Hidden Treasure-Trove of Manuscripts: The Oriental Department of the St. Petersburg State University Library

St. Petersburg’s status as a world-class destination for the study of Islamic manuscripts is well-established.  The Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Rare Books Collection of the National Library are hallowed grounds for pawing through ancient texts. 

In a recent trip to Piter I spent much of my time in the somewhat lesser-known Oriental Department of the Scientific Library of St. Petersburg State University (Восточный отдел Научной Библиотеки им. Горького СПбГУ, unofficially also known as библиотека Восточного факультета) and was extremely impressed not only with the collection itself, but the warm hospitality of the staff.  What follows is based on several conversations with head of the department Milana Aleksandrovna Azarkina and curator of the manuscripts section Elena Gennad’evna Firsova, as well as an unpublished article by Azarkina: “Biblioteka Vostochnogo fakul’teta: nekotorye svedeniia iz istorii formirovaniia fonda” (“The Library of the Oriental Faculty: Some Information from the History of the Formation of the Collection.”)

Cataloging, Imperial Politics, Ancient Curses

The Faculty of Asian and African Studies library is located on Vasilyevsky Island directly across the Neva from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral on the State University campus (address: Universitetskaia naberezhnaia 11).  This none-too-shabby view greets you as you begin your work – if you can secure the right desk:

Library Window View of St. Isaac's
Library Window View of St. Isaac’s

I was primarily visiting for the Persian and Arabic manuscripts, but researchers should be aware that the library also has an excellent collection of imperial- and Soviet-era published works, not to mention collections of Chinese, Manchurian, Korean, Tibetan, Japanese, Sanskrit (and other Indian languages such as Tamil and Telegu), Mongolian, and Kalmyk materials.  The collection contains archival documents organized into personal fonds of the various professors who worked in the Faculty of Asian and African Studies over the years, such as the Iranologist V.A. Ivanov, Turkologist P.M. Melioranskii, A.L. Kun, amongst others.  (The other major repository of this sort of material in St. Petersburg is located on the other side of the river at the Archive of the Orientalists.)

When I first inquired about the manuscript  catalogs, Milana Aleksandrovna replied with a twinkle in her eye: “Have you not heard of the curse (prokliiatie) the old Kazan faculty bestowed upon us?  Sadly, the  cataloging process remains incomplete.”

To explain what Milana Aleksandrovna was referring to, one must briefly delve into the history of Russian orientalism.  In 1804 Alexander I established in Kazan the first of three new universities, only for Nicholas I to abruptly shut down the orientalist establishment in 1854 and transfer its holdings to St. Petersburg.  (For more on this history, see chapter 5 in David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye’s, Russian Orientalism.)  Petersburg’s gain was Kazan’s loss, and the Kazan orientalist establishment was none too pleased to say goodbye to its rich holdings.  Accordingly, urban legend holds that their curse haunts the Faculty of Asian and African Studies library to the present day and is responsible for the string of setbacks that have dogged the production of a definitive descriptive catalog for the collection.

Nevertheless, scholars unwilling to wait for an exorcism have options.  A partial catalog does exist, which should be available at many university libraries: A.T. Tagirdzhanov, Opisanie tadzhikskikh i persidskikh rukopisei, Vostochnogo otdela Biblioteki LGU (Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Leningradskogo Universiteta, 1962). Though it is not comprehensive, Tagirdzhanov’s work is extremely detailed for the works it does include, routinely offering 3-5 pages of description for a given manuscript.  The equivalent for Arabic manuscripts is: O. B. Frolova, Arabskie rukopisi Vostochnogo otdela Nauchnoi biblioteki Sankt-Peterburgskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta: kratkii katalog, Arkhiv rossiiskogo vostokovedeniia (Sankt-Peterburg: Izd-vo Tsentr Peterburgskoe Vostokovedenie, 1996).  Finally, there are several handlists (i.e. title and author only) for Persian, Arabic, and Turkic manuscripts: C. Salemann and V. Rosen, Indices alphabetici codicum manu scriptorum persicorum turcicorum arabicorum (1888); A.A. Romaskewicz, Indices alphabetici codicum manu scriptorum persicorum turcicorum arabicorum … Supplementum (1925); and Tagirdzhanov, Spisok Tadzhikskikh, Persidskikh, i Tiurkskikh Rukopisei Vostochnogo Otdela Biblioteki LGU (Moscow: Izd. “Nauka,” 1967).

History of the Collection

Founded in 1819 as the Oriental Department of the University’s Fundamental Library, this collection stands among the oldest continually functioning libraries in the world.  The building itself reflects this historic legacy.  Construction began in the 1720s on the territory of Alexander Danilovich Menshikov’s estate for Peter the Great’s successor and grandson, Peter the Second. Peter II died in 1730 before construction was completed, however, and the building lay unfinished until the mid-eighteenth century when it was completed by the architect I.G. Borkhard.  After that the building was gifted to the First Cadet Corps (a military institution for the nobility) and then to the Historical-Philological Institute in the 1860s.

The Oriental Department of the Scientific Library houses more than 295 thousand specimens, of which about 60 thousand are considered rare, and more than 42 thousand are handwritten manuscripts.  Of those manuscripts, 1452 comprise the combined Arabic, Persian, and Turkic  collection. The first specimens were gifted to the library by the Kunstkamera (conceived by Peter the Great) and the Asiatic Museum of the Academy of Sciences upon its founding.  In 1855 the Faculty of Oriental Languages was opened along with the transfer of approximately two hundred books and manuscripts from various Kazan libraries (thus incurring the aforementioned curse), as well as various personal donations.  The process of sending books from Kazan University, Kazan Gymnasium, and the Institute of Oriental Languages of the Rishel’enskii Lyceum in Odessa continued into the mid-1860s.

The collection continued to grow rapidly during the century following Kazan’s “donation.”  In 1908 the Arabist V.R. Rozen gifted 6,340 volumes to the Faculty of Oriental Languages, with which the department decided to establish a special Seminary for Oriental Languages, changing its name to the Oriental Cabinet (Vostochnyi Kabinet) in the 1920s.  By the time the Oriental Cabinet’s collection was transferred to the Faculty of Oriental Languages in 1944 it contained 29,200 specimens.  This merger led to some organizational difficulties, as the library staff are still trying to properly catalog this addition, and the books from the Oriental Seminary / Cabinet remain separate to the present day.

Needless to say, the library’s history through the ’30s and ’40s emerges only hazily from the fog of Stalinist repression.  “People disappeared and were killed, books were removed from the library – often to be destroyed, and sometimes shifted to other libraries. Inventoried books and descriptive lists (opisy) were transferred to the university archive or liquidated. The description of the collection proceeded from zero.  The first inventoried book of the library is dated from 1931. In fact, one might date the library’s new life from this date,” recounted Azarkina in her article. Naturally, the library has continued to expand its holdings since Stalin’s time, but from that point forward it was simply a collection of books, sterilized of the larger-than-life personalities that had dominated it in decades prior.

Snippets of the Past

Milana Aleksandrovna was kind enough to show me some of the collections most valuable and visually-impressive specimens.  This magnificent work (№ 374а) is an Arabic dictionary with Persian commentary in the margins scribed in the 17th or beginning of the 18th century.

Persian Arabic Dictionary
Persian Arabic Dictionary

Like many others, this work was taken from the famous Alexander Kasimovich Kazembek‘s library in Kazan. The old Kazan university stamp is above his description (in Arabic) of the volume’s contents.  In these comments, Kazembek clarifies that the volume contains three different works about the Arabic language, including al-Qamus al-MuhitSurah al-Lugha, and Miftah al-Ma’ani, and offers biographical notes about the authors of the various works included in the tome.

Kazimbek's Notes
Kazimbek’s Notes

No self-respecting Persianate noble was without an illustrated copy of Firdawsi’s epic Shahnamah and the Faculty of Asian and African Studies library houses numerous copies.  The illustrations in this specimen are particularly striking:

Shahnamah 1
Shahnamah 1
Shahnamah 2
Shahnamah 2

Last, but certainly not least, Milana Aleksandrovna brought out a very peculiar copy of the Qur’an.  On the horizontal line you see the original text in Arabic, as one expects.  The next line, however, is more surprising: a Slavic translation (somewhere between Polish and Belorussian, according to Frolova’s catalog) of the holy verses and scribed in the Arabic script. Needless to say, very few scholars are trained to work with this sort of text, though Galina Mishkinene of Vilnius University, a specialist in Lithuanian Tatars, has examined this manuscript and others scribed by communities of Tatars in the Baltics and Poland.  The majority of the text was written between 1811 and 1825.  This particular page begins with verse 7:69.



One thought on “Hidden Treasure-Trove of Manuscripts: The Oriental Department of the St. Petersburg State University Library”

  1. James, is there any way that we could communicate via email? I have a couple questions regarding the Treasure Troves of the Orient.

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