The International Federation of Library Associations’ most recent conference was held in Moscow. After a peaceful, sunny weekend, we awoke to a gloomy Monday morning and the news that there had been an overnight coup. There were tanks on the streets outside our hotel, the Kremlin was sealed off and there was a complete news blackout.
During that first day, news was sparse. On television, statements from the Junta were read by wide-eyed television presenters and interspersed with a continuous loop of music from Bridge on the River Kwai and Swan Lake. The reaction of people to the appearance of tanks and soldiers on the streets was an angry one. There was little open aggression, but groups of people argued with the troops and urged them to go away. Yet we felt and saw in some of the faces the resignation of those who feared that this return to a hardline government could succeed.
How poignant seemed the words of the welcome address, that Monday afternoon, from Mikhail Gorbachev:
‘With particular pleasure I would like to greet you, the representatives of the most human profession – librarians, faithful keepers of books … and information. Essentially, the library is an international institution … [which] extends mutual understanding and contacts, provides wide access to information promoting successful cooperation between countries in political, economic and human spheres. I wish the 57th IFLA Conference participants every success, fruitful collaboration for the benefit of lasting peace and a free and prosperous world.’
These words printed in our papers were unable to be presented at our opening ceremony on that historic August 19th, as the President was under house arrest in the Crimea. But the conference proceeded.
That first night we still had no news of the fate of Gorbachev or the whereabouts of Yeltsin. By the following morning, we were aware that Yeltsin had called for full opposition to these enemies of the state and called for an all-out national strike. Support for the strike was small, but support for Yeltsin enormous.
That afternoon, I attended an emotional Russian Orthodox service in the tiny St Basil’s Cathedral. A message from the Patriarch of All Russia welcomed the ‘intellectual elite’ of the world to this international conference and exhorted us to support intellectual and cultural freedom, through provision of libraries and access to information. The heady incense-laden atmosphere, the deep voices of the priests resounding around the frescoed walls was highly moving, with Red Square outside deserted and lines of tanks pointed at the Kremlin.
None of us was brave enough to defy the curfew on that Tuesday evening, as the tanks rumbled away from outside our hotel and moved, we assumed, to attack Yeltsin and his followers in the White House. We had seen the barricades of buses, concrete and iron bars built by his defenders but we did not expect them to survive concerted tank movements.
Little did we know that just 24 hours later, the attempt to storm the White House would have failed, the Junta would have been arrested and the celebrations would begin. For us, the thousand remaining delegates from all parts of the world, our evening’s reception in the Kremlin Congress Hall, was overwhelmingly exciting. For the first time, many of our Russian and Soviet colleagues could smile and relax. Never before have so many librarians been united in their bid for international peace, freedom and professional understanding and cooperation; never before have so many librarians been stoned out of their minds, whether through emotional relief, champagne or vodka, I hesitate to suggest.
For us, who live in a society where we have frequent and relatively accurate news reports, living through three days of no information, partial information, hearsay and rumour, was unnerving. I realise now how easily we take for granted our press, radio and television. As professionals, priding ourselves in supporting free access to information for everyone, we were particularly disturbed and yet realised that this freedom is something that many are unable to take for granted.
We survived on stories: from colleagues, from people on the streets. Stories helped me to make sense of what was one of the most emotional weeks of my life. Stories helped me to reflect on my experiences. Stories helped me to share my understanding with other colleagues, with family and friends.
Many poignant memories remain: the silence of the huge crowd assembled to pay their last respects to the three young men who died; the crowds gathering to celebrate the end of the coup, laying flowers on the tomb of the unknown soldier; fireworks over the Kremlin; the lady who cleaned my hotel room, when I gave her the food, soap and chocolate I had not used. She hugged, kissed and blessed me, leaving me humbled and in tears. I had probably given her the value of a week’s wages.
My abiding memories are really of the people, their warmth and anxiety to have a true democracy, where their opinions are heard. They know that life will be hard and nothing can change overnight.
Most of all, I appreciate how vital is our right to information. How crucial it is for all of us to defend in our own democracy, the structures, currently under threat from central government cuts, that give us free access to information and books: the school and public libraries.
Judith Elkin is Head of the School of Information Studies at Birmingham Polytechnic. She won the Eleanor Farjeon Award in 1986 and is no stranger to Books for Keeps as the compiler of our two Guides to Children’s Books for a Multi-cultural Society.