In this article I will try to do my best to give you a few tips on what to see in case the road takes you into the capital of the Russian Federation. First of all, in case you are not fluent in Russian (such as myself at the moment) please take your time to learn the basics of the language because very few people speak English. Learning Cyrillic script is very easy and it’s very useful. In case you are a fellow speaker of any Slavic language, the knowledge of the Cyrillic script and that language is quite enough for some basic communication and finding your way around the city. In my previous article on Moscow I wrote about Ismailovo, and you can read about it here in case you missed it.
So, now that we got this out of our way we can start talking about the important things. Today we are going to have a quick look at the museums the city has to offer. In case you are interested in shopping books, there are a few places we can recommend. More on that topic in the article to follow.
Little known is the fact that the Russian State Library (Российская государственная библиотека) is the third or the fourth largest library in the world (depending on the sources you look up) after The Library of Congress and The British Library. The library has it’s own metro station called Biblioteka Lenina/ Lenin’s Library (Библиотека имени Ленина) and it is very hard to miss. While Dostoevsky’s monument “guards” the knowledge and the books in front of the 19th century library, the entrance is guarded by state police. A short note to first time travelers- Russian authorities take culture very seriously so don’t be shocked if you are required to go through a metal detector while entering any museum or any institution in general. Entering through the main entrance, the spirit of the October revolution can be felt in all it’s pomposity. Marbled halls adorned with futuristic candelabras and lighting are the first thing one sees while entering. While the interior is stunning the books also fail to disappoint. There is a floor dedicated to rare books and to printing in general. Many things are displayed, from the first book printed in Russia, the Moscow Apostolos (Московский Апостол) by author unknown (1564), the first book with a known author, The Ostrog Bible (Острожская Библия) by Ivan Fedorov (Иван Фёдоров) (1581) but also some very rare editions of the Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы) by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский).
Besides “normal” editions, so to speak, one can view how books were hidden from Soviet censorship. There was a very interesting edition of a work of Pushkin rebound in a more contemporary paper binding with the title page replaced so it matched the title on the binding. Come to think of it, it’s a very ingenious method of hiding the real titles of books. The museum also exhibits a very interesting section with the tools of the book printing trade- from cliche’s to very old needles used for engraving from the Moscow Printing house and other places.
Make no mistake, the museum does not limit itself to books printed in Russian. Some rare jewels of Euroepan history can also be found there. Extremely rare an valuable books as Ptolomey’s Cosmographia and the Gutenberg Bible can also be seen.
Our next destination is the Moscow State Historical Museum (Государственный Исторический музей) located on the Red Square. While the Historical Museum holds a gigantic amount of archaeological digs and reliques from the Imperial period the most interesting section (for booklovers, of course) is from the Early Middle Ages to the end of the Enlightenment. From it’s funding (1448) and de facto recognition by the Constantinople Patriarchate 1589 ’till the 1762 secularization of the state by Peter III the Russian Orthodox Church was intertwined with the state on a more political level. During this period most of the books printed were, in nature, religious. As it was in European tradition, books used for service as well as books printed for household use by wealthy nobleman, were very richly adorned. From silver and gold bindings to precious stones encrusted in the bindings, the craftsmanship of bookbinders and goldsmiths of the period is unsurpassed.
The tradition of adorning books in a very luxurious manner stuck to some degree in Russian tradition so even later, imperial era books were very appealing to the eye. It’s a bit hard to describe, so I must suggest spending at least half a day in the museum to apriciate the skill of the bookbinders.
The third destination is also on the Red Square- the Kremlin Museum (Моско́вский Кремль). To have a full experience I would suggest taking a whole day for the visit and marking it on your schedule because it’s huge. Huge in the following sense. Immagine Pluto, that can be and can not be a planet, depending on your views on the latest news of astronomy, but it’s a celestial object nonetheless. Imagine that the most important historical findings of a whole planet (the size of Pluto) were concentrated in one place, that’s the Kremlin Museum. It’s a matter of dispute but the surface of Russia is approximately the size of Pluto. To get back to the matter at hand, since the museum is in the same complex of buildings as the home of the president of the Russian Federation, don’t let the very strict security measures surprise you. Once inside the building complex there is a lot to explore. From the section dedicated to the Proto-Slavic folk and early Slavic states to exhibit of the Imperial Russian era.
While for us book lovers there is a large number of manuscripts as well as printed books to be seen inside the museum. Very beautiful adorned bindings that were passed from ruler to ruler and kept in the best of conditions. Commissioned by Tzars and Emperors, these relics are there for everyone to see.
Saved by the brave souls from the Napoleonic wars and the great fire of Moscow in 1812, the hands of Soviet censorship, and finally from the Bombing of Moscow in 1941, this books truly withstand the test of time, and if this is not a reason enough to see them, I don’t know what it is.
The booklovers guide will continue in a following article.