Uzbekistan: Classics Turned into Toilet Paper

Huge quantities of old books are being pulped as a result of decrees forbidding their export and ideological purges of the country's libraries.

Uzbekistan: Classics Turned into Toilet Paper

Huge quantities of old books are being pulped as a result of decrees forbidding their export and ideological purges of the country's libraries.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Nina Ivochkina, 70, a teacher and intellectual from Samarkand, watched in anguish as a worker at a pulping plant ripped her favourite books to pieces.

His strong hands tore up masterpieces of world literature, throwing the covers into one pile and the books into another. Soon they will be turned into toilet paper and egg cartons.

Ivochkina began collecting her library in the Second World War, but now she has little other option than to sell her books for pulp. Recent legislation in Uzbekistan forbids her from taking them to Russia without payment of heavy customs duties. Her tiny pension would not begin to cover them.

"I've got to leave for Russia to live with my daughter," she said. "But I can't take my books with me as Uzbek law does not allow me to. Even during the Second World War, when we went hungry and were freezing, we preserved our library. Now I have lived to see the day when I have to sell my books to be pulped."

She is one of many Russians leaving the country as a result of changes that have made them feel less than welcome. Over the past few years, Russian language usage has diminished and, more generally, the minority has felt itself being sidelined.

Ivochkina tried first to sell her collection to a second-hand bookshop. They only took a few titles, saying the market was poor and the whole business was becoming unprofitable. She gave some to friends and neighbours, but there was a limit to how many they could take. She had no choice but to hand over the rest - including works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Jack London and Fennimore Cooper - to the pulping plant.

Uzbek law on the export of cultural valuables forbids citizens leaving the country for good from taking valuable books with them. The government says it wants to preserve the country's cultural heritage for future generations. The decree covers all literature published before 1945.

At the pulping plant, you can find new editions of Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, large numbers of medical and Soviet encyclopaedias, French dictionaries and pre-revolutionary publications.

But some say the fact that the government is not prepared to store books belonging to people leaving the country, and is indifferent to their destruction, makes a nonsense of their concern for Uzbekistan's cultural heritage.

Half a million volumes a year are pulped. The books are bought for 2 US cents per kilogram, taken to a recycling warehouse and then to the Angren paper factory, which turns them into cardboard for egg cartons or toilet paper.

The destruction of books has been accelerated by a ministerial decree in 1998. This ordered the withdrawal of all titles that failed to comply with Uzbekistan's "national ideology". For the most part, this affected those of an ideological nature published during the Soviet, as well as school textbooks brought out before the mid-1990s.

An instruction in the Samarkand province ordered libraries to withdraw more than half a million ideologically "outdated" books for pulping. The libraries were forbidden from handing them to other libraries or private individuals.

While the desire of the authorities to preserve the nation's cultural heritage is understandable, the results of this poorly thought-out policy have been catastrophic.

One Samarkand literature professor privately described the massive destruction of books as "vandalism", saying the Uzbek people and their culture would suffer most as a result.

"The cultural level of our people is already low and now we're throwing ourselves back even further," he said. "It will take decades to replace the lost books, which means a whole generation will grow up poorly educated. We will remain a country of small-time traders."

A Samarkand lawyer, Ilkhom Kadyrov, suggested that the law banning the export of old books violated the constitution. "People have the right to personal property and the state has no right to infringe that right in the name of 'saving' popular culture," he said. "If we were to act on that principle, we could start taking other personal items from people, down to their underwear."

At the moment, reading is in decline in Uzbekistan. It is largely a result of growing poverty and the widespread rejection of Soviet ideological values. But this is surely a temporary phenomenon. The day will come when Uzbek people will again want good books in their homes. By then, however, little of the country's literary legacy will remain.

Artur Samari is an independent journalist

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