MOSCOW - Crusades to yank despised books from shelves are bitterly familiar to Russians.
But the latest such drive here is being waged by a particularly perky bunch of thought police. And perhaps never has the effort to suppress speech been conducted in such uninhibited language.
Members of a mysterious and lavishly financed youth group, Moving Together, set up tables in a freezing drizzle at several busy spots in central Moscow for the third day in a row yesterday. Cheerful, fresh-scrubbed teens and young adults handed out an anthology of classics called Russian Legacy in exchange for works by modern writers the group regards as purveyors of cynicism and despair.
Moving Together's aim is to clear homes and libraries of supposedly unhealthy books. And as an added gesture of contempt, it plans to mail the suspect books back to the people who wrote them.
Russia struggles with endemic poverty and corruption, but Moving Together members have decided to wage war on ideas. "I think this lack of spirituality is the basis for all other problems around us," said Mikhail Myasoyedov, 37, a supervisor of a teen-age crew at Pushkin Square. "It causes the general degradation of culture and morals."
Intellectuals point out that the crusade smacks of Nazi Germany's bonfires of banned literature and the Soviet Union's suppression of dissident thinkers. The book return also parallels the recent closure of the TV6 television network - in both cases, wealthy Russians sympathetic to the Kremlin have bankrolled shadowy efforts to silence independent and critical voices.
The debate became sensational last night, as the leader of Moving Together challenged a contemporary novelist to read a spicy passage from one of his novels on live television - and the author obliged. To the shock of viewers of the NTV network's Freedom of Speech, writer Viktor Yerofeyev read his graphic description of an imagined sexual encounter between a provincial girl and a top Soviet bureaucrat.
Although Russian television flirts with nudity, rude language is not heard. Freedom of Speech's host pleaded with Yerofeyev not to do it. But the outraged author made a point of raising his voice when he pronounced some of his mother tongue's most taboo words.
Later on the show, he lashed out at Moving Together's leader, Vasily Yakemenko. "Stupid, illiterate people come and say this book is bad and that book is good," Yerofeyev said. "Who gave them the right to judge? This is a form of book burning."
Even some Kremlin officials are squeamish about the idea. Criticizing Moving Together's campaign, Russian Cultural Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi pointed out that authorities tried many times in the 20th century to control what people read. "All of them resulted in genocide and the extermination of entire peoples," he recently told the Itar-Tass news agency.
The book swap is the latest of a series of high-profile campaigns by the 2-year-old Moving Together, which claims 50,000 members and pledges allegiance to President Vladimir V. Putin - though the Kremlin denies any formal link. Although other youth groups have appeared in Russia in recent years, Moving Together is by far the largest.
To critics, it is eerily reminiscent of the Komsomol youth group of the Soviet Communist Party. Some call it the "Putin Youth," a play on Nazi Germany's notorious "Hitler Youth."
Moving Together's young shock troops have rallied for the Russian president in Red Square, wearing T-shirts bearing pictures of Putin's smiling face. Members conducted a letter-writing campaign against TV6's popular reality program Behind the Glass, condemned for its explicit sexuality and depiction of slacker youth. And they staged a "General Cleaning of Russia," in which youths took up brooms to sweep streets in 50 Russian cities.
In its latest crusade, the group has targeted the fiction of Viktor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin as well as Yerofeyev. Yakemenko has labeled Sorokin's books "pornographic" and slammed Pelevin as "meaningless." Moving Together also offered its anthology in exchange for the works of the 19th-century communist philosopher Karl Marx and all detective novels.
During the confrontation last night on Freedom of Speech, Moving Together's Yakemenko told viewers that he favored restrictions on the sale of dark, explicit fiction because it rots "the psychological health of the people living in this country."
Yerofeyev's books have been translated into 30 languages. One critic called Sorokin "among the first to introduce new languages into literature: the language of the street, the language of ... mass culture." Pelevin, winner of the Russian Little Booker Prize, was called "the freshest voice to emerge from the rubble of Soviet Russia" by the New York Times Book Review.
Support for Putin
Critical acclaim didn't impress 19-year-old identical twins Marina and Svetlana Grishina.