Russia Has Second-Largest Library, but Can't Afford It

By Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

Russia Has Second-Largest Library, but Can't Afford It


Marshall Ingwerson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE women shuttling quietly through dark, chapped-leather ravines of rare and ancient texts from all over Europe and Asia - here in the second-largest library in the world - are paid an average of about $40 a month.

Even so, last week the director of the Russian State Library acknowledged that the institution had enough money in its account to make only half the payroll.

The former Lenin Library, the crown jewel of Soviet repositories of learning and second in size only to the United States Library of Congress, contains tens of thousands of the world's most valuable texts and manuscripts. According to a recent report by the Russian ministry of culture, many are kept in conditions perilous to their survival.

The story of the library parallels in many ways the story of Russia itself - from its aristocratic roots, to the state confiscations that made it great, to the new openness revealing the depth of decay that was hidden behind the scrim of Soviet secrecy.

Books that have survived centuries, for example, have sat for decades piled horizontally on boards in a church that the Soviet authorities gave to the library. The books collect massive amounts of damaging dust, according to former library employees who have seen them. Lacking vacuum cleaners, employees dust the books once a month with damp cloths - causing water damage.

That is how the books were kept in the late 1970s, says Ileana Belokon, who used to clean them. Many of the books at the church are part of the 12,000-volume collection seized during the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the founder of the Lubavitcher sect of Judaism. The most valuable books at the church, says Mrs. Belokon, showed signs of vandalism. Silver fittings on bindings, for example, had been ripped off.

Conditions at the church have not changed since, according to Lutfiya Arifulova, the research secretary and second-ranking official at the library.

In other library buildings, conditions have worsened. Officials live in fear of water, either from a bursting of the decrepit heating and water pipes in the library complex or from the Znamenka River that runs underground beneath the library to the Moscow River. …

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