Connecting St Petersburg and Helsinki: European book treasures from Russia to Finland

Sirkka Havu, The National Library of Finland

The National Library of Finland (formerly Helsinki University Library) received most of its old collections from Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. The reasons for this were the destruction of the Library’s holdings in the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 and the annexation of Finland to Russia in 1809.

The largest donations were from Russian Imperial libraries and the Library of the Academy of Sciences of St Petersburg. In 1829 the Academy sent some 4,000 volumes, mostly jurisprudence and theology, to Helsinki. In 1832 Paul Alexandroff donated two collections inherited from his father, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovitch. Emperor Nicholas I’s interest in the development of the Helsinki University Library was evident in the gift of two large medical libraries and a large collection of academic dissertations.

The provenance of many of the books coming along with these donations is splendid. There are hundreds of books from historically interesting libraries, such as those of the Radziwillian Princes, the Dukes of Courland, Jacob Bruce, J. A. von Korff, M. V. Lomonosov, and J. P. van Suchtelen.

In 1916 the Library of the Monrepos manor in Vyborg was donated to the Library. This exceptionally large private library had been collected by L. H. von Nicolay, a prominent courtier at the Russian court.

Путешествие из Петербурга в Хельсинки: Русское собрание европейских книг в Национальной библиотеке Финляндии

Сиркка Хаву, Национальная библиотека Финляндии

Старые фонды Национальной библиотеки Финляндии (ранее Библиотеки Хельсинского университета) были получены из русских собраний в начале XIX века. Это произошло вскоре после великого пожара 1827 года, уничтожившего большую часть первоначальной коллекции, и присоединения Финляндии к России в 1809 году.

Наиболее значительные дарения поступили из российских императорских библиотек и из библиотеки Санкт-Петербургской академии наук. В 1829 году Санкт-Петербургская академия наук направила в Финляндию около 4000 томов европейских научных изданий, в основном по юриспруденции и богословию. Павел Константинович Александров (1808-1857), внебрачный сын Великого Князя Константина Павловича, подарил еще две коллекции книг, унаследованных им от отца: библиотеку Гатчинского дворца и библиотеку Мраморного дворца, всего около 24000 томов. Покровительство императора Николая I Библиотеке Хельсинского университета выразилось в дарении двух обширных собраний медицинской литературы и необычайно объемной коллекции академических диссертаций.

Происхождение всех этих книг до отправки в Хельсинки не менее впечатляюще. Сотни их них когда-то принадлежали таким историческим библиотекам, как библиотеки князей Радзивиллов, герцогов Курляндских, Якова Брюса, И. А. фон Корфа, М. В. Ломоносова, Я. П. ван Сухтелена и др.

В 1916 году Хельсинская библиотека получила последний дар – из библиотеки усадьбы Монрепо в Выборге. Обширная библиотека из примерно 9000 томов была собрана Л. Г. фон Николаи (1737-1820), видным вельможей при русском дворе.

1. Introduction

The National Library of Finland was established in Turku as the Library of the first Finnish university, “Academia Aboensis”, in 1640. The early stages of the library were modest, but in the middle of the 18th century collections started to grow. In the beginning of the 19th century the number of books in the library amounted to as many as 40 000 volumes.

These collections, unfortunately, were completely destroyed by the great fire of Turku in 1827. The fire also ruined parts of the University and, consequently, the moving of the University to Helsinki was easily put to practice even though many professors were against it.

2. Gifts from St Petersburg

In Helsinki the library was started almost from scratch. The number of books grew fast and in a few years’ time the library had collections big enough to be useful to the university’s research work. Soon the library’s collections were larger than they were in Turku. This was mainly due to the gifts of books Helsinki University Library received from all over Europe. The largest donations came from St Petersburg, the most important ones being: (1) the gift of St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, (2) the gift of Paul Alexandroff and (3) the gift of Nicholas I (Figure 1). In addition, the library retained its copyright status, which was already granted to it in 1820, guaranteeing a copy of every book printed in the whole Russian empire.

As early as November 1827 the Imperial Academy of Sciences decided to donate books to the University of Finland, giving Helsinki University a copy of each of its own publications, as well as all duplicate copies. Beside these, they finally also decided to give the theological and juridical sections in Western European languages of their own collections. In 1829, about 4 000 volumes of scientific European writing were sent from St Petersburg to Helsinki. [1]

Three years later the library received its largest single donation when Paul Alexandroff  (1808–1857), a cavalry captain and natural son of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich (Figure 1), gave two collections, 24 000 volumes, he had inherited from his father: (1) the Great Library of Konstantin Pavlovich (Grande Bibliothèque de son Altesse impériale Monseigneur le Césarewitch Grand Duc Constantin Pawlowitch) and (2) the Library of the Marble Palace (Bibliothèque du Palais de Marbre “ci-devant la Bibliothèque du Comte d’Orloff”).

Figure 1. Emperor Nicholas I (left) and Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich (right). From Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Emperor Nicholas I showed a personal interest in the development of the collections of Helsinki University Library. He donated three important book collections: the libraries (1) of Johann Henning and (2) of Joseph von Rehmann, and (3) the large collection of academic dissertations from the exceptionally large private library of General Jan Pieter van Suchtelen. This collection of some 30 000 European academic dissertations was extremely important to the University; it also included both Swedish and Finnish dissertations that had been destroyed in the Turku fire.

Figure 2. Michael Wexionius’ dissertation  De  prudentia  was the first dissertation defended at the Academy of Turku, as well as the first book printed in Finland. The only known copy of this dissertation was included in J. P. van Suchtelen’s (1751–1836) collection of the academic dissertations. .

These three Russian donations totalled 65 000 titles. Besides these large donations, the Library received several smaller gifts from Russian academic institutions and private persons. The total number of books received from Russia in the first half of the 19th century amounted to 100 000 titles.

Today it is hard to understand the extravagant Russian generosity. Certainly one of the reasons was the catastrophe caused by the Turku fire; the loss of a whole library of tens of thousands of volumes aroused deep sympathy in the learned world. Also the fact that Finland had recently been annexed to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy must have been an important motive. The highest Finnish official in St Petersburg, Robert Henrik Rehbinder, state-secretary for Finnish affairs, worked vigorously for the benefit of Helsinki University. He lobbied especially for the reconstruction of the University Library. It is, perhaps, because of his personal influence and his connections in the court of St Petersburg that these splendid, partly imperial libraries were donated to Helsinki. It must, of course, be understood that the books were not transferred to a foreign country but within the Russian empire to a city 450 kilometres from St Petersburg.

Figure 3. The stamped bookplate of Robert Henrik Rehbinder (1777–1841).

3. Thematic contents of the donations

The thematic contents of the three largest Russian donations were surprisingly balanced, and in principle all the sciences taught at Helsinki University were – at least to some extent – taken into account. This is mostly due to R. H. Rehbinder’s efforts, too.

The thematic focus of the first large gift, that of St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, was on theology and law, and, as a result, the National Library of Finland has today the essential works of great theological thinkers and of controversial religious writers of Western Christianity. Most of the basic texts of Roman and Canon law and the major works on the philosophy of law may be found in the National Library of Finland as well. The theological section included more than ten works by the German religious and philosophic mystic Jacob Böhme. Most of Böhme’s works in the donation come from the libraries of the Dukes of Courland and of General Jacob Bruce. The widespread influence of Böhme’s theology in Early Modern Europe is also seen in the writings of English Philadelphians, such as Ann Bathurst, in the seventeenth century. Elsewhere in this volume, Leena Kahlas-Tarkka and Matti Kilpiö discuss a manuscript, preserved in the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, containing Bathurst’s religious visions. The law section included some 30 early editions of the comprehensive code of Roman law, “Corpus juris civilis”.

The thematic contents of Paul Alexandroff’s magnificent gift of the imperial palace libraries represent a typical 18th-century “art et lettres” library, which may also be characterized as encyclopaedic, comprising – to some extent – all the branches of sciences. However, these palace libraries included mostly humanities: literature, history, and art. Literature, literary criticism and art represent about 40 per cent of the whole, history 26 per cent, theology 16 per cent,  geography and travels 5 per cent, natural sciences 3 per cent and medicine 2,5 per cent. As Helsinki University had some years earlier received the excellent collection of law from St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, the sections of jurisprudence of these two libraries were not included in the gift. They were sent to Tartu University.

The small amount of natural sciences and medicine was conspicuous in Helsinki, and this was probably one of the reasons why the Emperor Nicholas I consented to donate to Helsinki University the collections of the two St Petersburg doctors, Johann Henning and Joseph von Rehmann. Both these libraries are of great scientific and bibliophilic value. The special characteristic of Johann Henning’s library is almost a complete set of contemporary illustrated botanical and zoological works with engraved and hand-coloured leaves of plates (Figure 4). Moreover, in von Rehmann’s library, apart from contemporary medical literature, there are a large number of books from the 16th and 17th centuries by famous early doctors, extremely valuable for the history of medicine (Figure 5). The Rehmann library also includes one of the earliest preserved manuscripts of Theorica Pantegni by Constantine the African. This is the oldest complete parchment manuscript in the National Library of Finland, dating from the 12th century.

The scientific literature the National Library received from Russia after the destruction of the town of Turku forms an invaluably rich information source for the history of learning. Beside this, the provenances of the donated books have also proved to be most valuable to the history of learning and of books. Most of the books in the Library’s historical collections have previously belonged to some famous Russian, or Central European, private library.

The provenances of a large part of the books in the gift of St Petersburg Academy relate to the close circles of Peter I, founder of the Academy of Sciences. In Helsinki there are now books from the library of Alexei Petrovich, Peter I’s son, as well as several books from Peter I’s friends: General Jacob Bruce (Figure 6) and Robert Erskine, the Emperor’s personal physician. In addition to these personal private libraries, the donation also included two ducal libraries: Library of the Dukes of Courland (some 1 000 titles) and Library of the Byelorussian princely family of Radziwills (some 1 200 titles) (Figure 7). The international importance of the Radziwills’ collection has recently grown substantially since the Radziwills’ Archives and Nieśwież Library collection have been accepted to the UNESCO Memory of the World register in July 2009.

Figure 7. Bookplate of the Radziwill library. The donation of the Academy of Sciences of St Petersburg included some 1 300 volumes from the library of the Radziwill princes in Nieśwież.

Paul Alexandroff’s donation consisted of two palace libraries: (1) the Gatchina palace and (2) the Marble palace. Both of these libraries have interesting and diverse provenances, since they have been constructed out of several private libraries owned by Russian or foreign notabilities.

The Library of the Marble palace was originally the library of Count Orlov. The major part of this library consists of the libraries of 18th-century Russian senior officials. These libraries – for instance those of the famous Russian scientist and poet Mikhail Vasilievitch Lomonosov, of general Andrei Artamanovitch Matveyev and of prince Grigorii Feodorovitch Dolgorukov – later came into the possession of Catherine II.

The Imperial Palace of Gatchina was built by Prince Menchikov. Later, in 1776, Catherine II gave the palace to her favourite, Count Grigorii Orlov. After Orlov’s death Catherine reclaimed the palace and gave it to her son Paul. The major part of the Library of Gatchina was made up of a private library put together by Baron J. A. von Korff. Korff was a colourful personality, a passionate collector of books, who also participated eagerly and flamboyantly in social life. In 1741, he moved to Copenhagen as Russian ambassador, and from there, in the same capacity, to Stockholm, where he spent the years 1745 to 1748. Korff often went to book auctions, and bought parts of several important private libraries. In his collections there are a great many books with the bookplate of the famous German, 18th-century scholar Christoph Gottlieb Jöcher. Korff’s bibliophily and his extravagant way of life landed him in severe economic difficulties, and he was forced to sell his precious library to Catherine II. The library was moved to the Palace of Gatchina in 1783, where it formed the basis of the palace’s collection. Grand Duke Paul himself was interested in both the content and outward appearance of his library, and during his lifetime the library was swelled by many books bound, in imperial fashion, in red morocco. When he was still Grand Duke, the books were decorated with Paul’s gold-tooled super ex libris with the letters “PP” (Paul Petrovitš), and later, as emperor, with the letter “P:” (Paul) (Figure 8). After Paul’s death in 1801, the Gatchina palace library passed to his middle son Konstantin.

Figure 8. A volume of the work  Histoire naturelle, générale et particulièr. Paris 1749–1767,  by Comte de Buffon. Binding of the Emperor Paul I (1754–1801).

4. Bibliothèque des deux Amis

In the beginning of the 20th century, in 1916, the Library received once more a gift of a library representing the St Petersburg 18th century book culture: the library of Monrepos manor in Vyborg, ca. some 9 000 volumes. The founders of the library were two Strassburg-born European intellectuals, Ludwig Heinrich Nicolay (1737–1820) and his great friend Franz Hermann Lafermière (1737–1796), both invited by Catherine II to St Petersburg as tutors to the Grand Duke Paul. In St Petersburg the two young Alsatians decided to start to collect a common library which was to become a monument of their deep friendship. The idea of a common library never materialized for several reasons, the main one being the marriage of Nicolay. However, the idea of a common library as a monument of an ideal friendship is still manifested in the name of the library: Bibliothèque des deux Amis (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Bookplate of the Monrepos library

Ludwig Heinrich Nicolay had a brilliant career in the Russian Court, and he bought the Monrepos manor in Vyborg as his summer residence in 1788. Having retired in 1803 he moved permanently to Monrepos, where he divided his time between his two lifelong projects: the library and the legendarily beautiful landscape park. His son, Paul von Nicolay (1777–1866), the Russian ambassador in Copenhagen, also took part in these projects. As a diplomat in Western Europe, Paul managed to acquire lots of books his father needed for the library.

Monrepos Library is an authentic document of the way the French Enlightenment was received in St Petersburg and how it was adopted in the court of Catherine II. The library is multilingual, though French is the main language. Unlike most of the St. Petersburg aristocracy, Nicolay had a good command of English, and his keen interest in Englishness is well represented in the large section of English literature in his library.

5. Concluding remarks

The Russian generosity has closely linked the collections of Helsinki University Library – now the National Library of Finland – with the collections of large Russian libraries. Today the majority of the historical collections of the National Library of Finland have the same provenance as the collections of BAN, The National Library of Russia (St Petersburg) or Moscow State University Library. With its historical collections the National Library of Finland is closely connected, as an important ingredient, to the vast Russian realm of books. [2]


[1] For a catalogue of the 1829 donation, see Collections donated by the Academy of Sciences of St Petersburg to the Alexander University of Finland in 1829. An Annotated Catalogue Compiled by Sirkka Havu and Irina Lebedeva. Helsinki: Helsinki University Library, 1997.

[2] We are grateful to Kari Timonen of The National Library of Finland for providing Figures 2–9 of this article.