Christmas at the New ‘Leninski’

John Harrison

After the Christmas Communion service at St. Andrews in the morning of the 25th of December, with Moscow working, I spent some hours in the Russian State Library.

This mega library, the largest in Russia and the second largest in the world, was renamed: The Russian State Library in 1992. The place serves as the official Russian repository of all printed products released in Russia, in a similar way that the British Library does in the UK for UK publications. On the online catalogue which seems to work well, I found all issues of PASSPORT and Moscow Expat Life magazines, which surprised me. I remember we had to send one copy of each issue away somewhere. Now I know where to, and why. 

This edifice to public services was founded in 1862 as a part of the Moscow Public and Rumyantsev Museums. It now houses 47 million books, documents and artefacts, at least that is what the library’s web siteproudly informs viewers. Libraries are still a going concern in Russia, and over 800,000 people reportedly visit this one each year. There are 36 reading rooms in RSL and the place gets quite full. Digitalisation of the library’s stock is apparently going ahead, 90% of Russia’s dissertation extracts, early printed books, documents from its amazing cartographic collection, it’s ‘universal’ collection as well as over 80% of the music collection are in the public domain, whilst access to any copyrighted documents is only possible from the library’s premises.

When I registered myself and acquired a library ticket, the lady said that you can ‘work’ in hall number 1. I immediately remembered my student days, when I used to come to this library in my jeans and plimsoles and was honoured to sit in hall number 1 (in those days reserved for the elite) alongside esteemed Soviet professors, many of whom, I noticed, in their crumpled Soviet suits seemed to be engaged in reading foreign literature, western magazines and newspapers. I pretended to look academic and even took to wearing reading glasses to improve my image, however that didn’t work. They would look through me in a way that said you may be able to sit with us in hall number 1, but you will never be one of us. I didn’t want to be. 

I had forgotten that public libraries are places you can ‘work’ in. Today, when reading books seems more and more like a grandpa activity, and the old academic hierarchy is under threat, even in Russia, being awarded access to hall number 1 was a nice Christmas present. The ‘working’ system has something Soviet about it, in that it wasn’t always possible to work at home in a rather small Soviet flat. One can say the same thing today, as most Russian academics are poorly paid and live in less than adequate accommodation. It was a privilege to have somewhere to go to write, read and smoke Soviet cigarettes in erudite company. 

The building itself seems just as massive and stoic as it did in 1982. The interiors are a curious mixture of Soviet establishment architecture and pre-revolutionary classicism. One feels small and at the same time comfortable. The same wide marble stairs, the same feeling of being inside a vast, very ’establishment’ kind of brain to which people are the visitors. Here one feels that you can borrow, write and read all you want, but your contribution will (quite rightly) only be as significant to the overall scheme of things as a grain of piece of dirt on the wide marble stairs of this place. There are the same very Soviet green reading lights on each heavy, Soviet mahogany desk. 

The library has changed though. You could not, and still cannot simply pull books off a library shelf here. You have to order the books, and they are delivered to you. You can store your collection of books that you are ‘working’ on for up to 5 days. It is an antiquated but actually convenient system, as you don’t have to start all over again every time you come to ‘work.’ I appreciate it more now that in 1982 when I thought that it, and everything Soviet was stupid. What has changed is that you don’t have to wait up to 3 days to receive your books. They are delivered with an hour or two. Progress! Books can be ordered online before arriving at the library. This is a curious, quaint fusion of the old and new, which I am enjoying until I find something wrong with it. The old apartheid system is gone – special sections of literature which were only accessible by certain categories of readers.

As I went downstairs to the buffet, I experienced a kind of blast from the past. Gone is the smell from the smoking rooms, but the canteen, although clean and friendly, unlike the old days, looks remarkably similar. In its guts, this is the same library, the same people, the same atmosphere.

I recommend paying a visit to the ‘Leninski’ as it was nicknamed in Soviet times, perhaps if only to see how much things have changed and at the same time, how little. Is that good or bad? Happy New Year!