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Old Russian and South Slavonic Manuscript Books

The library possesses more than 30,000 old Russian and South Slavonic manuscript books — the richest collection in the world. There are works written in both Cyrillic and the other ancient Slavonic alphabet, Glagolitic. The Manuscript Department can boast the earliest copy of the Bulgarian story On Written Characters by Khrabr the Monk (1348) — one of the oldest pieces of evidence about the origins of the Slavonic alphabet and the beginnings of writing among the Slavs.

To demonstrate the value of the Glagolitic collection, it is sufficient to mention the celebrated eleventh-century Zograph Gospel which was presented to the Russian government by the monks of the Zograph Monastery on Mount Athos in 1850. Outstanding among the works written in Cyrillic is the Ostromir Gospel of 1056-57, the earliest dated Russian handwritten book to have come down to us today.

It illustrates the high level attained in this sphere of culture in the mid-eleventh century. The manuscript was discovered among Catherine II's effects in 1805 and handed over to the Public Library by Alexander I.

Apart from richly adorned books for use in church, the Manuscript Department has a large number of more modestly decorated but no less valuable and interesting manuscripts intended as reading matter. We might take as an example another very old dated Russian book the Izbornik (Miscellany) of 1076, among the varied contents of which is the well-known Word on Respecting Books. Works of a similar kind include the noted Yefrosinovskie Chetii (Euphrosynus Readings) — late fifteenth-century miscellanies from the library of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery.

The Izbornik (Miscellany) of 1076
The Izbornik (Miscellany)
of 1076
The Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle of 1377
The Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle
of 1377

Among the numerous handwritten copies of historical works is the oldest parchment copy of the Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle of 1377, which includes the ancient Tale of Bygone Years and also a remarkable work of old Russian literature, known only from this source, the Instruction of Vladimir Monomakh. This manuscript was discovered by the Russian historian and archaeographer Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin and presented to the Public Library. There are four of the ten volumes of the tremendous Illuminated Compiled Chronicle created in the sixteenth century on the orders of Ivan the Terrible. Almost every page features colourful miniatures which provide highly valuable information on the landscape, culture and daily life of old Russia and its neighbours. The department's stocks also contain numerous copies of historical stories and Russian tracts on topics of the day.

Historians of old Russian literature find rich material for their studies, including such unique works as The Tale of Woe and Misfortune, which has survived only in a single seventeenth-century copy, or the Collection of Kirsha Danilov, the first anthology of Russian bylinas (Russian epic) and historical songs with music, a landmark in the study of folklore.

The 16-th century Illuminated Compiled Chronicle
The 16-th century
Illuminated Compiled Chronicle
The Tale of Woe and Misfortune
The Tale of Woe
and Misfortune

The Old Russian stocks contain manuscripts of vocal music from the twelfth century onwards which are an inexhaustible source for the study and recreation of old musical culture in this country. The department has accumulated a considerable collection of eighteenth- to twentieth-century Old Believers' manuscripts. These persecuted religious dissidents preserved for a long time the traditions of copying and decorating manuscript books.

The Public Library began building a collection of Russian and Slavonic manuscript books from the moment of its foundation. As early as 1805 fifty Russian manuscripts came in with Dubrovsky's collection, among them an eleventh-century menology. When the Main Collection of Manuscript Books was formed later under the system devised by Olenin, these items joined its more than 8,000 Russian and South Slavonic manuscripts. Over the course of the nineteenth century the Main Collection was further enriched with manuscript books collected by Fiodor Tolstoi, Ivan Sakharov, Nikolai Karamzin, Pavel Bogdanov and Bishop Porfiry Uspensky. With time it was recognised to be counterproductive to split up existing collections and many large groups of manuscripts are still kept together just as they entered the library. The year 1852 saw the acquisition of Pogodin's "treasury of antiquities". One of the richest and most precious from a scholarly viewpoint, this collection numbered more than 2,000 Russian and Slavonic manuscript books dating from between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. In 1868 the noted Slavonic scholar Alexander Hilferding presented the library with a collection of South Slavonic (Bulgarian, Bosnian and Serbian) manuscripts which was not particularly large but contained extremely valuable pieces. A.A. Titov, a Rostov industrialist, bequeathed to the Public Library his huge collection of manuscripts (over 4,500 items). The funds he provided paid for the construction of special storage cases, the publication of a catalogue and a six-volume description of the manuscripts.

The library now houses the collections of some of the oldest mediaeval Russian book repositories. The most notable is that of St Sophia's Cathedral in Novgorod where the Ostromir Gospel was kept at one time. Among this collection are the 11th century Putiatin Menology , the Prologue (12th-13th century) and many other outstanding examples of old Russian literature. Here too are the libraries dating back to the fifteenth century from the Kirillo-Belozersky and Solovetsky Monasteries.

In 1852 the Public Library was given a considerable number of Russian manuscript books from the Hermitage, including the Izbornik of 1076. In 1932 the collection of the Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature added to the Early Russian stocks more than 3,000 Russian and Slavonic manuscripts, among them the celebrated Kievan Psalter of 1397. At that same time the library also acquired the valuable manuscript collection of the society's founder, Pavel Viazemsky.

The stocks of Russian manuscript books are still growing. Between the 1950s and 1970s collections of fifteenth- to twentieth-century works were acquired that had been assembled by the engineers S.N. Bystrov and V.A. Krylov, and by V.F. Gruzdev, a senior lecturer at the Military Medical Academy. The 1980s brought the collection of M.A. Yepifanov, the preceptor of the Old Believers community in Pskov. In 1985 a Pskov collection was formed, consisting of manuscripts recovered from the Pskov region by archaeographical expeditions organized by the department.

From the outset the Manuscript Department of the Public Library was not only a repository for the collection and preservation of early literature, but also a centre for the study of it. The extremely rich stocks of old Russian and South Slavonic manuscripts were extensively used by Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Vostokov, Alexander Pypin, Alexander Hilferding , Vatroslav Jagic and many other outstanding scholars. The department itself has been headed by noted palaeographers — Dubrovsky, Yermolaev, Vostokov, Afanasy Bychkov and his son Ivan — and among the staff too there have been no small number who made a major contribution to the study of the Early Russian stocks, including Yevgeny Granstrom, Mikhail Brazhnikov and Nikolai Rozov.

Active research on the old Russian and South Slavonic stocks still continues today. Publications appear in various forms: scholarly, popular and facsimile. One of the latest examples is a magnificent facsimile edition of the Ostromir Gospel issued to mark the Millennium of Christianity in Russia.

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