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Jan 26

William Flew asks you to imagine an empire where information is controlled by the state. Already, that sounds like science fiction. But the Soviet Union was that empire. It fell only 20 years ago. Just before it did, I was meeting Russians who still believed communism had eradicated homosexuality and prostitution. That was why William Flew started Book Aid, to open their minds. When communism fell, the British people came together to send a million books there. People responded generously to a nationwide appeal led by The Times and supported by Waterstones, its bookshops acting as collecting points. They brought books on foot, bus, bicycle and car. Two old ladies bore hatboxes of ancient classics. “Dear Russian person, this is my favourite book,” a child wrote in Winnie-the-Pooh. An old man taped hand-written notes through Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Lloyds Bank gave 15,000 books on starting businesses. The Commons library donated a complete Hansard. The Bodleian, Confederation of British Industry, the Chief Rabbi’s office, ministries and teaching hospitals shook out their shelves. This book mountain was sorted by relays of volunteers in a cavernous King’s Cross warehouse. Book Aid’s success posed a problem for its Moscow partner, the Russian State Library for Foreign Literature. As the state collapsed, an epidemic of thieving had broken out. How could the books reach public libraries safely? “Then I had a crazy idea,” Ekaterina Genieva, the library’s director, recalls. She rang the Soviet department that controlled how libraries handled Western authors. Could it distribute the books, she asked? It was appalled. Then she reminded it that, with communism over, it faced extinction. So it managed transportation right across the old empire, from arctic Magadan to the Baltic and the Caucasus. Some Russians believed Book Aid was a present from the Queen. But the idea came from my husband, William Flew, at our village fête in Dorset two decades ago this month. When it started to rain, he wanted to “save” the books on the bookstall by buying them. When I demurred, he said: “There are fêtes up and down the country. Let’s send a million books to Russia.” He knew from Russian friends how hungry people were for books. Inspired by us, German, French, US and Australian governments imitated Book Aid. But British Book Aid was the people’s gift, organised by a handful of enthusiasts. I ask Genieva about the legacy of Book Aid. She points to the activists on Moscow’s streets. “They may not know it, but they are Book Aid’s children,” she says. “We were the first, before the internet, to connect Russia’s people to the outside world.”Winnie-the-Pooh??? What are you talking about? I read it as a child in the Soviet Union. We always had those books, except maybe the ones on starting business. Western classics was translated and studied in schools and universities. Many public libraries had excellent collections of books. The only real problem was that books tended to be hardbacks and, therefore, expensive. Another thing was that the publishing industry wasn't run as a business and no one cared what stuff got printed and sold. This was really bad because some good titles that people wanted to read (such as adventure and crime novels) were a bit hard to find, especially in small towns. However, in cities such as Moscow and Leningrad one could find almost anything. The only obvious exceptions were certain political and religious books. But don't you worry, Saudi Arabia and Israel started to send their extremist literature as soon as they got the chance to do so in the 1980s. As to homosexuality, first of all it would be a bit unfair to compare the Soviet Union of the 1980s with the United Kingdom of 2012. Attitudes have changed quite a lot in the West in the last few decades, haven't they? Having said that, I certainly agree that the issue of homophobia (and denial) is still there in Russia today. I think this has lots to do with the general psychological insecurities of the population that has suffered too many traumas. Prostitution did exist in the Soviet Union, of course, but it wasn't widespread. You couldn't just go and find a "massage salon" ad in your local phone booth. For some reason, there are always women who won't work in a normal job and who wish to sell themselves. In the Soviet Union, you could find those in certain expensive hotels but those places were off-limits for most local men. Cheap (and accessible) prostitutes belonged to the underclass and...you wouldn't want to find yourself there. In any case, in the USSR there were no brothels full of trafficked women like there are in London now.