Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
You must have heard. There’s been a terrible scandal…” The librarian’s breast was heaving fast. “It would have been simple if you had come before, but now…” Her whisper subsided in a long Russian sigh. We were standing at the foot of a pockmarked stone staircase in the library of the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. I had arranged to meet Liudmila Kiseleva, head of the manuscript division, to collect a microfilm of a renaissance manuscript of Livy’s History of Rome for a colleague in Cambridge.
Over the telephone, ten days earlier, we agreed to exchange the microfilm for two English academic editions which the library could not afford. Then, the week I came, the director had been suspended, facing criminal charges for selling rare books out of the country for cash. An apparatchik now presided over an institution flash-frozen back into a Soviet mood of tension and xenophobia. I realised why business cares so much about political stability.
Kiseleva clasped my wrist and looked into my eyes. “I’m a scholar too. I’ve written seven books about this library, but I can’t do anything any more. You’ll have to go to the director. She won’t want to give you the microfilm. She thinks you’ll make money from it in the west.”
The idea of my donnish friend wheeling through Cambridge in a black Mercedes like a Petersburg mafioso, upon the publication of his Livy commentary, made me want to laugh. But I kept quiet and followed her up the staircase, past the guard-a grey woman in a yellowed glass booth-down a very long, dusty, corridor.
Founded by Peter the Great in 1714, the Academy of Sciences stands in the quiet of the university district, behind the pre-revolutionary stock exchange. It houses one of the world’s great manuscript collections: tens of thousands of Greek, Latin and mediaeval volumes. Eight years ago, Kiseleva published a guide to the library’s rare books. A year later a fire, caused by faulty wiring, ravaged t…