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5th Moscow Fair Feeds the Soviet Book Hunger

September 18, 1985|ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Long lines are a Soviet cliche, a feature of life, it sometimes seems, as ubiquitous and permanent as the ever-present pictures of Lenin. But the lines last week outside a glass-and-steel exhibition hall in a northern district of Moscow were something special, not only for their length, but their purpose.

There was nothing for sale here, no scarce goods like imported Czech shoes, no shiny vinyl raincoats from Finland, no Georgian cheese or sweet Vologda butter. There was only a display of books to be seen--at the 5th Moscow International Book Fair--and a sad vignette of life in a closed society.

For seven days, hundreds of Soviet citizens at a time stood patiently for hours on end outside the exhibition hall, sometimes braving a chilly autumn drizzle, for the simple privilege of looking at books. Not simply books, but Western books--from medical treatises on the pathology of the pituitary gland to modern American poetry to "Jane Fonda's Workout Book"--books that, with rare exceptions, cannot be found in Soviet stores or libraries.

Reading With Feverish Haste

Russians came by the thousands, not so much to browse as to read with feverish haste, to scribble notes and photograph pages, sometimes even to cut whole pages out of forbidden books, or steal them if no one was looking. Some who came spent their time caressing the pages of books on Western art and photography, commenting in hushed tones on the smooth texture of the paper and the richly colored printing.

Theft is an index of popularity unique to the biennial Moscow book fair. This year the Soviets imported an American anti-shoplifting system, developed by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., to cut down on the losses, but it was by no means foolproof. One of the first volumes to vanish was Fonda's illustrated exercise book, followed by a copy of the Sears Roebuck and Co. catalogue.

Like many other Westerners at the book fair, which ended Monday, Alexander Hoffman, a vice president of Doubleday Books in New York, found the scene almost inexpressibly moving, and more than a little sad.

"The hunger of these people for books is just incredible," Hoffman, an organizer of the American Assn. of Publishers' exhibit, said with a gesture toward the two dozen people crowded into the association's booth and the scores waiting in line to enter. "Look at their intensity. These people are starved for information."

"It's just marvelous to see them sitting here, reading as fast as they can, devouring these books. Some have even cut pictures right out of the books," he said in a conversation that was interrupted by a Russian who asked anxiously if, by any chance, there was a book on display about Walt Disney's cartoon animation. There was.

"The worst of it comes at the end of the day," he continued. "Some of these people have been waiting six hours just to see our exhibit. We have to close for the day and they can't get in. I can't bear to look at their faces."

In most countries a book fair is a purely commercial event, a trade fair for publishers and distributors of no greater interest to the general public than a display of industrial machinery.

In the Soviet Union, however, where access to Western books of any kind is considered a privilege, not a right, the Moscow book fair is a major cultural event, something you have to see if only because your friends will claim to have done so.

Like a Celestial Event

More than just a display of forbidden literature, the book fair is like a recurrent celestial event that for a few brief days once every two years illuminates the outside world as it really exists, in all its color and diversity, beyond the distorting lens of official Soviet propaganda.

"What am I interested in? Everything. Just everything," Leonid, a young engineer, said as he waited near the head of a 100-yard-long line outside the exhibition hall. It had taken him half an hour to buy a ticket and two hours to reach the doors of the hall. He said he would try to get into the most popular American exhibit--the 300 books displayed by the publishers' association under the banner of "America Through America's Eyes"--although that meant standing two or three hours more in another line.

According to official Soviet figures, 200,000 books from 102 countries were displayed in two large exhibition halls. (The country count, however, appeared to include the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union, each of which had its own exhibit.)

The popularity of the exhibits ranged from nil to crushing. Three bored attendants idled--lone and ignored--in the exhibit of Progress Publishers, which distributes Soviet literature and political works in foreign languages. Books like "The CIA and International Terrorism" and "Grenada: the World Against the Crimes" drew no evident interest.

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