• christinemackenzie

Russia - part one

When the invitation to visit Russia arrived, I was wondering what it would be like. We had visited St Petersburg in 2005. We were required to travel with a guide, we stayed at the vast Hotel Moskva, the welcome was lukewarm and we did not have a very positive impression of tourist facilities.

Well I can tell you things are very different now! St Petersburg and Moscow are vibrant, modern cities and the hospitality and generosity of our hosts was second to none. I had the most wonderful, exciting week being introduced to Russian libraries and culture and meeting great colleagues who are achieving transformation in their libraries.

With the Director General of the National Library of Russia

I visited all three national libraries in Russia – The National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, and the Russian State Library and the Library for Foreign Literature which are both in Moscow. We also visited the Russian State Library for Young Adults.

The National Library of Russia occupies five buildings in St Petersburg. The Main Building was opened in 1795, and it is the oldest public library in Russia. It holds 36.5 million items and its history permeates the building. Construction commenced on the New Building in 1985 and it was opened in 2003. It is one of the largest libraries in Europe and it is situated right on Nevsky Prospect. I was honoured to meet the Director General, Prof Dr Alexander Verschinin, who has been recently appointed to this position.

One of the jewels in the crown of the National Library of Russia is the Voltaire Library. Purchased by Catherine the Great immediately after the death of the French philosopher, it originally belonged to the private royal library and was transferred to the Imperial Public Library in 1852. There are 6,800 printed books in the collection, and around 2,000 include handwritten notes by Voltaire. Renovations to the library were completed in 2003.

The State Library of Russia in Moscow was founded in 1862 and is one of the largest libraries in the world with 44.4 million items including over 17 million books in 247 languages. The construction of the “new” building was commenced in 1930 and the final stage was completed in 1960. The buildings and the collection are remarkable, and it is led by the recently appointed visionary librarian, Vadim Duda, formerly Director General of the State Library for Foreign Literature.

The Margarita Rudomino All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow is the third National Library in Russia. It was established in 1921 by Margarita Rudomino and has around 4.4 million items in 140 languages. The recently appointed Director General is Mikhail Shepel who was previously University Librarian in Tomsk, Siberia. It has been undergoing extensive renovation and is the very model of a modern public library.

The Russian State Library for Young Adults is a place of fun and learning. It was founded in 1966 and the current Director is Dr Irina Mikhnova. The library has 900,000 items including 650,000 books and a significant collection of 35,000 vinyl records. There is a carefully curated selection of historical items that trace the history of books, reading, music and technology.

We saw some very impressive exhibitions in the libraries we visited. The Gutenberg Bible exhibit at the Russian State Library set this treasure in the context of early publishing history. A full-size working replica of Gutenberg’s press is on display in the Rudomino Foreign Literature library. We were shown treasures of the rare book collections .

My impression of these major cultural institutions is that they are emerging from a period of stasis and the winds of change are blowing. All three National Libraries have new Directors, and it will be fascinating to see how they develop over the next few years.

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