Books, marble, and Wi-Fi. Оn 160th anniversary of Russia’s main library

The Russian State Library (RSL) is the largest library in Europe, with over 1.3 million visits each year. People come here not only for reading — the historic building hosts tours, exhibitions, and concerts.

From Count Rumyantsev to Lenin

The Russian State Library, also known as the Lenin Library, occupies an entire complex of buildings in downtown Moscow. Its architecture seems to reflect the library’s history. However, the whole story began not in Moscow but in St Petersburg, home to a Russian diplomat Count Nikolay Rumyanstev (1754–1826). He collected history books and manuscripts, made chronicles about ancient Russian cities, published ancient Russian literary texts. After his death, the collection formed the basis for the Rumyantsev museum in St Petersburg. In 1862, the collection was transferred to Moscow where it was combined with the funds of the Moscow Public Museum. July 1, 1862 is considered the date of birth of the Russian State Library. The joint collection was placed in the Pashkov House, which still belongs to the RSL and hosts rare manuscripts, maps, and sheet music.

The Pashkov House is one of most gorgeous buildings in Moscow. It was built in 1784–1786 for an officer of the Semyonovsky Regiment Pyotr Pashkov and was supposedly designed by a famous architect Vasily Bazhenov. The house is a beautiful example of Moscow Classicism, embodying the principles of order and symmetry. It was built on Vagankosvky hill and serves as a continuation of the natural rise. The round-shaped belvedere that tops the building enhances its verticality. Thanks to its location and design, the Pashkov House became the first secular building in Moscow with a level view on the Kremlin, while all other houses were looking up to it.

After the Russian Revolution, when all property was nationalized, the Rumyantsev Museum quickly expands — the museum’s collection grows from 1.2 million to 4 million items. In order to free some space, all non-book collections including paintings, graphics, numismatics, porcelain, and minerals were transferred to other museums. The Rumyantsev Museum itself was turned into the State Library of the USSR named after Vladimir Lenin. The vast number of additions and the high status of the country’s main library highlighted the need for a new building. The architectural design competition was announced, and won by Vladimir Shchuko, an architect from St Petersburg, and his student Vladimir Gelfreich. The main building of the library was grandiose: like the Moscow metro, it was supposed to serve as a symbol of the bright future, a “palace for the people”. The austere neoclassical facade is decorated with statues symbolizing “socialist labor and knowledge”, including Red Army soldiers, Miners and A girl with a Book. The building was finished with limestone and solemn black granite from the outside and with marble, bronze, and oak panels from the inside.

The book depository built in the late 1930s from reinforced concrete may not be as luxu­rious as the main building, but it is no less impressive. It has 19 stories with the total area is almost 85,000 m2. In 1941, when the German troops neared Moscow, the collection of the Pashkov House was evacua­ted to the new depository. Book transporters had not been put into operation yet, and the staff moved almost 10 million books manually.

In 1992, the mentions of the USSR and Lenin were removed from the library’s title, but people in Moscow still call it “Leninka”. Currently, RSL includes the main building with a book depository on Vozdvizhenka Street, the Pashkov House, the Center of Oriental Literature on Mokhovaya Street. It also has a branch in the city of Khimki near Moscow, which houses a dissertation fund and a periodicals department with a collection of newspapers dating from the 18th century to the present day. Moreover, the library owns a reading room in the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which now hosts the RSL’s famous collection of books by Joseph Schneerson (1880–1950), an influential rabbi and educator.

What RSL holds

The Russian State Library has more than 48.1 million storage units. The funds are divided into categories of publications and are available in the respective reading rooms. In addition, around 1.7 million documents have been digitized and made part of the RSL’s Electronic Library.

The formal term “storage unit” in fact hides real treasures. For instance, the Collection of Manuscripts contains unique handwritten books, some dating back to the 6th century AD. Meanwhile, the Collection of Rare and Valuable Books includes the first editions of the works of Giordano Bruno and Dante Alighieri, as well as copies of the first Russian newspaper “Moskovskie Vedomosti” (published since 1756). 

Some books have value not just because they are so old, but because once they belonged to members of the royal family. For example, “The Art of Turning” – a book handwritten in 1716 specifically for Peter I. It is a translation of the work of Charles Plumier, a famous French scientist, painter, draftsman and turner. Another outstanding edition is the 1898 edition of “On a bicycle: Notes of a tourist”, by a reporter Leonid Kolotilov, coming from the personal library of Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich (1869–1918). The Grand Duke was the honorary chairman of the St Petersburg Cycling Society and took part in cycling races.

The Russian State Library actively participates in UNESCO Memory of the World programme. On its initiative, several library collections and standalone books that constitute global documentary heritage were included in the international “Memory of the World” register, including the Arkhangelsk Gospel dated to 1092, the Khitrovo Gospel written in late 14th century, Cyrillic editions of the 15th century, a collection of maps of the Russian Empire of the 18th century, and Russian posters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

“We certainly intend to continue identifying publications in our collections for their inclusion in the register of the “Memory of the World” programme,” says Vadim Duda, Director General of the Russian State Library. “First of all, we are talking about book monuments, printed editions and manuscripts that have outstanding tangible and intangible value and have special historical, scientific and cultural significance. At the same time, we believe that monuments include engravings, posters, sheet music and geographical maps as well as ancient books and manuscripts. Many of them are true masterpieces and provide a fresh angle on history, deepen our understanding of the time when they were created.”

More than just a library

In a strange way, the RSL is timeless and timely at the same time. Restorers carefully renovate the plasterwork, woo­den elements and decorative panels to preserve the halls in the same way as they used to be in the early 20th century, while visitors now can connect their laptop or tablet to the local network and access the vast electronic archive. Orders are sent to the book depository electronically, not through airmail. Visitors can also get access to digitized publications using QR codes. This technology was also used to promote rea­ding among wide audiences. For example, the Gzhel Porcelain Factory made coffee glasses to celebrate RSL’s anniversary with dra­wings from the book “Les Fleurs Parlantes” by Louise Lenevue. This is a book from the personal library of Empress Alexandra Fedorovna (1798–1860), wife of Emperor Nicholas I. Each glass contained QR code with a link to the digitized book with the corresponding illustration. The idea was to involve people who bought glasses in a reading game.

Today, the RSL currently operates as a cultural center, hosting lectures and master classes, exhibitions and concerts. Russia’s main library not only preserves traditions, but also keeps up with the times, which means that it will always be filled with curious and talen­ted people. 

Yulia Savina
Photo materials provided by the Press Service of the RSL