1 million rare documents destroyed in Russian Library fire

Devastating Fire in Moscow library that destroyed papers dating to 16th century is termed as Cultural ‘Chernobyl’, reminiscent of 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe

Moscow – A fire that broke out at Russia’s largest university libraries in Moscow on Friday evening is believed to have damaged over one million historic documents, with some describing the fire as a cultural “Chernobyl.”

All three floors of the library were damaged by the blaze that consumed an estimated 2,000 square meters (21,528 square feet). No casualties were reported due to the fire, but some 15 percent of the unique collection is believed to be destroyed.

fire russia
Russian Emergency Situations Ministry personnel on the site of fire in the library.

The blaze, which began on Friday and was still not completely out on Saturday evening, ravaged 2,000 square metres (21,500 sq ft) of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION) Library which  was created in 1918 and holds 10 million documents, some of which date back to the 16th century. The library includes one of the world’s richest collections of Slavic language works, but also documents from Britain, Italy and the US.

A total of 38 firefighting brigades comprising of 147 firefighters were deployed, and the fire was eventually extinguished at 11:24 p.m. local time on Saturday.

The smoking debris of the library “resembles Chernobyl,” said the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Vladimir Fortov, after he inspected the scene on Nakhimovsky Prospect along with INION director Yuri Pivovarov.

“This is a great loss for science. It is the world’s largest depository of this kind, similar, probably, to the Library of Congress. Here we have the materials which cannot be found elsewhere, and all humanitarian institutions used this library,” Fortov said, as quoted by TASS.

Earlier, the head of RAS estimated that the fire might have affected 15 percent of the library collection, or roughly two million books and texts.

The director of INION called the incident a “tragedy,” as only a small part of the material had digital copies. Luckily, most of the books are stored in the basement and on the first floor of the building – and since the fire started on the third floor, firefighters managed to contain it before the blaze reached the storerooms.

Many of the texts were still damaged by the water, but Pivovarov says there is a good chance they can be saved.

“After the water damage, thanks to modern technology, it is possible to save the books. But after the fire…We cannot turn ashes back into paper,” said the academician. Pivovarov added that the international scientific community has already voiced its desire to help.

The investigation into the cause of the fire is still underway, but arson or closed circuit fire are the main theories the probe is considering.

“A short circuit in the electrical system is currently being regarded as a primary lead,” a law enforcement source told Sputnik on Saturday.

On the site of a fire in the library of the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences, Photo: Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich
On the site of a fire in the library of the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences, Photo: Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich

The last inspection of the INION library in March found seven violations, according to the Moscow branch of the Emergencies Ministry. The library was fined 70,000 rubles (US$2,200) and given until January 30, 2015 to fix the violations. The fire ironically erupted exactly on that deadline.

Founded in 1918, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences is the largest center for research in the social sciences and humanities in Russia. The library has some 49,000 readers and 330 employees.

The library has a collection of some 14.7 million books, some dating back to the 16th century. Its collection consists of texts in both ancient and modern European and Asian languages, including rare 400-year-old editions. It also has one of the biggest collections of Slavic language books in the country.

The library also boasts Russia’s most complete collection of documents of the League of Nations, the UN, and UNESCO, as well as parliamentarian reports of the United States (since 1789), the UK (since 1803), Italy (since 1897), and many others.


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