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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…

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