State Libraries and Bloated Posts: Prepare for Information Overload

[Disclaimer: I got carried away.  I’m sorry.  Yet for some reason I just have to get this library off my chest.  Feel free to skim, skip, or come back later.  I promise they’ll be more catchy topics in the future.  Even if it just means sharing humiliating bloopers and stories of sketchy men (my life is so entertaining, that these are sometimes separate categories).  I’ll do whatever it takes to make up for the length of this post]

Taking you all back to last week… After what felt like both an incredibly long and miraculously fast week, it was suddenly the weekend, which was to begin with a group excursion. Our destination: the Russian State Library in the Name of Lenin. (I have since been told that it’s actually conversationally called “Leninka” ‘little Lenin’ by Muscovites). Our program had arranged a tour, and while attendance was voluntary, I felt like I didn’t have a good enough excuse to duck out, plus, who knows, maybe there’d be something interesting in Russia’s largest library.

Why the dragging of my heels?

Because it was our day off,

And I’m lazy by temperament…

Even more than lazy, I’m hopelessly averse to group activities.

And even though I still spring out of bed by 7am when the sun beats a wide path through my curtains, I told myself I could have slept in.

But I went. I was also curious to get a glimpse of the notorious informational abyss that provokes only groans and signs from my colleagues who’ve actually try to research there. A few from the group have grappled for access to its vast and tightly controlled archive and concurred that it is one of the most difficult places to work. All movement requires multiple copies of concretely documented permission, books apparently take forever to get processed, which you can’t take them out of the library anyway, which leaves you fighting for a space to work where its quiet, and you won’t be hit on by some ne’er-do-well. Or so I was told.

With all this in mind, I got my act together to scope it out myself, and we’re all about to have a little more trivia in our back pocket as a result of it.

The Leninka is a large building, more like a complex of buildings, which fills up a large, central city block not far from the Kremlin. The plaza in front of it is fitted with a large statue of Dostoevsky seated, looking ever-so pensive and slightly discontent, as he is often wont to do.

Dostoevsky in Front of the Leninka

To have a brooding Dostoevsky in front is appropriate aesthetically and thematically, I figure. Foremost, having a great writer (and reader!) in front of a library only makes sense. However, the library is named after Lenin, and more and more recently, I’ve been seeing apparitions of public memorials that look like Dostoevsky AND Lenin from a distance. Oh dear reader, I’m not joking you. Either it’s my contacts, my sanity (a la some Dostoevskian Double or Gogolian fright) or there is a creepy similarity between the heads of Dostoevsky and Lenin when expressed in bronze. The prominent foreheads, the piercing eyes, the varying degrees of chin-hair…Of course, Lenin normally has much better posture, but they do have some resemblance when seated, curled up with a book, I reckon. But again, chances are high that I’m just having Russification hallucinations…bear with me.

Inside the library, we were met by our tour guide, a very friendly middle-aged woman who has worked at the library for at least 20 years, and who energetically and very informatively led us through the complex for the better part of an hour and a half. We had only but barely stepped through security (practically every public entrance—malls, grocery stores, school buildings—has security guards and metal detectors) when we came to the first item of interest: A memorial to those fallen in World War II.

Now, all over Moscow there are memorials in honor of World War II, the war feels much more salient and haunting here than in America. It’s in the back of everyone’s collective mind in a way that I’ve never noticed in the America I know (and granted, there are many I don’t know). Obviously, Russia also lost many many more men than us, was literally underseige for years, its whole way of life and social organization was radically impacted by the war. It was also the great victory—like Russia’s defeat of Napoleon—that established Russia as the defender of all Europe, as well as it own defender. Still… Seeing statues, eternal flames, and plaques dotted throughout the cityscape, I often wonder if the purges and famine that were contemporaneous to the war, and which then followed in “peacetime,” are perhaps the unspoken, but insistent addendums to the countless memorials throughout the city. Does the explicit remembrance of the sacrifices through 1944 carry with it the remembrance of all the sacrifices in its wake?

This memorial was quite simple, limited to just the wall of the stairway landing. It was comprised of two marble plaques full of names, and then thigh-high vases of flowers below. The plaques read:


There were maybe 200-250 names on the plaques and the flowers placed beneath were obviously very fresh and quite intentionally arranged. Our guide explained that the it was important for everyone working there to remember those librarians sent to the Front. She paused to let us imagine for ourselves some humble librarian trading in card catalogs for a rusty rifle, then led us upstairs to the Special Collection.

“FROM THE LIBRARY TO THE FRONT” sent a chill down my spine for some reason. There’s a memorial to those fallen in WWII right outside the Philological Faculty where I have class everyday —three ghastly cement obelisks jutting out from the ground protecting an oft-but-not-eternal flame at their base. But, in all honesty, that piece affects me about as much as the statue of Walt Whitman, which is also nearby. Which is to say, almost not at all. But these two plaques and their gerbera daisies stared at me.  Perhaps it’s because a library is so very much not the Front, and my vision of meek, erudite Russian librarians is so incongruous with the image of Soviet soldiers, that I particularly shuttered for the those conscripted to fight on the eastern front in the early 40’s.  To leave a library for the Front is to leave the most bucolic of urban spaces for the most violent and lawless of places, for a complete inversion of reality.  But I guess the reality is that war is always an inversion, so the Library only naively occupies some sacred place in my mind, above the catastrophe of modern history.  But I digress, and you all are all wondering—I can sense it–how this bohemouth sanctuary of books even came about in the first place…

So before I wax poetic about the Special Collection (by poetic, I mean nerdish), a (kinda) brief history of the Russian State Library in the Name of Lenin:

Back in the early 1800’s, one very important, very Educated aristocrat named Count Nikolay Rumyantsev was employed in a number of pretigious posts, include Chancellor of Russia (what that means, I don’t know. Maybe its like being a Vizier, but not evil like Jafar in Aladdin, who is the only Vizier that springs to mind….). Count Rumyantev traveled all his life, collecting from everywhere he went, and built a sizeable collection in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As per his will, he donated his very large collection of books, maps, prints, fossils and curios to the State. This collection was supplemented with the works of other Educated and Magnimous Aristocrats, and grew to be quite a point of national pride. However, St. Petersburg was apparently over-saturated with goodies, and the collection was moved to Moscow in 1862, as the people of Moscow did not yet have a free and public library. This move itself is evidence of the strangely competitive, slightly symbiotic sibling relationship between St. Petersburg and Moscow, who have often been consigned to sharing their favorite toys with each other when instructed to do so by Father Tsar or other well-intending elders.

The library was initially housed in the Pashkov mansion in Moscow, but as the collection grew, a new building—where yours truly trooped around—was built, and many parts of the collection (fine art, mineral samples and fossils) were sent to other appropriate museums. Thanks to the State’s massive acquistion of private property with the Bolshevik Revolution, the collection was really something to brag abut now (hey, you can’t take it with you!) and bursting at the seams in the old building. The design for the new building was the result of much study—architects considered the plans for all the major European libraries and gleaned what they considered to be the advantages of those, and melded them into one giant building in the style of “modernized neoclassicalsim” which is to say, it just barely escaped without becoming some terrifying symbol of Soviet modernism. It has the pomp and circumstance that’s fitting to a great (Soviet) hall of learning, but not too much pretense or glitz, so its neither distracting or overbearing. Not everything is shiny marble and red either, which is nice.  The only really silly Soviet thing in the whole place is a mural in the Great Reading Hall.  The mural isn’t terrible–its huge and in the classical Soviet style, but its just silly it shows about ten different montages of people hard at work for the State, and NONE of them are reading.  There’s a rocket, a mountain lair, a science lab, a manual laborer.  But no readers.  I guess its there as a subliminal message to everyone sitting on their butts with a book that the rest of society is out building rocket ships and extracting minerals…

The library was renamed after Lenin in 1925, shortly after he died, leaving his young Soviet project in the lurch (true, his soul and mind departed this world, but don’t worry, his body is still in tact under glass, like poor Snow White just waiting for a kiss).

From its inception, the library was hugely popular, and the only place of its kind by far in all of Moscow. The tour guide showed us pictures of long lines of men waiting to get into the new building library in 1926. Every single book published in the Soviet Union was added to collection, giving occasion for a few more expansions over the following decades. While they squeezed in more shelving, seating was a perennial problem. The long lines of visitors continued up until the almost-present. Our guide remarked, sadly, that she could remember for years coming to work in the morning to see a snaking queue of patrons, itching to run inside and claim a seat.  Nowadays, there’s almost always a free seat somewhere, leading her to surmise that reading is receding from national interest…

What are people up to instead of cultivating their minds? “Doing business, I figure,” was her answer. Oh Moscow, what are you thinking? Don’t you know an egghead is so much sexier than a businessman?! But I’m just being biased now…

As our tour wandered through the stacks, the processing rooms, and various exhibition halls, it was evident that being a librarian in the Leninka is very much a women’s job. I’m not sure if we saw a single male employee. But it wasn’t always so. Until the Revolution, we learned, all the librarians were men, all of the aristocratic class, very Educated, very Esteemed. While they were actually in charge of the library, the task of cataloging fell to those of a “lower social class”—i.e. women. That’s right, the incredibly large card catalog collection—still used today!—was written almost entirely by women, by hand. As we stood inside one of the main card catalog rooms, the guide reached over, pulled out a drawer, and grabbed a card from the middle of the box. Sure enough, it was written in a meticulous, slanted, unmistakably female hand. There are millions more where that came from!

Even before I knew I was surrounded by thousands of handwritten notes by ladies of the past, the card catalog room was entrancing.  I imagine that standing in a sprawling room with row after row of wooden drawers, some new drawers stacked atop old fixtures, each packed with little squares of information, is the closest thing I’ll ever get to standing inside a computer, albeit one adorned with houseplants….All this, I thought ruefully, all those beautiful letters and thoughtful labor, this entire room will be transfered to a disk that can fit in my palm. But probably not anytime soon. As of right now only about ten percent of the enourmous collection (we’re talking 40 million PLUS items in total!) is electronically registered. The rest remains to be done at a pace that could only be best described as leisurely.

Its not just the card catalog that’s keeping it old school. The library also boasts a cataloging system that isn’t used anywhere else, so their records are only compatible with, well, their own records. Add to that the fact that the public isn’t allowed into the stacks, and you have a system where people have to figure out the author of the book they want provided that its not in the electronic system (the card catalog is alphabetic by author, ) and then physically walk through rows of cards to look up the book’s position. Even if the book is in the electronic system, the eletronic system actually brings up a SCAN of the orignal card catalog (this I learned through hearsay, just fyi..). So no clicking on a call number to see what else you’ll find. And no wandering the stacks checking out the neighborhood of your subject area. Nope, you just fill out the request below, and wait for the paper trail to evolve into a book…

I included a shot of the back of book request form, because I’m pretty sure its an ad for milk.  I’m not sure if the library sells ad space on Request Slips to make money, or if they print on the back sides of old ads to save money…we may never know. But I wanted to share that detail nevertheless.

Back to topics at hand….While women were on just about equal footing with the men by the twenties, they had one more moment of exclusive labor in the history of the library—they were the ones who boxed the contents of the library in 1941 and prepared it for evacuation. Amazingly, the entire collection was returned to Moscow after the war, perfectly in tact.

Uh-oh, I can your sighs of patient boredom.  Don’t worry, no gender-labor theories yet!  Just more history!  The photographic exhibiton of the library’s history (which is the source of much of my information) wasn’t just photos of long lines and ladies working. That, I think, was simply the gist of the 1920’s. And 1930’s. And 1940’s…. There was also a great deal of material on the directors of the library, a position of great political and cultural prestige. One case displayed a portrait of every director to grace the library. It was a pretty fabulous sketch of what you looked like if you were in power over the past 150 years in Russia.

First, men with big mustaches in military jackets. Very very imperial. Then a few bearded fellows, stern, with solid jackets. Marina Tsevtaeva’s dad served in the early 1900’s, for those of you up on literary folk of the 20th century–he looked serious and earth-toned. There was one disgruntled looking poet with fly-away hair and revolutionary glasses, and then began the Bureauocrats. Facial hair faded, and it was square face after square face in a bland sea of button downs and the occasional thin framed glasses. There was maybe one moustauche after 1920. No military decorations, and no sparks in anyone’s eyes.  Most of them looked like the kind of person that would hold a grudge, but then again, not everyone is photogenic.

One director of the Museum was especially intriguing—a certain Comrade Vladimir Ivanovich Nevsky (1876-1937), about whom our tour guide spoke with great respect in her voice. He was a scholar, a soldier, and a “a true revolutionary,” who spent many years in prison, but emerged none the worse (or so it seemed) and served as director of the library for many years. A brief internet hunt after the tour revealed that he was one of the early Bolsheviks, and thus a “professional revolutionary” who participated in a number of uprisings in the 1910’s, and then climbed the Soviet hierarchy, eventually becoming Leninka’s director (in 1924), as well as one of the first Soviet historians. He was, the guide stressed, a man of “crystalline honor” who could not resist entering into a spat with Stalin over some matter of principle, the content of which was not elaborated on. Alas, she noted, he overstepped his bounds and ended up being “repressed….”

We moved onto other directors.

“Repressed?!” Such a horrible, vague explanation for so many disappearances in the time of Stalin. I investigated further. Nevsky’s ‘spat’ ended in his arrest in 1935 and two years later he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was ‘rehabilitated’ in 1955…I’m not sure what he was ever convicted of…. Much has been written on the purges, and nothing ever does it justice, so I shall shamefully leave this lingering in the air, without the closure that anyone—save perhaps Solzhenitzyn—can offer, and try to console you with Beauty. Forgive me, dear Reader.


Oh where to begin, and how I wish I could have photographed this all for you! (Photography=Strictly Prohibited)  There were many manuscripts (illuminated and not) from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, including the first book printed in Belorussia and in the Ukraine (strange claim to fame, since those places didn’t exactly exist in the 15th century, but whatever…some sort of pan-Soviet shout-out there). There was an illustrated copy of the Old Testament from 1518 that included a portrait of the translator—a very uncommon addition by historical standards! There were a number of copies of Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy, including one copy of the Inferno that was about the size of three matchboxes stacked on top of each other! It was displayed with a magnifying glass, but I still can’t imagine how the heck someone wrote that in the 17th century. I know people were littler then, and must have had smaller, more nimble fingers than our present day over-fortified, keyboard plodding digits, but I’m still pretty sure they weren’t actually gnomes…

There were etchings from first editions, illustrations to Pushkin’s stories, beautiful stationary from various generations of the royal family. There were thick books with fore edge paintings of Japanese gardens or ships tossing in a storm . As Imperial Russia was perhaps the most devout and exaggerated Francophile there ever were, and as such, many first editions of French plays, essays, and novels were in the collection. A surprising part of the French language collection was a first edition of Ionesco, representing Russia’s special compatibility with the lovely combination of all things French and all things depressingly absurd.

As far as the actual “Russian” literature was concerned, there was one real gem of a story in the exhibition. It involves two heavy hitters of a Russian lit, and a girl who must go down in the books as attending to her looks (spoiler: no duels involved in this tale!). Turgenev, a Very Important 19th century Russian writer is a staple in the handful of 19th century Russki’s that everyone reads. Back in the day, he had a copy of Lermontov, another Very Important Figure in Russian literature, mostly because he’s sort of the literary aftermath of Pushkin (the Russian Shakespeare, who showed up pretty late on the scene, comparatively speaking). Lermontov is arguably the most romantic of all the Russian writers; I don’t mean ‘Romantic’, as in the style (though he was that as well), but his biography and persona is irrestibly seductive and, well, romantic—he was a soldier, a poet, a writer of stories about mysterious and dangerous adventures in the Caucasus. He died young and left us little literature, but what we do have is a delightful, emintently readable collection of works from the mind of a clever, sensitive, young man, who was prone to falling in love, compulsively doodling and occasionally moping. What a glorious combination!  (Some professors would have my head for that description, so keep it on the down low.)  Anyway, Turgenev (our first Important Man of Letters) had a copy of Lermonotov’s works (so: Important Letters by an Important Man of Letters) which he lent to a certain young lady. Our guide implied it may have been to impress her.

Oh! What heart wouldn’t skip a beat to have an early edition of Lermontov in hand!

Well, apparently hers. She was unimpressed with the content and, I surmise, the gesture, and ripped out pages to curl her hair with. Her mis-estimation of the book was caught before she destroyed the whole thing, and now the salvagaed remains sit under glass, beside a piece of twisted paper that looks like it may well have been wretched straight out of her preening hands and half twirled lock. Considering that the world is at no loss for the book—we have plenty of copies of Lermontov, just not many with Turgenev’s pawprints all over—I’m almost glad she did it and there was a little folly under glass along with so many beautiful, bookish perfections.

Now, as you walk through this Special Collection, each artifact or print came with some degree of identification, sometimes as simple as “XII Century.” Sure, leave us to wonder where it was made, how it ended up here, why it gets to be on display. Whatever.  What’s wild, is that–in what I can only imagine to be efforts to be entirely chronologically exhaustive–there were also items on display from the 21st century. Oh, that’s no sooo wild, you protest.  Bear with me.  Now, I dabbled in the book arts in college, but otherwise, I’m certainly not up on current book-related masterpieces or technological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, I was fairly shocked to see the little exhibition case on the 21st century:

Yup, animal-shaped erasers. Let’s bear in mind what 18th century fore-edge painting looks like:

You be the judge, but wow.

True, animal shaped erasers would have delighted many an 19th century damsel, who would have ripped a book to shreds, but that’s not quite the issue here.  Animal shaped erasers, marked “XXI Century” are under a glass case?  This is really going to represent my century along side illuminated manuscripts of John the Theologian, and gold-gilded stationary of the tsars? It’s exhibited a few feet from the 17th century and its copy of Dante’s Inferno that could strung on a chain and worn as a pendant OR studied for a decade? Let’s hope it was just a place marker for great things to come in the next ninety years…

But what really took the cake in terms of material shock was the exhibit in the main hall for the occasion of Library Day. Everyone from the library brought in something related to books. So there were—I am not joking, in the least—a half a dozen glass cases filled with figures holding books. On display in the main hall.  Little porcelain angels holding songbooks, a variety of cats and dogs dressed up in graduation gowns toting books, a troll reading under a mushroom. There were figurines of busty women with books in their cleavage, salt and pepper shakers of book-carrying kiddos.  It was a strange, strange, kitschy and heartwarming testament to what I can only imagine represented decades of gifts bequeathed to patient librarians by loving friends and relatives who balked at the task of picking out a book for a librarian and played it safe with book paraphernalia.(1) If you ask me, wine might be a better gamble, but then, I’ve never been inside the mind of a Russian librarian. Although now I feel just a smidgen closer…

(1) RUN ON SENTENCE ALERT! Sorry folks, if you didn’t already know, I’ve got no editor but myself, and sometimes you let yourself go…


1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Moscow

One response to “State Libraries and Bloated Posts: Prepare for Information Overload

  1. Mom

    Thanks for the tour. Enjoyed it immensely.

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