Russian Librarian Jailed Under Suspicion of Providing Banned Materials

Intellectual Freedom Issues, International issues

By: John Mack Freeman

One day last week, my husband got home from work and asked me what I knew about the librarian in Russia who had been thrown in jail for basically being a librarian. I looked at him like he was crazy and said that I hadn’t heard anything about it. And he said that he thought that was funny; he thought it would be exactly the sort of thing that those intellectual freedom people that I talked about would be interested in.

But, as I went looking for information, I found out that the story is all too real. Here’s what is happening:

Natalia Sharina is the director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow. She is currently accused of disseminating extremist literature that has been banned. The official charge is “inciting ethnic hatred and humiliating human dignity.” Sharina has been taken into custody, and the offending materials were confiscated by the Russian authorities. Via BBC:

The trial opened with a feisty exchange between the librarian and the state prosecutor.

First the prosecutor cited a long list of Ukrainian publications that are either prohibited or which she said experts had deemed “degrading” to Russians.

She formally accused Natalia Sharina of acquiring the books and brochures and a CD and making them available to the public.

“I do not understand the charge and so I do not feel any guilt,” replied the library director, dressed in a long cardigan and grey brogues.

“I ask the respected prosecutor to explain what actions I actually took to spread enmity,” she added, demanding to know what possible motive she might have had.

Mrs Sharina, 59, also denies a second charge of embezzling library funds.

europe-ukraineIf found guilty, Sharina would be subject to more than 10 years behind bars. She is currently blocked from directly communicating with reporters, though her lawyer says that they will be presenting evidence that government authorities planted the banned materials in the library. She has been under house arrest for the last year.

Some think that this can all be explained as a geopolitical issue. Ever since Russia annexed parts of the Ukraine in 2014, relations between the two nations have been icy. As such, it can easily be seen how magazines, newspapers, and other materials with a pro-Ukrainian slant may fall afoul of the Russian authorities. Via The Guardian:

The library’s troubles with the law began in 2010, when the interior ministry’s anti-extremism department confiscated about 50 books and a case on inciting ethnic hatred was opened. Since then, books on controversial topics have been held in a closed “special collection” so as not to inflame tensions, deputy director Vitaly Krikunenko said. Russia and Ukraine’s history together has long been interpreted differently in each country, and major points of contention include the famine that killed millions in Ukraine during Soviet collectivisation and the activities of Ukrainian nationalist fighters like Stepan Bandera, who at times collaborated with the Nazis.

Though this is happening literally on the other side of the globe, this is something that librarians and information professionals should actively stand against. Article III of the Library Bill of Rights states that librarians will oppose censorship wherever they find it. Article II states that political disapproval should not be used as a basis for removing materials from libraries.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions put out a statement at the beginning of September condemning the continued house arrest of Sharina, saying in part: “IFLA believes that the treatment of the Library of Ukrainian Literature, and its staff – and in particular Natalya Sharina – as completely disproportionate and unnecessary, and an attack on libraries and librarians. As such it is an attack on democracy, learning and culture.”

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that we are the American Library Association. Not every country has the freedom of press and speech that is found in the United States. However, the principles of free exploration and opposition to censorship are ideas that resonate around the world. As a global community dedicated to information and knowledge, it is stark that libraries have been put into play as part of the information war between two countries that have geopolitical differences. It is a reminder, however bleak the circumstances, that libraries continue to have a cultural power and cache and that they have a very real and present power to provide entertainment and enlightenment to people in communities around the world.


John “Mack” Freeman is the Marketing and Programming Coordinator for the West Georgia Regional Library. He is a past recipient of the Freedom to Read Foundation’s Conable Scholarship, and a 2015 ALA Emerging Leader.

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