From the shelves of the library, the old lady grabs books whose place she naturally knows. Orwell, Sorokin, Dostoyevsky. Authors who, for her, help to penetrate the darkness of contemporary Russia.
In the room, a computer, a few hundred books and the smell of perfumed oil, the one worn by Alexandra Karasseva, the head of the George Orwell library in Ivanovo, an industrial city five hours' drive from Moscow. While handling the works, Ms. Karasseva, 67, talks about their power: “Books serve to see Man, even in the enemy, and to reject any form of dehumanization.” A local entrepreneur and opponent of the conflict in Ukraine, Dmitri Siline, opened the premises in July 2022 with the idea of providing free thinking tools to combat propaganda, censorship and the prevailing climate of manipulation. Like so many others, he fled Russia shortly after, for fear of ending up in prison for his positions. But its small library, located on the ground floor of a building with broken walls and roof, continues to exist.
Ms. Karasseva presents the collection: dystopias, works on the gulag, contemporary writers critical of the Kremlin, Soviet political education manuals and lighter novels to “clear the mind.” None of these books are banned. They can therefore be offered to readers, even if, in bookstores, those written by people classified as “foreign agents” must be sold in packaging hiding their cover. Legally, Ms. Karasseva also always has the right to provide her insights. “The more dystopias you read,” she says, “the more freedom you have: they show you the dangers, the ways to avoid them, to resist them.”
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The librarian, wearing a turtleneck and thick glasses on her nose, is a well of knowledge whose pronunciation is made soft by damaged teeth. Her blonde bangs constantly fall into her eyes. She talks about Orwell's masterpiece, 1984, which describes the attempted resistance of an employee of the "Ministry of Truth" in a dictatorship extremely intelligent in its ability to subjugate and lobotomize individuals. She evokes revolutionary self-destruction in Dostoyevsky's Demons, the explosive dystopias of the Russian Vladimir Sorokin, the anti-racism of the American Harper Lee, the cry for humanity of the German Erich Maria Remarque...
Ms. Karasseva says she is a retired historian, specialist in ancient Rome, in particular “the transition from the Republic to the dictatorship”. Then, without warning, she shares her analysis of the movie Barbie (“deeper than it seems”). The American feature film was recently screened in the library's only meeting room. The smiling Dmitri Chestopalov, 18, was there. This activist from the opposition Yabloko party - an oppressed, weakened, but still legal group - goes to the library to watch films and meet other young people. “Here, we can grow, despite everything that is happening in our country. We can forget this fear, feel freer, feel comfort, feel that we are not alone in this enormous system that devours us.
Lawyer Anastassia Roudenko, 41, who co-founded the library, observes “signs” in Russia of the totalitarianism described in 1984. First, she feels this “fear that chains”. Then, she is struck by the relevance of a slogan from the book, "ignorance is strength", because, according to her, Russians who "do not try to understand what is happening live very GOOD".
On the central square of Ivanovo, near a plaque in memory of people killed by the tsarist power during an anti-war demonstration in 1915, Anastassia Rudenko speaks about her “personal tragedy”, her face swept by an icy wind . Her brother and her husband, career officers in the Russian army, are participating in the “special military operation”, the euphemism imposed by the Kremlin to describe its attack against Ukraine. She cannot dwell on the subject. The slightest sensitive statement could result in a sanction, even a prison sentence. Being a lawyer or a military wife doesn't protect her.
In June 2023, the courts sentenced her to a fine for “discrediting” the army based, as often, on a vague expertise invoking messages on Telegram where she said she had seen a documentary on the opponent Alexeï Navalny . Her husband was able to come to the hearing to support her. Of Ukrainian origin through her father, Anastassia Roudenko, a laughing and energetic woman, suddenly begins to cry when she talks about the “enormous pain” of being powerless in the face of the war started by Vladimir Putin.
But she loves her husband “probably even more” since he left to fight. And to those who would judge her for this dissonance and wonder why they are still together, she responds: “And what would you have done?”