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New York Library Exhibit Traces Russia's Evolution - 2003-10-06

A priceless collection of artifacts and documents now on display in New York traces four centuries of Russia's evolution from isolation to the world stage.

The New York Public Library designed the exhibit to showcase its century-old Slavic and Baltic division, which contains holdings in 15 languages, and to coincide with the 300th anniversary of Saint Petersburg.

Among the 230 items on display are the first book printed in Moscow and a rare silver-bound, enameled altar gospel, one of the few books of its kind to survive the Bolshevik Revolution. Paul Le Clerc, president of the library, says the exhibit explores Russia's evolution from a medieval princedom to a modern secular world power.

"Altogether this trove of rare documents and artifacts, many of which are also extravagantly beautiful and have never been seen by the public before, provides a timely window to Russia's past and places the history of that great country squarely in a global context," he said.

The exhibition begins in the 15th century and uses books, engravings, etchings, manuscripts, maps, pamphlets, and prints to follow Russia's engagement of Asian, Muslim and Western cultures until 1825.

Russian-American businessman Boris Jordan provided major funding for the exhibition in hopes of fostering better relations between Americans and Russians.

"We felt that it was important to support the library in exhibiting this collection to the public because when two nations or peoples know each other's history they are going to understand each other a lot better," said Mr. Jordan.

Richly illuminated liturgical books in the first section of the exhibtion underscore the prominent role of the Orthodox Church in Russian history and Russia's effort to convert Muslims as it expanded south and southeast. Russia's gradual interest in secularization and Westernization can be seen in the first secular book printed under the Muscovite Czar, an intricately engraved military manual. But Edward Kasinec, chief of the library's Slavic and Baltic division, says one of the most prized items in the early section is a 17th century manuscript.

"Those of you who know Cyrillic can very easily read what it says: Amerika," announced Mr. Kasinec. "This is the very first description that we have in manuscript, Muscovite descriptions of America. And it is a translation from this Dutch text which we also have in our collection."

Beautiful engravings and a 17th century Chinese imperial manuscript scroll in colored silk highlight Russia's contact with Asian cultures. Maps and bluprints trace the building of the city of Saint Petersburg, which became Russia's "window to the West," from its foundation in 1703.

Peter the Great brought the influence of European writers and intellectuals to his court. But historian Cynthia Whittaker, a co-curator of the exhibit, says Peter's ambitions to Europeanize the Russian elite and confirm Russia as an imperial power came to fruition under the long reign of Catherine the Great. She demonstrated her success with a court that dazzled all who visited.

"This is one of the themes of the show, this engagement of Russia with the outside world, bringing French craftsmen into Russia, having the French craftsmen teach their trade to Russian craftsmen and then having the Russian craftsmen able to produce this magnificent work of art," she explained.

Professor Whittaker says all styles of literature flourished under Catherine the Great, who not only encouraged the development of Russian arts and letters, but actively took part in it. A substantial number of books and documents written by Catherine the Great, which the library owns, are on display.

"Catherine wrote more, as far as I can see, than any other monarch in the history of the world," said Ms. Whittaker. "She wrote her memoirs, which are delicious reading. She wrote 25 plays. She, of course, wrote official edicts, but she also wrote magazine articles. She wrote a history of Russia. She wrote children's stories for her grandchildren."

The exhibit also covers Russia's exploration of its own vast territory with documents and illustrations from expeditions to the Urals, Siberia and beyond and ethnographic studies of some 124 different groups of people found within Russia's expansive borders.

Russia's geographic enormity is evident on a map prepared by Napoleon's army before the failed 1812 French invasion. The map takes an entire wall of the library while much of Russia is not included.

Curator Edward Kasinec say many of the items in the exhibit entered the New York Public Library's collection in 1923, when Bolshevik leaders sold off Russian treasures to raise money.

"We were invited to Russia because some of our previous readers, Trotsky, Bukharin, were readers in this library," he said. But after 1917, they became the leaders of the new Soviet state. They knew about the glories of this collection. They invited us to come. 'Please come. We are in need of hard currency.' And we did."

Library officials expect the exhibit to attract global interest via its website. New York Public Library head Paul Le Clerc says online readers from 199 nations and territories visit the site each month.

The exhibit continues until January 31, 2004.