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Russian Collections

This page provides an overview of the Russian Collections, illustrated by specific examples. We acquire material across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences published in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and material in the languages of those countries published anywhere in the world.

Skazka o tsare Saltane

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin from Pushkin's Skazka o tsare Saltane (St Petersburg, 1907) []. Copyright © The British Library Board



The Library's Russian collections have had a distinctive role from the beginning of its existence. Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections formed the basis of the British Museum (founded in 1753), corresponded for many years with members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, of which he was made an honorary member in 1734. Academy publications in German or Latin sent to him from Russia feature in the foundation collections, as well as a number of early-printed books in Russian and Church Slavonic. A number of 17th century Russian imprints are also to be found in the Library of King George III, presented to the British Museum in 1823.

However, the systematic acquisition of Russian books began only in the 1840s under the expert guidance of Panizzi's assistant Thomas Watts (1811-69), a gifted linguist with a phenomenal memory, and the author of the much-quoted words that the aim of the British Museum was " unite with the best English library in the world the best Russian library out of Russia, the best German out of Germany, the best Spanish out of Spain, and so for every language, from Italian to Icelandic, from Polish to Portuguese". Watts was succeeded by a series of distinguished curators with a knowledge of Russian, who, in fruitful partnership with the bookseller Adolphus Asher (who had offices in St. Petersburg, Berlin and London), built up the Russian collections, so that by the end of the 19th century they were indeed unrivalled outside Russia. Selection was done from catalogues and bibliographies obtained from Russia by Asher. Surviving marked-up copies of these indicate the breadth of subject coverage. In 1873 a large part of the collection of Sergei Aleksandrovich Sobolevskii (1803-70), an assiduous and discriminating book collector, was purchased. His collection was particularly strong in bibliography, travel and folklore, and was also rich in 18th-century material.

Cooperation with Asher continued into the 20th century, although inadequate funding and the turbulent political events in the first four decades of the century resulted in less than satisfactory coverage. Many gaps for the period 1900-1930 were filled later, but for the 1930s and 40s there are still weaknesses in the Library's holdings. At the end of the 1950s exchanges were set up with libraries in all the republics of the FSU and several in Russia. Some of these exchanges still flourish, but since the beginning of the 1990s we have also been using a wide range of commercial suppliers. There is a bias towards material about Russia, but some academic works on more general subjects are also acquired. At present about 5000 monographs a year are acquired, as well as a wide range of periodicals.

The Collections

The exact size of the Russian holdings is not known, since, like other country/language holdings, they have no separate catalogue and are dispersed within the rest of the collections. There are approximately 84,000 titles in Russian in the current catalogue (which covers items acquired since 1975).

In the following text, codes which appear in brackets after references ([25.f.14] or [Cup.645.a.6]) indicate British Library shelfmarks.

17th century

The Library has twenty 17th-century books printed in Moscow. These include: the first dated Moscow printed book, Fedorov's Apostol of 1564 [C.104.k.11]; the first Moscow Bible of 1663 [1.f.12] the first secular books to be printed in Muscovy - the military manual Uchenie i khitrost' pekhotnykh liudei of 1647 [25.f.14] and [533.k.17/2], and the code of civil law, the Ulozhenie of 1649 [C.54.k.8]; also the book which caused the great schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Kormchaia kniga of 1649-53 [Cup.410.c.136]. Besides these, a number of rare small-format primers, psalters and books of hours are also held. The first Russian newspaper Sanktpeterburgskie vedomosti is held at British Library Newspapers on microfilm [MF.1228.A]. Holdings to 1700 are described in the publication Cyrillic books printed before 1701 in British and Irish collections: a union catalogue, compiled by R. Cleminson, C. Thomas, D. Radoslavova, A. Voznesenskij (London: The British Library, 2000).

18th century

18th-century holdings are the largest and most diverse in the United Kingdom. Between 500 and 600 works in Russian or Church Slavonic are held as well as books in West European languages printed in Russia. There is a good spread of both religious (biblical and liturgical) and secular material, the latter including literary and scientific works, history, geography and linguistics. Publications of the Russian Academy of Sciences are particularly well represented, but there are also Moscow imprints and some provincial publications. The collection is strong in editions of Trediakovskii and Sumarokov, to be found in few other UK libraries, and those of Lomonosov, which are less rare. The magnificent series Rossiiskii teatr (pts. 1-38, 40-43) [1343.h.1-21] is an invaluable source for 18th-century Russian drama, and the series of articles and publications of old documents Drevniaia rossiiskaia vivliofika (2nd ed., 20 parts [], and its Prodolzhenie, 11 parts [1313.f.10-15]) is an equally useful source for the study of history and antiquities.

In 1975 sixty-three 18th-century volumes were purchased from the Diaghilev-Lifar collection, including many important literary works, including F.A. Emin's Nepostoiannaia fortuna (1792) [1568/4651]. All 18th-century holdings, except for recent acquisitions, are listed in Drage, C.L. Russian and Church Slavonic books 1701-1800 in United Kingdom libraries (London, 1984). Holdings of books in Church Slavonic can be found in Church Slavonic entries from the British Library General Catalogue, prepared by Brad Sabin Hill (London: The British Library, 1992).

19th century

The wealth of the 19th-century collections is difficult to describe briefly. Perhaps the greatest strengths are runs of publications of imperial learned societies which provide sources for the study of history (Imperatorskoe Obshchestvo Liubitelei Drevnei Pis'mennosti, Imperatorskoe Istoricheskoe Obshchestvo) and antiquities (Arkheologicheskoe Obshchestvo, Imperatorksoe Istoricheskoe Obshchestvo); geography (Imperatorskoe Geograficheskoe Obshchestvo); economics and agriculture (Imperatorskoe Vol'noe Ekonomicheskoe Obshchestvo). These are just a few examples. Publications of various imperial ministries are also widely represented, and there are good runs of periodicals, such as Vestnik Evropy [Cup. 900.aa.2] and [W.19] or Russkoe bogatstvo [PP.4853.ab] and [Mic.F.431]. A number of 19th-century journals were destroyed during World War II, but most have since been replaced in microform. Many first editions of major writers are also held (Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin (1833) [C.127.dd.3] and Boris Godunov (1831) [C.114.n.8], Gogol's Mertvye dushi, originally entitled Pokhozhdeniia Chichikova (1842) [C.116.f.8] and his Revizor (1836) [C.114.h.5], Dostoevskii's Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1867) [Cup.402.c.38], Idiot (1874) [C.114.h.10] and Besy (1873) [12590.g.2], and Tolstoi's Voina i mir (1868) [C.116.f.11].

The 19th-century Russian collections also provide good sources for picture material, particularly in the following areas: antiquities, architecture (both ecclesiastical and secular), costume, decorative arts, fine arts; richly illustrated coronation albums; portraits, especially of the Russian Imperial family; lavishly illustrated monographs from the last two decades of the 19th century - topographical, decorative arts, fine arts, often illustrated by chromolithography and with ornate design and bindings in the "Russian style" (for example, Kutepov's Velikolepnaia i Tsarskaia okhota na Rusi, illustrated by Samokish and Vasnetsov. [L.R.30.c.6]). Rovinskii's alboms of lubki [L.R.413.g.1] and his dictionary of engravers [L.R.35.d.11] are also held.

There are good sources for the study of heraldry and genealogy.

The British Library also holds a unique collection of Pre-revolutionary Russian bonds which were deposited in the Library by the FCO after they were redeemed in the late 1980s.

20th century

The collection has a great deal of material which documents the political ferment in Russia and in emigration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Lenin and many other revolutionaries who studied in the British Museum left their mark on the collections (see Lenin at the British Library): in the first two decades of the 20th century the Library received hundreds of donations of revolutionary pamphlets and journals of Russian left-wing political parties, published in London, Paris and Geneva, and after 1917, in Russia. Gaps in these collections have recently been filled by microfiche from the IDC series "Russian political parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries". The Tyrkova-Williams Collection, which consists of books, brochures, leaflets, articles and bulletins collected largely from the White occupied zone, 1918-1921, is an important source for this period.

For the early 20th century, there are good visual arts collections, with holdings of Silver Age art periodicals (Zolotoe runo [Cup.1247.k.5], Starye gody [PP.1931.pmg], Vesy [Cup.408.p.17] and Mir iskusstva [(PP.1931.pmb]). The period 1910-1930 is represented by a large collection of Russian avant-garde material, which includes futurist lithographed livres d'artiste, and constructivist books of the 1920s. There are a number of examples of the best book design of the 1920s. The 1930s are not so well covered, but there are a number of examples of monumental socialist realist books design.

Posters are not generally collected, but exceptions are: a collection of World War I propaganda posters [H.S.74/273], some of them by Maiakovskii and Malevich; a collection of Civil War anti-Bolshevik posters [1856.g.9(1-19)] and [1856.g.8(1-14)]); and a collection of communist posters of the early 1920s brought back from Russia by the British Labour delegation [Cup.645.a.6]. From the late 1950s onwards there is near to comprehensive coverage of art monographs and periodicals and substantial exhibition catalogues produced by the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, as well as most monographs published by Avrora and Sovetskii khudozhnik. There is a small collection of livres d'artiste produced in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late 1980s, and 1990s and also some provincial examples (especially from Eisk) of neo-avant-garde Russian book design.

There is also a wide range of material on cinema and theatre.

Literary collections (belles-lettres and literary history and criticism) are very extensive, especially for 1900-30 and post-1960. Journals, especially "thick journals" have always been a high priority.

There is a wealth of material for research into the Soviet period, especially extensive for the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years: for example, Party and regional government documents, law, statistics (including population censuses), economics, World War II memoirs. Publications of the Academy of Sciences and its numerous institutes are well-represented. Throughout the years we have also attempted to cover émigré material wherever published.

The Library has a collection of "independent" or "informal" publications, the samizdat of the Gorbachev era - about 500 titles published by political parties and other groups covering the whole spectrum of opinion through national-patriotic, anarchist, communist, monarchist, green, feminist, etc. (and also including "subculture" and popular culture material). A microfiche set of informal publications held by the Russian State Public Historical Library (Kollektsiia nezavisimoi pechati SSSR, 1987-1990) is also held [Mic.F.861]. For details of holdings of specific microform resources, see Slavonic and East European microform resources.

Since 1990, the acquisition of material from both new commercial and former state publishers has continued. Special attention has been paid to: the rewriting of history, for example political and camp memoirs; reference works (biographical and bibliographical dictionaries, guides to archives); government publications; legal and statistical material; political parties; new journals (some of them very short-lived); literary works by new authors; previously unpublished works by and about early Soviet writers; post-glasnost sociology. Material on traditional subjects - pre-revolutionary history, historical bibliography, manuscripts, continues to be collected.

The above description applies to material for which the Russian Section is responsible for acquiring, i.e. humanities and social sciences publications in European languages published in Russia and other FSU countries, and publications in Russian wherever published. This is supplemented by other material about Russia, i.e. British books and serials which are received on Legal Deposit, and publications selectively purchased from Europe and North America.

Russian material is listed in the printed volumes of the British Library General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1975 (for material acquired before 1975 only) and via Explore the British Library online. Material acquired and catalogued prior to 1975 is in Cyrillic (with headings in transliteration); post-1975 material, however, is displayed in transliterated form, according to Library of Congress rules. For information on searching and transliteration, please see Searching for Cyrillic items in the catalogues of the British Library: guidelines and transliteration tables.

Catalogues, printed guides and other resources

  • A catalogue of Russian avant-garde books, 1912-1934, ed. Peter Hellyer (London: British Library Board, 1994) [2725.g.1780] - a comprehensive list of Russian avant-garde material held in the British Library Collections.
  • Church Slavonic entries from the British Library General Catalogue, [prepared by Brad Sabin Hill] (London: The British Library, 1992) [2725.g.1675].
  • Cyrillic books printed before 1701 in British and Irish collections: a union catalogue, compiled by R. Cleminson, C. Thomas, D. Radoslavova, A. Voznesenskij (London: The British Library, 2000). [HLR011.440947]
  • Drage, C.L. Russian and Church Slavonic books 1701-1800 in United Kingdom libraries (London, 1984) [RAR094.30947] and [2725.g.307] - lists all 18th century holdings, except for recent acquisitions.

Other resources

Russian material elsewhere in the British Library


Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7587


Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582