Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2024 Issue

Pushkin and the Kremlin Mercenaries

Photo : Maxime Ruscio / BULAC.

Is the Kremlin sending mercenaries to various libraries over Europe to steal old Russian books?

 

The Kremlin organizing the theft of old Russian books all over Europe might sound like a hoax—but is it? At the end of last year, the staff of the National Library of France (BNF) rushed to its storage in Tolbiac, Paris, and anxiously examined the 11 first editions of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) they own. Pushkin, the alleged greatest Russian writer of all times who was killed during a duel, is more than a writer to Russia. It is a symbol, and a national pride. Of course, the first editions of his works are highly valuable, and they have lately been the main targets of a crew of Georgian criminals. As the culprits had just been arrested by the Office central de lutte contre le trafic des biens culturels (OCBC) in connection with the theft of several dozens of old Russian books, the BNF staff started to worry. And when they closely examined their treasures, they fell off their chairs!

 

It all started in July 2023, when a young man entered the library of the Ecole normale supérieure (ENS), in Lyon, France—showing a counterfeited Belgian ID, he was granted access to a dozen of rare Russian books. A few moments later, an accomplice drew the attention of the supervisor, and the young man walked away with his booty—the first edition of Pushkin’s Boris Goudonov (1825) alone was worth €70.000.

 

A few months later, in the night of October 10, someone broke in the library of BULAC, Paris. The trespassers left empty-handed but the previous day, two men had asked to see some rare editions of Pushkin—Bulac had no copy of Pushkin’s works, but they had put together a Pushkin exhibition in June 2019. The authorities immediately sent a red flag to the BNF, but too late: “Nine rare and precious manuscripts of Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov had been replaced by very convincing facsimiles”, the website AtcualitTé writes (January 2024). The BNF estimated the value of the theft to €650.000!

 

The OCBC soon identified the suspicious behaviour of one Valerian R., a 65 year-old Georgian who was granted access to several Pushkin’s books during the past few weeks—he was seen taking pictures of them, and even taking measurements! That’s how his accomplice Mikhail Z., another Georgian, was later able to replace the originals by some facsimiles. He introduced them into the library by slipping them into a sling to hold his allegedly injured arm. Mikhail Z. was arrested at Brussels airport early last November. “He’s connected to the theft of 17 precious books in Vilnius, Lithuania—as well as the theft of 80 books in the University Library of Warsaw, Poland,ActualitTé explains. Valerian R. was also arrested, but denied any international connections although more books were stolen in Estonia, Germany, in Finland and in Switzerland.

 

Of course, these criminals were most likely motivated by money, but the OCBC issued a report that doesn’t exclude political motivations. The French newspaper Le Parisien had access to the said report, and it reads: “It is possible to imagine a project on a wider scale aiming at repatriating (to Russia) this precious cultural patrimony with strong symbolical and identity values.” As a matter of fact, the authorities wonder whether the Kremlin could be involved, but has issued no official statement so far. War is fought on every front, including the old books.

 

T. Ehrengardt

Rare Book Monthly

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