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Foundations of the Academy Library

"THE TREASURY OF MOST EXCELLENT BOOKS"

Even when the museum collection was kept in the Kikin Mansion, it contained bookcases stuffed with books on the second floor. The first library numbered several thousand volumes not only by Russian and other Slavic authors, but also of Greek, Latin, French and German origin. Most of the books were written on subjects of interest to and popular among the readership of the day: lives of saints, stories in the original or translations, maps, "histories", or historical works, "herbals" or description of medical herbs and their use, and many others. The library was open "at any time" and anyone who wanted to see it could enter freely.

Thus Emperor Peter I founded the future Kunstkammer Library. He collected and acquired books throughout his life. His large personal library totaled approximately two thousand books, which was considered enormous according to the standards of the day. For comparison one can recall that tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich, the first Romanov tsar, had only 41 books in his library, all of which were on religious subjects.

Large libraries had existed in Russia since the middle ages mostly in monasteries and churches, though some of the more or less educated noblemen, statesmen, wealthy merchants and craftsmen and even peasants also collected books. Such private book collections were sometimes quite interesting but they rarely exceeded a hundred volumes. The explanation is obvious: books were extremely expensive, so only a small percentage of the population could afford to buy them. Libraries were also formed at some state departments, or "prikazy", as they were called at the time.

All libraries, without exception and including the library of Peter the Great, contained both printed and hand-written books. Peter inherited part of the manuscript collection from his father Alexey Mikhailovich, his brother Fyodor Alexeevich, his sister Natalia Alexeevna and from tsarevna Sofia. But these books were of little interest to the tsar and he rarely touched them. Many books in the library were presented to the tsar by Russian and foreign authors. Peter never so much as glanced at them. His real passion was for books on naval affairs and shipbuilding. The "amusements of Neptune" or naval games were a favorite topic of his childhood and youth. Next came books on military affairs, history, heraldry, architecture and the art of laying out parks and gardens.

Peter ordered many of the books to be translated into Russian from western-European languages. He was also concerned with printing dictionaries, which would make it easier for people to acquire knowledge of western science and culture. He insisted: "whereas any new name or word is found it should be written down in a separate note-book. After writing the word down, it should be translated into Russian". He made it a point to edit lexicon dictionaries himself. In line with the contemporary frame of mind, he crossed off rare words and corrected some of the given explanations to make them easier to understand: for example, the word "barrier", translated as "outlier" was replaced by the tsar with the more widespread word "obstacle"; he also explained the shape of the "globe" as "the world's sphere, shaped like an apple" eliminating the original explanation where the globe was compared to an egg.

Wishing to enlarge the library, Peter ordered various books brought to St. Petersburg from the Apothecary library in Moscow. The Apothecary housed many books not only on medicine, anatomy and pharmacology, but also on chemistry, botany, mineralogy, geography and architecture, as well as a number of valuable dictionaries. The Apothecary library was constantly enriched with new editions, the source of supply being mostly foreign doctors and apothecaries who worked there, though many of the books came from rich noblemen. When the head of the department V. Morozov died, his personal library also became part of the collection kept in the Apothecary department. This collection formed the first Russian specialized scientific library. Later it became the nucleus for the book collection of the Kunstkammer.

Having issued a number of decrees instructing the population to bring old and strange things to the Kunstkammer, Peter in 1720 issued another order to deliver ancient letters patents, "curious, original" and manuscript and printed books taken from old monasteries to the Senate.

There was one more source of book supply. At that time it was not unusual for a nobleman or a courtier to fall into disfavor with the tsar or, as they said in those days, "to fall from grace". In such cases all property of the exiled nobleman was confiscated by the state, including books, which went straight to the collection of the Kunstkammer. The same was true of the collections belonging to those who had died a natural death or had been executed by the tsar's order. As an example we could note the book collection of tsarevich Alexis, the son of Peter the Great who died a prisoner in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in June 1718. Many private collectors donated their books to the Kunstkammer as well, so in time the library had quite a rich and valuable selection of books.

By 1725 it had accumulated already more than eleven thousand volumes. The Greek medical doctor M. Vanderbekh, having seen the Kunstkammer book collection, wrote the following: "a library as valuable as any other by the selection and treasure of most excellent books is at the disposal of book-lovers".

In 1718 the library as well as the museum was opened for free entrance and use. "I want the people to see and to learn", repeated Peter. When the tsar's associate Yaguzhinsky proposed that a fee should be established to enter the museum or use the library, Peter categorically refused. He said: "I also order not only to let in anyone who comes here free of charge, but if someone comes with a company to see the rarities, they should be treated with a dish of coffee, a glass of wine or vodka or other refreshments at my own expense in these very rooms".

After the death of Peter his personal library as well as the library of the Kunstkammer was given over to the Academy of Sciences. This book collection became the nucleus of the academy library.