On Saturday I plunged into working at the Russian State Library. Getting into the library is a somewhat elaborate process: first, there is a checkpoint at which you scan your reader card, then you walk up to the checkroom to leave all your things, except a laptop and a notebook (no books are allowed, including Russian dictionaries); then you go through a second checkpoint where you are given a piece of paper on which all your transactions will be recorded and surrendered when you leave.
But it’s all worth it! Working in the Lenin Library is the most grand and elegant experience a Russian scholar can have. Foreigners are assigned to Reading Room #1, the same one reserved for Russian academics. Its windows look out onto the Kremlin palaces. When I was first here in the mid-1970’s one of my colleagues noticed that Vyacheslav Molotov, the old Bolshevik Minister of Foreign Affairs, now in his dotage, was sitting next to him in the reading room!
You submit your book requests to the lady in charge of Reading Room #1 and she tells you when they will be available for pickup, usually in an hour or so, so it’s best to bundle your requests. At the end of the day you can return them and have them held for you.
The holdings that are of interest to me are published materials related to Levitan from 1900-1917, written by people who knew Levitan when he was alive (he died in 1900). On the first day, I made notes on and translated portions of a 1902 monograph written by Solomon Vermel, a Jewish doctor, writer and acquaintance of Levitan. He argues that Levitan, despite being seen as the quintessential Russian landscape painter, was above all a Jewish artist, something not discussed much after the revolution. Vermel also wrote a memoir of the 1891-1892 expulsion of Jews from Moscow, which Levitan was swept up in—an unpublished document waiting for me in the archives later this week. I will also be looking at an article in a journal from the early 1900’s based on interviews with Levitan’s sister Teresa, who offers a rare glimpse into her brother’s impoverished childhood and youth, something Levitan never talked about to his friends.