Russia returns medieval books to Hungary

Russian President Vladimir Putin, photo: CTK

There's an old saying - Books have their fate. And so it was when Russia returned some precious volumes to Hungary. Their fate was to go back on to the same shelves of the Sarospatak Calvinist College - from where they were taken about 60 years ago. The 136 volumes are currently part of an exhibition at the National Museum in Budapest - opened last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin,  photo: CTK
Gabriella Racsok is a lecturer at the Calvinist Theological Academy and has followed the fate of the books.

"These books can be categorised as rare books because there is only one copy of them or they were limited editions. At the moment there are three or four copies existing in the world. Let me mention some of the books by name, for example there is an illustrated edition of the Bible printed in Nurenberg by Anton Koberger in 1483. Among the Hungarian related important volumes is the first edition of lyrics poems by one of the most well known Hungarian renaissance poets."

Looking at the history of these books, can we draw any conclusions on the reading habits of the then noble men in Hungary?

"Well, if we look at the 'trophy' books that are now being returned then we can draw the conclusion that the nobility who read these books were very pious people, who liked to express their emotions and even their religious convictions and they did so with short comments that they wrote on the margins of these books and this is also what makes them every special."

How would you characterise the history of these books, which lived through many event periods?

"These books belong to the 'western heritage' or the western tradition of Christianity. Some 80 percent of them belong to the so-called Protestant or Calvinist tradition and they were mainly used in education. As we know, the Sarospatak reform college was founded in 1531 as fruit of the reformation. At the same time as it was founded, the library was founded as well because the college was trying to fulfil many functions.

Photo: CTK
"Due to the fruitful work of the historian and educator Jan Amos Komenius, a modern school system was established here, offering education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary level. At the tertiary level, the main discipline that was instructed here was theology but those studying it could also get a degree in law or education. So, it was necessary to have or to establish a great library that could provide the students and the scholars here.

"In 1938 more than one thousand volumes were chosen from the great Sarospatak library and they were taken to Budapest, where they were stored in two banks to try to protect these books and we know that it wasn't a very successful enterprise because over a hundred volumes were taken by the Soviet Army to the Soviet Union."

When did you find these books in the Soviet Union? What's the history behind it?

"Until the beginning of the 1990s, no-one knew where these books were. It was only in 1994 that the books and their location were finally revealed after the ministry of culture of the Russian Federation gave an order to open up the secret or special store rooms in their cultural institutions."