Those of us who lived in the Soviet Union remember very well the painstaking care with which people set up their home libraries. Acquiring books was as toilsome as acquiring the shelves on which to line them and, sometimes, even color-coordinate them by book cover. For people of that epoch, displaying a fashionable shelf (Czech-made was then considered the best) and a difficult-to-obtain book was an elitist demonstration of social status and intellectual standing. Far easier to obtain (indeed difficult to avoid) were editions barely regarded as “books” – those volumes of works by Lenin and stacks of classic Marxist propagandist literature published to convince the masses of the superiority of the Soviet system over capitalism. There were plenty of those pricey mildewed tomes (still gathering dust today in vaults of the National Library) which left the bookstore only because they were sold bundled with highly demanded editions and, once outside, quickly discarded into the nearest dustbin. The price a seller would extract for a “good book” was the condition you also buy an expensive edition brimming with the “wisdom” of some member of the Politburo. That was a price we reluctantly paid to set up our home libraries, to exchange books with one other. For a Soviet citizen, a good book was a prized and precious commodity, comparable to foreign-manufactured cars, Romanian furniture, karakul furs, sheepskin coats, Czech-made toilet bowls, Salamander and Cebo shoes – all the luxuries which occupied the dreams of Soviet citizens.
I still visualize myself standing at the door of a bookstore waiting patiently for the appearance of my friend Dali Gogotishvili, who was – using modern terms – the store manager. She knew a lot about good books and always had one or two scarce editions set aside for me and my friends. Those books were mainly Russian translations of European and American authors. Dali set aside books for many students; she knew very well who was interested in what kind of literature. For us students of various faculties, Dali’s bookstore was a gathering place where friendships were formed from our shared passion for knowledge. It was a place from which we parted hurriedly home for our first encounter inside the covers of a new book with the same excited anticipation of a just-married couple on their wedding night.
Our interest in possessing a good book was so consuming that we had no qualms about boldly approaching strangers carrying books in the streets or on public transport to enquire what those books were about and where they got them.
Today, a book has lost its magical power. I recall a story I heard in childhood about someone in my village who possessed a legendary book from which peasants could foretell whether or not there would be abundant crops the following year. And not only that, the book could also forecast when the world would end. Yet, the owner of that book of revelation would never fully disclose the secrets contained within its pages, instead using an allegoric narrative to convey an eschatological vision of the future to villagers. Families which came into possession of that book – the Eprem Verdi – were endowed with mystical charisma and a preternatural gift for pharmaconomy-sorcery healing. No one outside those families was ever allowed to see the book. Nor did anyone know for sure whether those families really even had such a book.
One can debate whether a family library was ever an accurate indicator of its owner’s knowledge or intelligence. Did all those people who obtained books by hook or by crook ever actually read them? Maybe, maybe not. Still, there is no disputing that a good book in Soviet times was considered a virtual necessity. Soviet citizens queued up in long lines to buy a good book with the same purpose and perseverance they displayed in queuing up for, say, toilet tissue.
There is a well-known saying – “A thief of books is not a thief” – attributed to that leader of the proletariat Vladimir Lenin. Within Soviet institutions, stealing was not generally regarded as a shameful occupation, and that was especially so in the “sunny” Southern republics of the Soviet Union. Misappropriation of state-owned property was more the rule than the exception. In that occupation, Soviet people empathized with one another. There was an expression back then, “spoiling a place,” used to describe public officials who did not misappropriate public monies and lived only on their salaries. Such public officials were considered dangerous “intriguers” and others were cautious in associating with them. Stealing even had a pseudo-religious quality derived from the legend about the “fifth nail,” which was intended to be driven through Christ’s heart when he was nailed to the cross but which was stolen beforehand by a thief. Christ’s consequent blessing of thieves later helped to enhance the allure of thieves-in-law. (Having doubted that “fifth nail” legend from the first time I heard it, I reread the Bible with meticulous care and, of course, found nothing of the kind in any of the Gospels.)
Many people of my generation naively trusted in such aphorisms as “Read and learn” and “Read serious books and life will do the rest.” What some of us later came to learn, however, is that education is always determined by context and changing context can turn education into as useless an element of design as a color-coordinated bookshelf.
So what was the context in which a Soviet citizen learned? It may sound strange, but the Soviet context was very much like what German sociologist Max Webber called “Geistesaristrokratische Angelegenheit” or the issue of spiritual aristocratism. Education in the Soviet Union was the “issue” of spiritual aristocratism rather than its application. An educated person influenced by the political system not only gave no thought to applying knowledge practically but also had no idea of its intrinsic market value. That’s why those of my generation used the term “Temple of Knowledge” as an appellation to describe a rigid pedagogical institution which was supposed to sell knowledge and why, even today, they find offensive Max Weber’s observations of American culture expressed through the words of an American student: “[A Professor] sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage.” Cabbage and knowledge? For the market, it makes no difference what it sells – cabbage at the greengrocer or knowledge at a university. Both are commodities; but, as we were once taught, a commodity becomes a product only after it has been refined for sale on the market.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 108, published 9 July 2012.