Crowdfunding Saves Russian Village Librarian From Overwhelming Debt
29 March, 2020

At the end of January, Vera Savina, a librarian in the village of Shakva, located in the Perm Krai at the edge of European Russia, received a frightening letter. It said that she had until the beginning of April to pay over 42,500 roubles (about $640) in debt.

Facing a potential lawsuit, the librarian – whose monthly salary is usually between $75 and $105 – took on a second job as a firefighter, which earned her an additional $100 per month. Meanwhile, the local authorities suggested that her son “help mom out” by tending cows in the summer.

Hromadske’s partner outlet Novaya Gazeta tells the story of how their readers came to crowdfund thousands of dollars, to save this village librarian from overwhelming debt.  

Ebook Debt

The village of Shakva is home to just 300 people and located 130 kilometers from the city of Perm. The closest town, Lysva, is 40 kilometers away.

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

The library building in Lysva is closed for renovations. The paint is peeling off the walls and the plaster is cracked. Initially, the library employees didn’t want Novaya Gazeta’s journalists to film there. There’s a number of women working in the office, including the director of the regional library system, Elizaveta Zapyatya. She oversees the Shakva branch, as well.

The library employees take out the court documents, which show that Vera Savina managed to pay off her debt in full on February 17, 2020. But the question remains as to how she managed to accumulate so much debt in the first place.

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As it turns out, the village librarian racked up the debt because she had been downloading Ebooks for the library’s visitors. The local authorities installed unlimited Internet at the library in 2014 – but soon decided to cut costs and reduced their Internet access to just 100 megabytes per month. Every additional megabyte costs over two roubles and in September 2015, the regional library administration received an 80 thousand rouble bill –– totaling about $1,200.

Apparently, the Shakva branch had used over 30,000 megabytes (30 GB) of data and it was all because of Vera Savina. She didn’t even deny it: if readers at her library asked for a piece of literature from the Internet, she went ahead and downloaded it for them.

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

After negotiating settlement with the local courts, the director of the regional library administration forwarded the remainder of the bill to the librarian in Shakva. But now Elizaveta Zapyataya is worried that people see her office as the “bad guy.”

“Our institution had nothing to do with the accumulation of the debt,” the administrator explains. “I was given these documents, a court ruling. I wanted to notify [Vera] in advance, you understand. It turns out that good intentions can lead to this kind of [situation]. I wish there was adequate information. There’s no need to paint us as villains, we wanted to do [what was] best.”

An “Unthinkable” Amount of Money

In Shakva, two tractors are clearing the snow off the road. The snow is piled a meter high on either side of the street. On the way to the library,  there is a village house that looks like it just burned down –– you can still see the smoke.

The library is located in a room at the village club. It has a few shelves with books, a box of library cards and a desk with a laptop. Outside the temperature hovers around zero, but it’s so cold inside the library you can’t take off your coat.

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

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“Something happened with the circulation and now only one pipe gets hot, the others are disconnected,” Vera Savina explains.

Vera only works a short shift at the library, two hours a day from four p.m. to six. Nevertheless, she’s very busy. It’s Tuesday and a group of women from the village have met there to do embroidery. Vera downloads lessons and patterns for them from the internet and shows them to the group on her laptop. Sometimes she prints them out.
“We meet until April and then it’s gardening season,” she explains. “In October, we’ll start up again.”

Vera feels much better now that the bill for the Ebooks is no longer hanging over her head. “For those four years, I was exhausted, or something. [I was] all nerves,” she recalls.

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

On February 10, 2020, Vera published a post on the Russian social network VKontakte, asking for help paying off the debt for the library’s internet bill. She explained that she had been working as a librarian for over 30 years, but still only made between 5,000 and 7,000 rubles per month (about $75 to $105). She also attached the official letter from Elizaveta Zapyataya.

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After the news of Vera Savina’s 42,500 rouble debt emerged, Novaya Gazeta published a story about her case. The story touched readers from all over Russia –– many people were shocked that this rural librarian was being saddled with such overwhelming debt. Crowdfunding began immediately to help her out and within days people had donated over $9,000.

“Literally the day after the Novaya Gazeta article, in the morning – it’s kind of scary to think about – my son had my card and he checked it before work. There was around 500,000 [rubles],” Vera said. “Of course, I was scared. That sum scared me. I immediately wrote another post thanking everyone [and saying] I don’t need any more.”

“For me this is simply an unthinkable [amount of] money,” Vera continues. “I didn’t live a wealthy [life] and I don’t want to start. I called Novaya Gazeta immediately and told them that such an unthinkable amount had come in. I asked, ‘What do I do?’”

Vera was in shock but donations kept pouring in. “It reached somewhere around 600,000 [roubles],” she says. “I don’t know what to do next, honestly.”

“I’ve been dreaming about that”

Now, journalists and television crews come to Shakva just to interview Vera Savina. She talks to everyone and tells her story again and again.

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

“They filed a report with the police, they decided to make me out [to be] an economic criminal,” she recalls, explaining that the lawsuit appeared after a failed criminal case. “At first they wanted me to pay 1,000 roubles from my salary every month, but I refused. Subtract another thousand roubles from this salary? I said, ‘What will I live on?’”

Now that everything has been resolved, Vera feels overwhelmed by her good fortune. “I’m happy now. I can finally work with pleasure once again,” she says. “I am immensely grateful to all of the people. Who am I, anyway? A little librarian, some modest librarian in a tiny Ural village.”

Photo: Maxim Kimerling for Novaya

When asked how she plans to spend the money, Vera says that the first thing she’d like to do is help her neighbor, Nadezhda Kuznetsova. She’s the owner of the house that recently burned down. “It just so happened that there was a fire at [her house] yesterday. Now things are very difficult for her. I can’t not help,” she explains.

The next thing that comes to mind is investing in the library. “We need a new laptop and I’ve also been dreaming about buying a color printer for a long time. I asked for it, but they didn’t give it to me,” Vera says.

“For myself, to be honest, I’m afraid to spend it,” she continues. “Although I do want to connect the house to running water – I have been dreaming about that for a long time too.”

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/ Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Aleksandra Semenova. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.