June 25, 2014
The Soviets’ secret erotica collection revealed
by Nick Davies
Joy Neumeyer of the Moscow Times offers up a revealing look at a secret corner of the Russian State Library, where an extensive collection of erotica banned by the Soviet Union ended up over the course of several decades.
The spetskhran, preserved today as it existed under communist rule, was created by the Bolsheviks to house any material deemed “ideologically harmful” to the Soviet state, and that designation wasn’t restricted to political dissidents: it also included a whole lot of pornography. At its height, it amassed some 12,000 works of erotica from around the world, “ranging from 18th-century Japanese engravings to Nixon-era romance novels.”
Neumeyer toured the spetskhran with Marina Chestnykh, the main overseer for the collection, and provides a slideshow of the place for the Moscow Times here (there’s nothing filthy here; it’s mostly photos of book exteriors and one pencil drawing of a topless woman). The collection includes works such as a book of engravings titled “The Seven Deadly Sins” by illustrator Vasily Masyutin (“Among its depictions of gluttony is a large woman masturbating with a ghoulish smile”) and several “ladies’ books” —- knigi dlya dam in Russian — bawdy scrapbooks popular with the upper class before the revolution.
The biggest boost to the spetskhran’s naughtier items came from librarian Nikolai Skorodumov, who was allowed to maintain an extensive erotica collection under the guise of “the discourse of communist ideology,” though the truth might be that he was protected by Joseph Stalin’s secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda, “a pornography aficionado whose apartment reportedly held a dildo collection.”
When Skorodumov died, KGB-predecessor the NKVD stormed his collection and purchased the non-smutty portion of it from his widow, though they deemed it inappropriate to pay her for the 1,763 erotic books and 5,000 “pornographic or vulgar” brochures and magazines. This did not, however, stop them from confiscating those works, reasoning, “The Lenin Library did not deem it appropriate to return literature of such a harmful nature to citizen Burovaya [Skorodumov’s widow], as its possession in the home of a private citizen presents considerable danger.” And that’s how they ended up in the spetskhran, which, while secret from the public, was open to high-ranking members of the Communist Party to peruse at their will.
While it’s no longer secret, the collection still isn’t readily available to the public, though Chestnykh points out that this hasn’t prevented a few stray items from going missing over the years, at the hands of “unscrupulous librarians, or even heads of state.”
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.