THE women shuttling quietly through dark, chapped-leather ravines of rare and ancient texts from all over Europe and Asia - here in the second-largest library in the world - are paid an average of about $40 a month.
Even so, last week the director of the Russian State Library acknowledged that the institution had enough money in its account to make only half the payroll.
The former Lenin Library, the crown jewel of Soviet repositories of learning and second in size only to the United States Library of Congress, contains tens of thousands of the world's most valuable texts and manuscripts. According to a recent report by the Russian ministry of culture, many are kept in conditions perilous to their survival.
The story of the library parallels in many ways the story of Russia itself - from its aristocratic roots, to the state confiscations that made it great, to the new openness revealing the depth of decay that was hidden behind the scrim of Soviet secrecy.
Books that have survived centuries, for example, have sat for decades piled horizontally on boards in a church that the Soviet authorities gave to the library. The books collect massive amounts of damaging dust, according to former library employees who have seen them. Lacking vacuum cleaners, employees dust the books once a month with damp cloths - causing water damage.
That is how the books were kept in the late 1970s, says Ileana Belokon, who used to clean them. Many of the books at the church are part of the 12,000-volume collection seized during the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the founder of the Lubavitcher sect of Judaism. The most valuable books at the church, says Mrs. Belokon, showed signs of vandalism. Silver fittings on bindings, for example, had been ripped off.
Conditions at the church have not changed since, according to Lutfiya Arifulova, the research secretary and second-ranking official at the library.
In other library buildings, conditions have worsened. Officials live in fear of water, either from a bursting of the decrepit heating and water pipes in the library complex or from the Znamenka River that runs underground beneath the library to the Moscow River. A new pumping system is under installation, but the contractors stopped work last week for nonpayment. The library has only received a quarter of its budget for the year half over.
The most valuable trophies in the library, such as an exceptionally high-quality Gutenberg Bible, are kept under good conditions in a large safe behind two layers of locked iron doors. Tens of thousands of other rare books are kept in rooms with some dust and humidity control. But other books and manuscripts are in buildings where the temperature swings from freezing to almost 90 degrees F. and that have no dust or humidity control, according to Vladimir Lazarev, president of an independent committee for saving the library.
Gennady Yekimov, a sociologist and book expert who has used the library for years, says most rare books there are in "Stone-Age'' conditions where cloth and water are the only materials used for upkeep.
Still another problem here is finding books even if they are maintained in perfect conditions. Ms. Arifulova, standing in a large crowded room of oak drawers containing catalog cards, many of them hand-lettered, acknowledges that the cataloging systems are 30 years behind their European counterparts.
Mr. Yekimov, the sociologist, has found that the catalogs do not match the collections and vice versa, both because of sloppy work and because cataloging has not caught up with book purchases since the time of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The library does not have enough experts even to know how to keep up with foreign publications, he says.
Igor Filippov, the library's director, admits woefully that in recent months the library has been losing a specialist every week that he cannot replace. Subscriptions to some periodicals have lapsed, and books the library is not receiving threaten its usefulness to Russian scientists, says Arifulova.