Principal Book Repository in Russia (1795 - 1813)

Catherine II
Catherine II

Portrait by Dmitry Levitsky. 1783

On 27 May 1795 Catherine II gave her formal approval to a design for the building of the Imperial Public Library submitted by the architect Yegor Sokolov. Her officials began to implement the decision within days. Three issues of the St Petersburg Gazette carried an announcement inviting tenders. Building materials were acquired, workers hired and funds made available from the treasury by Catherine's verbal command.

Construction of the first building in Russia specially intended to house a library began as early as June 1795. The site chosen lay in the very centre of the capital, at the junction of Nevsky Prospect and one of the main cross streets, not far from the imperial palaces and closer still to the busy shopping complex of Gostiny Dvor.

The idea of creating a public library had long been in the air. The eighteenth century had developed the tradition of book-collecting which went back deep into Russian history. Libraries became a customary feature of aristocratic and wealthy houses. But private collections could not really help to accelerate the formation of a Russian intelligentsia made up of "enlightened nobles" or further the expansion of the stock of educated men which the state required in ever-growing numbers. The problem was not solved either by the appearance in the first half of the century of libraries attached to the Academy of Sciences, Academy of Arts and other state institutions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Catherine II, always sensitive to the currents of the age and regarding herself as the heir to and continuer of Peter the Great's reforms, did not fail — in the words of one of her most enlightened contemporaries, Mikhail Antonovsky —"to turn her perspicacious eye to an important source of popular education as yet not found in Russia, that is state public libraries or book repositories open to all."

Palace Square
Palace Square

Panoramic view by John Augustus Atkinson. 1803-05

As Catherine conceived it, the national library was to become a symbol of the might of the Russian state, the creative character of the Empress's aspirations and her fidelity to the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. Like "the finest public libraries" in Europe which preserved archives of national printed publications and outstanding literary works, the new library was intended to become the repository for all Russian books and manuscripts. But this idea also incorporated something that was new in principle, something that was taken up and reinforced by subsequent generations of Russian librarians.

In the eighteenth century the national libraries of the European states did not seek to serve readers; they were cut off from the hurly-burly of life beyond their walls. The national library of Russia, by contrast, was conceived and organized not only as a book repository, but also as a generally accessible library — and in this, according to Alexei Olenin, one of those most involved in its creation, lay its originality. It was founded "for the benefit of lovers of learning and enlightenment" and intended for "the social enlightenment of Russian subjects". Its establishment undoubtedly marked the start of a new chapter in the history of scholarship, culture and education in Russia.

The Public Library in St Petersburg became in effect the second Russian university and almost all those who brought glory to Russian science or made immortal names for themselves in literature, art, and the humanities over the following century and more could be said to have been its graduates.

The setting up of the library took almost twenty years (1795-1814). Catherine herself oversaw the construction of the building, receiving regular reports about how the work was progressing and making decisions about the future of an institution which one of the early documents quite justifiably called "Catherine's library". The Empress's Cabinet (the office which administered her purse and property) provided funds for the constmction on her spoken instructions, later confirmed in writing.

In July 1796 Catherine took a second look at Sokolov's designs and it was decided to incorporate an observatory into the library building as envisaged in one of the projects. The Empress donated a telescope which had belonged to the famous British astronomer Sir William Herschel for the use of future Russian stargazers. Mikhail Antonovsky, who is noted not only for his activities as a librarian, but also as a publisher (Russia is indebted to him for the appearance of Generalissimo Suvorov's celebrated book The Science of Winning), recollected as well that "for the necessary relief of the mental tension that arises from the reading of serious books" the library project also featured "a most pleasant garden" with a pool. The Empress gave her last instructions on the issue of funds for the library in October 1796, a month before her death.

The main facade of the Imperial Public Library
The main facade of the Imperial Public Library

Design by Egor Sokolov. May 16 (27), 1795

Catherine II was also directly involved in the formation of the library's stocks. On her orders in the summer and autumn of 1795 the Zaluski brothers' book collection was transported from Warsaw to St Petersburg — on carts as far as Riga and then on to the capital by ship. This collection formed the nucleus of the Public Library's foreign-language stocks. According to Catherine's original concept, the collection brought from Poland was to be combined with others already at the disposal of the Imperial Court — the Hermitage Library and the personal collections of Voltaire, Diderot and the president of the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Johann Korff. As things turned out, however, this plan was destined to be realised only in the 1860s when the Hermitage Library and the books which once belonged to the two great Frenchmen finally came into the Public Library.

The Imperial Public Library in St Petersburg was the first state library in Russia. Its chief, binding purpose was the creation of "a complete collection of Russian books" — meaning in this context all books produced from the moment printing began in Russia as well as books published in Russian beyond the frontiers of the Empire. In addition it was intended that the "complete Russian library" include books about Russia published in foreign languages.

One consequence of Catherine's death and the succession of her son Paul I was a change in the composition of the Cabinet. Vasily Popov, who had organized the constmction of the building and the sorting of the books, was removed from his post. The work was now entrusted to people who had no interest in making Catherine's idea become a reality. With the creation of a national library under threat the situation was saved by Count Alexander Stroganov, a noted Russian states man and patron of the arts who had been one of the authors of the Plan for a Russian Public Library in St Petersburg submitted to Catherine II as far back as 1766.

In January 1800 Count Stroganov was appointed Chief Director of the Imperial Libraries. As Olenin observed, it was due to his efforts and persistence that the Imperial Public Library "preserved its existence". Stroganov saw to it that the books were sorted out more quickly and he also defined the scope of the institution: "We are talking about a state library," he pointed out, "and in that sense alone, and in no other, it is imperial.

"The Count persuaded Paul I not to take the building on Nevsky Prospekt away from the library —it had its faults and inadequacies, but in 1800 work there was nearing completion — and set himself the goal of opening the library "for public usage" in the very near future.

The Library Main Building by Sokolov's designs on the  Junction of Nevsky Prospect and Sadovaya Street
The Library Main Building by Sokolov's designs on the Junction of Nevsky Prospect and Sadovaya Street

Aquatint by Benjamin Patersen. 1800s

The change of ruler that came with the murder of Paul I and the accession of his son Alexander I favoured the achievement of this goal. The heady days of promise at the start of the new reign should also have seen the opening of the Public Library. The Count's plans were regarded sympathetically by members of the Unofficial Committee — the small group of young friends of the new Emperor which was influential in his early years on the throne. Alexander himself, at Stroganov's insistent request, purchased and donated to the Public Library the collection of manuscripts which had been assembled by Piotr Dubrovsky, a former official at the Russian embassy in Paris and a passionate bibliophile and collector. During the French Revolution Dubrovsky had managed to save part of the papers stored in the archives of the Bastille. He also laid his hands on fifth- to thirteenth-century manuscripts from the libraries of the ancient monasteries of Saint-Germain and Corbie. He collected up to 8,000 examples of writing by notable French figures (including letters and state papers signed by almost all the kings from Louis XI onwards). In various parts of Europe Dubrovsky also acquired manuscripts and letters by Erasmus, Leibniz, Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire and other great scholars and writers of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Besides this, his collection included Old Slavonic and Eastern writings. Due to his reputation as "a hunter after such rarities" many Russian writers and scholars also presented Dubrovsky with some of their own manuscripts — among such donors were the noted poet Gavrila Derzhavin, the historian Vastly Ruban and the writer and translator Pisarev, who gave the collector material relating to the Russian enlighteners and dramatists Denis Fonvizin and Yakov Kniazhnin. The acquisition of this remarkable collection led in 1805 to the creation of a special manuscript "depot" or department within the Public Library.

Before Stroganov's time came to an end, this department was enriched by some of the most precious surviving early Russian manuscripts. These included the oldest currently-known dated Russian book the Ostromir Gospel of 1056-57, which was found in Catherine II's wardrobe after her death (it is a known fact that in her final years the Empress was intensively engaged in collecting and studying material on Russian history) and the celebrated Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle of 1377, the oldest extant copy of the Russian Primary Chronicle which begins with the world-famous Tale of Bygone Years: "From whence came the Russian land, who was first to begin ruling in Kiev..."

From the very moment of its establishment this new Russian repository for ancient manuscripts also grew through the donations of private individuals. Alexander Yermolaev, the first Russian palaeographer and a scholar with a profound knowledge of the Early Russian epic The Lay of Igor's Host, who was appointed assistant librarian in 1810, presented the library with a copy of the Ipatievskaya Chronicle. A collection of Russian and Slavonic manuscripts was donated "for the benefit or interest of lovers of Russian antiquity who visit the library" by the senior mining official Piotr Frolov. Among other donors who enriched the library's stocks over the years were the academicians Vastly Severgin, Yakov Za-kharov, Adolf Kupfer, Bernhard Dorn and Piotr Keppen, the maritime explorers Ivan Krusenstern and Ferdinand Wrangel, most Russian writers, the Glazunovs — a family of book-dealers, and the merchants Mefody Shumilov and Ivan Laptev. Gifts came in from abroad as well: from the Bosnian priest Tverdkovic, from the Serbian writers Buich and Zuban, from the poets and representatives of the Czech renaissance Jan Kollar and Vaclav Hanka, and from the Warsaw-based linguist Samuel Linde. Relations also began to be established early with the oldest libraries and universities in Europe.

In 1808 Stroganov chose a man to help him with the running of the Public Library. Alexei Olenin (1763-1843) was appointed Assistant Director and after the Count's death in 1811 he succeeded him as Director. Olenin was a remarkable character — President of the Academy of Arts, a talented draughtsman, a historian with a knowledge of modern and ancient languages, a lover of literature and art and a patron of poets and artists. Yet even that is not a full list of his merits and accomplishments. He deservedly occupied a prominent place in Russian culture and learning for a period of almost half a century. Vastly Kliuchevsky, the celebrated Russian historian whose words carry especial weight, wrote: "For fifty years — until 1843 — it is difficult to recall a major event or major figure in the field of Russian public enlightenment without Olenin also coming to mind. While he was not a great star, he somehow managed to cast his ray of light on every bright contemporary phenomenon in that sphere of our life."

And if Count Stroganov had "preserved the existence" of the Public Library, it was Olenin who breathed real life into it: he opened it up to readers, gave them the opportunity to use the library's stocks, to work in the reading room and to become acquainted with its treasures. Olenin's time as director has been called the childhood of the Public Library. There are good grounds for the comparison. One should only add that it was in this "childhood" that the library acquired many of the things which would promote its subsequent development and success, that Olenin laid the foundations on which the Public Library stands even today. He did more than merely adhere to Catherine's original intentions — he developed and enlarged upon them. He took real steps towards the creation of a generally accessible library which would combine the aims of preserving its stocks and enlightening the public.

In 1809 Olenin published the first manual in Russia on the organization of library stocks and catalogues (The Trial of a New Bibliographical System/or the St Petersburg Public Library). In 1811 he devised a new structure for the library, separating the books in Russian into a department on their own. This organization of a distinct Russian section emphasized the national character of the Public Library.

In 1810 Alexander I issued a special decree ordering that the new institution be opened "for general use" and confirming the Regulations for the Administration of the Imperial Public Library. This was the first law in Russia dealing with the running and maintenance of a library. The Public Library was to be funded by "monies from the state treasury" with special sums being allocated in advance for the purpose.

Emperor Alexander I's Visit to the Public Library on 2 January 1812
Emperor Alexander I's Visit to the Public Library on 2 January 1812

Drawing by Grigory Chernetsov. 1826

The Regulations also reaffirmed the main principles for the organization of the library's work which had been formulated at its foundation — keeping an archive of Russian printed matter and preserving the nation's manuscript heritage while adhering to an indispensable condition: "the receiving of visitors and the provision to them of all necessary information". The Regulations also laid down the duties of the librarian and the curator of manuscripts, determined the size and structure of the library's staff. The Public Library was transferred from the auspices of His Majesty's Cabinet to the Ministry of Public Education, which provided a boost to its intended enlightening activities.

The social atmosphere in which the Public Library began to operate was fully defined by the words which adorned its first statutory Regulations: "for general use ... without distinction between persons". In August 1814 Olenin wrote: "The aim of an open book repository lies in anybody, no matter who he is, being able to request for his own use any kind of printed books, even the most rare,... and to make use of them for no charge, with the sole restriction that he cannot take them home."

At Olenin's insistence a clause was inserted in the 1810 Regulations requiring that the library receive two free statutory copies of everything produced on Russian printing-presses. This provided a radical solution to the problem of how to ensure a complete and regular influx of Russian books and other publications. "Just as a tree receives its initial vegetative strength through its roots, so the growth of this book repository is based on and ensured by the law which brings it two copies of new products of the book-printer's art from all over our country" — those words from a report by Olenin were written with not just the past but the future in mind.

The stormy events of 1812 delayed the opening of the Public Library. The imminent threat to St Petersburg prompted the authorities to remove from the capital "all the manuscripts and the best books". Loaded onto a brig and accompanied by the assistant librarian Vasily Sopikov, the library's treasures set off along the inland waterways towards the north. After crossing Lake Ladoga in a storm the brig and its crew spent the winter on the River Svir not far from Lodeinoe Pole.

Olenin for his part was convinced that the Russian national library was the proper repository for all material "concerning the history of our country" and he sought to ensure that it preserved for posterity orders and communiques issued to the Russian army, the "flying sheets" carried by wartime despatch riders, the newspapers issued in the territory occupied by the French and the handwritten accounts of those who participated in or witnessed battles or partisan skirmishes and raids. The creation of a collection of books, posters, albums, leaflets and manuscript material on the struggle against Napoleon accorded with the patriotic sentiments of the other librarians as well. They were in no doubt that this war would go down as "the most celebrated in the chronicles of the world". Time proved that their work was not performed in vain. The very first visitors to cross the threshold of the Public Library showed a strong interest in Russian history and above all in accounts from the time of the "Patriotic War". One of the library's published reports said: "... most often they read descriptions of the feats of our heroes, above all those who distinguished themselves in the last war. The demand for such books was so great that the librarians were unable to satisfy all the visitors because the books in question had been given out to other readers."