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Literary thieves steal Russian works – also in Switzerland

The library in Geneva has been the victim of a theft with an international dimension: Thieves stole an anthology of the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin. The case, which came to light in January, is the latest known link in a chain of such thefts from the Baltic states to Paris. Swiss institutions are on their guard.

According to the University of Bern, the relevant branch libraries - Swiss Eastern European Library, Historical Collections Department, Slavic Studies Library - have been aware of the series of thefts "for some time" via their networks.

"The holdings of these libraries also include older Russian-language prints, but none of the first editions of particularly prominent Russian poets and writers such as Pushkin or Lermontov, which the thieves apparently had in mind," a spokesperson for the university told the Keystone-SDA news agency. So far there have been no thefts.

Only in the reading room and under supervision

The University of Basel and Zurich Central Library are also aware of the series of thefts, but have so far been spared, as they reported on request. Valuable holdings in the libraries in question can only be viewed in the reading room under supervision.

The University of Bern stated that it had made staff aware of the issue in the wake of the thefts. Zurich Central Library did not wish to comment on its additional security measures. No special measures have yet been taken in Basel, it said.

The Geneva library tightened its security measures following the theft of the Pushkin work, but did not provide any details. The criminal proceedings opened in the case have not yet been commented on by the Geneva public prosecutor's office responsible.

High loss amounts

In any case, the literature thieves have been on a theft spree for a long time. The first theft of Russian literature was reported by the French news agency AFP in April 2022: Back then, three books were stolen from the National Library of Latvia.

Eight works by Pushkin and Gogol disappeared from the Tartu University Library in Estonia in the same month. Estimated value of the Estonian loot: 158,000 euros. The thieves had replaced the original editions with copies.

In May 2022, the same game in Lithuania: 17 books disappeared from Vilnius University Library - this time their value amounted to 440,000 euros. Most of them were replaced by copies, as AFP writes.

The Polish university library in Warsaw was later hit particularly hard when it discovered in October 2023 that 79 works were missing from the Russian catalog. The university estimated the loss at around one million euros. The thieves left behind - once again - copies of the stolen works. They "range from sloppy imitations to careful forgeries", as AFP wrote.

Three people in court

Finally, last October, three people stood trial in Paris: they were accused of stealing a dozen works from the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO) at the beginning of the month.

Something similar had already happened in Lyon in July. According to AFP, one of the books stolen in Paris - which, like the others, never turned up - was worth 60,000 euros. According to reports, people from Georgia were involved in at least the cases in France and Latvia.

The motivation behind the thefts appears to be of a monetary nature - at least that is what an incident at the end of December 2022 suggests. At that time, a work stolen from Warsaw went under the hammer in Moscow.

Sold at a Russian auction house

"There is a memo dated December 22, 2022, confirming that the books are in place in Warsaw," Hieronim Grala, a professor at the University of Warsaw, told AFP last November. "On the same day, one of these books will be sold at an auction in Moscow for 30,500 euros."

According to AFP, the auction house was Litfond, a company operating in St. Petersburg and Moscow. According to the French news agency, it saw books with stamps and catalog numbers from Warsaw University on screen recordings of auctions.

However, the managing director only told AFP: "The Litfond auction house works within the framework of the applicable laws of the Russian Federation and we do not accept for sale [...] books with stamps from existing state libraries."


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