For cultural reasons that I have never fully understood, the Soviet Union was a rather prudish place, and with the disapproving hands of the state firmly gripping all levers of publication, there was pretty much no such thing as porn in Soviet Russia. However, it turns out they maintained a secret library of the stuff that they seized from the libraries of the aristocrats after the revolution:

In the heart of the Russian State Library, Marina Chestnykh takes the creaking elevator up to the ninth floor. She walks past stack after stack of books kept behind metal cages, the shelves barely visible in the dim light from the frosted-glass windows. This is the spetskhran, or old special storage collection — the restricted-access cemetery for material deemed “ideologically harmful” by the Soviet state.

She arrives at a cage in the floor’s back corner. When she inserts a key in the padlock, the door swings open to reveal thousands of books, paintings, engravings, photographs and films – all, in one way or another, connected to sex.

It was the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union: across from the Kremlin, the country’s main library held a pornographic treasure trove. Founded by the Bolsheviks as a repository for aristocrats’ erotica, the collection eventually grew to house 12,000 items from around the world, ranging from 18th-century Japanese engravings to Nixon-era romance novels.

Off limits to the general public, the collection was always open to top party brass – some of whom are said to have enjoyed visiting. Today, the collection is still something of a secret: there is no complete compendium of its contents and many of them are still not listed in the catalogue.

It turns out that much of the material was compiled in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s as a private collection by a librarian who may have enjoyed special protection from the NKVD:

The collection got its biggest boost from librarian Nikolai Skorodumov, who began collecting books while at school and eventually became the deputy director of the Moscow State University library. Skorodumov led a quiet personal life, taking on his maid as a common-law wife, but his appetite for books was voracious. Interested in rare Russian material as well as foreign acquisitions from France, Germany, the US and beyond, Skorodumov kept collecting until his death in 1947.

How did Skorodumov amass such a collection when owning a foreign title could result in a Gulag sentence?

First, he was careful to frame it within the discourse of communist ideology, receiving documents from a variety of organisations attesting to its scientific value. Ivan Yermakov, the director of the soon-to-be-disbanded State Psychoanalytic Institute, provided one such letter in 1926:

“Sexuality demands serious and rigorous scientific examination, particularly as it has played such an extensive role in the evolution of culture and daily life,” wrote Yermakov, who published many of Freud’s works in Russian for the first time. “It is highly important to preserve the collection in unadulterated form as a socially valuable work.”

There is also a second theory. Stalin’s secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda, a pornography aficionado whose apartment reportedly held a dildo collection, is said to have enjoyed viewing Skorodumov’s holdings. Librarians believe that he personally ensured the latter’s safety.

After Skorodumov’s death, the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, raided his collection. According to a letter sent by library director Vasily Olishev to the Council of Ministers, a post-mortem search of his apartment revealed a staggering 40,000 items, 1,763 of which were “books of an erotic nature” while 5,000 were “pornographic or vulgar” brochures and magazines.

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