arrest since then, and is on trial in a Moscow court accused of inciting ethnic hatred by distributing literature one Russian expert certified as anti-Russian. Her successor has accused her of misappropriating funds too. Sharina denies that.
Her legal team says the case against her is politically-motivated. Designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, she faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.
Other library staff say they have been cross-examined in the wider investigation, with some having their homes searched.
There has so far been no official announcement of the library’s closure, but Moscow city officials said in December they planned to give its collection to a new center of Slavonic culture that will house books from 13 countries.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry urged Russia not to go ahead, saying the library should be spared the “deliberate destruction of the only specialized state institution founded by the Ukrainian community”.
It had raised the issue with the Russian government, which had ignored the pleas.
A Reuters reporter who visited the library, a sprawling green building, saw empty shelves, piles of boxes packed with books, and no readers.
On the web site of the Moscow city government, which owns the library, its designation has been quietly changed. Once listed as a library, it is now in an amorphous “other” category.
Employees say they tell readers there are no longer any books to read, they no longer offer Ukrainian language lessons, and that the library’s contents are being transferred to the new center elsewhere in Moscow.
A spokeswoman for the Moscow city authorities said the most popular books were already available in their new home. Others would be transferred later. More readers went to the new library than frequented the Ukrainian library, she said.
The Ukrainian library traces its history back to 1918 and has, in various incarnations, weathered a Stalin-era clamp down on Ukrainian literature and World War Two.
The new cultural center does not appear to have the space to display the Ukrainian library’s 52,000 books and periodicals. It said in December it would only be able to hold 12,000 books.
The library’s current director, Natalya Vidineeva, who was brought in after her predecessor’s arrest, told Reuters via a security guard she would not discuss the matter and referred questions to the Moscow city authorities.
The Moscow city spokeswoman said “there was no political element” in what was happening to the library.
“There is no intention to ‘destroy’ or ‘kill something off,” she said in emailed comments. “On the contrary, by transferring the books ... we are not only preserving the Library of Ukrainian Literature’s books, but also believe it will facilitate the popularization of the Ukrainian literary legacy.”
The Kremlin has declined to comment, but when asked about the Ukrainian library in December 2015, President Vladimir Putin said he knew nothing about its problems, but that it was important it should not “in any circumstances” be lost.
“We’re keen to find out what kind of new life the library can have without any books,” said employee Tatyana Muntyan. “We come to work each day and don’t know what awaits us.”
Editing by Giles Elgood