Keeping a light on for them

SUN JOURNAL

Funds: The head of Georgia's National Library can't afford to pay for phone service or heat, but he pays for electricity so people can read.

March 14, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TBILISI, Georgia - As director of Georgia's National Library, Levan Berdzenishvili is expected to serve as guardian of his nation's culture, keeper of its collective memory and conscience for its political leaders.

But each winter, the 50-year-old classics scholar faces an additional challenge: staying warm. He sat in his office recently wrapped in a thick sweater, cradling a hot cup of instant coffee.

"It's very difficult to stay here," he admitted. "Sometimes it's impossible to work here."

The classical scholar runs one of the largest libraries in the former Soviet Union, but - like the Republic of Georgia - it is an institution in permanent crisis.

There hasn't been heat since 1998. As a result, patrons in the library's cavernous main reading room wear coats, hats and gloves. Phone service has been switched off for nonpayment for four months. Salaries for the library's 544 employees hadn't been paid for two months.

The institution last had money to buy books when the first President Bush was in the White House, in the late 1980s.

The library, like Georgia, suffered 70 years of Communist rule. With great difficulty, both survived another decade or so of corruption, lawlessness and governmental incompetence.

Now, political reform has brought fresh hope. But Georgia, like its main library, is nearly broke and in urgent need of just about everything. If Georgia's young democracy and library survive, it will be thanks to the faith and sacrifice of individuals like Berdzenishvili.

Like the Library of Congress in Washington, Georgia's National Library tries to collect a copy of every book published in the country and serves as a research center for legislators and scholars.

The Georgian institution - scattered among five buildings, most of them former banks - is also the epicenter of the country's artistic and cultural life. Historians and screenwriters have researched their books and movies here. Generations of students have haunted its aisles. In many Georgian novels, bookish young scholars fall in love over the broad oak tables of the main reading room. "Every educated Georgian was at one time a borrower," Berdzenishvili said.

The director of the National Library is as revered as the institution he leads. Under the Soviet system, writers, historians and humanities professors were required to preach Marxist dogma. Scientists and librarians could quietly hold independent views. "Which is why after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had good librarians but not good teachers," he said.

It also helps explain Berdzenishvili's prominence. He appears frequently on television, gives speeches and is quoted extensively in the newspapers. He has written a diet book, after shedding more than 198 pounds eating traditional Georgian foods. (It's a doubly amazing feat, considering Georgia's rich cuisine, especially its cheese-filled khatchapuri bread.)

Even after he was named to his government job in 1998, he continued to scold then-President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and other veteran Soviet officials.

"As the director of the library, I can say that we don't have a single confirmed case of any Georgian minister [of government] ever being a member of any library," Berdzenishvili said in a speech last year. "Many of them don't know where it's located."

As Shevardnadze's former chief of staff, Petre Mamradze often felt the sting of the librarian's mordant wit. Still, Mamradze said, Berdzenishvili enjoyed universal respect - and no one, not even Shevardnadze, dared to try to silence him. "He has a reputation for rather courageously saying the truth," Mamradze said.

The librarian is a close friend of the new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, a leader of the "Rose Revolution" that ousted Shevardnadze in November. But that hasn't prevented him from voicing his opinions.

After Saakashvili threatened to use military force to bring Georgia's rebellious regions under control, the librarian called for negotiation and compromise. When the new state prosecutor promised to crack down on corruption using harsh "Soviet" methods, Berdzenishvili said that those methods were best buried and forgotten.

Until Shevardnadze's fall, Berdzenishvili said his life was much simpler. Reformers could blame Shevardnadze for everything. "Why weren't things going in the right direction?" he asked, wryly. "Because Mr. Shevardnadze was not going in the right direction."

Democratic forces are now in charge, but Berdzenishvili says they have only about two years to improve things before Georgians decide that they, too, should go.

Born in Batumi, on Georgia's Black Sea Coast, Berdzenishvili became a classical scholar and an expert on the Greek playwright Aristophanes, author The Frogs and The Clouds.

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