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Once-Proud Lenin Library Toppled From Its Pedestal : Soviet Union: Neglect and lack of funds force its closure. Its fate is uncertain.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lenin Library, second only to the U.S. Library of Congress among the world’s greatest book repositories, has fallen victim to such devastating neglect that safety inspectors have closed it down and its fate remains unclear, library officials reported this week.

“This library can no longer continue to exist without reconstruction,” Anatoly Volik, the library’s director, told a press conference called to bring attention to its plight.

Inspectors found that Lenin Library employees were breathing in 10 times as much dust as labor regulations allow, working under lighting up to 10 times dimmer than it should be and falling ill 30% more than average because germs flourish in the stagnant air.

After plans to launch a massive reconstruction project stalled, labor authorities closed the library building next to the Kremlin on Nov. 22, depriving thousands of readers of access to most of the 38 million volumes on its shelves.

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The library’s crisis, the daily Izvestia said, reflects “the total collapse of the system of official ministry protection of unique cultural institutions.”

The shutdown “threatens to paralyze the already-overloaded major libraries of the country,” Izvestia cautioned. “And so the system of higher education in this country will be torn apart, the foundation for fundamental science will be shaken and all programs of international scientific and cultural cooperation will be broken off.”

Although technically the Lenin Library was closed from without, members of its 3,000-member staff acknowledge that they are, in effect, on strike to protest their horrendous working conditions and miserly salaries. They expect the contemporary, 19-story building to remain closed at least through the end of the year.

The library has become so strapped that readers must routinely bring in their own bulbs to replace the burned-out lights in its desk lamps; book storage areas are crammed with twice as many volumes as they were built to hold.

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The Lenin Library’s books enjoy no better conditions than its employees, Volik said, and are becoming less and less accessible to readers. He said the library needs $150 million for renovation and construction, money that it has little hope of getting when the national government needs every penny of hard currency for medicine, food and technology.

Deputy Culture Minister Pyotr Shabanov promised that the library would receive money for emergency repairs that would allow it to reopen soon and for raises for its workers. “But those are only half-measures,” he said.

The Culture Ministry has been crying for the last decade that the library is in drastic need of repair, he said. Despite all the promises it has received from officials--right up to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--nothing has been done. “They always say there’s something more important when they’re dividing up the hard currency,” he said.

Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin’s government will probably end up taking over the library. But Shabanov said he has little hope for better treatment from the equally impoverished Russian government.

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As for private sponsors, he said, “In our time, they’re still a myth.”

If he had lived to see it, the library’s current distress would have been particularly painful for Soviet founder V. I. Lenin, for whom it is named. Lenin, who spent many an hour in the world’s reading rooms, got personally involved in creating a network of new Soviet libraries. It was under his regime that the Lenin Library, based on the rich Rumyantsev Museum collection, absorbed a wealth of confiscated libraries after the 1917 Revolution.

Those confiscations led to one of the Lenin Library’s current troubles--a highly public dispute with the Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Jews, who are trying to reclaim a collection of 12,000 books that belonged to a Lubavitch leader but were nationalized in 1919. The Schneerson Collection remains in the Lenin Library for now, but Volik acknowledged that he would have to give them up eventually to a new Jewish library being founded in Moscow.

Soviet press accounts of the library crisis point out that, if the Lenin Library had more powerful leadership, it would be more successful at squeezing money out of the government. Or at least, they note, it would have managed to take over one of the buildings that went up for grabs after last summer’s failed conservative coup, when Russian Federation and Moscow officials moved in on former Communist Party premises.

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Perhaps, some reporters suggest, it would be fitting for the library to take over one of the three huge, central buildings still occupied by the KGB, the security agency that has supposedly been largely disbanded.

Volik maintains that the problem is not in his leadership but in the lack of interest in the library’s treasures among today’s politicians. “Someone has to feel a responsibility for the library,” he said. “For now, it’s not clear who carries that responsibility.”


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