Sometimes a visit to the Central Public library might turn into an adventure : ) You know, I love books even after getting a degree in Literature. I still love them and prefer the paper kind too. But I don’t necessarily always love libraries – being the direct heirs of the Soviet bureaucratic system these institutions might sometimes kill all your eagerness to borrow books and read!
That was not my first time coming to this library better known by its unofficial name as ‘Mayakovka‘. But it was the first time I looked at it from the other side! My mostly frequented department is that with lots of books in foreign languages. It’s housed in a separate mansion and I always felt there not as in a library but as in someone’s place, someone who adores books to an extreme point : ) And it turned out I was not wrong in my perception!
The history of this building is also as long as that of St Petersburg as its original part was built in the 18th century. I will not tell you all of it as it is rather complicated and contains so many details on so many owners that even our guide got sometimes mixed up! It was built back when the city was so tiny that the Fontanka River, now crossing the most central and historic part of the city, used to be the border after which the dachas of the courts-men started. That’s why the mansion doesn’t have an official entrance from the river – there was no embankment back then and the only way to get home was to jump on a boat! : )
So once you enter through the gates, a later addition to this baroque building, you see a yard with 3 chestnut trees. These trees were planted by the last owner of the mansion a hundred years ago. They survived the revolution, the Blockade and the 90s.
Here’s the entrance to the building. It used to have only 1 floor and was way narrower than it is now. Let’s get inside quick before we miss the beginning of the guided tour with the library’s employee!
Shame on me, I used to come here pretty often during my student years but it never occurred to me that such a beautifully decorated place MUST have a long and complicated story…
The guide said that the meander grate was added later on, as in the beginning the staircase that runs on both sides to the second (or rather first) floor had no railing at all. And the women coming to the balls all dressed up in crinolines had to wait till a gallant gentleman would help them up to the ballroom : )
The first thing a lady and a gentleman coming up the stairs would see – if we imagine ourselves not in the public libraries but in the mansion a hundred years ago – would be the dining room. It’s a half-circle from one side and rectangular from the other room with tall windows and lots of light.
It was added later, above the entrance (see the photo above) and is now one of the coziest libraries ever, opened and sustained by the descendants of the owners, the Galitsin family. It has books in English but you can only read them on the spot. But what a gorgeous place to read!
The guide said that the family mostly gather documents on the recent history of Russia, but to tell you the truth, I have never visited this section of the library except for a day when there was an exhibition… By the way, the walls of the library were covered with photos of the Orthodox churches in Cyprus, destructed or transformed into mosques. So while we had some free time I managed to read a bit in Greek too =) The next spot is the beginning of the suite of rooms – the White Hall. With a cat, of course! Called Masha :) Just like visiting someone’s home, I told you!
The hall is used for the lectures and exhibitions now but it used to be the ballroom. The guide showed us some old pictures and photos where a huge crowd would gather in this rather small room, also sitting on chairs and listen to some concert.
Wow, just noticed the birds in the decoration around the chandelier (not the original but still nice)! Thanks to the loyal servants who stayed in the mansion after the owners left during the revolution, the building was not broken into and looted as many would be. You see, they were really loyal and believed that in a couple of years there will be the good ol’ life again, with the emperor and the aristocracy coming back to their capital city. So they guarded the mansion and tried to gain time as long as it was possible by suggesting to open a museum of the objects from the old regime here. They succeeded and the museum was open. It later moved to other places (I visited the museum‘s latest home in summer) but at least some precious objects and decorations were safe!
The winter view from the windows, onto the frozen Fontanka river and the guy who was playing hockey all along on the ice. When you look at the pictures and photos of the years up to 1960s I suppose, you can see that the rivers and canals in the city were usually occupied by personal boats, boats that were used as storage room and in winter – with people crossing or skating there. There’s now a regularized parking procedure for the boats and the gradual process of forgetting that the river can serve as something else apart from being another place to get stuck in the traffic jam.
Meanwhile we’ve moved to the next room, a smaller one with a very intricate ceiling. One really has to lift one’s head up to see all the details of the decoration. The guide said that during one apparently veeery interesting meeting she managed to spot every single butterfly and she said there was not any that would be completely identical to the others!
I’m glad that the library has money to keep such an old and beautiful place. They even ordered windows like those which used to be there before (no original window would have survived the exhaust fumes coming from the embankment!).
Our next stop was in the – now – multimedia room. Is that that similar to the place you usually watch your movies? : ) The guide explained that this room might as well served as a small in-house church with the rounded altar and columns. The pictures on the ceiling show how another possession of the last owners used to look like. Well, before the new regime came, you know.
The room that ‘finishes’ the circle of rooms is this one, with great photos of the most charismatic facades in St Petersburg. A very good idea they had with this shape! The room is oval by the way.
And it has yet another chandelier, which I tried to focus on with my phone and got this:
Our last stop in that building was this ‘absolute library’ as I would call it. Also a reading room, there were two guys sitting there, hm, what a place to find guys though!
And a dark version of the same part:
This part of the library was supposed to be a library, so the interior has been preserved. It’s all covered and made with wood, with the second floor where you can get (in theory, but I should try it! there are some veeery old books in that bookcase above the clock) using this spiral staircase:
I was trying to picture the chandelier from all the angles, it’s original and it is just marvelous – with all my love for simple things!
Yes, the lamps are very old-school there :) The PC screen on the right spoil this dark version of the photo, but anyway, you can get the idea of how this wooden library looks like!
And just to complement all the other things, there’s this stool and the carpet :)
The benefit of an excursion in a place like this mansion is that everything’s limited to one story (that has multiple chapters of course!) and you can feel somewhat closer to it, as you’re more concentrated than in a huge museum like Hermitage, for example. You can savour the details and get to know the place better. And get to all those hidden corners you would love to see like the library’s storage room!
And although I was the only representative of a (waaaay) younger generation of St Petersburg citizens in that small group of visitors, I think I even enjoyed it better. I felt a little bit like when I was in Strasbourg and went to all the free cultural events (the thing which I really appreciated and enjoyed while living there), so often being the only foreigner and the only young person in the group. But then I went to such weird places no one is allowed to enter, like coming almost face to face with the enormous rose window of Strasbourg Cathedral, cautiously looking out from some hidden door with no barriers (imagine the height!).
So after we spent some hours in the mansion, we continued on to the ‘main’ building of the library with the books in Russian (the next on the embankment, closer to Nevsky Avenue). These decorations on the facade were reconstructed quite recently and are an imitation of the old Moscow style. You see, it used to be… a representative ‘office’ (podvorye in Russian) of the Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra, the famous monastery near Moscow. You see, the monasteries used to have this sort of ‘branches’ in the cities (especially in the capital!) to raise money, to house visiting church-people and also gain some money (the monastery had a garden).
This red-brick building was the latest addition to the monastery. I also learnt that Nikolas the Second, our last emperor, used to love the dark red colour and even had Hermitage (the Winter Palace, I mean) painted in dark red! Can you imagine this in red?! But now, looking at the old though black-and-white photos and scarce video footage I do notice it’s not the pale white and green we’re used to now! Probably that’s why we have so many red-brick buildings in Kolpino too, they are of the same period.
I NEVER thought I was in a church when searching for a book from the list of our lectures on Russian literature at the University! That was the church… With a marble iconostasis lost for ever. Now there are racks and racks of books. Well, certainly not the worst purpose a church might have served during the Soviet times (and still serves). The library bears the name of Mayakovsky, by the way, the famous Russian-Soviet poet with his rebellious poems and the urge to destroy everything and never care about the future. I don’t like him : (
Just an example of blind walls that you can find in St Petersburg. Just try to get into the backyard and you will see! This brick wall is actually the ‘behind’ of the sophisticated Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace which is on Nevsky Avenue. Also an example of exterior elevators. I haven’t tried riding one yet!
The guide said that the church had some pretty serious claims on this library’s building but then it was proved that almost NOTHING was left there from the monastery. Except for two wooden doors that an employee secretly transferred to his garage while the rest of the interior was looted. He then returned the doors back when the regimes changed again :) Many thanks to the library and its employees! And also for this great idea to make guided tours. The guide said she might show us the pre-Revolution (yep, we still use this point of reference!) book funds. Must be a true treasure!
What can be better than borrowing books on St Petersburg and buying postcards with the city views after such a visit to the library :)
By the way, there’s another splendid St Petersburg mansion where I happened to work once, take a look at its interior here.
Adding this post to my St Petersburg series.
Coming soon – food!