How Russian Czar’s Library Ended Up In America

1816 Bible, Imperial Russia © Tamoikin Art Fund

Fascinating History of the Royal Library from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia

To the memory of Murray Walpole

By Natalia Koutovenko Ph.D.

Almost 30 years ago I happened to study and work at the Library of Congress (LC) in Washington DC for 4 months. The group consisted of 12 librarians from the former socialist block countries and some former USSR republics. We were very lucky to listen to the lectures of the leading specialists of the LC and then to use our knowledge and skills in practice. The program was fully sponsored by American billionaire George Soros.


Since my doctoral dissertation was connected with the machine-readable (MARC) format of the LC, I read a lot about the library, history of its catalogs and collections. I knew that the LC had the largest collection of Russian language books outside Russia and that the library purchased the famous Yudin collection of books mainly about Siberia in 1907. 

Once at lunch during Soros program I met Murray Walpole who was working at the Rare Book and Special Collections Division with the Imperial Library (IL). He showed me the collection and after that he agreed to invite me to work with it – to transfer the catalog from cards into MARC format. 

By 1917 there were twelve libraries in the Winter Palace and other royal palaces which belonged to His Imperial Highness. It included the famous library of the diplomat and Minister of Foreign Affairs count A.B.Lobanov-Rostovskii (1824 – 1896) bought by Nicholas II after the owner’s death.


The IL was the personal collection of books which belonged personally to the last Russian tsar Nicholas II Alexander III. There were several books from the libraries of the summer palaces like Katherine’s palace from Tsarskoe Selo (now Pushkin) and Pavlovskii Palace in Pavlovsk (both royal summer residences).  Вooks could be recognized by the binding: red morocco with gold stamping from the collection of  tsarina Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796), or of green and bright red morocco embellished by stamping on the front cover, the super-exlibris of the tsar Paul I (1754- 1801) and his wife tsarina Maria Fedorovna (1759-1828), or of half-leather and full-leather with monogrammed super-ex-libris of the last Russian tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918) – the books were always impressive by their refinement, modesty, and lofty dignity (2).

According to the rules of the royal house, each book collection assumed the character of memorial after the death of the owner and was passed on hereditarily to the next emperor who included it in his own collection but kept it on separate shelves and did nothing to change its composition. The only exceptions were the following libraries: of tsarina Catherine the Great who, when she ascended the throne, gave her library to the new museum; the library of her husband tsar Peter III, which Catherine had joined to her own collection and which became the possession of the Hermitage; and the collection of tsar Alexander I (1777 – 1825), which the tsar donated to the Hermitage in 1814 (2).


The books that were ordered from abroad were mostly foreign books, and for this reason the Russian part of the Imperial libraries was filled out with the obligatory copies which were acquired by the publishing house of the second department of the Private Chancellory of the emperor. From here into every one of the palaces – the Winter Palace,  the Anichkov Palace, the Elagin Palace, the Katherine’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, palaces in Peterhof , and Gatchina –  was sent a copy of the full collection of the code of laws and other books dealing with the law. Later on, part of this literature was given in duplicate to the library of the Hermitage, but in 1915 the law on obligatory copies was changed and from that time the imperial libraries received only one copy of these editions.

As far as the book got into the library it was brought into book acquisitions area. The editions which did not have bindings were sent to be bound. The books received partial-leather binding of different colors. The Russian editions had brown leather, the French, blue, English red, German green.  After the binding, the book received an inscription on the right side of the end leaf as the book was to be passed on to the library for which it was intended. The book received ex-libris of the library where it would be located. Then the book was entered into the catalogue according to the subject. The book received a precise call number (the number of the stack in the general collection and the shelf and an ordinal number) by means of which the book could be found in general collection. Finally, the book received a card which was entered in the alphabetic catalogue.


The archives and the libraries of the members of the imperial family were not strictly closed collections, but visiting them and working with them were exceptional. 

The libraries of the members of the royal family were under the direction of the Ministry of the Imperial Court, like it was the Hermitage itself. Up until 1861 the chief of the first department of the Hermitage was also the general director of the libraries belonging to His Imperial Majesty, in charge of adding on to these collections and of their preservation (2).

Expenditures for books in this period differed from year to year. In 1842 the cost of French works in fine edition with engravings totalled 5,013 francs, in 1852, 29,681 francs. In addition, the year’s binding cost 1,640 rubles (2).

Of course, it was very interesting for me to know about the fate of the IL and how it ended up at the LC. After the October Revolution of 1917 many pieces of art were sold abroad to get hard currency. The Hermitage collection was not an exception. This also led to Andrew Mellon’s splendid purchase of notable paintings from the Hermitage museum for the emerging collection of the National Picture Gallery in Washington.


The most of the world is not aware of the fact that more than 2,500 volumes (to be exact 2,537 ) of the royal family’s personal Library from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, survived WWI, revolution, civil war and ended up at the LC. It was fully catalogued in 1992.

Books, which family read, belonged to Tolstoy, Turgenev, and tsar’s favourite Gogol. There were not only books read in the family, but also favorite tsarina’s and the princesses’ English novels. The book ‘’Little Men’, by American Louisa May Alcott, bears the inscription ‘For darling Tatiana from Papa and Mama, Jan.12, 1909’”. Many inscriptions are in pencil in Russian. Only the books given the children by tsarina Maria Fedorovna, tsar’s mother, carry inscriptions in ink (5). There were also books  on law, military art, history, archeology, art history,  medicine, mathematics, geography, and religion. The tsar Nicholas II could read Russian, English, French, and could also manage some German and Danish, his mother’s native language. 

Every year tsar’s librarian provided at least 20 best books from around the world. (1)

After the October Revolution of 1917 all private royal residences were declared state treasures, and the Artistic-Historical Committee of the Winter Palace became responsible for the preservation of the artistic monuments of the museum significance. This committee was created from the Committee for Description and Acquisition of palace belongings after the February Revolution. Compiling a catalogue on Palace belongings on October 27, the members of the committee began a description of those places of those places which had been subjects of destruction (they were more than hundred) (2). 


The official report of the committee of the Winter Palace was the document upon which the search of the stolen pieces was based. Half of them were found or returned after the publication of the order. In 1918 the Committee was changed to the Committee for the Preservation and Registration of Monuments of Art and Antiquity and later was changed into a department of National Commissariat of Education. In 1921 it became the State Museum Trust.

The most important collections and private residences of Petrograd (former St.Petersburg)  were after nationalization turned into museums. These were the Stroganovs’ Palace (now part of the Russian Museum), Sheremetievs’ Palace (now a museum again), Yusupovs’ Palace (now a museum), and Shuvalovs’ Palace (now a Museum of Faberge). They became the Museums of Daily Life of the Peasantry and Nobility. 


Every residence had a splendid book collection gathered for a long period of time.  These collections shared in full the fate of their residences (majority of them were closed in late 1920-ies), and the book collections became   the part of the Hermitage collection. Later some of them could be found in the New York Public Library.

Perhaps the liquidation of these museums was the result of the decision of selling their treasures in future abroad for hard currency.

From  1924-1928 the transfer of artistic collections of these museums into the collections of the History-Sociology department of the Russian Museum took place. The collection of Stroganovs’ Palace was an exception: it became the branch of the Hermitage and later merged with the museum’s collection. The collections of Princes Oldenburgs, the Anichkov Palace, and the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich were also incorporated into the Hermitage (2). 


How did the Imperial Library get to the LC? In the late 1920-ies-1930-ies Soviet Russia was desperate for currency to fulfill collectivization and industrialization plans and to build the new economy.  But the USSR was isolated and weak (the USA recognized the USSR only in 1933). To the Soviet leaders, books, manuscripts, artworks, or jewels of the old regime were “bourgeois trappings” from the Soviet Utopia. 

By the 1930-ies whole warehouses of imperial artwork were offered to the Diplomatic Corps and to the embassy staff. In this way Hillwood, the Washington D.C. estate of Marjorie Meriweather Post, now a private museum, became the repository of the largest collection of tsarist decorative art in the world outside Russia.

Speaking about the books from the  tsar’s library, the Soviet government sold them by the weight in the 1920-ies-1930-ies mainly to the American bookdealer Israel Pearlstein. Being gathered in wholesale round-ups from palaces and other estates, they had been dumped on warehouse floors and furniture. From the invoice found at the LC It becomes clear that Pearlstein paid under $4 a volume (including the ones with the autographs). Realizing their cultural and historical value, he wanted them to go to the scientific and research libraries (not private collectors) ( 6 ).


In 1931 fiscal year the LC bought from Perelstein the portion of the Winter Palace Library of Nicholas II (1,733 volumes) (3). The second portion of this library came to the LC a year later. The second portion contained 409 titles, representing 905 volumes. Of these titles 35 (representing 130 volumes) are legal items and 82, representing 368 volumes, are official Russian documents. The remaining 407 volumes refer to history, literature, biography, science, religion, and military art and science (4).

Pearlstein also made gifts to the libraries. Before selling the Imperial Library to the LC, he donated there a documentary collection of charters, proclamations and patents of the Russian nobility for 1695 – 1914 years, and the rare Russian law books, that belonged to Catherine the Great, and the emperors Paul I, Nicholas I, Alexander II, and Alexander III.

That will serve an inexhaustible source for study of Slavic culture and literature outside of the homeland. 



1. Massie Robert. Nicholas and Alexandra. – N-.Y.: the Modern Libraries, 2012. – 639 p.

2. Pavlova Germaine. The Fate of the Russian Imperial Libraries. – Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 1986-1987, vol.87, No.4, p.358-403.

3. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the FiscaL Year Ending June 30, 1931.- Washington: Government Printing Office, 1931, pp.37, 457-459. 

4. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the FiscaL Year Ending June 30, 1932.- Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932, pp.22, 29, 88-89, 111-115, 338, 340.

5. The Kilgour Collection of Russian Literature 1750-1920. – Harvard College Library: Cambridge, Mass., 1959, p.311-366.

6. Where Is the Czar’s Library? – The Manuscript Society News, Vol.XII, No.1, Winter 1991, p.12-15.

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