KIROVOGRAD. Ukraine-Few visitors were ever allowed into
Alexander Ilyin's ramshackle house in this wheat-country town. When he died,
people found out why.
Ilyin had been a familiar scruffy figure around here, an
electrician for local cafeterias. With his long face and burning eyes, he
resembled a scrawny vampire; in his ancient shoes and shabby coat, he could pass
for a bum.
The eyes gave him away. He was a man with an illicit passion
burning so strong that nothing—not the KGB, not the criminal underworld, not
the bonds of Soviet ideology-could sland in its way.
After he died last fall at 73, local officials invaded
Ilyin's home with an order to freeze his properly until his rightful heirs couid
be determined. They had suspicions about what they would find; everyone in town
knew Ilyin was a collector.
But they had never imagined the magnitude of the treasure he
left, a monument to the peculiar ingenuity of a true collector who could
overcome ariylhfnf—even the repression of a Communist police state that
frowned on private property—to amass his hoard.
Ilyin had done the seemingly impossible. He had accumulated
an entire museum—tens of thousands of rare books along with gold- and
silver-framed icons, paintings and antiques—under the Soviet regime. His cache
included 16th-century books believed to be published by the Russian
Gutenberg-Ivan Fyodorov—and tome after leather-bound tome of valuable
The Soviet Union had no equivalent of Sotheby's auction
house, but some of Ilyin's methods of procurement can be guessed.
He bought valuables at bargain-basement prices from fallen
noble families and needy pensioners, victims of revolution, war and poverty. He
swapped with less knowledgeable colleagues. According to many, he also corrupted
library and museum officials to obtain choice objets, and may have had
dealings with criminals.
Kirovograd residents shake their heads in bewildered wonder
at the size of his collection.
"He was a collector of the highest order," said
librarian Alexander Chudnov, an Ilyin protege who is helping to catalogue the
hoard. "People often compare the love of books to the love of women—he
knew value and to some extent it was love that turned into lust, into a ”This
Ilyin's home and an annex on the half-acre lot had no
plumbing or central heating, like most houses in the Ukrainian countryside. But
officials found both to be stuffed with the density of a moving van. Ancient
books teetered in floor-to-ceiling piles, some rotting in the demp and nibbled
Ilyin's niece, Irina Podtyolkova, and her husband lived with
the collector and objected furiously to the state intervention. But this was
bigger than both of them.
“It was like coming into a cave," said Oxana Nelga, a
librarian who helped pack up and list the Ilyin collection. "First the
fear, then the surprise of finding silver wrapped in rags".
The treasures of the Ilyin household created a sensation. The
local press, quoting an overly enthusiasue official, claimed that the books and
other valuables were worth a for-tched $40 billion, more than the Ukrainian
state budget for the last several years.
Their actual value is uncertain. Rare Russian book
collections sold for millions of rubles back when would have been millions of
dollars, said Alexandra Guseva of rare books section of Moscow's Lenin Library.
But Harry Leich, Russian specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress, said there
seems to be little market for them now.
Nonetheless, "I would not underestimate the cultural
value of it," Leich said, noting that the very of an extensive private
Russian collection is "a major event culturally and historically. Because
of the vicissitudes of history there aren't many of them around."
Iliyin's collection, which local museum director Pavel Bosiy
valued at several million dollars, is not a11 catalogued yet, and thp
authenticity of some of the rarest books must be checked.
But officials at the Kirovograd museum, which serves the
provmce's population of 1.5 million, figure that Ilyin's collection outstrips
Some see Ilyin as a looter who exploited his country's
misfortunes. Others view him as a visionary.
His collection reflects some of the tremendous distortion of
values under Soviet Communist dogma, a distortion that is only beginning to be
set right as Russia reclaims its history.
The Bolsheviks slaughtered priests, tore down churches and
persecuted believers. They saw little value in icons, the Byzantinestyle
portraits of saints typically pointed on wood and framed with gold and silver.
During the Stalin era, Ilyin had seen local museum workers
destroy icons with an ax, pulling away the silver frames and then chopping the
wood to be burned for heating, said Ivan Anastasiev, a fellow collector in
But those with clear sight cherished them. Westerners have
long smuggled icons out of Russia, and Ilyin was gathering them even when Soviet
citizens could be hounded for having them.
"God knows how, but he gathered and kept what could have
disappeared," Anastasiev said. "It's a great feat that it's still
The Bolsheviks also frowned upon everything that smacked of
the highfalutin world of the aristocracy they had ousted.
When rebellious peasants sacked the family estates of noble
clans, the spoils could often be bought for a song.
"The logic of the regime was that everything before 1917
was lies," said Valery Repalo, head of the state commission on the Ilyin
collection. "Only that which related to the Soviet epoch had value."
Ilyin loved the Baroque and Rococo styles of
pre-revolutionary Russia. His collection included magnificent books such as
"The Byzantine Enamels"—which cost 12,000 silver pieces in
1892—and "The Great Princes and Czars Hunting in Russia," gorgeous
coffee-table-size editions printed at 200 or so copies with brilliant
The Communists hated the czars. Ilyin bought their portraits,
one of them apparently done by the renowned painter Dmitri Levitsky, who died in
the early 19th Century.
Ilyin had taste, but there was an unsavory side to his
collecting. He was, as one librarian said, "no angel.”
Collecting "is a passion that swallows everything,"
Anastasiev said. "When a person will do anything, including criminal acts,
to get things."
Communism made property collective—and therefore no one's.
Stealing from the state was considered a minor peccadillo;
that meant that museum and library workers could be easily persuaded to make an
unprofitable swap or to purloin a book from dusty shelves.
"You could take an icon froril a museum for a bottle of
vodka if you were in cahoots with the director," said Pavel Bosiy, now head
of the local museum.
Some of Ilyin's books have library stamps in them,
cataloguers said. And how are they to explain Ilyin's possession of the very
Bible that the Empress Yelizaveta bestowed upon their city back when it was
And there are rumors about the World War II years. Some say
Ilyin was one of the carpetbaggers who, during the 900-day siege of Leningrad,
traded bread to ravenous residents for their heirlooms.
Podtyolkova, his niece, angrily denied the rumors, saying
Ilyin never even served in Leningrad.
But the war did turn the country upside down, with museums
evacuated eastward away from the invading Nazis and new treasures flooding in
with the victorious Soviet troops.
Museums did not begin normal postwar inventories until 1948,
Ilyin may or may not have taken advantage of his country's
chaos. What he definitely exploited was the Communist ideal of equality that
left everyone equally poor.
"Back when pensions were 12 rubles a month"—then
about $20— "an old lady would let you take an icon with silver and enamel
and jewels for 30 rubles. People needed every penny," Anastasiev recalled.
Ilyin, Chudnov said, had been described as "a python
person. He'd choose a victim who he knew had something, then he'd circle around
them and sometimes if he couldn't get close he'd just wait... And when the
person died, he'd pounce."
One of the main mysteries about Ilyin is that he lived as a
poor man, eating for free in the cafeterias where he worked and wearing the
uniforms provided on, the job.
He never married—probably, Anastasiev said, because he was
too cheap to spend money on a family when the cash could have furthered his
And there are greatermysteries. The Soviet regimefrowned upon
private book collecting—as it did on any wheeling and dealing—and
confiscated many of the country's best private collections.
How did Ilyin survive untouched—especially when, some
accounts say, his collection included coins and medais; which tended to draw the
interest of the KGB and the criminal world?
Podtyolkova said that Ilyin had been robbed only once and
that the thieves had soon been caught. She speculated that he had been otherwise
untouched by the KGB and the underworld because her father—Ilyin's
brother-in-law—was a highly placed prosecutor.
Local reporters have other theories. Perhaps, they say, Ilyin
was what the Russian underworld knows as a "thief in the law," a
criminal leader whose treasure was actually an obsckak — a general pot,
the repository of the goods a gang has accumulated.
Chudnov has found documents showing that Ilyin spent time in
jail, and there is also a period of 14 years in his life unaccounted for in his
Podtyolkova denied that Ilyin had ever served time, but
Chudnov believes that gap could mean Ilyinwas ether in a labor camp or perhaps
working for the Russian Orthodox Church, which led some-thing of a life apart
from the Soviet state and might not have appeared in his records.
The Kirovograd KGB has answered museum officials' queries
about Ilyin with a blank wall, responding only that it has no information on
The biggest remaining mystery is how Ilyin could allow his
treasures to molder in the freezing damp of winter and the humid heat of summer.
Museum workers said some of the books were so filthy and moldy that they had to
wear respirators while examining them.
"He's a person we don't understand because we can't say
he didn't know they were valuable-but still they were kept in such bad
condition," commission head Repalo said. "He was an egotist."
Chudnov saw Ilyin more as a sadist, saying that the
collector's passion was twisted enough that he believed that he could do
anything he wanted with his own books.
"He was a very complex person-probably in world
literature there's no parallel," museum director Bosiy said. " He was
a believer, but he took things from churches. He restored books, but he allowed
many to be destroyed. He put contemporary pictures in old books."
Museum and Kirovograd officials use Ilyin's ill treatment of
his treasures as the moral basis for moving in on them. They base their claims
on a law requiring that collections of unique historical items must be
registered, and Ilyin never registered his.
Technically, they have only confiscated the collection for
six months because Ilyin left no will. But Podtyolkova is sure that she will
never see most of it again.
She spoke in the cluttered kitchen of Ilyin's house, which
still smacks visitors with a waft of something rotting as they walk in. It is
also still overflowing with books, apparently only the least valuable, even
after officials’ trucked away 500 giant sackfuls.
Podtyolkova verged repeatedly on tears as she described how
police had invaded her home in early January despite her protests. They ripped
up the floorboards and used metal detectors to check for last bits of loot, she
Museum officials say things known to belong to Ilyin had
begun to turn up on the market, implying that his niece had begun selling items
without having clear title.
Podtyolkova, who had always lived with her eccentric uncle,
makes the counter-accusation that museum officials have not registered all they
took, so as to sell the items themselves.
"I don't believe in our democracy," she said.
"They may give us some money, but they won't return the things... They came
and said: “Oh, you have a spoon by Faberge? Why, we have only twoof those in
our museum in Kiev. What I want to know is, why can't we have a spoon by
Podtyolkova and museum officials are seeking legal help.
Podtyolkova said she cannot afford to hire a lawyer from Kiev, and local
attorneys have all refused to aid her. All sides expect long court battles.
The loss of her would-be inheritance hurts Podtyolkova.
Selling just a portion of it would be enough to buy her a new house, she said.
In the latest escalation of the fight between family and
state, Podlyolkova said Chudnov and others are accusing her of having done her
uncle in and have issued an order for his grave to be opened.
For now, the collection fills several rooms at the local
museum and several more at the Kirovograd library. All are sealed.
Bosiy and Chudnov have not even finished counting all they
have. Bosiy says the houses held more than 300,000 items, including a silver cup
he values at $30,000.
Chudnov at the library is looking at everything from bags of
tattered Torahs to books from the era of Ivan the Terrible.
"This is one truly sacred book," he said reverently
of a tome printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1580. "This is like an English
speaker holding an original Shakespeare.
"He has some of Ilyin's passion, it seems, but maintains
his is different."There are bibliophiles," he said, "and then
there are bibliomaniacs."