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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hard-Pressed Police Bask in Glory of Book Theft Bust

Moscow police, often lambasted for corruption and inefficiency, took obvious pride Tuesday in describing how they had tracked down two suspects and recovered most of a $2-million haul of rare books stolen from the State Public Historical Library last month.

The case, said a triumphant Vasily Kuptsov, head of the police criminal investigation unit, was closed.

According to police, the mastermind behind the crime was a down-and-out, 28-year-old businessman, who signed on to sweep floors in the library in mid-September despite the miserable monthly wage of $27 and change.

On Sept. 22, barely 10 days later, police allege, the janitor turned thief. Together with a sidekick, he returned to the library, doped the guard dog, cut through a steel grill and stole about $2 million worth of rare books.

It is unlikely that the janitor or his partner, whose names have been withheld pending arraignment, knew what gems they had stuffed into their seven sacks that night, said senior detective Lidiya Zakharchenko.

But the janitor did light on "Acts and Epistles," published by Ivan Fyodorov in 1564, the first book to be printed in Russia. On Tuesday, a beaming Kuptsov returned this book, along with a manuscript of Gospels from 1525, to the library. The other books remain in police custody pending formal identification. No one knows the exact number of books stolen because the library has not conducted an inventory, but it is believed to be over 200.

Colonel Viktor Gosudarev, who led the investigation in cooperation with Interpol, told reporters police smelled an inside job from the start. They tracked down the janitor a couple of weeks ago after he failed to turn up for work in the week following the theft. During questioning, he confessed, directing police to the books and his partner.

The two thieves had already managed to sell 17 of the stolen books to the Metropol antique shop in Moscow before their arrest, receiving an average price of 12 million rubles ($2,211). The shop subsequently resold five items, which have not been recovered.

Police said the store may have failed to recognize that the books were stolen because the library stamps had been erased, but Kuptsov said police were planning to take some action against the store. "I think this is the last theft of its kind in this library. No more thefts will be allowed," he said.

But Mikhail Afanasyev, the historical library's director, was far less confident for a familiar reason -- shortage of funds."The library received absolutely no money at the beginning of this year to cover operating expenses, even to pay wages to the guards, so the current security situation could only be changed if, as a result of this tragedy, financing for the library is renewed," Afanasyev said.

Moreover, the government sets monthly salaries for "auxiliary" workers, such as janmtors, at only 100,000 rubles. The library supplements this by 50,000 rubles but cannot afford to go higher. This, Afanasyev said, makes it much harder to turn away willing candidates or to perform background checks.

"The director of a major scientific library told me that when a hale young person comes in and wants to work in the library for 200,000 rubles a month, he chucks him out on his ear, suspecting that his intentions are dishonest," Afanasyev said.

Libraries, which generally have few guards and inadequate alarm systems, have become an increasingly popular target for Russian thieves. The most notorious heist was the theft in December 1994 of up to $250 million in ancient manuscripts from the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Half a dozen people, including well-known lawyer Dmitry Yakubovsky, were arrested for stealing.

The Moscow State University library was hit in 1992 by masked robbers who made off with 124 books and manuscripts worth over $1 million, including the first printed copy of Alexander Pushkin's classic novel in verse, "Yevgeny Onegin."

In both cases, the stolen books were recovered by police.

For Afanasyev, this latest robbery made the threat to Russia's literary heritage all too personal. "It seems we had to endure such a terrible event in order to appreciate how unprotected our libraries and museums are now," he said, adding that unless the government takes immediate action to protect them, these repositories of "cultural wealth" will remain vulnerable.

s familiar to those in charge of libraries and museums across Russia