The Library of Ivan the Terrible

Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!

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The Library of Ivan the Terrible
Lost Lore

The story of this fabled lost library starts with a princess. When Tsar Ivan III of Russia lost his first wife in 1467, the Pope suggested Ivan marry Sophia Paleologue: a princess of a vanished empire. She was the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, who died when his thousand-year-old empire fell, fourteen years earlier. When moving to her new home in Moscow, Sophia brought a collection of old books. This collection is said to have contained the larger part of the Library of Constantinople, saved from the Turks when the empire’s last city fell, as well as manuscripts from the ancient Library of Alexandria.

Ivan III’s grandson, Ivan the Terrible, eventually inherited the library, and as a book collector himself, he grew it. It is said Ivan’s library contained documents written in not only Russian, but Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Chinese. Ivan the Terrible had scholars translate the manuscripts from their original languages to Russian. One legend states the translators refused to finish their work, fearing the tsar would use the knowledge gained from ‘black magic’ texts to terrorize his subjects. The books could have contained other passages of knowledge and power, but upon the death of Ivan the Terrible, the library is said to have disappeared.

Despite the possibility it no longer exists, treasure hunters of all sorts have searched for the lost library. Tsars, emperors, princes, historians, profiteers, and ardent book-lovers have all hunted for the historical treasure, but no more information has surfaced about its location. The priceless documents were usually kept in the basement of the Moscow Kremlin, safe from the city’s frequent fires. But searching the building revealed nothing. Other theorized locations of the library are Sergeyev Posad (where Ivan moved his court in the later years of his reign), Alexandrov (capital of Ivan’s domain), as-yet-undiscovered tunnels beneath Moscow, and the village of Dyakovo where a secret door leading underground was found in the Church of St. John the Baptist. Some people believe the library was ultimately destroyed in a fire. Others claim the library survived, but Ivan cursed it, so those about to discover it would lose their sight.

The 20th century Russian archaeologist Ignatius Stelletskii spent his entire life looking for the library. He used maps of the Moscow Kremlin from different centuries to speculate on the library’s location. In 1929, the Soviet government granted him permission to excavate, and they began in 1933. The excavations were promptly discontinued after a prominent assassination, and soon thereafter ended by the outbreak of World War II. Stelletskii intended to resume his work after the war, but his poor health stopped him. The archaeologist died in 1949, his work incomplete. Searches continued into the 1990s, but nothing new was discovered.

The Library of Ivan the Terrible in Play

Though it is said Ivan the Terrible’s library contained mostly rare medieval church books, its contents have never been definitively determined. At the table, any information could be stored away in the library for your PCs to find: an ancient clue to a modern mystery, powerful spells, the formula for Greek fire, the villain’s secret weakness, or hideous knowledge that must be destroyed. The PCs could hear a deathbed confession by Stelletskii that propels them in the right direction. But the villains also overheard the confession, and the PCs must race them to the library. Further complicating matters, perhaps all the hypothesized locations are to some extent true: Ivan the Terrible moved the library repeatedly, each time leaving behind clues to its next location. If the bad guys beat the PCs to a site and destroy the clues, the party can track their opponents and – based on the villains’ general route and the party’s knowledge of Ivan the Terrible – deduce where the bad guys are going and beat them there. In a fantastical campaign, the final site may hold a spell scroll scribbled in different languages, which opens a portal to another dimension holding the library. It might explain why the library was never found.

Image credit: Denise Duplinksi

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