The Chekhov Library: A Mission of Freedom

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These days, we have no time to read, and books have become the symbol of the past. That is the message that modern society constantly gives us. Before we dismiss books altogether, however, we should perhaps remember that there have been many forecasts that they would disappear with the appearance of digital technology, but that has not occurred. Libraries and the massive contribution that they make to urban life is also easily dismissed, however those in the know, tell the opposite story.

The history of the A.P. Chekhov library on Strastnoi Boulevard would make Anton Pavlovich Chekhov smile. The library was originally created in a building built next to the Strastnoi Nunnery at the end of the 1880s. A connection with A.P Chekhov was formed right from the start of the library’s existence, because the editorial offices of the magazine ‘Artist’ were located in this corner-shaped building, and it was here that, ‘Cherny Monakh’ (The Black Monk), which Chekhov wrote in 1894 was published first.

One of the first of Moscow’s cinemas was opened in 1914 in the building, and from 1919 to 1938 Latvian ‘half emigres’ had their own library and theatre in the library. In 1938 the members of the club and the theatre were arrested and the library was in 1939, turned into a large library No. 81, which was subsequently renamed No. 64.

Return to Chekhov

In 1954 an epoch-making event took place: a directive of the Soviet of Ministers on 14th June 1954, renamed the library the ‘A.P. Chekhov Library.’ This was no accident, as this part of Moscow breathes of Chekhov. The writer lived and worked nearby. The hospital where he practiced when training to be a doctor and the famous MKhAT theatre in Kamergerskii Pereulok, where Chekhovian drama flourished, and where the writer met the love of his life are all nearby. Here, in very centre of the city, Chekhov’s seagull soars over us. It was the actors from the MKHaT theatre, in particular, the famous Alla Tarasov, who pushed for the library to be named the Chekhov library.

A machine gun in the window

The library, under the directorship of the first chief librarian Ksenia Pyshkina, adopted to the war as best as it could. These were hard times for the library. The library staff managed as well as they could, working without weekends off. They served the library’s readers even when there was no lighting, heating and in sub-zero temperatures. No time limits were placed on the working day. There was a machine gun in one window of library 81. People came into the library to find out the news, and inside, life continued as usual. Lectures and discussions were organised. A record from one of the lectures reads as follows: ‘After the lecture, two blood donors volunteered to give blood.’

The librarians organised mobile libraries which toured the hospitals and workshops, and also collected books for liberated areas where libraries had been destroyed by the fascists. After the war, the library played a major role in the psychological rehabilitation of soldiers and invalids form the front, it also helped young people and teenagers whose schools had been shut down, to finish their education and enrich their lives by acquainting them with the masters of world literature.

What is the ‘Chekhovka’ most famous for? For its famous literary evenings. In the 1960s on Tuesdays, special evenings with writers, so called readers’ conferences’ were held. Amongst the speakers were Yury Trifonov, Yuri Nagibin, Andrei Voznesensky, Bulat Okudzhava and many others. Photos from the most memorable of these events cover the walls of our reading room.

These legendary evenings were 100% organised by members of the library’s staff, who deserve a great deal more credit that they are usually given. We should not forget that at the time, creative initiatives were not welcomed, they were punishable offences in those days. Nevertheless, ‘Chekhovka’ managed to remain an island of freedom. The library became a sort of ‘passage to fame’ for unknown writers. If you could ‘do’ the ‘Chekhovka’ you could make it in the outer world.

Classics of the 21st Century

During the rapid changes of the early 1990s, social institutions didn’t manage to adequately keep up with the cardinal changes taking place in culture. A major change in the ‘global cultural decorations’ was taking place. Soviet literature didn’t comfort anybody then, and social institutions had no wish to embrace the only alternative – commercialisation. Libraries and theatres were run down. Then the idea of a ‘mission’ appeared unexpectedly. Russian librarians began to learn from the experience of librarians abroad, where ‘missions’ represent concrete goals and tasks that libraries can work for. Ruslan Elinin and Elena Pakhomova who were the directors of the library in 2013 created a new project, which was simultaneously a mission: ‘Classics of the XXI century.’ Then the library was given a new lease of life – it was given a new building in which the Chekhov cultural-educational centre was created.

But this new project was no simple thing to organise. There are no great prestigious literary awards and titles around these days which could give writers a certain status, and there are fewer literary stars available whose lectures would guarantee a full house. Now we have to find these new people ourselves.

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Over 3,000 books have been acquired as part of the ‘Classics of the 21st century’ project. The basis of the collection are books belonging to Ruslan Elinin which he began to collect in the 1980s. One of the main attractions of this collection is a series of 50 books of poetry, which consists of works which the poets presented at the club. Not only poetry, we remember that Vladimir Sorokin’s first book: ‘Marina’s Thirtieth Love’ was published by ‘Chekhovka.’ Many authors of the so-called ‘unofficial’ literature were published here, which was a bold and controversial decision for the library to make. The Chekhov library continues to break new ground, to allow progressive yet little known authors, and artists, the chance to speak out. At the same time, we haven’t forgotten the past. The library’s round table talks, dedicated to the jubilees of poets and writers of the XIX-XX centuries continue to spark interest in the wider community.

The internet gave us new possibilities to communicate and show our personal creativity. Sites dedicated to modern poetry and prose sprout like mushrooms on the web. But ‘Chekhovka’ doesn’t intend to become a victim of new technology. Quite the opposite, it uses it to its own advantage. Much of this is due the ideas and projects of its young leader, Elena Pakhomova.

In the past, the Chekhov library created a unique video archive of over 150 videos of writers’ and poets’ performances. In 1995, the library and the TV company ‘ART’ created ten films about modern poets drawing on the library’s resources, which were shown on regional television networks. The library’s current project: ‘ipoems – poetic videos’ is a continuation of this project. Now we have a collection of various video materials – films, clips, short films, connected with modern poetry in both everyday life and textual concepts. What is important is that ‘Chekhovka’ continues to attract young readers, viewers and listeners. What can be a better mission than to supply young minds with material that will become our reality tomorrow.

The library organises a host of other activities, which are simply too numerous and varied to mention here, however it is also important to remember one very important aspect of the library – its atmosphere. ‘Chekhova’s’ atmosphere has an inimitable friendly and homely feel about it. People do not spend day after day of their lives here simply to use free internet, but because they can get advice on the next book to read. In this sense, the librarians are doctors of a special kind, they simply know what would be the best thing for you to read next.

The library has been very generous to the ‘English Language Evenings’ and ‘Understanding Russian Culture’ evenings. The former provides a platform for foreign lecturers and experts to speak to Russian lecturers, professors and students of English about western cultural traditions, literature, current events, whilst the latter provides a platform for expatriates to find more out about Russian culture, from Russian experts who speak English fluently. The Chekhov library continues to amaze us all.