Open Journal Systems

Marianna's Russian adventures

Garden of Broken Statues author Marianna Tax Choldin in conversation with Scott Shoger

Marianna Tax Choldin’s Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia covers a lot of territory: geographically, from Hyde Park to Moscow to East Bangladesh; ideologically, from Soviet “omni-censorship” to the less systemic challenges to free speech we find in the States; and, above all, interpersonally, as Choldin pays tribute to the people who have shaped her life: her anthropologist Papa, her twin daughters that temporarily waylaid her in her pursuit of the life of the mind, her Russian colleague and compatriot Katya.

Published in 2016 by Academic Studies Press, it's not strictly a memoir, as she says in the following interview. Nor is it strictly a study of Russian censorship. And because it's such a wide-ranging book, it might be recommended not only to those interested in Russia or censorship, but also just about all readers of this journal: namely, librarians and information professionals curious about the personal and professional lives of those who have committed the better part of their lives to the cause of international understanding. Choldin is, of course, the founding director of the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, and those who know her solely in that capacity may be fascinated by her work that predates the center's 1991 founding.

I've included the majority of our hour-long phone interview, conducted in early December 2016, but have edited some of Choldin's remarks to eliminate repetition and have edited the majority of my questions in order to give context to her remarks, often by quoting directly from key sections of her book.



Marianna Tax Choldin in March 2011. Photo by Kelly Ryan.
World Libraries: Choldin distinguishes in her work between imperial and Soviet censorship, noting that while they shared in common certain aspects — “writers were not permitted to criticize party leaders or the party itself, nor could they write positively about religion or portray citizens of the Soviet Union as ‘non-European barbarians” — they differed in scope, such that Soviet censorship “permeated everything and everybody,” constituting a sort of “omnicensorship,” a term she introduced in a lecture at the 1990 lecture at the Library of Congress. [1] How does censorship in today’s Russia compare to imperial or Soviet censorship?

Marianna Tax Choldin: It’s not as easy to answer as when you look back on something that’s finished, that you can study to see how and where it went. But no question about it: There is a new phase of censorship that’s not like imperial censorship and not like "omnicensorship" or Soviet censorship. It’s, of course, different partly because we have new technologies that weren’t around in those earlier times: the Internet, Twitter.

One thing that’s clearly being reimposed is state control; that is, control from the highest elements of the government. Unlike in Soviet times, no one is really bothering to say, "We don’t have censorship." They’ve gotten control of all the national level press and media, and they’re simply changing things.

I don’t see at this moment an elaborated system. Maybe we will. It’s certainly not talked about very much, but it wasn’t talked about at all in Soviet times. when there perfectly clearly was a very pervasive, thorough-going kind of censorship. In imperial times, as in other empires of the time, there was also no question that there was censorship, and it was talked about to some extent. It was something that was just part of government.

It’s been made clear to editors and whatever independent owners there still are of media that there will be penalties if they don’t start doing certain things or stop doing certain things. Many, many journalists, unfortunately, have been killed, and that’s kind of a deterrent for a lot of people. Various media and press outlets have been declared, for example, foreign agents, and if you’re a foreign agent that’s not good for your organization because you’re subject to various penalties and so on.

I don’t know yet what’s happening, and I’m not sure that my friends and colleagues in Russia know what’s happening because different things are happening in different places. The period of the ’90s were so wonderful in terms of openness and trying new things. A lot of bad things were going on too, a lot of corruption, but it was a time when you could experiment and try new things; it was a window that opened. That’s not there anymore in the same way. That’s discouraging to people who value freedom of expression and access to information and all those things that had become so important to me and are important to many of my friends and colleagues in Russia. Those things are not in the ascendance right now. Russia is going through a time of constraint and difficulty, and a lot of people are quite worried about this. It’s a tough time.

World Libraries: One recent discouraging development: Natalya Sharina, the director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow, has been under house arrest since October 2015, having been accused of “inciting hatred or animosity towards a social group by allegedly holding banned books in the Library." [2] She has also been charged with misappropriating library funds. Her treatment has been condemned by Amnesty International and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

Marianna Tax Choldin: It’s a shocking development, but it’s not alone. Numerous organizations that do the kinds of things that libraries want to do — museums and organizations that worry about the memory of people who died in the Gulag and so on, history organizations — are having similar problems. People are getting arrested, fined. People break in wearing black ski masks over their faces, wielding guns, terrorizing people. This is not the kind of thing that anybody who values open societies likes to see happening.

In the case of the Ukrainian library, it’s obviously tied to the situation with the war in Ukraine that the government of Russia has been waging. It’s not terribly surprising to make an example of this library that’s obviously not harmed anybody and a librarian that’s not harmed anybody. You make an example of it and you make others afraid. This is a known technique, and a lot of it, in my view, comes back to the fact that the supreme leader of Russia is a former, and maybe always, KGB officer. These are techniques that are very well known and were practiced very widely. It’s not surprising that activities that are sanctioned at the highest level of government might go in this direction.

World Libraries: Choldin’s description of censorship in the U.S. conjures a roiling seascape: “The First Amendment arches over us, while below it, like a vast ocean, are the whitecaps and tsunamis of challenges. They bubble up from the bottom, disturbances created by every variety of civil-society group…I have no name for our kind of ‘censorship.’ I tend to think of it as ‘from-the-bottom-up challenges,’ which isn’t very elegant. Our government, like all governments, does attempt some censorship of a traditional kind, mainly for military and national security issues….But it’s the ‘bottom-up’ variety that surrounds us and characterizes censorship in our daily lives.” [3] She came to her definition of American censorship after studying its Soviet and imperial Russian manifestations.

Marianna Tax Choldin: I write about how I, myself, had to focus on studying what our own situation is and what our own situation is because that was a big part of my then being able to talk to Russian audiences in a helpful way. Soon after the changes [following the fall of the Soviet Union], when I started going around Russia with my friend Katya and talking about these issues, the first question out of many people’s mouths was, "Okay, what advice do you have for us based on your system in the United States? You’re an America; you come from a country," they said, "that doesn’t have censorship." And I started thinking, "Wait a minute. Do we really not have any censorship?"

In the book, I explained what I learned from my vantage point from knowing so much about Russian censorship but not so much about what we do. I had to figure that out myself, and fortunately there are a lot of people who do focus on the kinds of constraints that we have. And I came up with my own answers to those questions that I got not only from librarians in the former Soviet Union but in many other countries where I’ve worked through the Mortenson Center.

Having had librarians coming from all over the world to spend time with me, I’ve gotten a better grasp on what I could say to them about our system and what might or might not be useful to them. What you learn right away when you study another country in depth is that if you put the same attention on your own country, you will realize that there is a lot going on that is not going to be applicable to any other country. Cultures are different from one another; political systems are very different from one another; histories are different. You’ve got to find things, if there are any, that are going to be helpful to another country in this area. And you’re going to have to reject a lot of what you’ve learned about your own country. And that’s tricky.

25 years of the Mortenson Center

World Libraries: Founded in 1991 with Choldin at the helm, the Mortensen Center for International Library Programs remains steadfast in its mission “to strengthen international ties among libraries and librarians worldwide for the promotion of international education, understanding, and peace.” [4] The center celebrated its 25th anniversary in October 2016 with a program featuring Choldin.

Marianna Tax Choldin: We’re now on our third director, which is wonderful. I’m very pleased to say that, under each of us, there’s been growth and development, award grants from various foundations and organizations, and reaching out to other partners in the world. It’s all going exactly the way that Walter Mortenson, our donor, and I sat down and talked about more than 25 years ago. It’s been rewarding to me and the Mortenson family that this has all taken root so well and is doing so well.

Twenty-five years is a flash, a moment, but it’s been a period of great growth and development. Libraries from all over the world have benefited enormously from it. We American librarians who were involved in various phases of the center’s activities of the years have gained so much from meeting and working with the partners in other countries.

If any group of people in the world ought to be working together, it’s librarians. There’s so much we can do for each other and can give to each other: in educating, and helping to educate, everyone from small children up to scholars of advanced age; in helping each other find materials; and, I suppose, most fundamentally, in building tolerance and understanding, which is exactly what Walter Mortenson wanted to be done with his modest funds. He always said, "My funds are very modest. I can’t buy any library all the books it needs. But with your help, we can invest in people. We can invest in librarians. And the projects that they will do will spread throughout the world to build tolerance and, eventually, peace." Walter was a pacifist. I think he’s right.

Of course, it seems like a drop in the bucket, but that’s how all good things are. There’s plenty of trouble and ill will out there, but as long as there’s also some cooperation, tolerance and people working together to make things happen, it makes you feel better! I think that the center is just in the early stages, really, after 25 years. Who knows where things will lead? What a new director 50 years from now will come up with? It’s kind of wonderful to think about. I still feel very, very strongly that we did a good thing by getting that whole operation going and that it needs to continue. And each director comes with a different background, different experiences and so on. That only makes you stronger too.

There are probably a number of reasons [the center has been successful], but one thing that I held to very firmly, and I think my colleagues that proceeded me are following this same path, is that, in order for any kind of good activity and change and learning to be successful, you have to make it sustainable. And the only way to make it sustainable is to get good people in other parts of the world who know their own situation, who know their languages, their culture, their history, the problems that they’re dealing with in their county; all of the things that make it possible to do something useful and lasting in your country. They’re the ones that have to really carry it on.

We can help, "we" meaning a small group of people in the middle of Illinois. We can make it happen by finding them; helping them to find us; getting together and figuring out, mostly from them, what they need; and then helping them to accomplish that. We at the center were always very, very strong on partnerships with sustainable partners, with institutions or individuals connected with a university, library or an institution, who could lead us so that we could support them with the kind of training or technical help or whatever it is that they might need that we might be able to help them do.

That’s how it’s going to go forward. It’s not going to go forward by a bunch of Americans, or people from any other country, going into some country and saying, ‘Here’s what we think you ought to do. We’ll give you some help but only if you do this our way.’ There’s been plenty of that, and there have been many well-meaning people who, without realizing it, have fallen back on that approach. I think that, not only does that very often fail, but it probably should fail much of the time.

I think the sensitivity to the expertise of people elsewhere and the ability to work with people in a humble sort of way, in a modest sort of way, are really key. I think the center has been really good at doing that. And when you don’t do it and you make a mistake…We all make mistakes; sometimes you suggest something and it turns out not to be a good idea for that group. Okay, you have to say, "Well, that didn’t work. What did we do wrong?" I think the center’s done remarkably few wrongs in that way. That’s why it succeeds; that’s why it gains the trust of funding organizations, of governments; and that’s how it should go forward.

World Libraries: In Garden of Broken Statues, Choldin connects her work with the Mortenson Center with her interest in action anthropology, a field of thought developed by her father, Sol Tax: “[W]hen I founded the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs and worked with librarians and their communities in Russia and around the world, I was influenced by his Current Anthropology activities and by ‘action anthropology,’ the field he is credited with founding, in which the scholar helps a community to achieve its own goals and studies that community at the same time.” [5] Would action anthropology serve others well as they go about their studies and lives?

Marianna Tax Choldin: I think so. It would be good for many people to understand a little more of the work that people in other fields have done in this area. Action anthropology has lessons and techniques, really, for a lot of us as we go out in the world and deal with other cultures. I was very fortunate, and, you know, to some extent, my own accomplishments, whether with the center or as a scholar, have been built on the kinds of lessons that I learned at my father’s side and in the community I grew up in, an educated community that was built on a lot of tolerance. I think that helps.

So we should always remember the people who came before us on whose shoulders we stand. I think that’s a useful lesson: Find someone who can help you understand a little more broadly where you’re going, what some of the dangers might be and what some of the strengths of the people that you’re going to work with will be.

I think listening is a very important skill, especially when you’re going outside your own comfort zone. Most of us think of librarians’ work as being more straightforward. You just find some information that somebody needs, or a book someone should read or wants to read. But everything we do deals with much more complex human relationships than we realize at first.

I’d suggest listening carefully to what people tell us and recognizing our own inadequacies without losing the confidence that we can do something. It’s about seeing yourself as an open book and not someone who’s telling other people how to go about something. Having the ability to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes is important too, and the best way to do that is just to get out there and see how other people are living and what their issues. Those are skills that are going to help most of us deal better with all kinds of issues: If we can be quiet and listen, and also offer our advice in a modest sort of way — ask a lot of questions rather than handing out the truth about things.

Growing up lucky

World Libraries: The second chapter of Garden of Broken Statues, “My American Planet,” opens: “North America is my home planet and Chicago my anchor city, but Hyde Park is the South Side neighborhood where I was born in 1942 and grew up and was the epicenter of my first twenty years. In Hyde Park we lived five minutes walk’ from the University of Chicago campus, where Papa taught anthropology…” [6] Could her life story, which found her balancing life and work, procreation and scholarship, provide a sort of model or inspiration for others, particularly in the way it assures readers that they need not follow a set schedule or model in meeting their goals?

Marianna Tax Choldin: I was very lucky, partly because the things that I wanted to do were common to the community that I grew up in. I didn’t have to break down all kinds of barriers. That was luck. People jokingly say sometimes that the most important decision you make is who your parents are. You can see that it’s a lot easier to accomplish some kinds of things when you have advantages that will make it more possible for you.

When your parents are supporting the kinds of things you want to do; when your teachers in school, your professors in college and everybody else you have to deal with say, "Yeah, that’s good, go ahead and do that" — not everybody has that. It’s not always necessary. There are people who accomplish enormous and marvelous things in complete contradiction to what anybody else around them did or does. That’s incredibly admirable, and it’s not that my way is the only way.

It’s just that it is possible in a setting like mine to take advantage of a lot of things and make things happen, and it’s also possible to let it all go and give up. Part of it is just realizing that even if you don’t think you’ve got the strength to do certain things, you might have it, you might have it after all and it’s worth trying. Traditionally, women have had a harder time breaking through some barriers than men have, although men have problems too. I think some women might see some helpful points in my story. Maybe it will encourage some people to make some progress where they thought they couldn’t.

World Libraries: Another chapter, “Bangladesh and Babies,” has little to do with Russian censorship, but everything to do with the shape of her the rest of her life: from creating a family to going a different route with her graduate studies. “Looking back, I can see that my year with the babies, like my time in East Pakistan, was not just a diversion. Those three years were important for my development as a Russian scholar, a library activist, and a caring human being. It was good for me to be jolted out of my trip on autopilot to a PhD; good to be immersed in a very different culture and language; good to be humanized by parenthood (Papa’s concept); good to grow up a little, to be anchored by other people, and not to think only of myself.” [7] I put it to Choldin that, if she was lucky in some respects, she certainly didn’t have an easy time of it when she had her first kids. To put it briefly, while she ended up having her twins close to home in Hyde Park, with her parents ready to help, her first few months of labor were spent far from a modern hospital in a small town in then-East Pakistan, where she had recently moved with her husband.

Marianna Tax Choldin: Those stories don’t always have happy endings. When you’re very young, you don’t think of the dangers you’re stepping into blithely when you go off to the other end of the world. It can end happily, but it’s also possible to accomplish some things a lot more easily than I did.

It’s interesting, I mentioned to a number of people that I had a bit of a struggle, first with the memoir group I worked with and then with editors, who said, "You know, that chapter on Bangladesh and babies is just not going to fit it. It’s too different from the rest of the story." And I kept saying, "You know, I really feel strongly that it belongs there, and I don’t know how I’m going to change your mind about this. I have to do it; I can’t just leave out that chapter of my life because it did have something to do with who I became and what I did later."

I just kept going back to the table and writing some more and figuring out what I really wanted to say here that connected that experience with the rest of my book, the rest of my memoir on censorship and Russia. Finally, with the last round of that, I had a wonderful editor who was helping me to tell my story as best I could, and I came back to her with the final draft with my heart in my hands. I was really worried about what she was going to say. And she said, "You’ve done it. You’ve convinced me that that chapter belongs there."

And I’ve had a lot of comments on that chapter, partly because it’s so different, of course, from anything that other people have experienced, but I think I must have somehow managed to make the connection because no one said to me, ‘Gee, that chapter didn’t fit in with the rest of your book.’ Somehow, I managed to fit it in there, so I’m pleased about that.

Broken statues, excised books

World Libraries: Choldin says she found the metaphor that anchors her book in 1997, when she happened upon a Moscow park filled with discarded Soviet-era statues. “Our world is full of broken sculpture gardens; every country has some,” she writes in the book’s final chapter. “Unlike the brilliant museums I described earlier, the ones that tell their brutal their brutal stories honestly, these unfinished gardens pulse not only with horror and sorrow but also with urgency, with the need to take down barriers, to see the past and the present with clarity, to show connections. They make me understand how very important it is for open democratic societies to give their citizens and the world’s citizens access to all of the country’s past, the shameful as well as the noble.” [8] But did Choldin know back then that she could build a book around this morbidly alluring park?

Marianna Tax Choldin: I knew that it was very important, really central to me, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to work it out on paper. I knew the garden in Moscow was central, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie in other stories that spoke to me. I wasn’t sure how I was going to put them down and how they were going to related to each other, what the actual metaphor would be. I knew I was going to relate to monuments, things that were broken as a metaphor for societies that were broken. It just came together kind of bit by bit. The final form of it didn’t really come together until I had been writing for quite a time. It came from deep inside, but it wasn’t clear to me until quite long into the process what form it would take.

My husband took the pictures of the garden, and we had no idea at the time we took those pictures where they were going to end up or what significance they were going to have. I just knew that in all these places that I was that were horrifying, broken places — filled with broken lives, broken statues — that I needed pictures, that someday I was going to need to use them for something. They’re not always very good pictures but they tell the story. 

This kind of image speaks to people. It’s supposed to. An effective monument speaks to you. We’ve all experienced that with a monument somewhere. The question is how to make it speak for you, to give the message that you want to give. All of us who work with any kind of images, we learn that that’s what we have to get on top of: pictures, statues, sayings, slogans, all kinds of things like that.

World Libraries: From a spooky park to the spooky stacks: Choldin writes compellingly of the life of the scholar, and the pleasures and perils that one can find in the stacks. Here’s a taste: “I’m about to enter the stacks of the University of Illinois Library in Urbana…It’s winter break 1976, and I’m going to search for two nineteenth-century German books…[that were] permitted for circulation in Russia only, with the excision of certain passages…If find my first Brockhaus volume, check the censors’ catalog for my instructions, and open the volume to the right page. I gasp! What is that in the left column, where my excised passage should be? What happened to the print, and why is the paper so thin?…I’m not a horror movie sort of person, but I can’t help thinking that I’m not alone on the tenth level: a ghostly imperial Russian censor is stalking me, laughing silently." [9]

Marianna Tax Choldin: I think the point to be made is that, in whatever kind of research you’re working on — and I doubt that it matters what subject you’re working on: it could be chemistry experiments or philosophy or a piece of music — you should always be alert to the possibility of coming across a needle in the haystack. You don’t know what’s going to jump out at you from someplace as you’re working on something. If you do know, it’s probably not that interesting a topic and you should look for a different one. You just simply don’t know what you might find around the next corner or turning the page. It may be a certain chord in a piece by a composer, a certain chemical that shows up in a compound.

We’ve read about scientists who had incredible epiphanies when there’s been a certain reaction. The same thing happens with humanists or social scientists, certainly to librarians. You don’t know what you’re looking for but you keep looking. It’s a wonderful process and it makes your life much more interesting as you go along. It’s a rich kind of exploration. I’m all in favor of people doing scholarship in the hope of turning up something unexpected.

You could probably turn things up doing any kind of research, as long as you’re alert and educate yourself as to what’s going on in a certain setting so that you’ll be aware the moment something shows up that’s not so typical or that may lead you down another path. Serendipity is a wonderful thing and that’s something that librarians are very much aware of, how you can be looking at two books on a shelf or titles in an online catalog, and say, "What a minute. Why are these two things next to each other? What does that tell me?" There are just a lot of ways you can be amazed by something that your curious mind will find. I suppose having a curious mind is a real advantage.

World Libraries: The censor Choldin described following her in the stacks eventually caught up with her — and, in a sense, became a part of her: “[W]ith the help of my internal censor, I sat in my study and really began to think like a censor. Simultaneously, I thought like someone who had been censored…I found myself understanding the censor’s role. “Aha! That sentence certainly has to go!’ I would find myself exclaiming. Why? Because it’s disrespectful toward Russian royalty, or questions the tsar’s power, or ridicules religion, or portrays Russians as what I’ve come to call ‘non-European barbarians.’” [10] Does she still think like a censor from time to time?

Marianna Tax Choldin: Yeah, you don’t lose it once you’ve got it. Now I think about what I’m going to see next. I’ve noticed it, of course, when I see the censorship of other countries, when I’ve read something about how the Chinese government censors things. I don’t need to know everything that a scholar of Chinese censorship would know to say, "Uh-huh, this sounds familiar." Being close to one system will make you sensitive to other systems. They’ll all have their own peculiarities and special features so it won’t be the same, but it will be perhaps similar or suggestive of something. Whenever I hear or read about control of expression in different settings, or when I look at Russia now and wonder what’s going on that’s new or different or what sort of cues are there, I’m tuned into that; I’m afraid I’m stuck with it forever.

It’s such an unpleasant subject, such a sad and tragic subject in many ways. But then, being an optimist and a generally sunny person, I say, look, the more you understand this, the more, maybe, it can be helpful to other people having to get out of a similar situation. Certainly, there must be some other, more pleasant subject one can take up. But people in my field [Russian history] end up with a lot of miserable subjects. It’s a history that’s full of sad and miserable and tragic things, as well as some of the most brilliant works of art and science. Nothing is perfect and anything we undertake in any part of any culture is going to have beauty and some extreme ugliness.

World Libraries: What is it about Banned Books Week — and perhaps other events or media related to censorship — that attracts such interest?

Marianna Tax Choldin: It’s think part of it is just shock and indignation. But the people who lived with this or live with it still today — though you have to have gotten out of it to be able to think about it — for them, it’s not just something that shocks you in a casual, amusing sort of way. It was something that really ruined your life in some important ways for many years, or if not ruined it at least made it extremely difficult.

I think Americans are, again, very privileged, as are others who live in open societies, that we look at some of the kinds of banning that has gone on even in our own country and say, "This is so ridiculous and silly that it makes me laugh," because some of it does! It’s absurd and you laugh. But you always have to remember is that there are people out there, even in our country, who are not laughing. The perpetrators are not laughing because they believe that whatever they’re dealing with really should be censored: It’s really dangerous; it’s really bad; it’s really wrong.

It’s not a bad idea to look at those lists which I used to look at very carefully, the lists that would appear in the Intellectual Freedom Newsletter, back in the days when, on the front page, there was a list of the most frequently banned books in school and public libraries. There was Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn every time, alongside several others that recurred every time. It’s important to take Banned Books Week seriously and to have other lists that show the kind of tolerance and openness and diversity that is healthy to have. Studying censorship is appealing in a variety of ways, but probably when we are taking it very lightly, we ought to draw back a little bit and think about what its deeper meaning is.

A memoir for the masses

World Libraries: Can you talk about how you came to write the book?

Marianna Tax Choldin: It’d hard to answer that because it just sort of came naturally. When I set out to write this book, I had in mind not a scholarly book as such. I’ve done that, and it’s not that I’ve moved beyond scholarship in any way. But I felt a great desire to let people who otherwise wouldn’t know much about Russia, or certainly Russian censorship, get a glimpse into what I’ve learn over these many years.

I think a lot of people, particularly in America, haven’t thought a lot about censorship. It’s so much less a part of our lives than it is in countries with very different political situations. Hearing about or reading about censorship in countries that are very different from our own might make one turn — as it did me, really — to considering what kinds of restraints or constraints we have on freedom of expression in our country.

There was material that I hoped would be interesting to a general audience that you don’t usually aim for or reach with scholarly material. There are things here that scholars have enjoyed too. But I thought reaching a broader audience of librarians, of course, but also of just people would be worthwhile and a challenge and kind of fun to do. And it has been all of that!

I started out close to home. In order to write the book — and I wasn’t sure what else might come out of it — I put together a small group of friends. We refer to each other as the memoir group because as it turns out, three other friends, really four, were working on some kind of memoir themselves. I didn’t know how mine would turn out. I called it a memoir and it is partly a memoir, of course, but it’s not only a memoir.

These were people who had nothing to do in their scholarly work or life activities with Russia or the Soviet Union. They knew no more than the bare minimum that educated people tend to know from reading the newspaper, seeing movies, reading Russian literature. That had no depth of knowledge, but they were all writers; good, heavy readers; good listeners. So they were extremely helpful in getting me to really make clear what I was talking about.

When you’re an academic, you tend to take a lot of things for granted that people will know. And when you’ve been in a field for many years, most of the people you’ve talked to do know this stuff and you don’t need to explain it. But when you’re writing for a general audience, you really have to be aware of what they are not likely to know or understand. My husband, who is an academic but, again, has nothing to do in his work with Russia, was also a terrific reader in this way. He could point out, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s not clear. What do you mean by that?’ And then you’d have to go back and fill that out.

I had some very good feedback, even as I was working on the book, from the memoir group and from Harvey, my husband. Since the book was finished, I’ve had several friends or people I knew read it and find it spoke to them very clearly. They weren’t having trouble understanding. They wanted to talk about some of things I was writing about. Of course, some of these are people who knew me well but didn’t really know that part of my life as well.

I think I’ve had enough feedback to tell me that all is not lost on the general reader. I’m going to be, in the next few months, talking to more general readers in a couple of bookstore appearances and a couple of reformed Jewish temples in the neighborhood. I’ll get more feedback, I think, and that’s good. It’s too late to fix this book, but it’s good for me to know if there are things that, for some reason, I didn’t explain clearly.

World Libraries: Anything else you'd like to say about Garden of Broken Statues?

Marianna Tax Choldin: I hope that librarians reading the book will get some sense of what my own library experience was. It was a little unusual but there’s a lot in there that I think was common to everyone who was working as a librarian. I think, too, something that I would like to leave librarian readers with is the idea that there are so many ways to be a librarian, and so many different ways to use the kind of education and training that you can get in being a librarian. Mine was not in the slightest typical: first a Russian scholar, then, sort of by accident, a librarian. But I was able to put things together in ways that were helpful for a lot of people who were in my field.

I’ve always told people that librarianship is a field that can be put to great value in combination with anything in any other fields. If you have strengths — subject strengths or other interests — find a way to put them together with librarianship and you’ve got something special, something extra. That’s not to say that there isn’t a need for right down the line, right down the center, good librarians and information people who will help work toward all kinds of different aims for all kinds of different kinds of people. There is, of course, but there’s also that stretching it, that going out to the margins and coming up with something that hasn’t been thought of very much, and you might add really special added value to the job you’re doing. It’s a big wonderful field out there.


About the Interviewee

Marianna Tax Choldin is a Russian scholar and librarian who studies censorship in imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia. Fluent in Russian, she has made more than 50 trips to Russia since 1960 and has traveled widely in the region, meeting with colleagues, curating exhibitions, and lecturing about censorship.



[1] Marianna Tax Choldin, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2016), 88.

[2] "IFLA-FAIFE statement on the continuing detention of the Director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature," IFLA-FAIFE, May 20, 2016,

[3] Choldin, Broken Statues, 153-154.

[4] "About Us," The Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, last modified April 7, 2014,

[5] Choldin, Broken Statues, 38.

[6] Choldin, Broken Statues, 1.

[7] Choldin, Broken Statues, 61.

[8] Choldin, Broken Statues, 177.

[9] Choldin, Broken Statues, 73-74.

[10] Choldin, Broken Statues, 77.

Copyright (c) 2016 Scott Shoger