The State Library at night, 1942.

The State Library at night, 1942.

Essays Gone Missing Books and their owners in the siege of Leningrad

The book lovers, collectors, and dealers of the siege were moving antiquarian books on strollers and sleds, as they had done with dead bodies several months earlier, thus reorganizing the devastated spaces of the changed city. From the “vacant” apartments of missing people, books that materially represented material and symbolic values of the past were running through — and up against — a new reality, a contact or collision that engendered new forms of inquiry and of collaboration between past and present

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 46-51
Published on on November 21, 2019

No Comments on Books and their owners in the siege of Leningrad Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

In this contribution, I will speak about two kinds of missing instances — books and their owners — focusing on one of the most devastating episodes in the history of the 20th century, that of the siege of Leningrad, when more than a million inhabitants of the city perished from hunger. As a result of this military and political catastrophe, all social relations were redefined (among those who survived, of course), making contrasts of privilege sharper, enhancing the black market, and creating new economic networks, both state-run and private.

No doubt, an enormous quantity of books was destroyed in the siege, including private collections and libraries, but it also rendered reading itself an endlessly trying feat, as we see from one diary: “All day yesterday I was reading Merezhkovskii’s December the Fourteenth, first having ripped the book into two halves, because I cannot hold such weight in my hands…. The book weighs too much for my emaciated arms, and I couldn’t hold it for very long while lying down.”

But books could also bring salvation, at least in the physical sense — even serving as a source of food in December 1941/January 1942, as another siege diary reveals: “Coming up on my menu, the spines of numerous books, which after all feature high-quality glue! Things aren’t so bad!” Beyond such extreme instances, books constantly played a role in the survival of Leningraders, who exchanged them for food and used them as fuel for heating homes (several sources attest that German books were the first to go into the fire). Books thus constituted a significant resource for many families during the first and most deadly year of the siege. Consuming books (reading, buying, collecting, as well as eating them) was therefore a double-edged occupation: while chasing after books, the siege subjects risked their life — but also found a potential to be saved. Thus, in a letter to a colleague one of the savviest of siege-time bibliophiles, the book collector, appraiser, and connoisseur Fedor Shilov wrote about one private library he was appraising:

The books are all on the history of Russia, focusing especially on the history of the Church and the schism. The owner passed away from emaciation and not only had not sold his books, he kept on buying more until the last minute, getting carried away with his purchases because they were cheap; food is expensive, but books are going for a song …. What was the deceased trying to accomplish?

The book milieu of the besieged city was surprisingly rich and was replenished from diverse sources. For one thing, starting from the first months of the war, the Soviet propaganda machine turned out all sorts of material deemed suitable for the current situation. This material could range from a condensed version of Tolstoys’ War and Peace (in fact, merely fifteen pages of ideologically appropriate extracts) to brochures with instructions, for instance, on how to prepare oil-cakes. Leningrad bookstores, most of which were only closed for a short time during the lethal winter of 1941—1942, were filled with books that had come off the presses in early 1941 and had never been shipped outside the city. Finally, rare books in huge quantities were experiences a renaissance — some came to light out of the darkness of abandoned apartments, others were exchanged for food and medicine by desperate owners, while others were simply given away as the only means of saving these rarities from destruction.

In what follows, I observe the relationship between books and their owners in the siege, a community in extremis, when new and radical conditions were created for the use, ownership and exchange of books thereby ascribing new meaning and new value to books.

… Leningrad, August 1942. A group of officials is present at the opening of a “vacant” room in an apartment (“vacant” in the specific sense of the term vymorochnyi during the siege, i.e., whose inhabitants are all dead or missing). The apartment, as it turns out, belongs to Zinaida Bykova, or Zinaida Tse, a poet and translator and widow of the book collector and bibliographer Pavel Bykov (1844—1930), in his time one of the most prominent in his field. There exists a record of this inspection that dutifully lists what remains there in Bykova’s two almost empty rooms — a bed with an old blanket, two small chairs, an oil portrait of Bykova’s deceased husband, three voluminous bookcases, and seven baskets of books and manuscripts. In a room that, in the official phraseology of the document, “had not been entered by the deceased” for several months, the visitors found numerous books and autographed manuscripts strewn upon the floor.

Nobody ever found out what happened to Zinaida Tse, one of the very many victims of the siege who often died unknown in the streets, their unidentified bodies taken to a ravine for burial. Yet, we know more about the fates, identities, and tasks of those people who were present at the act of inspection of the room and its contents, a somewhat unlikely group comprising a member of the local police force who signed the form describing the room, several employees of the Leningrad Public Library, and Fedor Shilov, the book collector already mentioned above. What was their business in this apartment and what brought them together, a policeman, a clandestine book collector and the librarians?

Of all the Leningrad libraries, it was the celebrated Public Library that turned into a real fortress during the worst months of the first winter of the siege. There was just one room there in which people could receive books, and just one area in the library canteen, next to the oven, where they could get warm. In numerous accounts of library activities during the siege, we find descriptions of the library, a difficult yet disciplined and orderly workspace resisting its chaotic surroundings.

It also produced a unique kind of reader — the navigator of the space of the siege — in the person of the archivist or librarian who could successfully operate in the library despite the darkness, which was the primary obstacle to reading during the time of the siege. The archivist Ekaterina Suslova was one of them:

It was always dark in the archival depositories. The lonely, sick workers are lying ill in the rooms of the archive. Small groups of soldiers are continuously present in their departments and at their posts …. In pitch darkness, on one of those days when there isn’t even enough kerosene to light a lantern — and you can’t enter a depository with an oil lamp, it’s against the rules — the archivist …. enters the depository. A dark room, dark stacks, dark windows that don’t let in any light from the street, dark boxes of sand. And the archivist walks about in the depository, among the stacks, carefully stepping around a barrel of water here, a box of sand there …. Everything here is familiar, having been studied down to the minutest detail. Every dead end, every edge, every nook and cranny is well known. The most useful thing here is “archival intuition”, the archivist’s professional memory that preserves not just knowledge of the dead ends and nooks and crannies of the depositories, not just knowledge of the makeup and contents of documents in a section, but also the numbers of archival collections, files, binders, boxes, rooms, stacks …. The archivist may move slowly due to exhaustion, but nevertheless make her way confidently and directly to her target, to the correct stacks, shelf, or binder. Climbing a ladder, a dark figure merging with the dark stacks. Sometimes remembering where certain materials are, and sometimes recognizing them by the feel of their size, thickness, or paper quality, [the archivist] finds the necessary files in the darkness and takes a binder or two down from the shelf. Carefully she climbs down the ladder and, clutching the files to her body, she plods through the darkness out of the depository.

In this expressive description, memory and trust in the archive’s static orderly system helps the archivist in the siege to overcome the darkness. Inside the library, sometimes barely recognizable human bodies can be found, staff and patrons starved to death, and sometimes utilities might not be functioning, but the organization of the books and documents is invariably perfect, a utopian instance of order within chaos.

Even those eye-witness accounts least retouched by censorship describe the library as a site of organized resistance to the privations of the siege. Their authors generally agree that life under such conditions was almost impossible, but somehow this does not contradict their assertion that their work barely suffered — as if libraries, as impeccably organized as they were, were running by themselves. The moment the authorities in Smolny called with a request for information (e.g. on the recent Volga famine, or the edibility of grass and tree bark, or sometimes even for books for pleasure for Comrade Zhdanov and his staff), the library personnel would brave the cold and dark to search for the materials that would always be found on the appropriate shelves and in the appropriate files. Library space as a regulated system capable of withstanding its catastrophic environment recalls Michel Foucault’s description of a city in the time of plague, “a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism”: “This [is an] enclosed, segmented space…in which each individual [for the library, replace Foucault’s ‘individual’ with ‘book’ — PB] is constantly located, examined and distributed…. The plague is met by order.”

The disciplined reading space of the library finds its opposite in the ghostly, chaotic spatiality of the “vacant” apartments that Shilov’s team with library representatives enters in order to inspect the apartment for rare books and to save them by taking them to their centralized collection, and thus replenishing the collection — this was precisely the task of the group that was inspecting Bykova’s rooms. To continue the Foucauldian connection, during their sallies into those “vacant” apartments, what the librarians found there were plagued spaces — spaces of reading that were disturbed and confusing after they had lost their missing readers.

In the empty apartments of dead book collectors, the Public Library’s librarians discovered a topography of book collecting in a most chaotic condition. The “vacant” apartment of the bibliophile represented a conflict of decay, absence, and material memory. Unlike the state library with its protective capsule of utopian order, private libraries preserved traces of their missing owners’ ambitions as readers and collectors and, even up to the very last moments of their lives, of those collectorly desires that are so precisely described by Walter Benjamin in his essay “Unpacking My Library”. Benjamin says that collectors act by “receiving […] things into our space.” But what if “our space” of collection is so completely lifeless and the “things” (in this case, books or book remnants) merely indicate the collector’s desires posthumously?

The archive of the Public Library contains hundreds of official documents detailing the condition of “vacant” apartments of bibliophiles at the time of their inspection by librarians and the local police. Reading them today, we discover trajectories in the evolution of collectorly interests and strategies used by the owners in their attempts to use their collections for survival. We also find out in what kind of environments reading and collecting took place, information that would have remained invisible if it were not for these acts of searching and recovering. The re-collection and re-circulation of books from these dead apartments became one of the most painful yet exciting chapters in the epic saga of St. Petersburg–Leningrad bibliophilia.

Reappraising the missing book collections of the dead and missing persons, the team — Shilov himself, the librarians, and the policeman — find themselves at the moment when the very notion of privacy loses its meaning, and as the secrets of clandestine collection exchanges are revealed and taken over by the state the books become the objects of a different system of ownership and are inscribed into different catalogues of knowledge. Collections were thus re-collected, and this procedure of re-collection erased the memory of the previous order to which they belonged.

… With her characteristic bitter irony, another memoirist,
Liubov’ Shaporina, writes about her “frivolous” bibliophilic urges during the time of the worst privations: “Very interesting books are cropping up nowadays at the antiquarian bookstore on Simeonovskaia, and instead of saving up for a coffin, I go hunting for books. It’s ridiculous.”

At first glance, this seems to indicate distraction or escapism from the harsh reality of the siege. I would argue, however, that this also signals the choice of mobility against stasis, and suggests that books played a role in this dynamic. One of the salient features of the siege is the drastic change it wrought in the cityscape and in spatial mobility; the frozen city seemed to be constantly on the move in the midst of events that required ever new routes and routines. Quite often, being static or immobile was tantamount to death; for instance, one had to move very fast in order to escape something as real as a bombing raid, and one had to remain active in order to resist the so-called “moral dystrophy” (moral’naia distrofiia), the morbid condition of psychic and moral decay due to hunger, stress, and fear, one of the most frequent (self)-diagnosed “diseases” of the first siege winter (by analogy with the medical term “dystrophy” (distrofiia) and used in the siege to describe the physiological effects of systematic starvation and emaciation). The mobility required for chasing books could help in survival (of both bibliophiles themselves and the books they treasured). Navigation of the city in these pursuits offered another intriguing perspective on the connection between urban pasts and the present of the siege.

The writer Vitalii Bianki, the author of popular children’s books about nature, visited Leningrad in February–March 1942 and noted an active book trade in his diary:

Most of what is being bought up is exciting “pulp” stuff, adventure novels. And old classics. Anything that describes a life not like the present one. Collectors and lovers of rare books continue their maniacal and, of course, quite fruitful, chase after valuable, now discounted, items.

Both Shaporina’s and Bianki’s accounts confirm that rare book collecting was on the rise in the devastated city. The pain of the present aroused an interest in the past or, rather, such pasts as are shaped in popular fiction. A thirst for this sort of reading was satisfied by several ambitious booksellers who had come to dominate the book market in the besieged city. Bianki mentions Gennadii Rakhlin, a remarkably active and knowledgeable book collector, who during the siege managed to organize several bookstores.

Rakhlin’s book trade thrived during the siege thanks to his old contacts among collectors, most of whom were former members of the famous Bibliophile Society of Leningrad from the 1920s. Established in Petrograd in 1923, during the motley years of the NEP, the Society was trying to carry on the glorious tradition of St. Petersburg bibliophily. It popularized antiquarian books in publications, exhibitions, rare book auctions and exchanges, and even in poetry readings. The Society’s manifesto states that “one of the main goals of bibliology is the study of rare and art editions of the past and present.” In his memoirs, Erich Gollerbakh, an outstanding art and literary critic and one of the Society’s leaders, commented humorously: “True bibliophily is inseparable from the spirit of trifles charming and airy, and bibliophilic discussions should be well seasoned with Attic salt, with a lot of everyday observations mixed in.” In the 1930s, drastic political changes forced the Society to officially cease its work. But while trying to avoid attention to their taste in books, many Society members continued collecting books in secret. An antediluvian remnant within the Soviet present-day, life in this hidden world was finally disrupted by the siege that exposed and annihilated collections and collectors alike. What had been secret now became known and registered in police protocols.

Two examples give us an idea of the consequences of the interest in antiquarian books in the reality of the siege. Erikh Gollerbakh (1895–1942) was one of many dedicated bibliophiles who perished during the siege. A prominent critic and the author of a seminal history of Russian graphic art, he was a very popular figure among St. Petersburg bibliophiles.

Judging by Gollerbakh’s diary written during the siege, books protected him from danger and the threat of deterioration. He often describes libraries as shelters: “I am rescued from the stench of present circumstances by the Public Library, among books. The Public Library is the only place where one can, at least in part, be distracted from gloomy reality. You sit among books, and it seems like everything is the way it was of old.”

But gradually this sense of protection and comfort gives way to disappointment — and a growing alienation between the despairing blokadnik and books:

I returned the books. I had neither the time nor the desire to do any careful reading. More precisely, what hindered me was the fact that I was sharply, painfully aware that this whole charming world of literary and philosophical meditations has been pushed back somewhere into the past, and has become unnecessary and out of place in this menacing time of ordeal.

This tragic vacillation is symptomatic of the rift between books as agents of continuity connected to one’s private past and their incapacity to protect the besieged subject. As was the case with so many, books failed to save Erikh Gollerbakh. He is reported to have lost his mind and gone missing during the evacuation across Lake Ladoga, and his unique library was dispersed after his disappearance.

The tragic demise of Erikh Gollerbach and his collection was the norm in the grim reality; however, the siege provided incentives (albeit torturous ones) for the development of new collecting strategies and philosophies. Fedor Shilov was a key figure in the revival of book collecting in the dying city, dramatic and controversial as the time itself and described by contemporaries as an impeccable, merciless, and cynical connoisseur of the antiquarian book: “At meetings he could be embittered, acrimonious, unbearably fault-finding, but nevertheless he enjoyed great authority as an appraiser of rare editions.”

Shilov ironically described book collecting as a sinful passion and adventurous hedonism: “All is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit, but if weak people find in this vanity their life’s joy, the only question then becomes who is devoted to what: some to good eats, others to whoring, still others to books …. Book owners go forth to bring joy to people mired precisely in such vanity.” His history as a book collector, trader, and evaluator is quite characteristic.

Shilov came to St. Petersburg as a young man to work for some of the most influential booksellers in imperial St. Petersburg, until he eventually opened his own bookstore, which closed soon after the revolution. It was then that Shilov began his semi-official, semi-clandestine career as the city’s most knowledgeable appraiser of antiquarian books. Between 1918 and 1939, he served as the Soviet government’s international book trader and also played a key role in collecting manuscripts for Gorky’s World Literature series and for the Leningrad Literature Museum.

Most books from Shilov’s own unique collection perished in a fire in 1942, and only meagre remnants were saved. After several months of illness and depression, probably due to the shock of this loss, Shilov sold what remained to the Public Library for a mere 1,500 roubles. This led to a collaboration when, following Shilov’s instructions, the library established a special fund to save rare book collections from “dead” apartments. Its archival records contain inventories for the evacuation of such collections, marked “prompted by Shilov”, because he knew all the ins and outs of the Leningrad book collecting and trading network and was active in rescuing the city’s rare books. The year 1942 saw a great increase in the redistribution of antiquarian books in the city; according to documentation, the Library purchased 20,299 volumes, as compared to only 112 in 1941, and evacuated even more, 76,000. At Shilov’s suggestion, a group of librarians would visit the “vacant” apartments of those collectors who were dead or missing, often resulting in impressive discoveries. Among the items located by this group were massive specialized collections and manuscripts by, for example, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevskii and Turgenev. But for the most part, they would explore the libraries of ordinary Leningraders, those collections that the memoirist Maria Mashkova soberly calls “joyless”, the victims of theft and marauding: “We took away Murashkinskii’s library — the usual scene. He died of dystrophy, his family too, and his property was just carried off by friends and acquaintances; a significant portion of his library was retrieved from the apartment of other dystrophics; the looters themselves had all died.” With a naïveté bordering on cynicism, the usually quite sensitive Mashkova exclaims in her diary: “It is now possible to fill out the Library’s collection broadly and lavishly: many library owners have died …”

Shilov’s life at that time was fully dedicated to locating, recovering and reappraising antiquarian books: “I get up at six — I have to chop and saw firewood — and barely make it to work by nine; then there is not a minute’s rest until three, and then I visit various addresses or negotiate prices with [book store director]Lebedev and Rakhlin (which drags on for weeks), and get home at ten.” Most of the valuable books he located found their way into the specially created Reserve Collection [Rezervnyi fond], (later disbanded), some into Rakhlin’s bookstores for public sale, and some — the most valuable ones — via the black market into the collections of the city’s powerful figures , both in the Party and in the criminal world. His work was philanthropic and self-serving at the same time.

Shilov’s collaboration with the Library allowed him to control the flow of rare books in Leningrad. In a letter to a fellow collector, he wrote: “There are junk books that sell quickly […]. Some good books are starting to turn up as well. Take heart, you’ll get your hands on books again — you’ll manage to create such a library, all the devils will be sick!”

Unlike the official mandate of the Public Library to serve the higher system of Leningrad as part of the central hierarchy, for Shilov, “ordering the world” through collecting seems to have been a means of reconstruction, of healing his own traumatized self through the satisfaction of book hunting and protecting the memory of his deceased peers by preserving parts of their lives at least through the rescue of their collections. As opposed to the impersonal, regulated collection work carried out by the Public Library, Shilov saw his task in book collection as a combination of fighting against the scattering of the world and protection of the right to that “creative disorder” (like Walter Benjamin’s collector)  that is inseparable from the spirit of individual collectorship. Gollerbakh perished when his encapsulated realm of reading was violated and destroyed by the siegeIn contrast to this, Shilov managed to preserve and even reinvigorate his own collector practices by re-collecting the collections of others. His was a project of reconstructing and maintaining the city’s collective readerly memory. The way chosen by Shilov was towards a new relationship between the traumatized self and the traumatized city. The book lovers, collectors, and dealers of the siege were moving antiquarian books on strollers and sleds, as they had done with dead bodies several months earlier, thus reorganizing the devastated spaces of the changed city. From the “vacant” apartments of missing people, books that materially represented material and symbolic values of the past were running through — and up against — a new reality, a contact or collision that engendered new forms of inquiry and of collaboration between past and present.≈

Note: This is a reworked and shortened version of a chapter from Barskova, Polina, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster (DeKalb, IL: NIU Press, 2017).



  1. Tat’iana Velikotnaia, “Dnevnik nashei pechal’noi zhizni v 1942 godu,” in V. M. Koval’chuk, ed., Chelovek v blokade: novye svidetel’stva (St. Petersburg: Ostrov, 2008): 123—25.
  2. Pavel Luknitskii, Skvoz’ vsiu blokadu (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1978): 180.
  3. G. Shilov, letters to V. A. Krylov (1943).
  4. Ekaterina Suslova, “Nuzhno vyderzhat’ i sokhranit’ arkhiv,” Otechestvennye arkhivy 4 (2005): 93—94.
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979): 197.
  6. Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”, in: Selected Writings. Vol. 2, part 2, 1931—1934, (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2005): 486—493.
  7. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999): 206.
  8. Liubov’ Shaporina, T.1, 1898—1945, M.: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2012): 329.
  9. Vitalii Bianki, “Gorod, kotoryi pokinuli ptitsy,” in Likholet’e (St. Petersburg: Blitz, 2005): 174.
  10. N. Berkov, Istoriia sovetskogo bibliofil’stva, 1917—1967 (Moscow: Kniga, 1971): 129.
  11. , 129.
  12. Erikh Gollerbakh, “Dnevnik” (manuscript), 564. This manuscript was shared with the author by Erikh Gollerbakh’s heir Evgenii Gollerbakh.
  13. , 565.
  14. Martynov, Polveka v mire knig (Leningrad: Nauka, 1969): 171.
  15. N. Berkov, Istoriia sovetskogo bibliofil’stva, 1917—1967, 139.
  16. G. Shilov, letters to V. A. Krylov (1943).
  17. An instance of Shilov’s discovering a friend’s endangered diary during the siege is described in detail in F. G. Shilov, Zapiski starogo knizhnika (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1959): 142.
  18. “Materialy o priobretenii GPB beskhoznykh bibliotek i arkhivov: 1942—1943 gg.,” in Maslova, Vakhtina, and Svichenskaia, Publichnaia biblioteka, 286—450.
  19. Maria Mashkova, “Iz blokadnykh zapisei,”Publichnaia biblioteka v gody voiny, 1941—1945: Dnevniki, vospominaniia, pis’ma, dokumenty, ed. N. Maslova et al. (SPb : Rossiiskaia natsional’naia biblioteka, 2005): 52.
  20. G. Shilov, letters to V. A. Krylov (1943).
  21. The black market saved thousands during the blockade, see, V. Evgen’ev-Maksimov, “Chernye dni Leningrada. Vospominaniia,” ed. N. Maksimova, with an introductory note by D. S. Likhachev, Zvezda, no. 2 (2001). On the economics and ethics of the black market; see J. Hass, “Norms and Survival in the Heat of War: Normative versus Instrumental Rationalities and Survival Tactics in the Blockade of Leningrad,” (Sociological Forum, December 2011, Vol.26(4), 921—949 forthcoming) and “The Experience of War and the Construction of Normality. Lessons from the Blockade of Leningrad,” in N. A. Lomagin, ed., Bitva za Leningrad: diskussionnye problemy: po materialam mezhdunarodnoi nauchno-prakticheskoi konferentsii “Blokada Leningrada — spornoe i besspornoe”, sentiabr’ 2007 goda (St. Petersburg: Evropeiskii dom, 2009), 240—77; Richard Bidlack, “Survival Strategies in Leningrad during the First Year of the Soviet-German War,” in R. W. Thurston and B. Bonwetsch, eds, The People’s War: Responses to World War II in the Soviet Union (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 84—108; V. Piankevich, “Rynok v osazhdennom Leningrade,” in T. Postrelova, ed., Zhizn’ i byt blokirovannogo Leningrada: sbornik nauchnykh statei (St. Petersburg: Nestor-Istoriia, 2010), 122—64; and Lomagin, Neizvestnaia blokada (St. Petersburg; Neva; Moscow: OLMA-Press, 2002).
  22. G. Shilov, letters to V. A. Krylov (1943).
    1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 211.
  • by Polina Barskova

    Associate Professor of Russian literature, Hampshire College. Scholarly publications include articles on Nabokov, the Bakhtin brothers, early Soviet film, and the aestheticization of historical trauma. Current project: “The Ruin Screams: Poetics of the Spatial Representation During the Siege of Leningrad.”

  • all contributors
  • Essays are scientific articles.

    Essays are selected scholarly articles published without prior peer-review process.

    Would you like to contribute to Baltic Worlds? Click here!