I have spent two lunch hours at the Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825 exhibit at the New York Public Library, and hope to spend more; anyone who will be in NYC between now and next May (the exhibit was supposed to run from October 3, 2003 to January 31, 2004, but has been extended) should make a point of visiting it if they have any interest in Russia. The first section, by itself in a room off to the left as you face the main exhibit room, is about the period of relative isolation from the fall of Constantinople through the reign of Ivan IV (ending in 1584); the highlights here (from my bookish point of view) are copies of what were probably the first books ever printed in Muscovy, the Evangelie [Gospels] (Moscow, c. 1564) and the Apostol [Acts of the Apostles] (Moscow: Ivan Fedorov and Petr Mstislavets, 1564). (There are also a beautifully illuminated 15th-century manuscript Evangelie and a mid-17th-century copy of a Byzantine icon in a gorgeously jeweled oklad [frame], among many other items.)

In the main exhibit room are sections on Russia’s encounter with Asia (I’m not sure why a “list of imperial edicts issued by Emperors Shun-zhi (1638–1661) and Kang-xi (1654–1722) of China” is there, but it’s written in Manchu, so I was happy to see it), Peter and Petersburg (including the first dictionary printed in Russia, Leksikon treiazychnyi, sirech’ Rechenii slavenskikh, ellinogrecheskiikh i latinskikh sokrovishche [A Trilingual Dictionary, that is, A Treasury of Slavonic, Greek, and Latin Words] (Moscow: [Pechatnyi Dvor], 1704), and a 1707 safe-conduct letter signed by Peter the Great—it’s really something to see his confidently scrawled Petr), and a half-dozen more, with too many treasures to even give a quick summary of. I will mention (to entice that element of my readership whose taste sinks below the Parnassian) that there is an X-rated “erotic watercolor” showing Catherine the Great being pleasured by a vigorous Prince Potemkin (with feelthy quatrains in the margins).

A couple of questions for anyone who might know: why, in the Plan stolichnago goroda Sanktpeterburga [Plan of the Capital City of St. Petersburg] of 1753, do the bs look almost exactly like the ps (like Greek pis), except that the latter have a tiny little turned-up end on the right leg? I’ve never seen that before. And in the Opyt zhivopisnago puteshestviia po Severnoi Amerike [An Illustrated Description of a Picturesque Journey Through North America] by Pavel Petrovich Svin’in (St. Petersburg: F. Drekhsler, 1815), the USA is called Soedinyonnye Amerikanskie Oblasti; when did the word shtaty come into use for ‘states’?

Finally, a quatrain from the Histoire de la vie, du règne, et du détrônement d’Iwan III. [i.e., VI] empereur de Russie [A History of the Life, Reign, and Dethronement of Ivan VI, Emperor of Russia] (London, 1766):

A la Postérité

Que direz-vous, races futures,
Si quelque fois un vrai discours
Vous récite les aventures
De nos abominables jours?

Still, I fear, a good question.


  1. I’m at the library every single day and I never manage to make it to the exhibits. But I’m motivated to see this one! (I guess I always think that I can go “tomorrow…”).
    I really like the depression era FSA photographs they have on display. One always sees the photographs from the “dust bowl” but you never see ones from the tri-state region. It gives you a very different perspective on the era.

  2. As far as I know, Apostol is the earliest dated book printed in Muscovite Russia, but there are a few un-dated ones that might be older. Besides the Deeds, it’s also supposed to have the Epistles and the Apocalypse.

  3. Yes, they said Apostol was the earliest dated book, and Evangelie was probably slightly older but there was no way to be sure.
    Kerim: Next time I go I’ll have to pop up to the third floor and check out the photographs — thanks for the tip!

  4. I just visited the NYPL for the first time in my life today. I shall return to the exhibition tomorrow morning, before my plane goes. Ihad no time for it today. the shock of entering those huge romanesque marble halls and discovering that even their stony vastness was permeated by the smell of dust and binding glue was just too overwhelming. Cathedrals must have felt like that, to pilgrim believers.

  5. I’m delighted to have stimulated your first visit to those august precincts, if indeed it was reading my entry that sent you there. To me, too, great libraries are the closest thing to cathedrals. I hope you get back to it.

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