A Peek Inside the Soviet Union's Secret Collection of Erotica
Published: June 24, 2014 (Issue # 1816)
In the depths of the Russian State Library, Marina Chestnykh takes the creaking elevator up to the ninth floor. She walks past stack after stack of books behind metal cages, the shelves barely visible in the dim light from the frosted-glass windows. This is the spetskhran, or special storage, collection of material deemed “ideologically harmful” by the Soviet state.
She arrives at a cage in the floor’s back corner. When she inserts a key in the padlock, the door swings open to reveal thousands of books, paintings, engravings, photographs and films — all, in one way or another, connected to sex.
It was the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union: Across from the Kremlin, the country’s main library held a pornographic treasure trove. Founded by the Bolsheviks as a repository for aristocrats’ erotica, the collection eventually grew to house 12,000 items from around the world, ranging from 18th-century Japanese engravings to Nixon-era romance novels.
Off limits to the general public, the collection was always open to top party brass, some of whom are said to have enjoyed visiting. Today, the collection is still something of a secret. There is no complete compendium of its contents, and many items remain uncatalogued.
“We chose to preserve it intact, as a relic of the era when it was created,” Chestnykh said.
Chestnykh, who traverses the drafty stacks in a purple knit poncho, is the collection’s main keeper. She only learned of its existence in the 1990s — long after joining the library in the 1980s — when she was asked to help reassign its holdings to a different department.
Did its contents come as a surprise?
“Yes and no,” she said. “There was a special collection, so I knew something pretty unusual had to be kept there.”
The collection’s story begins in the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks turned what was once the Rumyantsev arts museum into the country’s national library. As the newly founded Lenin Library began amassing literature, it also opened a rare book department to house compromising materials, acquired primarily from the confiscated libraries of the nobility.
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