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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Heritage Under Threat

ST. PETERSBURG -- At the Russian State Historical Archives, they still get a good laugh remembering the Zimbabwean delegate to an academic conference who got lost among the maze-like stacks.


"He was gone for hours," said Yelena Agafonova, the archives' chief curator. "We had to send a search party for him, with flashlights."


In fact it is all too easy to get lost in the archives, where a light-bulb shortage leaves workers dependent upon sunlight filtered through dusty windows to navigate miles of shelves groaning under the weight of Russia's entire pre-revolutionary records.


"Now it's summer," Agafonova said, strolling down a dim, low-ceilinged corridor where the floor creaked ominously. "You can imagine what it's like in winter, when it's dark all day in St. Petersburg."


The crippling shortage of funds that makes light bulbs a luxury at the archives is typical of St. Petersburg's cultural institutions. Historical treasures in Russia's second city are disappearing rapidly as a result of leaky pipes, theft, poor care and fire.


At the archives, the creaky floors could soon give way. At risk is a treasure of documents that are being examined for the first time since the revolution, and which historians say will play a pivotal role in evaluating Russia's tsarist and Communist experiences.


Archive workers despair of getting assistance and shudder at the records of neighboring cultural institutions.


At the Academy of Sciences library, for example, the stacks still reek of smoke six years after a fire destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 3.6 million more. Among the books consumed in the 29-hour blaze -- a "cultural Chernobyl," according to the Russian press -- were thousands of the world's rarest, including 5,000 from the library of Peter the Great.


A similar tragedy occurred this winter at St. Petersburg's House of Writers, where fire destroyed a portion of the 150,000-book collection. The Hermitage and the Admiralty have suffered minor fires. In both cases, fires were detected by luck -- neither building has a fire-detection system -- and extinguished quickly.


The Institute for Russian Literature, a 160-year-old building widely regarded as a fire-trap, is still standing. But writings in Pushkin's hand are stacked in plain cardboard boxes on red wooden shelves, in a room where humidity is "controlled" by draping strips of damp cloth on the radiators.


A few blocks down Nevsky Prospekt, the Russian National Library is still trying to figure out what is left of what was once one of the world's greatest collections of ancient Jewish documents. At the last count, 38 documents were missing; librarians believe they were stolen over a period of years. Some have turned up at private auctions in Jerusalem and New York, where the asking price has been as high as $10 million.


Just across the Neva River from the Hermitage, an ancient African sculpture valued at $2.5 million was stolen in July 1992 from St. Petersburg's Chamber of Curiosities.


The Hermitage has been the site of several high-profile thefts recently. Three Roman coins worth a total of about $570 were taken from a display case in February; last week an Egyptian bowl nearly 2,000 years old and worth half-a-million dollars disappeared.


If the losses so far have been spectacular, the stakes are highest and the danger greatest at the State Historical Archives, a complex on the Neva embankment.


Those buildings once housed the Imperial Russian Senate and the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, but in the revolution's aftermath the Bolsheviks demoted both to document storehouses. Army and navy archives, as well as those of the Foreign Ministry, are stored in Moscow. But the rest -- every scrap of pre-Bolshevik government paper -- is all here.


The buildings were not made to hold hundreds of tons of paper, however, and the floors could give way. The strain has already burst pipes and caused electrical shorts. A fire detection-prevention system is half installed, but work stopped for lack of about $130,000.


"A half-installed system, of course, is no system at all," said archive director Vladimir Lapin, sitting at his desk under a ceiling cracked, buckling and supported by far-from-decorative white Greek columns. "It's approaching a critical situation. A fire here would be far, far worse than the fire at the library of the Academy of Sciences."


Firehoses curled up in the stairwells are too short to reach down all 86 kilometers of shelves, and chunks of cornice and even statues weighing several tons have been falling off the building's facade onto the sidewalk below.


Last spring, the archives made international headlines when a researcher rediscovered a diary written by Grigory Rasputin, the bizarre and shadowy monk who rose to prominence in the twilight hours of Russia's monarchy. Many of the older workers had known of the diary, a faded 12-page green notebook, for years. But they either forgot about it or misjudged its value.