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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sneak a Peek at Once-Secret Sex Files

In the official Soviet world all families were happy families and there was no interest in or place for sex outside the nuptial bedroom.

"Sex didn't exist in the Soviet Union,'' said Marina Chestnykh, as she led the way into a cage-like storage area of the Russian State Library.

Chestnykh oversees an erotica collection assembled by the Communist government, which for decades kept its existence such a tight secret that no one knows exactly what is among the approximately 11,000 books, postcards, prints, brochures, drawings and other objects from around the world that are jammed into the library's rambling storage stacks.

There is still no comprehensive record of the collection's contents or provenance because the trove was never methodically assembled. It accrued over decades thanks to customs officers, secret police, the Soviet government's censorship bureau and ideologically obedient library patrons who turned in material that even hinted at sex -- whether erotic, pornographic, suggestive or even scientific in tone.

So far, the collection has yielded previously unknown drawings by Russian avant-garde artists; rare editions of risqu? poems by Pushkin and Lermontov; erotic prose published illicitly in the 1920s; and items from Europe, Asia and the United States, some dating to the 1700s and many of which Chestnykh says are "absolutely unique.''

One of her favorites is a Chinese scroll that unfurls to reveal a tumble of sinuous figures having a very good time. Other items include a set of miniature British porcelain reliefs, packed in a handy traveling case, that illustrate the art of love, and a packet of ABC flashcards that tutor the same discipline along with the alphabet.

There are also medical texts, illustrated books and magazines, proceedings of scientific conferences and other objects that hardly rate as erotica today .

Part of the collection was put together by Nikolai Skorodumov, a deputy director of the library at Moscow State University. Before his death in 1947, he collected thousands of pieces of erotica from around the world thanks to his close connections to university and party officials, who provided him with letters saying his purchases were needed for professional reasons. After he died, the NKVD brought it to what is now the State Library, where it was hidden for years. For much of the last century it was seen only by scientists and scholars who could prove they needed it for research and Party officials who wanted a peek.

Chestnykh, who is 38, said that government officials liked to visit, and examining one thing after another, they would pronounce the works "a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.'' Every so often, someone would leave with a postcard or two in his pocket.

The erotica collection is no longer off limits, but it has never been publicized. If the library could get money to pay for the research and restoration of the collection, Chestnykh said she wanted to exhibit it and place it online.

Founded in 1862, the library -- formerly the Lenin State Library and still known by its nickname, Leninka -- is one of the largest libraries after the Library of Congress in Washington.

"Our department is new, but like everything else here it has a history,'' said Nadezhda Ryzhak, chief of the department of Russian ?migr? literature.

With 700,000 journals, books, newspapers and other documents, many published after 1917, the collection of ?migr? work is extremely comprehensive, attesting to the paranoia of the government that collected it, Ryzhak said.

Slowly opened to the public after 1988, the special-sections division contained mostly foreign-language publications in addition to the ?migr? and erotica collections.

The library still holds secrets, though, among them the fate of books taken from the Romanov family after 1917. They were brought to Leninka, and Stalin later insisted that they be destroyed. But Chestnykh said the director of the library, Vladimir Nevsky, could not bear to lose the fine old texts and tried to keep them. For his efforts, he was shot in 1937, but his staff hid volumes throughout the library, shoving them pell-mell into the stacks.

"We are still finding them,'' Chestnykh said, adding that many of the nearly 1,000 books are cataloged among various collections. "But nobody knows where they all are. Sometimes a reader will bring us a book and point out that the ex libris is the czar's. It is all part of a tragic history.''