Remembering Moscow

The 57th International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)  Council and Congress held in Moscow between 18-24 August 1991 was a particularly poignant experience. The first day of the Conference coincided dramatically with the attempted coup d’état that was to unseat Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and ushered in unheralded developments that were to change the face of the Soviet Union forever.

Apart from the main body of delegates, I had been invited to join a small group of librarians representing 18 developing countries in the Pre-IFLA Seminar to discuss the roles of national bibliographic agencies in information development.  We were put up at the Institute of Youth, which we understood was, until recently, a KGB training venue. We were never able to establish the veracity of this rumour, but there were remnants of aircraft parts in sheds – unusual for a youth institute. The Institute was set amidst beautiful woods near the Kuskovo Ceramic Museum, and was about an hour’s drive away from downtown Moscow. Although some of the facilities such as toilets and bathrooms were rather primitive, our compensation lay in the sessions, which were lively and serious; and in the delegates, who were professional and knowledgeable, besides being very warm, friendly and caring. In addition to information, food, medicines, and basic necessities (such as soap and washing detergents, lacking in our accommodation), were exchanged with much good humour. Over the course of the Seminar, we packed in a great deal of work and activity. At the end of the week, the delegates, though separately speaking English, French, Russian and Spanish, in addition to their native tongues, had forged firm friendships; these friendships were to stand us in good stead in the trying times that lay ahead.

Our evening outings for dinner in downtown Moscow were eye-openers into the Russian economy. For the princely sum of about 250 roubles per head (about USD7 or M$20), our group (ranging from 8 to 16 persons) dined in restaurants like the Central and the Bazaar, which had floor shows to boot. Meals included caviar, red and black (that were actually labelled beluga and sevruga!), eaten with hot fragrant wafer-thin blini; entrées of smoked salmon or tuna; main courses of fish or meat; finished off with wonderful ice creams and coffee.

Moscow Photo 7

A night on the town (Courtesy of Esther Batiri-Williams)

I was glad for this week. It allowed me to see a little of Moscow and the Muscovites’ way of life, some facets of which fascinated me. These included surreptitious worship at churches, the flourishing black-market sale of luxury goods, dour long queues to purchase whatever was being offered; and the contrasting beautiful flower stalls in nooks and corners of the city, and the gaiety of wedding entourages in unlikely places such as the Red Square and the campus of Moscow University.

Moscow Photo 8.jpg

Group photograph: Seminar participants in front of Lenin Library (Courtesy of IFLA)

Day 1 of the Coup

The day of 19 August dawned cold and rainy: a proper setting for that historic day. As I stepped out into the corridor at 7.30 a.m. for breakfast, and then to board the bus that the Organizers had thoughtfully provided to ferry us to and from our hostel to downtown Moscow, my good friend Mlaki appeared and announced in shocked tones that Gorbachev had been deposed. Mlaki had the foresight to bring along his own transistor radio and had heard the news over the BBC. The news soon spread. It was the only topic at breakfast. Our librarian guides stayed glued to the local radio broadcasts (in Russian). We had never been late for the 8 a.m. bus; that morning, we did not even begin to move until 8.30 a.m. We agreed with our guides that we should get to the main Conference Centre to obtain further news. There was another reason why I had wanted to get into Moscow city centre that day. The previous week, a few of us had arranged with Madame Irina Bagrova and Madame Tuylina, two most knowledgeable and gentle lady librarians who were attached to the Lenin Library (formerly called the Lenin State Library of the USSR), to visit their Library. Among the libraries in the world, there are a few in the West that most librarians would give their eye-teeth to visit: the British Library, Library of Congress, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the Lenin State Library. I had visited all the others, and coup or no coup, I was determined to tour the Lenin Library with my Asean colleagues, Mrs Thara Kanakamani, Director of the National Library of Thailand (who had become a close friend), and Ibu Mastini Hardjoprakaso, Head of the National Library of Indonesia and dosen of the Asean library community, a friend of many years. Joining us was Kalpana Dasgupta, Director of the National Library of India.

Lenin Library.     The roads in downtown Moscow were jammed packed with vehicles, people and tanks: a most unusual phenomenon. In all of our earlier trips to town, roads had been clear and there were none of the horrendous traffic jams so often encountered in crowded Asian cities. Finally, after going up and down different roads we were told that we had to continue on foot, and by way of the underground metro. With the guides’ help, we managed to emerge safe and sound, after much jostling among massive crowds of people, into a park, to face rain and cold, in a tedious trudge towards the Conference Centre.

There were many rumours. Gorbachev was abroad; he was in his dacha in the Crimea; he was under house arrest; he was ill, or worse; his fate was unknown. The delegates gathered in uncertain little groups. At the Conference Centre, long queues formed in front of the two public telephone kiosks, as people desperately tried to contact friends, embassies, or call home. Apart from the uncertainty however, we felt ourselves to be in no danger. So, at 10 a.m. or so, we took the bus with our guide for our 11 a.m. appointment at the Lenin Library. For me, it was an unforgettable experience. Unbelievably, after years of reading about this famous Library, to be able at last to ascend its broad marble staircase, with beautiful decorative lamps on either side, to the catalogue hall, to enter the 130-year- old Library whose millions of volumes have educated savants from all over Europe, and indeed, the world. I presented Madame Bagrova with my offerings to her Library: the latest book on Malaysia, Malaysia: Heart of Southeast Asia, and my own Library’s publication by an eminent historian from our Faculty of Arts, Professor Khoo Kay Kim, Malay Papers and Periodicals as Historical Sources. I was satisfied to know that they too will join sister volumes on those august shelves.Moscow Photo 9.jpg

Catalogue Hall, Lenin Library

From left: Kalpana Dasgupta, Thara Kanakamani, Ibu Mastini, SM Khoo, and library staff (Courtesy of KhunThara Kanakamani)

It was not a good time to visit. The staff were not sure what to do with us, but eventually the Library’s Asian languages expert was located and he kindly gave us a short tour. We were unable to see the stacks, but we managed a walk around the old building. At the vast card catalogue hall, our librarian-guide explained that foreign-language materials were fully catalogued with author and title details recorded in the original script; transliterated and again translated into Russian: a triple task that few libraries would attempt. We were very impressed.

At noon, we decided that we should return to the Conference Centre in order to make our way to the Rossiya Hotel for the Official Opening Ceremony, scheduled for 2 p.m. We were still unworried. His Excellency the Indonesian Ambassador however, had earlier sent the embassy car to fetch Ibu Mastini away. We soon realized why this was necessary. Taxis, when hailed, refused to stop for us. Finally, our kind librarian-guide, in quiet desperation, tried flagging down private cars and vans. Eventually, one driver was good enough to stop for us and agreed to drive us back to the Centre for 10 roubles. At our quick acquiescence, he asked for 15 roubles, and again we readily agreed.

Thus began my longest journey in Moscow.

An Anxious Journey.      With my non-existent knowledge of Moscow’s geography, I had not realized that the straightest way from the Lenin Library to the Conference Centre went past the Russian Federation Council of Ministers building, in which Russian President Yeltsin was ensconced, and from where he was appealing to the Russian people to take to the streets, to go on strike, and to use people power to topple the military junta. The junta had despatched tanks to surround the building: at that point in time, machine guns were pointing towards the building, threatening those within. Just a couple of days later, they were to point outwards, protecting the building and those within, especially Yeltsin.

The traffic jam was unbelievable. We were stopped for long minutes, not knowing what was causing the problem. As we got close to the Russian Federation building, we saw some forty to fifty tanks packed close together. Several rather large Russian ladies, with paper placards pinned to their chest, had courageously spread themselves against the tanks, wailing and calling out their distress. I was very moved. For the first time, I felt the meaning of a revolution. As we passed the building, the driver pointed at it and threw a quick word at us: ‘Yeltsin!’  The driver locked us in. He had to constantly change lanes, weaving in and out of the tanks to get through. I became very anxious: we were having great difficulty getting anywhere; we spoke no Russian; we did not know the way. What would become of us should he decide, quite understandably, that he had had enough, and asked us to get out?

Fortunately, he was more responsible than I had feared, and fetched us finally to the steps of the Hotel International, right against the familiar statue of Mercury, that told us we had arrived. I was so relieved that I gave him 30 roubles (much to his gratitude and ours)! That first day of the coup was riddled with anxiety and uncertainty. A small group of us gathered in the room of one of the interpreters, another good friend, Jesús Lau, as his room had a TV set. CNN news appeared to be grimmer than we felt the reality to be. It was also a bit weird: to see the tanks amassed on the screen, and to know that we had just ploughed through them, and now to be able to poke one’s head out of the window and watch one’s environment ‘live’ on TV.

The Opening Ceremony. There was no official announcement, but from what we could learn, the Opening Ceremony was on. Although IFLA had begun on 18 August, the Opening Ceremony was held on 19 August. We walked through the park behind our guides and struggled through massive crowds (who were silently reading defiant notices put up by young resisters to the junta) in the underground tunnels. We anxiously looked out for each other so that no one was left behind, and finally reached the Rossiya.

Mr Nikolai Gubenko, Minister for Culture of the USSR and Chairman of IFLA 1991, an urbane, soft-spoken person altogether a man of many talents, to our admiration opened the Conference. His speech was understandably shorter than the planned original which was rumoured to be in fulsome praise of perestroika; but it was short and dignified. Apparently, he resigned later, but after the unsuccessful putsch was laid to rest, he was reinstalled.

‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Opening Ceremony was to be followed by a reception and a ballet performance, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, appropriately Sergei Prokofiev’s famous ballet based on William Shakespeare’s play. The Bolshoi was on tour. Another ballet corps, the Moscow Classical did us the honours. The auditorium however, had been taken over for a long drawn-out press conference and the ballet was delayed by over 2 hours. Many of us decided to stay on and wait it out; we did not regret it. The young dancers danced their hearts out, some say with tears in their eyes; and we in standing ovations applauded their spirited and talented performance. It was well past 11 p.m. when it was finished; the bus could not be located so again we took to public transport to return to our hostel.

Days Two and Three

The second day was no less uncertain. Talk of splits within the military fuelled fears of civil war. By then, participants had spent hours in front of their television sets. TV Moscow was quite serene, screening endless footage of football matches, ballet and light music! CNN however, available throughout, brought home to many the gravity of the situation. Invited delegates and paper presenters whose flights had been confirmed by Aeroflot, became ‘unconfirmed’ as the entire Aeroflot fleet had been commandeered by the authorities, whoever they were! The closure of all domestic airports, and the Moscow International Airport for a day (or was it only a few hours?) added to the rumours, and the uncertainty made people jittery. After President Bush’s open support for Gorbachev, many of the American participants felt that they should vacate a place that might be potentially uncomfortable for them. All of us by then had spent much time trudging in rain, wind and cold, getting to various receptions and events. To add to the discomfort, many were falling victim to coughs, colds, stomach disorders and other ailments.

The Malaysians: Mariam, Adeline and I, stayed in contact with each other and with the Malaysian Embassy, and it was a relief to hear their friendly voices. Their concerned voices urged us to balik, return to Malaysia, as they could not even get to the Conference Centre, let alone protect us. We considered their advice, but we decided to stay on as long as possible. To prepare for an IFLA WLIC, the host nation goes through much trouble and undertakes a great deal of preparation. The Conference catered to some 2,000 persons, quite a few had to be fetched from, and sent back to, airports. A full programme of cultural activities and library receptions; a diverse range of meetings and conference tours had to be arranged. Hundreds of librarian volunteers who could speak a variety of languages from all over the Soviet Union had to be mobilized. To realize all these activities, among undertaking many other physical and financial preparations, was an incredible achievement. Our Russian hosts had taken more than 2 years to prepare for the IFLA 1991 conference. We felt their sadness in seeing the sessions getting frayed at the edges as audiences became thinner and thinner at sessions, and often dwindled to nothing. Delegates were watching TV, waiting at the telephones; waiting for their embassy personnel to contact them, or preparing to leave. We felt that Malaysian delegates must not be seen to decamp at the slightest sign of trouble. In the event, Adeline completed all her assignments; Mariam and I stayed until the end of the Conference.

The Kremlin Reception

Those of us who decided to stay on will never forget the night of Wednesday, the 21st of August. Towards the afternoon, as I straggled out of a session, we heard the extraordinary news that the coup was over – Gorbachev was back! The news was amazingly uplifting –smiles replaced anxious frowns, lilting voices and laughter replaced whispered tones and rumours of ill tidings. We rode in a state of euphoria to the Kremlin Banquet Hall to an immense reception for over 1,000 people. That night, vodka, red and white wine were drunk in less than moderation. Hundreds of Russian colleagues from libraries all over the Soviet Union were there, many in colourful ethnic costumes. To the gay abandon of what felt like strong rhythmic gypsy music, sung and played, we joined hands, stomped our feet and danced, clapped and sang, and hugged each other in happiness for the Russian people. The phrase, ‘to the soul of Russia!’ floated in the air, and dispelled fears that Russia would be pulled back again to another age of isolationism.

Moscow Photo 10

Reception at the Kremlin

From left: Esther Batiri-Williams, SM Khoo, with Russian librarians (Courtesy of Esther Batiri-Williams)

When we left at about 10.30 p.m. we witnessed tanks begin pulling out of the city. This was the scene for the next day or so. Suddenly they did not seem so threatening after all. The grim militaire of a day or so ago were seen as they were, ordinary soldiers, some of them as Mariam observed, were mere boys–’kesiannya’ she said, in sympathy at their plight. It was a most unusual feeling.

Last Days

The statement made by IFLA President Dr. Hans-Peter Geh at the Kremlin reception described the situation for all of us:

Events of the past several days have made it impossible for the 57th IFLA Council and General Conference to proceed normally. Uncertainties about personal security, limitations on access to information, and disruptions of transportation to and from the conference site have become major obstacles to the work of IFLA in Moscow and have prompted early departure of a number of participants. We regret that despite the prodigious efforts of our Soviet colleagues to host a splendid conference, the current situation has forced us to modify the remaining conference schedule [IFLA Express, No. 6, p. 1].

We finished the Conference as best we could. Entire delegations had left. Sessions were a little ragged, at times lacking chairpersons, translators, speakers or audience. Many cancelled their post-conference tours. For lack of tourist support, I was forced to cancel my own long-desired tour plans: either a longer tour to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), or a short trip to the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bokhara at the far-flung end of Russian Uzbekhistan.4  Some groups, like the Asia and Oceania section, managed their meetings; others remained strongly to the end. I understand that the Art Librarians attended sessions in full numbers; the University Librarians held their dinner, though it was interrupted by the curfew; while the Women’s Interests session had an unexpectedly high number of attendees and was even able to forge ahead with the programme for IFLA 1992 at Delhi and at Barcelona in 1993. I was very pleased that the IFLA Map, Spatial Data and Conservation Workshop at my own Library was fully reported and all the resolutions adopted.

The Closing Ceremony. It was so good to see the Closing Ceremony on 24 August being held in front of a packed audience. At the reception, though only white wine and mineral water were served, there was enough good cheer, and we were grateful that our Russian colleagues had not planned entirely in vain for the Moscow Congress.

Winds of Change. During that week I was to visit the Lenin Library once more, in an evening reception on Thursday, 22 August. Traditional dances and music set a happy mood. But the whiffs of a new order were already weaving into the tone of the evening, and an odd sense of times past prevented my giving myself up to the gay abandon that had consumed us at the Kremlin. I posed with my good friend Esther7 next to the bust of Lenin, book in hand, looking academic and philosophical, presiding over the Library’s main reading hall. His other busts and statues were being removed elsewhere, and we were not sure for how long a man revered for over 70 years would now remain. Winds of change were being ushered in;8 my thoughts turned inevitably to Gorky and Lenin, activists and protagonists in a more successful revolution, and fleeting memories of what the Russian people had endured these last many years. Suddenly I felt very tired. I was glad to be going home.

Source:   Based on Khoo Siew Mun, ‘IFLA Moscow 1991: a personal perspective’, in Kekal Abadi [quarterly bulletin of the Library, University of Malaya], Volume 10 No. 3 (September 1991), pp. 14-20. Sections reprinted with permission.


1The Seminar was held under the benevolent but watchful guidance and supervision of Mr Winston Roberts, IFLA’s Coordinator for Professional Activities; he was assisted by Marta Terry of the National Library of Cuba.

2I learned from sad experience that while beef, caviar and vodka were excellent, fish was neither fresh nor well-preserved. After a dinner out on the town I became extremely ill while still travelling back to our hostel on the metro. But for the kind help of Jesús Lau and Lina Ernesta, who at that time hardly knew me, and who fetched me back to our hostel in a taxi, I should have been in serious trouble.

Jesús Lau: Senior Researcher, Instituto Tecnológico de Durango, Centro de Graduados e Investigación, Mexico. Lina Ernesta: Directrice Adjointe, Bibliothèque Nationale des Seychelles.

3Theosophilus Mlaki, Director, Commission for Science & Technology, National Central Library, Tanzania.

4In September 1991, I returned to the USSR to visit Tashkent, Bokhara and Samarkand. Kedah (a northern state in Malaysia), had just established cultural and commercial ties with Uzbekistan, and Aeroflot was making its inaugural flights between Kuala Lumpur and Tashkent. I took advantage of these fortuitous events to fulfil a dream.

5 IFLA Workshop on Maps and Spatial Data and Conservation, held at the Library, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 17-21 June 1991. Report of the Workshop by Thami Munisah Mohd. Yusoff in Kekal Abadi, Vol. 10 No. 2 (June 1991), pp. 29-30.

6See IFLA Express No. 4, and report by Hope E. Clements at Closing Ceremony.

7Esther Batiri-Williams, University Librarian at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji.

8A succint description of the coup and its aftermath is given by Margolis:

‘August 1991: Coup by Communist hard-liners fails after mass protests led by Russian                                               President Boris Yeltsin.

December 1991:    His authority fatally undermined, Gorbachev resigns.

Soviet Union officially dissolved’.

[Eric S. Margolis, ‘Sorry, Gorbachev didn’t get it in writing’, The Sun [Daily], 18 December 2017, page 10.]


In the autumn of 2012, I returned to Moscow on a short visit, before proceeding to St Petersburg, incomparably beautiful and historic. Some things remained as I remembered them: the solid sameness of Moscow’s buildings like Moscow University, the extravagant grandeur of St Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin and the Red Square. But so much more had changed.

The splendid Rossiya is no more. Gone were the ubiquitous queues of Muscovites lining up for anything that was being offered. Gone too were the drably-clad pedestrians, clutching bottles or tins in their hands. Moscow’s water is not potable; in 1991, there were stands of pipes dispensing drinking water freely to all.  In 1991, the GUM department store on the Red Square sold little else besides dreary-looking fruit compotes.  In 2012, I only could afford to have an orange juice, as prices of everything were astronomically high. International brands, reputedly more than a thousand, were all in evidence. Streets like the Tverskaya were packed with shoppers and well-dressed ladies obviously well above the poverty line. Most wonderful of all, churches that only saw the occasional surreptitious worshipper were open, and everywhere, crowds worshipped fervently and openly. From within, wonderfully sonorous singing and the music of organs often could be heard.

Moscow, and indeed Russia, has not only survived one of the biggest crackups in modern history, it has achieved a new economic strength that many countries would wish to achieve. Something had been lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union; but then a lot more has been achieved. It is from this half-empty, half-full cup perspective that we must view the Moscow IFLA WLIC. It is indeed true that in 1991, one could be forgiven for evaluating the 57th Congress to be somewhat of a disaster. With the wisdom of hindsight, however, we take a different perspective.

Like the proverbial phoenix, Russia has risen from the bitter ashes of 1991 to become the strong and resilient nation that it is today. In its train, a clutch of former satellites are developing vibrant economies of their own. Moscow 1991 is a reminder that IFLA shares with host countries different shades of their history; it marks the resilience of IFLA WLIC as an institution, and highlights the enduring nature of the profession.

Khoo Siew Mun (UM Chief Librarian, circa 1984 – 1993)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s