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“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”

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An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library

The British Library holds one of 65 existing copies of the first dated book printed in Muscovy by Ivan Fedorov and Petr Mstislavets, the Apostol (Acts and Epistles) (1564) and one of two known copies of Ivan Fedorov’s Primer (L’viv, 1574), which is considered by many to be the first Cyrillic book printed in Ukraine. The recent history of these books is linked to the name of the legendary Russian art critic and impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872–1929). Both titles belonged to his private book collection. A story of Diaghilev’s collection became part of the history of the British Library when in 1975 it acquired, among other books and manuscripts, his copy of the famous 1564 Apostol. Diaghilev’s copy of the 1574 Primer resurfaced at Harvard University Library, but its detailed descriptions and facsimile editions helped the British Library curator Christine Thomas, then in charge of the Russian collections, to identify a second copy, which is now held at the British Library. This article tells the story of how over 70 titles from Diaghilev’s collection of rare Russian books and manuscripts were acquired by the British Library, examines possible reasons for Diaghilev’s passion for books, and highlights other themes relevant for the history of private and public book collecting.

Affiliations: 1: Lead East European Curator at the British Library


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