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The Search for the Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible

The Search for the Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible

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The thought of a lost library is a tantalizing one, as one can speculate and imagine the kind of knowledge it might provide to the person who finds it. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that there are those who have dedicated their entire lives to the search of such elusive libraries. One of these fabled lost libraries is that of the first Tsar of all the Russias, Ivan IV Vasilyevich, more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible.

Painting of Tsar Ivan the Terrible.  By Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897.

Painting of Tsar Ivan the Terrible.  By Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897. Public Domain

The Library of Ivan the Terrible is said to have been started by his grandfather, Ivan III (the Great) of Russia. After the death of Ivan III’s first wife, Maria of Tver, in 1467, Pope Paul II suggested that Ivan III wed Sophia Paleologue, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, in an attempt to bind Russia to the Holy See in Rome. In 1472, Ivan and Sophia were married, and a collection of old books were brought along with her to her new home in Moscow. It is said that these included the larger part of the Library of Constantinople saved from the Turks when the city fell in 1453, as well as some manuscripts from the ancient Library of Alexandria.

Ivan the Terrible was also a book collector, and could have added more manuscripts to his grandfather’s library. It is believed that Ivan’s library held documents written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Egyptian (these would probably have been the documents from the Library of Constantinople and the Library of Alexandria), Chinese texts from the 2 nd century, and documents from Ivan the Terrible’s own era.

Christopher von Dabelov, a 19th century historian, claimed to have seen a list of titles from the missing collection. He said the list included 142 volumes of Titus Livius’ History of Rome (historians are currently only familiar with 35 of them), a full version of Cicero’s De republica (only fragments were preserved in Western libraries), and an unknown poem by Virgil…to name but a few. Certainly a collection worth seeking, although a fact that undermines the credibility of the claim, is that von Dabelov did not show the supposed list to anyone else.

The Apostle (1564) by Ivan Fyodorov and Pyotr Mstislavets, one of the first Russian printed books.

The Apostle (1564) by Ivan Fyodorov and Pyotr Mstislavets, one of the first Russian printed books. Public Domain

It’s thought that Ivan the Terrible decided to keep the priceless documents in the basement of the Moscow Kremlin so as to protect them from the fires that frequently ravaged the city during that time. These documents, however, were not left there to collect dust. It is said that Ivan had them translated from their original language to Russian. One legend even stated that the scholars refused to continue the task of translating these works as they feared that the tsar would use the knowledge gained from certain ‘black magic’ texts to terrorize his subjects.

Upon the death of the infamous tsar, the library simply disappeared, some believing that it was destroyed in a fire. Alternatively, others have claimed that the library survived, and that Ivan placed a curse on the library, and those who were about to find his library would lose their sight.

Despite the possibility that the library no longer exists, and the supposed curse, treasure hunters have been relentless in their search for the lost library. Over the centuries, many have attempted to find this library, among them Peter the Great, and Vatican representatives who were visiting Moscow during the reign of Boris Godunov, though none have succeeded.

During the first half of the 20 th century, the Russian archaeologist Ignatius Stelletskii spent his entire life looking for this library. Using maps of the Kremlin from different centuries and the archival material, he was able to speculate on the location of the library, and was granted permission to excavate by the Soviet government in 1929. Although excavations under Arsenalnaya towers began in 1933, they were discontinued in the following year after the assassination of Sergei Kirov. With the outbreak of World War II several years later, excavation work effectively ceased. Although Stelletskii intended to resume work at the end of the war, his poor health prevented him from doing so, and he died in 1949.

As of the 1990s, efforts were still being made to discover the library of Ivan the Terrible. Additionally, the search has been extended beyond the Kremlin, as some believe that the library was moved to other places, such as Sergeyev Posad (where Ivan moved his court during the later years of his reign), Alexandrov (the capital of Ivan’s fiefdom), and the village of Dyakovo near Kolomenskoya (where a secret door leading underground was found in the Church of St. John the Baptist).

Ivan IV of Russia (Ivan the Terrible) demonstrates his treasures to the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I. Painting by Alexander Litovchenko, 1874.

Ivan IV of Russia (Ivan the Terrible) demonstrates his treasures to the ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I. Painting by Alexander Litovchenko, 1874. Public Domain

It is uncertain whether the library of Ivan the Terrible will ever be found. Even if the library were to be located, its contents may not have survived the ravages of time. Nevertheless, there will undoubtedly be those who would continue searching for this elusive library.

Top image: Ivan the Terrible, portrait detail. Source: Public Domain


Galiullina, J., 2012. Ivan the Terrible’s Library: Greatest Historical Mystery. [Online]
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Gould, J., 1993. In Search of Ivan's Legendary Library. [Online]
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Hecker, C., 1996. Wanted: Ivan the Terrible's Library. [Online]
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Matyukhina, A., 2012. The Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible (part 1). [Online]
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Matyukhina, A., 2012. The Lost Library of Ivan the Terrible (part 2). [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Ignatius Stelletskii. [Online]
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Wikipedia, 2014. Ivan the Terrible. [Online]
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By Ḏḥwty



No comment, you are great.


Fascinating article! But c'mon! Where did the secret door go!? Where did the secret door go!?

If there really were books from the Alexandria that would be so awesome. I can really understand  someone  devotes all his time to this.

Its not like the search for el dorado or the seven golden cities. 

This is real. The books must be somewhere an maybe they contain not so much knowlege as we hope, but still...they must be somewhere.

Sunny Young

I can remember watching a program on this several months ago. I think it would be fascinating to find the library - though not for any secret arcane knowledge, but for the missing texts that there might be copies of, or the ability to compare and contrast copies of documents that the Russian scholars of the time were working on translating.


dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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