To Russia with Trepidation
by Barbie Selby
About a year ago I received a phone call from a librarian friend at Penn State that threw the next several weeks of my life into turmoil and culminated in a very rewarding trip to Moscow.
The phone call was from Helena Sheehy, International Documents Librarian at Penn State. She offered me the opportunity to present two papers at an International Federation of Library Associations Regional Seminar on International Governmental Documentation in Moscow at the end of the month. The conversation went something like this:
Helena: Barbie, would you like to fly to Moscow in three weeks and give papers on the documentation of the European Union and the United Nations?
Me: Well, I think so. But my passport has lapsed. And don't I need a VISA? Can I get a VISA and renew my passport in time? And is it safe? Do you speak any Russian? And can we room together? And should we drink the water? And can I fly on the same plane with you? Aeroflot!? And are you sure it's safe?
Helena: Great. Oh. Yes. I think so. Of course it is. No. Yes. No, probably not. Yes. Yes. Well, I think so.
The next three weeks were filled with phone calls, faxes, and e-mails to Washington, Ottawa,State College, and Moscow; a trip to D.C. to pick up my passport; a previously planned trip to New Hampshire; writing my talks; fending off an overly concerned, though well meaning, seminar planner(not Helena); worrying about flying Aeroflot; buying a money belt; buying a pocket-book with zippered compartments; worrying about flying Aeroflot; picking up a few Russian words; officially applying to participate in the seminar;talking with people who had visited Moscow recently; worrying about flying Aeroflot; obtaining EU and UN materials for handouts; buying travel books;and worrying about flying Aeroflot.
I did successfully get both my passport and VISA, and on May 28th met Helena at Dullas to board Aeroflot Flight 703 to Moscow. Despite the announcement almost immediately after we took off that due to a "shortage of funds" there would be no in-flight movie, our trip over was as pleasant as an eleven-hour plane flight can be. I sat next to a medical student from rural Russia who had been at UNC-Chapel Hill for a six-month course of study. She was eager to talk about her time in the U.S., and eager to offer me advice and commentary on Russian life. Since she faced a twenty-four hour train ride once we landed in Moscow she tried to sleep the second half of our flight.
The IFLA Section on Government Information and Official Publications (GIOPS) has sponsored several regional seminars on official governmental publications and documentation.The Moscow seminar, co-sponsored by the Russian State Library, was, I believe, the third such GIOPS seminar. The four-day seminar included a day trip to the provincial capital city of Rysian, about two hours south of Moscow, for the dedication of anew Government Information Center in the public library. Our days were very full, lasting from about 7:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M.), with communal breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
The intent of these regional seminars is to enable government information professionals around the world to share ideas and expertise. Despite language barriers, the seminar included both formal, simultaneously translated presentations and informal discussions. Approximately fifty librarians and other information professionals participated in the Moscow seminar, the vast majority from Russia and Eastern Europe. I was one of only seven "westerners" to participate in the seminar.
This was definitely not intended to be a "how we do it good in the West" meeting. While the western librarians did emphasize the notions of government information being made freely available to the citizens of the nation,we also learned a lot about how Eastern European librarians are coping with the onslaught brought on by the fall of communism. We learned that European, American, and Canadian librarians think of"official documentation" as a much broader spectrum of materials and publications than do Russians and Eastern Europeans. Westerners tended to speak of the wide range of materials published by their respective governments,while the Eastern Europeans spoke of only laws, regulations,and official meeting records. Non-western librarians had some difficulty with the concept that informational and statistical materials should be available to, and could be useful to, their citizens. I suspect this has as much to do with the extremely weak financial situations of their governments as it does with any historical government censorship.
One westerner, Scott Armstrong of the National Security Archive, talked about the need not only to make printed government materials widely available, but also to pursue all legal means towards opening up government communications and decision-making. He talked about the Freedom of Information Act and his experiences in opening up the U.S. government and obtaining public, but not easily available, materials. While admirable and necessary,this particular talk seemed a very long way from anything that the non-westerners felt they could apply day to day. The cultural divide between the expectation of an open government and that of a less open government was most apparent when discussing the sort of information that concerned Mr. Armstrong.
During the four days, speakers from Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, the United States, Canada, Great Britain,the United Nations, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries outlined the state of and general availability of government materials in their countries.Excellent simultaneous translations were provided by two translators, one of whom had been a librarian at the Russian State Library for thirty years.Being simultaneously translated is very good training for speaking to a group. We had to have prepared texts, and we were encouraged to speak slowly and distinctly. Additionally, because we could hear the translators and could tell approximately where they were in their translations, we could pause at the end of a sentence or paragraph to let them catch up. I felt that this slower pace with some pauses made for better presentations, and I hope to always give talks as if I were being translated.
The seminar was a great learning and sharing experience, but even more valuable were the personal contacts we made, and the opportunity to enjoy a very foreign culture for a week.Visiting Russia is not like visiting Europe.Russia is still very poor, and visitors can't take for granted even"necessities" like toilet paper. On the final day of the seminar we visited several libraries, including the Dhuma (Russian Parliament) Library. We had had many meals in various locations by this time and had come to expect napkins which were often virtually squares of toilet paper. At the Dhuma we were treated to a wonderful lunch with no fewer than three very large paper napkins-an unmistakable display of importance and power. a
Our hosts at the Russian State Library, formerly the Lenin Library, couldn't have been nicer or more hospitable. Helena and I were met at the airport by a wonderful young woman, Nika, who had been an exchange student in Dayton and spoke English very well.Nika spent much of the next four days showing us the sights and telling us what it was like to live in Russia. Spending time with someone who was able to relate to us as Americans, and with whom we could easily talk-without needing to be translated or to speak very simply-added to our understanding and enjoyment of being in Moscow.
After Nika met us at the airport, she and our Russian driver took us on a driving tour of Moscow for about two hours. We were tired, but thoroughly enjoyed getting to see a bit of the city and hearing Nika's proud commentary on the history, buildings, and culture of Moscow. Only toward the end of the week did Nika tell us that she had been instructed to take us on this tour because our plane got us in too early to actually check into the hotel. We were basically killing time until we could check in!
We were staying in the Hotel Moskva, one of the first Soviet-era buildings, complete with hammer and sickle. Helena and I had a nice, airy room, with two beds that were much more comfortable than they appeared at first glance. We slept soundly every night. The western men on the trip were not so fortunate. Their rooms were as nice as ours, but most of them received phone calls late at night from "Natasha. " She always wanted to know whether any of them wanted "the sex," and didn't really want to take "no" for an answer!
One of the many high points was our bus trip to Rysian for the dedication of an Information Center in the public library. We took two buses: one for the group of people who spoke some English and one for the Russian speakers. Our bus somehow ended up about an hour away from Rysian at the childhood home of Sergey Aleksandrovich Yesenin, Isadora Duncan's husband and famous Russian poet. No one, including our Russian hosts on the bus, ever explained how the bus driver got so mixed up and far from where we were supposed to be. However, we spent a very pleasant hour in a small village at this countryside home, and then re-boarded the bus and continued to Rysian.
After attending the dedication of the Information Center, followed by lunch and an afternoon round-table discussion, we were given a tour of the Rysian Kremlin. I learned that many Russian cities have kremlins. They are simply fortified areas in the old central city. The Rysiankremlin is especially old and beautiful. Most of the time when I attend conferences I am scrupulous about taking off my name tag when not actually attending meetings. I had forgotten to take off my Cyrillic name tag during our tour of the kremlin. There were lots of teenage shanging around because it was the last day of classes and they were attending parties that evening. From one cluster of young men I heard, "Do'breeden, BA BA RA SELLBE. "Being the provincial person that I am, it really struck me that he read my name tag, sounded out my name, and said "Hi" (really, "good day"). I got one of those "it's a small world, after all" feelings, you know?