At the Russian Cultural Institute Rossotrudnichestvo in Kensington, on a warm Wednesday evening, 19 September, we sat and heard a distinguished panel of speakers from The State Library for Foreign Literature, based in
speak with wit, humour and penetration about their work in using books to build
bridges between nations. Moscow
And boy do they work – the numbers of books in foreign tongues they have published in dual format runs into millions and millions!
We were presented with some recent examples, which included a volume of John Keats – tricky stuff to translate into Russian – and Robbie Burns, which is tough for English speakers!
But one remark, from Ekaterina Genieva, struck me as both poignant and inspiring –
enjoying one legacy of the early idealism of the Bolsheviks in the vast number
of public libraries across the country, even in the most remote regions. Russia
Apparently, Lenin, inspired by Krupskaya, had said that everyone should be within walking distance of a library.
The idealism and egalitarian optimism of this ideal warmed my soul but saddened me too as I reflected how this idealism metamorphosed into a bullying dictatorship and crass censorship, but I could not help compare it to the stated aim of one of America’s great global corporations – The Coca-Cola Company.
Their governing strategy is summed up in the line that a Coke should be, ‘Always within an arms reach of desire’.
Here we have the most vivid contrast between political ideologies : Consumerism and laissez-Faire vs Communism and control.
I happen to believe that there is a middle way, but it’s getting harder to find people who agree with me, especially if they are politicians actually running countries!
Surely Coca-Cola is selling adulterated products and ought to be put in the dock?
And surly we can build public libraries without telling everyone what to read?
In conversation after the talk with Irina Kirillova from Cambridge University about her new book The Image of Christ in the work of Dostoevsky I heard the view that her topic resonated in Russia but not here, because there is no interest in questions about the image of Christ here. She maintains that you simply cannot understand Dostoevsky without understanding his struggle with Christ.
The same theme seemed to re-appear – a Coca – Cola secular west and a more spiritual east.
I think she is wrong, and that these polarities don’t amount to so much as people are much the same everywhere, but I hope these observations give you a glimpse of what a wonderful place the Russian Cultural Institute is.
An intellectual Russian will always feel at home here!