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"The Czar's Library": Books from Russian Imperial Palaces
at the Library of Congress

Harold M. Leich,
Russian Area Specialist,
European Division

(An earlier version of this was published as a chapter in Anne Odom and Wendy R. Salmond, editors. Treasures into Tractors: the Selling of Russia's Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938 [Washington: Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 2009], 341-368. This article is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States).


In the 1930s and early 1940s the Library of Congress (LC) acquired about 2,800 volumes from the libraries of the tsars and their families, books from the imperial palaces in and around St. Petersburg.1 While the overall facts about this interesting and unusual acquisition by LC have been known for some time, many of the details remain mysterious and controversial. The study of the acquisition of the "Russian Imperial Collection" and its subsequent fate at LC reveals a number of interesting details about the Library both then and now. The aim of this paper is to review the story of LC's acquisition of the collection; to place the sales within the larger context of what was happening in Russian acquisitions at the Library of Congress; and to present some new archival evidence relating to the sales of the imperial volumes.

To summarize the acquisition by LC, the bulk of the Russian Imperial Collection was acquired from New York bookdealer Israel Perlstein in two purchases, in 1931 and 1932, and in a subsequent gift by Perlstein in 1933.2 The two large block purchases from Perlstein totaled 2,575 volumes. The first of the sales, completed in March 1931, received wide publicity in the national press 3 and was given prominent coverage in LC's own annual report for 1931.4 This first sale was also the largest, bringing to LC 1,670 volumes from imperial palace libraries. The second large purchase, offered to the Library by Perlstein in August 1931 (and delivered at that time to the Library "on approval") and finalized in March 1932, consisted of two separate parts, the total volume count for both totaling 905 volumes.

Finally, in September 1933 Perlstein made a gift to the Library of 21 books from the library of the children of Nicholas II. While few in number, these books are among the most interesting in the collection, because of their association with the heir and the grand duchesses and the poignant dedications and inscriptions written in the books, often in English, by Nicholas II and Alexandra.

The Library also purchased a small number of volumes from Russian imperial palace collections from New York antiquarian bookdealer Simeon Bolan from 1930 up until the early 1940s, chiefly the "Chertezhi i risunki" (plans and drawings) portfolio supplements to the Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii.5

Literature and Sources

The overall picture of LC's acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection is well known, thanks to previous research in the published literature and the LC Archives. Davis and Kasinec 6 has become the standard published treatment, because it is so thorough and makes extensive use of archival sources. While it naturally focuses on the New York Public Library's collection of books from Russian imperial palaces, it compares the experiences of other American libraries that purchased books from imperial palaces (Harvard, NYPL, and Stanford in addition to the Library of Congress). It also places the acquisitions within the larger context of what was going on in Russia at that time – the confiscation of Romanov and Church treasures, the nationalization of private and institutional library collections, and the sale of these abroad for hard currency. Earlier studies using documents from the LC archives had been done by Germaine Pavlova,7 Robert Karlowich,8 David Kraus,9 and David Rose,10 and date back to the 1970s and 1980s. Several studies from the 1990s and early 2000s treat the purchases in a more general way.11

In addition to published sources (e.g., Library of Congress Annual Reports) and manuscript evidence (the LC Archives in the Manuscript Division), several other categories of sources reveal additional information about the acquisition of the volumes and their later handling at LC: cataloging records, both manual and electronic; various internal inventory lists; order records and invoices; card files in several divisions at LC;12 and the books themselves.13

This paper utilizes the earlier published literature on the history of LC's acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection, as well as research in the Library's Archives, including a review of all purchase orders placed for the 1930-1936 period. I have also examined a number of volumes from the collection, and interviewed catalogers and curators who have over a period of years dealt with various aspects of the collection.

In my examination of relevant documentation in the LC archives, it soon became obvious that the records relating to the Russian imperial acquisitions are scattered in a number of files and subfiles. Not only the "central files," with correspondence by and to Librarian Putnam, but also the Order Division (called the Division of Accessions at the time) files retain interesting letters, lists of books, copies of orders, and invoices.14 The Order Division records themselves are divided into several parts, including correspondence with specific dealers, the chronological file of all orders placed, and a separate "Czar's Library" subject file.

In addition, some divisions (primarily the Rare Book/Special Collections Division and the European Division) retain files that appear not to be duplicated in the main LC archives in the custody of the Manuscript Division. Finally, at least some important information regarding the purchases was not documented in writing at all – particularly phone calls and personal visits to book sellers that Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam had a penchant for making when in pursuit of major collections. Despite these issues, however, the archival documentation at LC is very revealing about the imperial palace collection and critical for understanding exactly what happened in its acquisition.

The Acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection at the Library of Congress:
The First Large Purchase

Quite apart from the large "block" acquisitions, the Library had used both Perlstein and Bolan as suppliers of Russian books as early as 1927.15 Purchase recommendations from the late 1920s originated in LC's Law Library or the Division of Documents, while on occasion Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam himself concluded deals with Perlstein, on the phone or through personal visits while Putnam was in New York or Perlstein in Washington.16

The Slavic Division is conspicuous by its complete lack of involvement in the acquisition of Russian items from Perlstein. LC continued to use both Perlstein and Bolan as suppliers of Russian materials (almost entirely pre-revolutionary) into the early 1940s, and additional volumes from imperial libraries and palaces – as well as many hundreds more ordinary Russian books – were acquired from them (many of them ordered by the Law Library for its collections), although not on the scale of the two large block purchases of 1931 and 1932. The precise volume count of the imperial palace titles acquired outside the two major block purchases and one gift is not known, but is probably less than two hundred, bringing the total volume count for the Russian Imperial Collection to around 2,800.

Librarian of Congress Putnam's active personal role in using Perlstein as a source of Russian acquisitions for LC is documented in an internal memorandum dated December 12, 1927 from Putnam's chief assistant, Frederick William Ashley, to the Chief of the Accessions Division, Linn R. Blanchard: "The Librarian has personally placed with Israel Perlstein ... an order for a considerable amount of Russian Law material, some of which is to come on approval."17 Additional law materials and government documents were ordered from Perlstein sporadically during the late 1920s and early 1930s, usually following a set pattern: Perlstein would offer LC collections of materials (primarily legal materials and pre-revolutionary government documents); the appropriate officials (usually John Vance, Law Librarian; or Henry Furst, Chief of the Division of Documents) would recommend the purchase; Putnam's chief assistant Ashley would approve the transaction; and, finally, the Accessions Division would place the order, process the actual items, and authorize payment to Perlstein.18 In some cases, apparently, Perlstein would simply show up at the Library with boxes of books and leave them "on approval," awaiting a decision whether LC wanted to purchase them.

The first mention of the "czar's library" in the correspondence appears in a January 26, 1931 letter from Perlstein to Linn R. Blanchard (Division of Accessions):

I am today bringing to the Library on approval several sets of documents which were recommended for purchase a few weeks ago by the Chief of the Documents Division, together with certain samples from the library of the Czar (Nicholas I [sic]). These are principally illustrations of fine binding but include some law books supplementing the law books from the same collection which I brought to you a few weeks ago and which are now in the Law Division.

I realize that you cannot take time to list these volumes and I assume all responsibility for them while they are in your custody.19

In a postscript to this letter, Perlstein notes, "Five more packages of law books from the Czar's library were received on the same conditions on Feb. 11, 1931."20

On February 3, 1931, the Chief of the Accessions Division wrote to Perlstein,

I have just had a word with Dr. Putnam about the Czar's Library, but he is of the opinion that it is somewhat out of our field. He therefore does not wish to consider it for purchase as a whole. He is very much interested, however, in your proposal to separate the law items and sell those to us as a unit. Will you not give us a quotation on the law items, all of which I understand are now here in our Law Division? Shall we return to you the other volumes in the Czar's Library that you brought here, or shall we hold them until your next visit to Washington?21

Perlstein responded ten days later with a formal, more detailed letter repeating his offer to sell LC a large collection of books originally from the Winter Palace – not only the law books in which Putnam was interested (50 titles in 179 volumes), but also "Slavic" (465 titles, 720 volumes), Documents (75 titles in 306 volumes), "English, French, German, Swedish, etc." (182 titles in 270 volumes), and "Judaica" (8 titles in 17 volumes). The total asking price was $9,000. In addition, Perlstein notes,

I also offer 110 items of music consisting of 117 volumes, total price $1,000.00. If the Library chooses to accept this second offer I will include with it a duplicate set of Military Regulations of the Russian Empire consisting of 17 volumes (entire set has book plates of the Czar Alexander III). ... and about 30 more volumes, not listed on the attached cards, from the same collection.22

A partially illegible handwritten note in pencil at the bottom of Perlstein's letter notes that "Perlstein gives a 2-week option from Feb. 25, 1931 on the collection...." A note at the top of the letter written by Chief Assistant Librarian Ashley notes, "This was answered verbally to Perlstein on Tuesday or Wednesday of the week of Feb.16-21. Offer not accepted."23 Apparently Putnam still did not want to acquire the collection in toto.

A letter dated February 14, 1931 preserved in the archives presents the strong positive recommendation to Putnam by Charles Martel, Consultant in Cataloguing, Classification and Bibliography,24 for the acquisition of the collection as offered by Perlstein:

After an examination of the card catalogue of the collection offered by Mr. Perlstein, I am of the opinion that it consists, practically without exception, of material desirable for the Library. ...

A number of them are uncommon and important, including limited editions privately printed, etc. All of them are in exceptionally fine condition. ...

Under the circumstances, the price asked appears surprisingly moderate – the average, ca. $6 per volume, a bargain. I recommend acceptance of the offer subject only to the reservation that the Russian titles be examined by the Slavic Section and a fairly close estimate made of possible duplication in the Yudin collection.25

By mid-March 1931, however, Putnam had somehow been persuaded to purchase the entire collection 26 and changed his mind, reversing his earlier decision. On March 19 he authorized purchase of the entire collection as offered by Perlstein (1,774 volumes for $10,000), including the music items.27 In a separate memo Putnam requested a statement from Perlstein "... to the effect that he has full legal title to the collection; and will warrant the Library against any claim on account of it later presented." The order for the entire collection, accession number 409629, was drawn on March 24, 1931, although the order notes that all the items had actually been delivered to the Library.

Perlstein responded to Putnam's request for confirmation about legal title to the collection in a letter to Putnam dated March 20, 1931, citing a decree from March 1917 declaring the contents of the Winter Palace to be state property. Perlstein also provides in this letter some interesting background information on how he came to acquire the volumes from the Winter Palace library:

I am making the following statement in response to your request to be informed of the facts in connection with my purchase of the collection of books from the Winter Palace, in Leningrad, which the Library of Congress has, in turn, purchased from me. The Winter Palace adjoins the Aermitazh [sic] Museum of Leningrad. The collections of the Aermitazh Museum have been increased so greatly within the past few years that part of the Winter Palace has been utilized to keep the deposits of this Museum. Everything in the Winter Palace had to be removed and I believe that this is part of the reason why the Winter Palace Library had to be disposed of. On my last trip to the Soviet Union, during August, September and October, 1930, I purchased a collection of books formerly from the Winter Palace Library from two Soviet State concerns in Leningrad: Vsesoiuznoe Obiedinenie Antiquariat, and Mezhdunarodnoja [sic] Kniga. These books were shipped to me by the said concerns from the Port of Leningrad to New York City.28

The Acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection by the Library of Congress: Subsequent Events

The Library's 1931 annual report (covering July 1930-June 1931) presented the purchase of "the czar's library" as fait accompli.29 Later that year, however, in August 1931, Perlstein offered LC a second large block of books from imperial palace libraries.30 In a letter to Putnam dated October 7, 1931, Perlstein provided some background information on his second offering (409 titles, 905 volumes), explaining that he had unexpectedly come into possession of additional lots of books that the Soviets had made available for purchase:

... I authorized the Mezhdunarodnaia kniga to continue further efforts to obtain the whole balance or as many as the State Book Fund will finally decide to dispose of. ...

About one month later I received a bill from Mezhdunarodnaia kniga for $2,400, with a list of books shipped to me in 18 cases which I have not ordered. Later it proved that about 20% of that shipment was from the Czar's collection. I have accepted that shipment even though many of the books of the other 80% were not of sufficient interest to me. ...

Finally, on May 22, I received from the Mezhdunarodnaia kniga a radiogram which I am herewith enclosing, saying "We are offering the remainder from the Winter Palace and Konstantin 300 volumes 900 rubles cable Buchkniga."31 ... Without knowing anything about the contents of these books, I ordered them again. Upon receipt of same I found about 50 additional volumes from the "Winter Palace."

... I think that almost all these volumes are very important works and I am sure they would be valuable additions to the collections in the Library of Congress. There may be only about 5% duplicates. Should the Library not be interested in these or any others I'll have no objection if these items will be omitted and their price deducted.32

Perlstein thus had received, unexpectedly and with little advance warning, several additional shipments from Mezhdunarodnaia kniga 33 of imperial palace books, which he now offered to the Library. The jurisdictional breakdown of the offer was as follows: Law (35 titles, 130 volumes; $643); Slavic (292 titles, 407 volumes; $1,976.50); and Documents (82 titles, 368 volumes; $1,341).34

Even though this offer was made in August 1931, an order was not drawn until March 1932 (accession number 426451) – and then for only 318 titles in 757 volumes.35 The discrepancy is explained by a letter from Perlstein to Putnam dated April 15, 1932:

Among the approximately nine-hundred items in the second lot from the Winter Palace Library, which I offered for sale to the Library, last Fall, there were ninety-one items (in 148 volumes) which the Chief of the Slavic Division did not recommend for purchase because there were copies of them in the Yudin Collection.

In view, however, of the superior quality of these copies, as to paper, binding and state of preservation, I should be glad to let the Library retain these books, for $500.00, instead of the original price of $740.00.36

Perlstein's offer was accepted by Putnam, and on April 21 an authorization to acquire the additional 91 titles in 148 volumes was drawn (using the same accession number, 426451), thus completing the purchase by LC of the two large blocks of imperial library books.

In September 1933, Perlstein's secretary Rya Tchlenoff wrote to Linn Blanchard, Chief of the Accessions Division,

Before leaving for Russia, Mr. Perlstein has instructed me to ask you to accept for the Library, a small collection of books which, formerly, were part of the library of the children of Emperor Nicholas of Russia.

I am enclosing a list of these books, with translations of autographs and inscriptions. All of them have, in the upper right hand corner of the front cover, a small label, reading: "The Alexander Museum. Childrens' Quarters Schoolroom."

The collection is being shipped to the Division of Accessions, to-day.37

Coming up with a precise volume count for the large block purchases from Perlstein and the subsequent gift by him is difficult. Statistics for the number of titles represented are even more difficult to ascertain accurately. Moreover, figures on additional imperial palace books acquired by purchase from Perlstein or from Bolan are virtually impossible to derive, and it is entirely possible that Perlstein, Bolan, and other dealers as well sold to LC imperial palace volumes without being aware of their imperial provenance.38

Using figures given in the published LC annual reports as well as the Order Division archives, the following breakdown represents a fairly accurate count of the first two large purchases from Israel Perlstein and his subsequent gift of imperial palace items:39

Activity Titles Volumes
First installment (1931): 948 1,670
Second installment: First part (1932): 318 757
Second installment: Second part (1932): 91 148
Perlstein's gift (1933): 21 21
TOTAL: 1,378 2,596

As noted above, LC also acquired some imperial palace volumes from New York book dealer Simeon Bolan. These were primarily the illustrative materials ("chertezhi i risunki") issued in elegant portfolio cases as supplements to the complete collection of Russian laws. It appears that a few other imperial palace volumes were acquired from Bolan for LC's Law Library.40

An interesting question is whether LC acquired any imperial palace volumes from sources other than the New York vendors Perlstein and Bolan. It is well-known that the Soviets (through state book-exporting agencies such as "Mezhdunarodnaia kniga" and the more upscale art- and antiquities-exporting agency "Antikvariat") channeled many of the treasures confiscated and nationalized after the Russian revolution to select Western European and North American antiquarian book dealers and auction houses. Perlstein and Bolan were by no means the only dealers involved in the sales, although they appear to have been the chief ones operating in the U.S. and supplying to American libraries. I have examined a number of printed catalogs from book dealers and auction houses, and have not yet been able to identify even one imperial palace volume at LC acquired from a source other than Perlstein or Bolan.

My research, however, did turn up some interesting facts. First of all, LC received copies of Mezhdunarodnaia kniga's antiquarian catalogs shortly after they were published (many issues have the Accession Division's receipt stamp and date), and a number of these are marked by bibliographers for searching and possible ordering.41 It is unclear who sent these catalogs to LC -possibly Mezhdunarodnaia kniga itself, possibly Perlstein, Bolan, or other dealers. In any event, none of the 78 Mezhkniga catalogs published between 1924 and 1936 appear to contain imperial palace books. Furthermore, in sampling the items marked in LC's copies of these catalogs for searching, it appears that none of the actual volumes were in fact acquired from Mezhkniga.42

In addition, LC holds large numbers of antiquarian book catalogs from the late 1920s and early 1930s. I was able to locate six catalogs listing items explicitly noted as coming from Russian imperial library collections: two separate catalogs from Gilhofer & Ranschburg (Lucerne),43 and single catalogs from William Robinson (London),44 S. A. Georg (Paris),45 Joseph Baer,46 and the Plaza Book Auction Corporation (New York).47 Searching random samples of imperial volumes from these catalogs did not turn up even one case where LC's copy could be positively identified as having come from any of these bookdealers or auction houses.48

General Characteristics of the Russian Imperial Collection Titles

Some general characteristics of the contents of the Russian Imperial Collection at the Library of Congress can be given, based on the 1,313 records existing in LC's online catalog as of April 2006.49 In terms of dates of publication, the overwhelming majority (72%) of titles date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1870-1917). The summary breakdown by imprint year is as follows:

Date of
Total Number
of Titles
of Total
1649-1699 5 0.4
1700-1799 37 2.8
1800-1809 20 1.5
1810-1819 28 2.1
1820-1829 55 4.2
1830-1839 16 1.2
1840-1849 43 3.3
1850-1859 52 4.0
1860-1869 83 6.3
1870-1879 103 7.8
1880-1889 149 11.3
1890-1899 292 22.2
1900-1909 251 19.1
1910-1917 149 11.3
Date unknown
or uncertain
30 2.2
TOTAL: 1,313 

We can also give a general and very broad subject characterization of the collection, based on the LC classification assigned to each title:

(First Letter of LC Classification)
Total Number
of Titles
of Total Titles
A General Works; Periodicals 6 0.5%
B Philosophy; Religion 315 24.0
C, D, E, F History 219 16.7
G Geography, Sports, Folklore 17 1.3
H Social Sciences 50 3.8
J Political Science 43 3.3
K Law 210 16.0
L Education 11 0.8
M Music, Musicology 5 0.4
N The Arts 15 1.1
P Literature, Belles lettres 194 14.8
Q Science 17 1.3
R Medicine 8 0.6
S Agriculture 18 1.4
T Technology 13 1.0
U, V Military and Naval Sciences 157 12.0
Z Bibliography, Librarianship 1 <0.1
Unknown or unclear 14 1.0
TOTAL: 1,313  

It is interesting to observe that only five subject categories (religion, history, law, literature, military/naval) account for 84% of the total titles in the collection.

Regarding the language of the cataloged books, we have the following breakdown:

Language Number
of Titles
Percentage of Total
Russian 960 73%
French 176 13%
German 107 8%
English 27 2%
Danish 12 1%
TOTAL: 1,313  

Books in these five languages account for 97.6% of the cataloged collection of 1,313 titles (as of April 2006).

The contents of LC's Russian Imperial Collection are, it must be admitted, a "mixed bag." While not strictly speaking a collection of "coffee-table books," many of the items in the collection were presentation copies to the tsar that were probably never actually read, and are notable more for their binding and association with the imperial family than for their contents or literary value. On the other hand, other books were clearly read, particularly the small lot of books, donated by Perlstein in 1933, from the library of the grand duke Aleksei Nikolaevich and the four grand duchesses.

An intern at LC in the early 1970s wrote of the contents of the imperial collection:

With some exceptions ... the Winter Palace collection is fairly well devoid of scholarly interest, strictly from the point of view of its textual content. ... But the great appeal of the collection, to librarians and researchers alike, is in its provenance and particularly its bindings, many of which are fittingly sumptuous for a royal family.

...[T]he level of the materials is not high. Whatever value the collection has stems from its unique capability of giving an insight (if only fragmentary by virtue of its incompleteness) into the literary tastes and reading style of the ultimate aristocratic family of pre-revolutionary Russia. In other words, the ... collection is of interest mainly from the point of view of the sociology of reading. As a sample observation, one sees that huge sums of money were expended by the tsars for lavish and costly hand bindings for books of at best passing and evanescent interest in the midst of a larger social setting of poverty and illiteracy.50

The General Context for the Acquisition of the Collection: Russian Acquisitions at LC

To help put the acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection in perspective, I would like to review briefly the general context of Russian acquisitions at LC in the early 20th century. The Library had acquired the 80,000+ volume Yudin Collection in 1906/07, immediately making LC the largest Russian library collection in the United States.51 Few efforts were made, however, over the next decade or so to acquire additional Russian materials, and in fact lacunae in LC's holdings of Russian publications from 1906-1918 remain a problem to this day.

After Russian bibliographer Alexis Babine left the Library's employ in 1910 to return to his native Russia, there was no Russian specialist or bibliographer on staff at LC until around 1918, and further development of the Russian collections languished.52 Some Russian scientific items were received from the ongoing "Smithsonian Deposit" (not integrated into the regular LC collections until the 1930s), and in the mid-1920s the American Consulates in Riga, Latvia and Viipuri, Finland began to acquire Soviet publications on behalf of the Library.

Even after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the establishment at LC of a Slavic Section in 1918, acquisitions from Russia remained problematic. Since reliable acquisitions sources for Russian materials did not exist, most Slavic Section staff spent their time processing and servicing the original Yudin Collection and answering reference questions using items in it, rather than further developing the Library's Russian holdings. Furthermore, with no official U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, exchanges were difficult to arrange, and LC was simply not set up to do individual book selection and ordering, as is routine today, because of the lack of experienced and reliable book dealers.

Looking at the acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection with the benefit of hindsight and in the context of the preceding three decades of the Library's history, it is apparent that Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, incumbent in that position for forty years, 1899-1939, was instrumental in the acquisition, and that it fit right into the general temper of the Putnam years and his overall promotion of a much higher profile for LC. This was largely due to his activist, gregarious approach to fulfilling his obligations as Librarian of Congress. During his tenure and particularly in the early years, Putnam implemented major efforts at opening up and expanding LC, widening the scope of its activities, raising its national profile, and constantly honing his vision for LC as the de facto national library. Indeed, many features of LC's current identity and prominence, including efforts to build up selected foreign collections, date to the Putnam years and are direct results of his many initiatives.

Specifically regarding the acquisition of Russian imperial books in the 1930s, it appears, often from reading "between the lines" in the published and archival sources, that there were internal territorial battles and personality differences involved at LC. Apart from the Slavic Division (the former Slavic Section), several different LC divisions were interested in Russian acquisitions: at first, the Law Library and the Division of Documents; later on the Music Division and the Maps Division. Putnam himself often got personally involved in the purchase of large special collections and rare items, dealing directly with book dealers and often ordering items or entire collections on the spot. This is exactly what happened in the case of Israel Perlstein, the New York book dealer from whom LC ultimately acquired the majority of its Russian Imperial Collection volumes. One also picks up undercurrents of dislike or even hostility toward Perlstein on the part of Slavic Division staff. The Division maintained a remarkably low profile and role in the acquisition of the Russian Imperial Collection items – and apparently neither Alexis Babine nor his successor, Nicholas Rodionoff, nor any of the other senior staff in the Slavic Division, all of them revolution-era émigrés from Russia, showed any interest in dealing with Perlstein or, specifically, in acquiring items from Russian imperial libraries. They got involved only when their participation had been directly requested by Putnam.

Fate of the Russian Imperial Collection Volumes at LC

What happened to the imperial library books after their acquisition by the Library? Following Library procedure that remains standard to this day for most newly-acquired collections, the books were sent to the appropriate custodial divisions -- in this case the Law Library, the Music Division, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.53 In Rare Books and Law, the imperial palace volumes have been kept physically together as discrete collections in each unit's stacks. In the Music Division, however, the imperial palace books, consisting primarily of music scores along with a few musicological titles, were integrated in with all the other rare books in the division's custody. A detailed listing of the Russian Imperial Collection items in the Music Division's holdings was produced in 2014.54

In all these divisions there is interest in further research into the provenance of, and providing detailed copy-specific cataloging for, the imperial palace volumes. The Law Library in particular has in the past few years begun a program to catalog fully their Russian Imperial Collection volumes, including providing copy-specific information about bookplates, accession dates and numbers, etc. In some cases Law also plans to digitize illustrative materials (e.g. the "chertezhi i risunki" portfolios that accompany volumes of the Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii produced for the tsars).55

What is the current situation regarding cataloging of the imperial library books at LC? As noted earlier, as of April 2006 bibliographic records existed in LC's online catalog, for 1,313 titles marked as being part of the "Russian Imperial Collection." This is relatively close to the estimated 1,357 title figure given earlier for the two large block purchases in 1931 and 1932. The volumes still not cataloged are probably from the Law Library, which has recently embarked on a program to provide detailed, copy-specific cataloging for all its Russian imperial volumes.

The majority of catalog records for items in the Russian Imperial Collection are older, pre-computer era PreMARC records that may not be available in the large bibliographic database WorldCat/OCLC, although they are now accessible via LC's online catalog.56 In older cataloging practice, the phrase "Russian Imperial Collection" was added as part of the call number. For more recent, computer-era cataloging (and upgrading of older records), done since the late 1980s, a corporate added entry for "Russian Imperial Collection" has been added to the catalog records for Russian Imperial Collection titles.57


The Library of Congress in the 1930s was rapidly, aggressively, and consciously building up its foreign collections as part of an effort to raise its national and international profile as a major, world-class library and as the national library of the U.S. It is probably just coincidence that this was right at the time, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Soviets started selling off large quantities of books confiscated from imperial palaces and institutional and private libraries to Western book dealers and auction houses.58 Nevertheless, without overdramatizing the situation, one can see that this coincidence provided the Library the opportunity to acquire, at low cost and with much attendant positive publicity, a unique collection of materials that strengthened LC's position as the premiere Russian library collection in the U.S. and as a major center of research about Russia.

There are both "macro" and "micro" aspects to the study of LC's Russian Imperial Collection. At the micro level, it is hoped that some day we will have identified all the Russian imperial volumes at LC acquired over the course of a dozen or so years and provide full, copy-specific bibliographic entries for all of them. At a much broader level, the story of the acquisition provides a fascinating glimpse into one small aspect of the larger story of what the Soviets did with nationalized prerevolutionary treasures, and into one aspect of how the Library of Congress went about the business of collection building at one particular point in its history.

Quite aside from the acquisition by American libraries of volumes from the Russian imperial palaces, I would like to see further and broader research on the more general issue of book confiscation, nationalization, and redistribution from Russia to the West during the Soviet period (Mikhail Afanas'ev at the State Public Historical Library recently called for establishing a new discipline – the "genealogy of book collections").59 I am particularly interested in learning the extent to which LC and other American libraries acquired "relocated" books from exchange partners from the 1950s through the 1970s. In most cases provenance is difficult if not impossible to trace. But most likely many of the collections in this country built up in the Cold War period have confiscated and displaced books at the core of their collections.60

There are still many unknowns in the sales of Russian imperial palace books to LC and other U.S. libraries. Even though we know who most of the players were overall (e.g. Mezhkniga, Perlstein, Bolan, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, LC, NYPL, et al.), we don't know the exact relationships between them. How did Perlstein and Bolan get such amazing access to so many imperial palace items? Were any other Western dealers afforded comparable access? Precisely which American and Western European book dealers were able to buy volumes from the large stores of confiscated books (from imperial palaces and private libraries in general)? How did the Soviets divvy up the "loot" among the various auction houses and book dealers – was there a rational plan, or were the large quantities of books simply randomly and hastily divided up? Did Mezhdunarodnaia kniga itself sell any imperial palace items, and did it deal directly with libraries? What criteria were used in deciding which imperial-association books to sell abroad, and which to keep at Russian institutions? Where, other than the handful of U.S. libraries that we already know about, did the sold and auctioned imperial palace books end up? The possibilities for future research are many, and answers will require detailed research in the archives in Russia and at American libraries.


1 Statistics about the tsars' libraries, and those of members of their immediate families, are hard to come by. Valerii Durov, Kniga v sem'e Romanovykh (Moskva: Nash dom, 2000), pp. 24 ff. gives the following figures for libraries of the last three tsars: Nicholas II (primarily at the Winter Palace: 10,915 titles, 15,720 volumes). Alexander III (Anichkov Palace, 5,350 titles, 9,840 volumes; Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, ca. 900 volumes; Gatchina Palace, 97 periodical titles, 4,637 periodical issues). Alexander II (Winter Palace and Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo: 5,646 titles, 10,387 volumes).

2 On Perlstein, see Robert Karlowich "Israel Perlstein: a Talk Delivered at AAASS Panel on Eminent Slavic-American Bookmen, November 3, 1984" (unpublished typescript photocopy, European Division, The Library of Congress); Robert Karlowich, "Israel Perlstein and the Russian Book Trade in the U.S.," Newsletter, Slavic and East European Section, Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, no.3 (1987), pp.52-59; and "Israel Perlstein [obituary]," AB Bookman's Weekly, May 12, 1975, pp.2244-2246. Perlstein was the chief supplier to LC of Russian books in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. He supplied LC with the vast majority of the volumes in its Russian Imperial Collection (only one other book dealer, Simeon Bolan, is known to have also sold LC some imperial palace volumes).

3 "Books of Late Czar Bought for Nation," United States Daily, June 3, 1931, p.1; "Library of Congress Gets Books Once Czar's," New York Times, June 4, 1931, p.33.

4 Library of Congress. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1931 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1931), pp.38-42, 137-144, 223-225.

5 Very little biographical information is available for Simeon Bolan, who had been an employee of the Russian Embassy in Washington before the revolution, and worked for Israel Perlstein in New York in the 1920s, establishing his own book business around 1927. Information on Bolan has been supplied by Irina Tarsis (Houghton Library, Harvard University) in personal communications and in her unpublished paper read at the December 2004 AAASS conference, "How Did Harvard Get its Russian Books? Major Acquisitions Sources, 1920s-1930s." The "Chertezhi i risunki" order (accession #406656, January 20, 1931) is available in the Order Division papers in the LC Archives, Manuscript Division, accesssions records, book 143, box 17.

6 Robert H. Davis and Edward Kasinec. A Dark Mirror: Romanov and Imperial Palace Library Materials in the Holdings of the New York Public Library (New York: N. Ross, 1999).

7 Zhermen Pavlova, "Prodazha Sovetskim Soiuzom knig iz bibliotek imperatorskoi familii, 1920-1930 gg.," Books, Libraries and Information in Slavic and East European Studies: Proceedings of the Second International Conference of Slavic Librarians and Information Specialists, Ed. by Marianna Tax Choldin (New York: Russica, 1986), pp.111-128; Zhermen Pavlova, "Sud'ba russkikh imperatorskikh knizhnykh sobranii, po materialam nauchnoi biblioteki Ermitazha, S. Peterburg, Publichnoi biblioteki N'iu Iorka, i Biblioteki Kongressa," Biblioteki Peterburga-Petrograda-Leningrada: sbornik nauchnykh trudov (Sankt-Peterburg: Biblioteka Rossiiskoi akademii nauk, 1993), pp.114-138.

8 Robert Karlowich, "Israel Perlstein," 1984; Robert Karlowich, "Israel Perlstein," 1987.

9 David H. Kraus, "The Development of the Russian Collections at the Library of Congress Before World War II," Unpublished manuscript dated June 17, 1985. European Division, The Library of Congress.

10 David P. Rose, "Russian Winter Palace Collection," Internal Library of Congress Memorandum to William Matheson (Chief, Rare Book Division), dated November 16, 1972. Copy available in the files of the Russian Area Specialist, European Division, the Library of Congress.

11 See the following: Nikolas Il'in and Natal'ia Semenova, Prodannye sokrovishcha Rossii: istoriia rasprodazhi natsional'nykh khudozhestvennykh sokrovishch, konfiskovannykh u tsarskoi familii (Moskva: Russkii avangard, 2000); Mikhail D. Afanas'ev, "Eksport dorevoliutsionnykh knig iz SSSR v 1918-1930 gg.," Kniga, issledovaniia i materialy, vol. 79 (Moskva: Terra, 2001), pp.184-196; Waltraud Bayer, ed., Verkaufte Kultur: die sowjetischen Kunst- und Antiquitätenexporte, 1919-1938 (Frankfurt/Main: P. Lang, 2001); O. IU. Vasil'eva and P. N. Knyshevskii, Krasnye konkistadory (Moskva: Soratnik, 1994); Robert C. Williams, Russia Imagined: Art, Culture, and National Identity, 1840-1995 (New York: P. Lang, 1997).

12 The Rare Book/Special Collections Division maintains a card file with 762 entries, probably prepared by Perlstein but with LC call numbers and headings added later. This file seems to contain many, but not all, of the titles acquired in the two large block purchases from Perlstein, accession numbers 409629 (1931) and 426451 (1932). Cards in the old Official Catalog (frozen in the early 1980s but available in corridors on the sub-basement level of the Madison Building) occasionally contain acquisitions information. The old accession books ("Order Division records: Purchase Orders, Bound") with information about dealers used and copies of orders placed are maintained in the LC Archives in the Manuscript Division and have been microfilmed through May 1930, available in the original May 1930-.

13 Books from the Russian Imperial Collection usually bear bookplates, labels, or stamps from their original owners or libraries; their presence is not always noted in bibliographic records. Accession numbers, dealers' names, date of acquisition and occasionally date of cataloging are usually noted in pencil on the title page verso. Thus, the books themselves often contain important provenance and acquisitions information not present in the Library's acquisitions or cataloging records.

14 In addition to the Central Files with Putnam's correspondence, kept on-site in the Manuscript Division (with copies of most Perlstein-related correspondence also in files maintained by the Rare Book/Special Collections Division), the Order Division (Accessions Division) records, stored off-site, contain many relevant and interesting documents, and in several subunits: there is a separate "Czar's Library" file as well as correspondence with individual dealers with letters to and from Perlstein. Finally, copies of many pertinent documents from the LC Archives (especially from Putnam's and Perlstein's letters) have been made and are available in the Rare Book/Special Collections Division in a separate file.

15 The first mention I located in the LC Archives of Perlstein is a memorandum dated December 12, 1927, from Putnam's chief assistant Frederick William Ashley to the Chief of the Division of Accessions notifying him of a large order placed with Perlstein directly by Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central files (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division "Russian Imperial Collection" files).

16 For Herbert Putnam and his tenure at LC, 1899-1939, see especially Jane Aikin Rosenberg, The Nation's Great Library: Herbert Putnam and the Library of Congress, 1899-1939 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993); David C. Mearns, "The Story Up To Now" [History of the Library of Congress, 1800-1945], Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1946 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1947), pp.13-227; and John Y. Cole, "Putnam, Herbert," in John Y. Cole and Jane Aikin, editors, Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress, (Lanham, MD: Bernan Press, 2004), pp.443-445.

17 LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central File. Putnam correspondence. (Copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division file).

18 See, for example, the order (accession numbers 409536 through 409539 and 408409) placed April 1, 1931, and recommended on January 8, 1931 by Henry Furst, Chief of the Division of Documents, for a number of publications of the Gosudarstvennyi Sovet and Gosudarstvennaia Duma, miscellaneous ukazy and treaties from the reigns of Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Paul I, Alexander I and Nicholas I. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division Files. Pre-1942. Box 11 (Czar's Library Subject File).

19 LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division Files (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division "Russian Imperial Collection" file).

20 Ibid.

21 LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central Files. Putnam correspondence (copy from Rare Book/Special Collections Division file)

22 Perlstein to the Library of Congress, Feb. 13, 1931. LC Archives. Order Division. Pre-1942. Box 11 (The Czar's Library).

23 Ibid.

24 Charles Martel (1860-1945), known chiefly as the author of the Library of Congress classification system, in the late 1920s and 1930s served as a consultant and advisor to Herbert Putnam and other LC officials on bibliographic matters, including the acquisition of several rare book collections. See Jane Aikin, "Classification of Collections," in John Y. Cole and Jane Aikin, eds., Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress (Lanham, MD: Bernan Press, 2004), pp.211-213.

25 "Russian Library offered by Mr. Israel Perlstein," internal memorandum from Charles Martel to the Librarian of Congress, February 14, 1931. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Czar's Library.

26 "The purchase of the Czar's Winter Palace Library," internal memorandum dated March 18, 1931 from Linn R. Blanchard to the Librarian of Congress. In this document Blanchard summarizes Perlstein's most recent offer (1,774 volumes for $10,000) and notes that "the collection of music, which at one time was not under consideration, is now included." At the bottom of this document is a note, "Approved. P. [i.e. Putnam]. March 19, 1931." At the top right of the document is a stamp, "Order drawn Mar 24 1931 A.C.K." and the handwritten accession number, 409629.

27 Putnam to the Chief of the Division of Accessions, March 19, 1931. "An affidavit should be required of Mr. Perlstein to the effect that he has full legal title to the collection; and will warrant the Library against any claim on account of it later presented." LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central Files. Putnam Correspondence (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division file).

28 Perlstein to Herbert Putnam, March 20, 1931. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central File. Putnam Correspondence (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division file).

29 Library of Congress. Report of the Librarian of Congress for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1931 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1931), pp.38-42, 137-144, 223-225.

30 I was unable to locate copies of this offer in the LC Archives. It is referred to in a letter from the Accessions Division to Perlstein dated March 9, 1932, "accepting your offer of August 24, 1931...." LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Czar's Library subject file.

31 The original text of the telegram, which Perlstein enclosed with his letter to Putnam, reads: PREDLAGAEM POLUTSCHENNYE OSTATKY SIMNEDWORSKOJ I KONSTANTINA TRISTA TOMOW DEWJATSOT RUBLEJ TELEGRAFYRUJ BUCHKNIGA [We offer remnants received, three hundred volumes, of the library of Konstantin and the Winter Palace, for 900 rubles. Telegraph to Buchkniga]. The telegram is dated May 22, 1931. Israel Perlstein to Herbert Putnam, October 7, 1931. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Miscellaneous letters, A-Z. 1931-1932.

32 Israel Perlstein to Herbert Putnam, October 7, 1931. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Miscellaneous letters, A-Z. 1931-1932.

33 Mezhdunarodnaia kniga [The International Book], often referred to as "Mezhkniga," was the official Soviet organization that exported Soviet publications to foreign countries. It existed from the early 1920s until the end of the USSR in 1991.

34 Israel Perlstein to Herbert Putnam, October 7, 1931. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Miscellaneous letters, A-Z. 1931-1932.

35 "Czar's Library. Second collection of books from the Winter Palace. 318 items, 757 volumes." The order record notes a total purchase price of $3,631, and that the volumes were approved for payment and sent for cataloging on March 14, 1932. Incidentally, one of the few imperial palace items currently in the Geography & Map Division (Atlas Chernago moria, 1844) was part of this shipment. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Order Division. Czar's Library file.

36 Perlstein to Putnam, April 15, 1932. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central File. Putnam correspondence (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections Division files).

37 Rya Tchlenoff to Linn R. Blanchard, September 22, 1933. LC Archives, Manuscript Division. Central files. Putnam correspondence (copy in Rare Book/Special Collections files).

38 When the research for this article was being completed (spring 2006), one box of Order Division records (box 18, with accessions records #416200 through #433716, covering July 31, 1931 through October 12, 1932) could not be located and was not available for use. This 15-month gap covers a critical period in which the Library undoubtedly made many purchases from Perlstein and Bolan, potentially containing a number of volumes from imperial palaces. With this (hopefully temporary) gap in the record for such a critical time period, it is impossible to know how many additional imperial palace volumes might have been purchased.

39 One of the difficulties in obtaining an accurate statistical count (for both titles and volumes) is that Perlstein would regularly offer additional items to LC at the last minute, as enticements to purchase items. It is often not clear whether the additional items offered were from imperial collections or not. In addition, in the first large purchase of imperial palace volumes, dating to March 1931, a number of serial volumes filling gaps in LC's holdings were also obtained. Inspection of the actual volumes in the LC stacks shows that they were not from imperial libraries (the serial volumes were from the following titles: Russkaia istoricheskaia biblioteka; Sbornik Russkago istoricheskago obshchestva; Chteniia v Imperatorskom obshchestvie istorii i drevnostei rossiiskikh pri Imp. Moskovskom universitetie).

40 The block of orders with accession numbers 401875-401883 (ordered from Bolan on September 29, 1930) includes a few volumes from imperial palaces, e.g. Rozhdestvenskii, S.V., Istoricheskii obzor dieiatel'nosti Ministerstva prosvieshcheniia, 1802-1902. (Order Division records, LC Archives, Manuscript Division, Box 17, book 140).

41 Mezhdunarodnaia kniga. Antikvarnyi otdel. Antikvarnyi katalog. No.1-78; 1924-1936. The following issues in the LC set have notations of specific items to be searched: 3, 4, 12, 13, 14, 23, 24, 32, 51, 60, 66, 76.

42 The LC Archives (Central Files, Putnam/MacLeish, Container #182) contain much correspondence between LC and Mezhdunarodnaia kniga beginning in 1924. Virtually all of it, however, relates to Mezhkniga's orders for LC publications. I have found record of only one order for the 1930-1936 period that LC made directly to Mezhkniga for Russian materials (accessions #409788-409799, March 25, 1931), items selected from Mezhkniga's Bulletin no.204 dated February 1931.

43 Gilhofer & Ranschburg (Lucerne). Kostbare Bücher und Manuscripte aus den Bibliotheken der russischen Zaren in Zarskoje-Selo: Versteigerung in Luzern den 15. Juni 1932 (Luzern: G&R,1932); Gilhofer & Ranschburg (Lucerne). Kostbare Bücher und Manuscripte aus österreichischen und russischen kaiserlichen Bibliotheken: Versteigerung in Luzern 21. Juni 1933 (Luzern: G&R, 1933).

44 William H. Robinson, Ltd., London. Illuminated Manuscripts, Incunabula, and other Valuable Books from the Libraries of the Czars of Russia.... (London: Robinson, 1933).

45 Georg, S. A., Libraries, Paris. Catalogue de très beaux livres du XVIIIe siècle et du début du XIXe imprimés entre les années 1700-1819. Paris: S. A. Georg, 1931.

46 Joseph Baer, Buchhandlung und Antiquariat. Bibliothek Carl Hirsch, Konstanz: Teile der Bibliotheken des Grafen Grigorij Alekxandrowitsch Stroganoff, 1770-1857, und der Eremitage in Leningrad.External link Frankfurt/Main: J. Baer, 1931.

47 Plaza Book Auction Corporation. Important Collection of Manuscripts, First Editions, Illustrated Books of the XVIII and XIX century, Fine Bindings from the Libraries of the Tzars of Russia, Sold by Order of the Owner: Public Auction Sale, November 21-25, 1933. New York: Plaza Book Auction Corp., 1933.

48 In addition to the catalogs mentioned, I examined in the LC stacks all antiquarian and auction house catalogs (class Z999) for which LC has issues from the early 1930s, looking for Russian imperial titles – this turned out to be the following companies: Anderson Auction Co, New York; American Art Association, New York; Joseph Baer & Co., Frankfurt; Francis Edwards, Ltd., London; Goodspeed's, Boston; Otto Harrassowitz, Leipzig (1933-34 only); Chas. F. Heartman, Metuchen, NJ; Stan. V. Henkels, Philadelphia; Karl W. Hiersemann, Leipzig; Maggs Bros., London; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; Bernard Quaritch, London; Wm. Robinson, London; and Sotheby's, London. Based on the title pages, tables of contents, and covers of each catalog, none of them offered Russian imperial books for sale in the early 1930s.

49 Searching (in "expert keyword search" mode using LC's online catalog, for the string "russian imperial collection" in several fields in the MARC record (050; 051; 710; and 991) and eliminating the duplicates, yielded 1,313 hits on April 5, 2006.

50 David Rose, "Russian Winter Palace Collection," Internal Library of Congress memorandum to William Matheson (Chief, Rare Book Division), November 16, 1972, leaves 7-8 (copy kept in European Division files, Library of Congress).

51 On the Yudin Collection, see: Library of Congress. Report of the Librarian of Congress ... for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1907 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1907), pp.20-24; Miranda Beaven Remnek, "Yudin, Gennadii Vasil'evich," Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, vol. 45 (Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1987), pp.50-53.

52 For a detailed and recent study of the role of Alexis Babine in the early development of LC's Russian holdings, see: Pivovarov, A. V. Babin, 1866-1930 (Sankt-Peterburg: Petropolis, 2002).

53 A handful of items -- as far as I can tell a few volumes each — ultimately ended up in the Prints & Photographs Division (see LCCN 02014189 and 2006680113) and the Geography & Map Division (LCCN 89675159). Imperial palace books occasionally surface in the Library's main stacks and are transferred to the appropriate custodial division as soon as they are identified.

54 Kevin LaVine, Music and Books on Music from the Russian Imperial Collection in the Library of Congress; accessible at:

55 Information provided November 2004 by Meredith Shedd-Driskel, Curator of Rare Books, Law Library. Detailed descriptions for the "Chertezhi i risunki" supplements to the Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii have been recently compiled.

56 The catalog is accessible at:

57 Information from Belinda Urquiza (APLO), November 2004.

58 Books seem to have been late-comers and almost an afterthought among the categories of items the Soviets realized they could sell abroad for hard currency. The most obviously valuable items – Western old master paintings, jewels, and church valuables (icons, vestments, chalices, etc.) – were sold off beginning in the mid-1920s. For the general situation on sales abroad, see Il'in and Semenova, Prodannye sokrovishcha, 2000. For an interesting internal list from August 1929 of the seventeen categories of valuables the Soviets intended to export abroad, see IU. N. Zhukov, Operatsiia Ermitazh: opyt istoriko-arkhivnogo rassledovaniia (Moskva: Moskvitianin, 1993), p. 81.

59 M. D. Afanas'ev, "Genealogiia knizhnykh sobranii: k obosnovaniiu novoi distsipliny," Biblioteka v kontekste istorii: tezisy dokladov i soobshchenii nauchnoi konferentsii , Moskva, 8-10 iiunia 1995 g. (Moskva: Rossiiskii gos. gumanitarnyi universitet, 1995), pp.9-10.

60 For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign Library in the mid-1960s made massive selections of pre-1917 Russian titles from Leningrad State University's stocks of warehoused surplus books, many of them presumably previously owned by private or institutional libraries. Based on personal experience 1969-1975 cataloging a number of these books, many but by no means all had provenance indications in the form of stamps, labels, inscriptions, or bookplates.

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