Dispatches from Chechnya
No. 4, November 13, 2000


GROZNY, November 13, 2000 -- When the Chechen Republic was first formed at the end of 1991, it contained a fairly well developed library system.  There were more than 1000 separate libraries, and the total collection of these libraries numbered nearly 11 million.  The Ministry of Culture oversaw 362 of the most important of Chechnya’s libraries, including the National Library (formerly called the Chekhov Library), the National Children’s Library, and the National Library for the Blind.  There was also a network of 109 scientific and technical libraries, a network of educational libraries that included three university libraries (at the Grozny Oil Institute, the Chechen State University, and the Chechen Pedagogical Institute), 14 technical libraries and 450 elementary and high school libraries.  There were also 30 trade union libraries.  A number of research institutions in Grozny also maintained their own libraries.  Especially important was the archive of the Institute of History, Language and Philology, which housed a unique collection of materials on the history of the Chechen people.

The Chechen National Library (the "Chekhovka," as it is still called by the people of Grozny) was one of the largest libraries in the northern Caucusus.  At the end of 1994, its collection included 2,648,000 works, and it served more than 18,000 readers a year (in better times, more than 25,000).  The Chekhovka was the only library in the northern Caucuses that contained a complete index of inventions patented between 1957 and 1991 in the countries of the Council for Economic Integration.  This index contained a listing of over 800,000 patents.

Exactly four months before the beginning of the military campaign, the Chekhovka opened up its impressive rare books collection to readers.  The pride of the rare books collection was the local publications printed before the 1917 revolution, such as the Labor Handbook of the Tersk Division of the Imperial Russian Technical Society.  In this same collection were some of the first materials published in Chechen using the Russian alphabet, as well as works from the 1920s and 1930s written in Chechen and Ingush using Latin letters.  Librarians saved many of these books during the forced deportation of the Chechen people in 1944.  Although the NKVD ordered all such books to be destroyed, some of them remained hidden in the library, mixed in with books in other sections.

The problems for Chechnya’s libraries began even before the war.  Beginning in 1992, the funding needed to acquire new books dried up, the government began to fall behind in its payment of librarians’ salaries, and the National Library was unable to acquire new books printed in the Republic.  By 1993, all of the professional libraries had shut down.  But despite these problems, libraries continued to play an important role in Chechnya’s cultural and educational spheres.

The military campaigns of 1994-95 were a catastrophe for Chechnya’s libraries.  By the spring of 1995, only eight of Grozny’s original thirty city libraries were left intact.  All of the major libraries had been destroyed, including the National Library, the National Children’s Library, the National Medical Library, the Central Scientific Library, all three university libraries, and all of the research libraries.  It was not simply the ferocity of the fighting that caused this catastrophe; the main cause was the fact that neither side showed any interest at all in protecting places and things of historical or cultural value.

In 1995 and 1996, attempts were made to rebuild Chechnya’s library system, but these attempts met with little success.  The National Library and the National Children’s and Medical Libraries reopened in temporary quarters, and the universities began restoration work on their libraries.  The technical and research libraries were never able to reopen.

By 1997 the Ministry of Culture was left with only a few dozen libraries and a collection of 1,800,000 works, mostly literature from the Soviet period.  The number of librarians decreased by 60 percent, and only one in ten had a college education.

The period between the two Chechen wars was also very difficult for the Republic’s libraries.  The government provided almost no funding, and the payment of salaries was delayed by as much as 30 months.  Nevertheless, left completely to their own devices, the libraries were able to demonstrate an amazing resilience.  As already stated, the National Library and National Children’s Library have resumed serving readers.  The former reopened in a few rooms under a grandstand in one of the city’s stadiums with a collection of approximately 20,000 books and magazines collected from various sources.
 One of the reasons for the pitiful condition of Chechnya’s libraries was (and is) that the leaders of the Republic did not (and do not) understand that libraries are one of the most important factors in cultural and educational achievement.  That is why in 1997 the "nationalist" government made the decision to cut the number of libraries down to 170, and why the current, "pro-Moscow" government has done nothing to help the country’s libraries.

The military campaigns of this past year have yet again cost Chechnya’s libraries dearly.  The National Children’s Library has been destroyed for the second time, the National Library for the Blind was razed, the National Library’s collection is down to 10,000 works, and only six city libraries remain in Grozny.  In Chechnya there are entire regions, such as Shatoi, where there is not a single library left. The libraries that have managed to stay open are not able to meet the demands of their readers – after nine years without the acquisition of new works, these libraries have little to offer beyond literary classics.  Libraries have literally been bled white – only a handful of college-educated and skilled librarians are left.  The few libraries that have survived in one piece simply have no money. The main national libraries are no longer able to fulfill their functions beyond providing patrons with access to literature in their collections.  Major regional libraries have similar problems; not one of them is able to fulfill its functions completely.

Because the population is still focused on the humanitarian situation in Chechnya, no one notices that a cultural catastrophe has taken place that will negatively impact development in Chechnya for at least the next several decades.  Rebuilding the Chechen library system will take many years of hard work and require substantial funds, meaning that the future of Chechnya’s libraries depends on the future of the Republic as a whole.  Ravaged and impoverished by military conflict, Chechnya is not capable of supporting a modern library system, just as under current conditions the Republic is not capable of supporting cultural activities, educational systems, or health care.