The search for Ivan the Terrible’s famous library has been going on for several centuries with no result. Over this period, many doubts have been expressed about the library’s existence because those in favour of continuing the search only refer to indirect evidence of its existence, found in various historical documents. Over 60 versions of the library’s whereabouts have been put forward until today. Many legends are usually associated with archaeological mysteries, and Ivan the Terrible’s library is certainly one of such mysteries.
Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), the first czar of the Moscow state, had a huge collection of ancient papyrus rolls and old books written on parchment. The library was kept in the basements of the Moscow Kremlin to be safe from fires which frequently happened in those days. The main part of the library is considered to have consisted of old books brought to Moscow by Princess Sophia Palaeologue, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, who in 1472 married Grand Prince Ivan III, Ivan the Terrible’s grandfather. That collection included the larger part of the Constantinople Library saved from the Turks and some manuscripts from the Alexandria Library. Ivan the Terrible collected books himself and his library could have been replenished by some ancient manuscripts acquired after the conquest of the Astrakhan and Kazan Khanates. Thus, the Czar’s library could indeed have been very large at that time.
Some written evidence, provided by people who saw the library, has survived. One of them is Maxim the Greek, a monk from Mount Athos, who translated several books into Russian. Another one is Johann Wettermann, a German pastor from Livonia, who fled from Russia and later made a list of books he had seen. The pastor saw only a small part of the library but remembered about 800 book titles. This catalogue was found by Professor Dabelov from Tartu University in 1822 but many historians doubt its authenticity, especially because later those pages disappeared.
After Ivan the Terrible’s death the library was lost and no one knows what happened to it. The latest information about the Czar’s secret library dates back to the 17th century when the search for it began. Curiously, rumours about the unique library even leaked to the West. Representatives of the Vatican who visited Moscow during the reign of Boris Godunov were interested in the library’s fate.
In the following centuries, all kinds of people tried to find the library: czars, emperors, princes, historians, profiteers and ardent book-lovers. The whereabouts of the unique historical treasure is still unknown. Researchers mention numerous places where the library could be hidden and first of all, the Moscow Kremlin.
In the 20th century, well-known archaeologist Ignaty Stelletsky made the most headway. He examined the maps of the Moscow Kremlin in different centuries and studied the archives. In the early 1930s, he headed the excavations under the Middle Arsenal and Corner Arsenal Towers. He is reported to have found an underground passage which had been unknown before but there are no documents proving this. He planned to start digging under St. Nicholas’ Tower but had an order to suspend all work until better times, says historian Sergey Deviatov, PhD, a spokesman for the Russian Federal Guard Service.
“Stelletsky’s papers contain some suppositions which he believed to be true but no direct indications of underground depositories or the library.
Later, excavations in the Kremlin were resumed many times. Very interesting archaeological artefacts were found but no library. Scientists’ opinions differ: some of them believe that the library was destroyed by fire, others think that the books were plundered during the Polish invasion in the Time of Troubles in the 17th century, still others are convinced that the books were distributed among many depositories, including the Russian State Library, historian Sergey Deviatov says.
“We have separate books in many depositories. They are contributions, fragments of Ivan the Terrible’s library. The library as a single whole does not exist today.”
Still, we cannot rule out that some of the legendary manuscripts are kept in some undiscovered underground cave if time and humidity have not turned them into dust. In any case, it is still too early to put an end to the search of Ivan the Terrible’s legendary library.