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 the building. Some 300,000 books were reduced to ash, a million more to pulp, blasted by the hoses of incompetent firemen.
She took me first to the Manuscript Room to discuss tactics. Motioning me to sit at one of the desks, she disappeared through a door, returning with a red folio under her arm. “You see how fine it is.” Laying it gently before me: “Fifteenth century, probably Genoese; it came here in the last century from the private library of one of the Tolstoys.” The close-pored parchment crackled as she turned the leaves of pale brown script, illuminated with gold, red, green, and blue. Her eyes were full of tears. “These old books are all we have. You cannot know how hard this life is for us.” (I ask for Livy and she throws in the complete works of Chekhov.) “You are young and rich and you can do anything you like. I’ve worked in here all my life and I earn 30 dollars a month. I have nothing else…” Another sigh and, to my relief, she changes register.
“Present the director with a written request.” She handed me a sheet of paper and began to dictate-in the language in which one submits to bureaucrats-phrases it took a long Soviet education to master.
A succession of women in shawls and slippers goes in and out of the director’s office with papers to be signed as I wait my turn in the anteroom. Her office is bare but for two red telephones, like children’s toys. I slide my request and the hundred pounds’ worth of books across the desk. “And your documents?” I rummage, pull out my Cambridge University Library pass. The director is unimpressed. “I want a letter from the director of Cambridge University.” She opens one of the books. “How much is a hundred pounds in dollars? What are these anyway?”
“They’re the books Kiseleva requested, Aelfwine’s Prayerbook and The Anglo-Saxon…” She cuts me off. “Kiseleva has nothing to do with this. You should have come to me.” Long, tight pause, “I shall see whether we want these books. And you will have to pay cash for the film.” I am to return tomorrow.
Trolleybus 7 grinds across the Neva, which swirls with effluent from factories upstream. A banner over the bridge pleads “Let us leave our children a clean river.” On the other side, in the centre of the city, young men stroll along the Nevsky Prospekt, talking on mobile phones. The only queues now are outside the currency exchanges.
I cross the river again next morning to petition the director, who receives me with an acid smile. “Permission has been given. We will take the books. The film will cost 500,000 roubles.” Quick calculation. That’s over $100. I tell her that is several times more than a microfilm would cost anywhere in the world. “I know how much it costs in the British Museum: it’s a hundred pounds sterling a page. So please don’t haggle with me.” I bite my lip.
Deal done, I am sent back to the care of Kiseleva. Swaddled manuscript in her arms, she leads me across the library courtyard, past a burnt-out lorry and piles of rotting wood. A padded door opens into the eerie blue light of a film-processing laboratory where a squinting technician takes the manuscript and tells me to return at five. I part with Kiseleva, tearful again, by a rusty drainpipe in the courtyard. “Tell your colleague I bow to him. I respect his work.” n