About Kepler’s manuscripts

Kepler’s Manuscripts in the Russian Archives


A story of the appearance of Johannes Kepler’s (1571-1630) manuscripts in the Russian Academy of Sciences and their further presence in the Russian archives reflects the history of attitudes towards scientific heritage and even political tendencies of the corresponding historical periods.

Purchase of Kepler’s Manuscripts by Russia

The circumstances under which Kepler’s manuscripts were purchased by the Russian Academy of Sciences are described in detail in several articles and surveys, such as Bazilevskaya (1946) and Kopelevich (1972, 1994) and reflected in different documents of the Russian Academy (Letopis’, 1724-1802, p.p. 81, 90, 91, 98, 106). Kopelevich states (1994, p.37) that on January 30, 1773 the German scholar Christoph Gottlieb von Murr wrote a letter to the Russian academician and prominent mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). In this letter von Murr elaborately tells a story of his unsuccessful attempts to find a buyer for a collection of manuscripts by Johannes Kepler and expresses his hope that the Russian Academy of Sciences could purchase and publish a heritage of the great astronomer.

The story described by von Murr to Euler was as follows. Around 1765, von Murr accidentally discovered Kepler’s manuscripts owned by Frau Munszrath Trummer of Frankfurt, who had inherited them after the death of her relative. She was ready to sell the manuscripts for 1,000 thalers. Von Murr started his search for an institution or patron to save the collection of Kepler’s handwritten texts from destruction and loss. Kopelevich writes (1994, p. 36) that he applied to different European scientific organizations and universities and personally pointed the renowned scholars to the fate of Kepler’s legacy appealing to their national feeling, which should not permit the destruction of the heritage of the great scientist.

Starting from 1768, von Murr published an article about his find in several scientific journals and wrote to the famous scholar and mathematician Abraham Gotthelf Kastner, physicist Johannes Kies and director of Berlin astronomical observatory Johann Bernoulli, but to no avail. European scholars considered the price of 1,000 thalers to be very high for the manuscripts and rejected Murr’s offer. Nevertheless, although there was no buyer, Frau Trummer raised the price for the collection up to 2,000 thalers. Von Murr lost any hope of finding support in Germany and turned to Russia in order to save Kepler’s legacy (Kopelevich, 1994, p.37).

The letter from von Murr was read during a regular conference of Russian academicians in St. Petersburg. In his reply to Murr, Leonhard Euler expressed his doubt as to the possibility of deriving something essential from the publication of Kepler’s manuscripts by the Russian Academy, but advised him to apply to the secretary of the Russian empress Catherine II, Grigory Kozitsky. Von Murr followed Euler’s advice and wrote to Kozitsky, including a complete and detailed inventory of Kepler’s manuscripts in his letter (Kopelevich, 1994, p. 37).

Murr’s appeal to Kozitsky was read during the conference of Russian academicians on April 26, and on the same day the academicians were informed about Catherine’s desire to know their opinions, in particular that of Euler, concerning Kepler’s manuscripts (Bazilevskaya, 1946, p. 300).

Kopelevich argues (1994, p. 37) that the widespread view that Leonhard Euler recommended that Catherine buy Kepler’s manuscripts (Nevskaya, 1994a, p.16) is not correct. In his response to Catherine, Euler expressed his high respect for Kepler and his heritage, underlining that the manuscripts ‘would make a valuable adornment for any public library’, but concluded that the cost of 2,000 rubles for the collection was unreasonably high. He wrote that the German Academy could derive more benefit from the publication of Kepler’s works if there were any complete writings in the collection and pointed out that the collection had originally consisted of 22 volumes, but only 18 volumes were left by that time (Kopelevitch, 1994, p.38).

Nevertheless, Catherine made her decision, and the collection was purchased. Kopelevich (1994, p. 38) considers that Catherine’s decision to buy Kepler’s manuscripts was influenced by the policy of her court: to support the prestige of the enlightened tsarina without taking into account any expenses. Besides, as Kopelevich states (1994, p. 38), it is very possible that Catherine wanted to consolidate the position of the Academy’s director – brother of her favorite Grigory Orlov. Nevertheless, during the conference of November 15, 1773, the Academy’s director, Earl Vladimir Orlov, announced that Kepler’s manuscripts had already been bought and were being delivered to the Russian Academy. At the beginning of June 1774, the acquired manuscripts arrived in St. Petersburg and on June 18, 1774 were transferred to the library of the Academy of Sciences (Bazilevskaya, 1946, p. 300).

On June 22, 1774 Catherine’s desire to see Kepler’s manuscripts published was brought to the attention of the Russian academicians. The task of preparing the manuscripts for publication by means of the description and classification of the collection was charged to the academicians Georg Wolfgang Krafft (1701-17??) and Anders Johan Lexell (1740-1784). After a close examination of the collection, both experts came to the conclusion that Kepler’s manuscripts did not contain anything new that had not been published before, except for his correspondences, which could become a valuable addition to the volume of Kepler’s letters previously published by Gansh (Bazilevskaya, pp. 300-301).

Description of Kepler’s Collection

Bazilevskaya (1946, pp. 305-306) gives a detailed description of the collection itself. She writes that it was brought to its current state by one of its former owners, Michael Gottlieb Gansh, who had purchased it in 1707 with a strong intention to publish Kepler’s legacy. He allocated the manuscripts into 22 volumes: 20 in folio and 2 in quarto, binding them in white parchment bindings decorated with gold stamping. He placed the motto ‘Deo et publico’ (‘to God and the people’) on the front covers, and letters ‘D’, ‘Μ’, ‘G’ and ‘Η’ (‘Dominus Michaelis Gottlieb Hanschius’) and the date ‘1712’ (the year of the binding) on the back covers. The numbers of the volumes and separate letters were stamped on the back of each volume. If all the volumes were arranged in the order of the numbers, the following inscription formed by the stamped letters could be seen:


The Russian collection lacked volumes VI, VII, VIII and XII (with the letters ‘C’, ‘K’, ‘E’ and ‘R’). Von Murr explained that these volumes had been kept in the Viennese Library in Austria, but later research could not reveal volume XII in the said library.

Two other small volumes in quarto were also bound in white parchment and decorated with gold stamping. They had numbers 21 and 22 and were named MSS. KEPLERIANUM.

Bazilevskaya (1946, p. 303) gives a list of all the attempts to make a complete inventory of Kepler’s archive by different researchers. Her conclusion is as follows: “an exhaustive, systematic survey and a scientific description of all the manuscripts that were left by Kepler, even in its major part – the ‘Pulkovo collection’– does not exist till our day”. She points out several materials that are absolutely unknown to the public: Kepler’s observations, tables, draft notes and marks, extracts from original sources, calculations, drawings, different figures cut from paper, patterns, horoscopes with attached materials, some manuscripts by other people and a lot of letters, including from David Fabricius, Max Mestlin, Tycho de Brahe, Ludwig Dietrichstein, Krabb, Rutilius, Melchior Stolser, Jacob Barch and many other scientists and historical figures, some parts of Kepler’s own letters, some letters from his relatives and letters to Tycho de Brahe, Ditmar Ursus, Jacob Barch and other addressees.

As for the horoscopes mentioned by Bazilevskaya, they are mostly located in volume XIX on 50 sheets or 100 pages. Each page is divided into a 6-section table, with each section containing one chart. Even a brief glance at the horoscopes demonstrates that Kepler made charts for the principal figures of the European courts. There are charts of Rudolph II – the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, his father Maximilian II and his relatives and descendants, horoscopes of Queen Elizabeth I of England, Jacob VI of Scotland, Charles II of Austria, Maria Magdalena – the wife of Cosimo II the Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Kepler, XIX, p.p. 205-206). Evidence shows that the dates usually marked as birthdays of the prominent people sometimes do not coincide with those in Kepler’s collection. The other set of horoscopes consists of about 20 sheets and is located in volume XXII. It includes horoscopes of Kepler’s relatives, family, ancestors and close friends. Thus, Kepler’s collection contains around 800 astrological charts that had been calculated by Kepler himself. These charts are not yet closely examined and described. Evidently, it is rich material for further research.

Kepler’s Manuscripts at the Library of the Pulkovo Observatory

In August 1839, according to the application of the renowned astronomer, the first Director of the Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve (1793-1864) Kepler’s manuscripts by then not yet analyzed were moved to the Library of the said observatory (Bazilevskaya, p. 301).

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pulkovo Observatory had a long-lasting tradition of international scientific cooperation, particularly with Germany (McCutcheon, 1991, p.117). McCutcheon states (1991, p.100) that under the Struves (the second director of the Pulkovo Observatory was Otto Struve (1829-1905), the son of Wilhelm Struve) Pulkovo was largely a German institution and so it remained even in the twentieth century. Therefore, Kepler’s manuscripts became an important part of such cooperation.

Interest in Kepler’s works rose in Germany not long before the First World War, mostly owing to the efforts of the mathematician Walther von Dyck (1856-1934) (Shenkel, 1994, p. 84). He started speaking actively at the meetings of German scientists appealing to their national pride and pointing to the publication of the works of Galileo in Italy, Tycho de Brahe in Denmark and Christiaan Huygens in the Netherlands.

Shenkel states (1994, p. 85) that in 1913, Dyck appealed to the director of the Pulkovo Observatory, academician Johan Oskar Backlund (1846-1916) with a request to send him a detailed description of Kepler’s manuscripts and inform about the possibility of obtaining separate volumes from Kepler’s collection. After consultations with the Pulkovo Scientific Council, Backlund agreed to start the process of mailing Kepler’s manuscripts to Germany in sets of two volumes at a time. By 1918, fifteen volumes of Kepler’s manuscripts had been sent to Munich.

The beginning of the First World War interrupted Russian-German scientific connections. The last two volumes of Kepler’s manuscripts were kept in Munich up to the summer of 1918, or possibly to 1919. During the war, von Dyck appealed several times to the German authorities with an insistent demand to purchase Kepler’s manuscripts in order ‘not to leave great German cultural valueables in an inimical country’. Shenkel argues (1994, p. 86) that Kepler’s legacy became an affair of national prestige by that time.

Shenkel writes (1994, p. 86) that further events in both countries – the end of the First World War, and the Russian and then German revolutions – did not support the development of Russian-German scientific connections, although Dyck continued to appeal to scholars insisting on the purchase of Kepler’s collection. Cooperation was resumed in May 1927: Dyck asked about the possibility of photocopying the manuscripts. The Director of the Pulkovo Observatory, Professor Alexander Ivanov (1867-1939) gave his agreement provided the manuscripts could be sent to Germany each time in sets of two volumes, the same way it had been before, and only via diplomatic channels. Shenkel concludes (1994, p. 88) that the mailing and photocopying of the Pulkovo collection of Kepler’s manuscripts proceeded without any difficulties and was successfully completed in 1934.

Repression of Soviet Astronomers in the 1930s and “Pulkovo Collection”

Still, there was another side to the international scientific cooperation. In 1925, the Soviet astronomer Petr Yashnov (1874-1940) became the director of the Pulkovo library. He started a study of Kepler’s manuscripts and compiled a catalog of the collection. In 1934, he published an article concerning Kepler’s legacy in Pulkovo (Yashnov, 1934). In 1937, Yashnov, along with 29 other astronomers, became a victim of the purge of Soviet astronomers from Pulkovo (Mc Cutcheon, 1991 p. 108) according to the so-called “Pulkovo affair” (Jukov, 1999). An inquiry by the KGB (KGB SSSR, 1990) states that the arrested astronomers were accused of “participation in a fascist Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist organization, which had been organized in 1932 under the initiative of German intelligence bodies for the purpose of the overthrow of Soviet power and establishment of a fascist dictatorship on the territory of the USSR”. Petr Yashnov “was recognized guilty of a crime stipulated by Article 58, sections 8 and 11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR and was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment with the confiscation of all the property belonging to him and discrimination in political rights to 5 years. He died on May 29, 1940 in Dmitrovka prison in the Oryol region”. The name of Petr Yashnov was not even mentioned in Bazilevskaya’s survey (1946) of Kepler’s manuscripts. He was rehabilitated only in 1957 (KGB SSSR, 1990) and was evidently the last researcher who intensively studied Kepler’s archive in Russia.

As McCutcheon argues (1991, p.117), “an isolated institution with deep-seated pre-revolutionary traditions of international cooperation (in particular, with Germany), Pulkovo had become an anachronism within the surrounding Soviet reality by the mid 1930s”. Evidence demonstrates that scientific cooperation with German scientists regarding Kepler’s manuscripts was a part of this “anachronism”. Nevertheless, the USSR Academy of Sciences tried to protect Pulkovo astronomers from repressions and diminish accusations (McCutcheon, 1991, p.p. 107, 109, 110). N. Nevskaya writes (1994b, p. 143) that after a crushing blow on the Pulkovo Observatory, the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences decided to transfer Kepler’s manuscripts to the Archive of the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). According to the official statement, this was done on June 28, 1938 (Nevskaya, 1994b, p. 143).

Kepler’s Manuscripts in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) between the USSR and Germany, almost all employees of Leningrad institutions of the Academy of Sciences aged from 18 to 50 entered the national emergency volunteer corps. Mass evacuation of scientific organizations and high schools on the home front took place. All institutes, museums, libraries and archives undertook urgent measures to protect scientific valuables from the first days of the war.

The decision to transfer Kepler’s manuscripts from Pulkovo to Leningrad had been a fortunate chance to save the archive, as the Pulkovo Observatory situated 20 kilometers from Leningrad became the target of fierce German air raids and artillery bombardment during the war. McCutcheon states (1991, p.117) that helpless administration of the observatory could not organize quick evacuation of people and scientific equipment. Nearly all the buildings of the Pulkovo Observatory were destroyed, as well as the largest part of the library with its unique book collections.

Before the siege of Leningrad, Kepler’s manuscripts, together with the cultural treasures from Hermitage – the State Museum of Art and Culture, were evacuated to Sverdlovsk, the largest city in the Ural region. It was not the first evacuation of Kepler’s heritage out of St. Petersburg – the first one took place during Napoleon’s invasion into Russia in 1812. Tunkina states (2008, p.109-110) that the most valuable documents from the Archive of the Academy were transmitted to the city of Petrozavodsk at the North-West of Russia at that time because of a threatened capture of the capital of Russia by the French armies. In 1945, after the end of the war, Kepler’s manuscripts were returned to Leningrad and are currently kept in the St. Petersburg Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


Bazilevskaya E.V., 1946. Rukopisnoe nasledie Ioganna Keplera, Trudi Archiva AN SSSR, vip. 5, AN SSSR, Moskva-Leningrad, 1946, p.p. 297-312.

Jukov V.U., 1999. Pulkovskoe delo from Repressirovannie geologi. Moscow-St. Petersburg, 3rd edition, p.p. 411-418 cited from http://www.ihst.ru/projects/sohist/material/dela/pulkovo.htm consulted on December 25, 2009.

Kopelevich U.H., 1972. K istorii priobreteniya Rossiei rukopisei Keplera, Istoriko-Astronomicheskie Issledovaniya, vip. XI, Moskva, 1972, p.p. 131-145.

Kopelevich U.H., 1994. Leonard Eiler i pokupka Rossiei rukopisei Keplera, sbornik No. 1: Raboti o Keplere v Rossii, Germanii i Avstrii. St. Petersburg-Munchen, 1994, p.p. 36-42.

Letopis’ Rossiiskoi Academii Nauk, 1724-1826.

McCutcheon, Robert A., 1991. The 1936-1937 Purge of Soviet Astronomers. Slavic Review, Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring, 1991, p.p.100-117.

Nevskaya N. I., 1994, a. Kepler and Peterburgskaya akademiya nauk (XVIII v.) sbornik No. 1: Raboti o Keplere v Rossii, Germanii i Avstrii. St. Petersburg-Munchen, 1994, p.p.9-17.

Nevskaya N. I., 1994, b. Zabitie stranitsi Pulkovskoi observatorii. Repressirovannaya nauka, vip. 2, St. Petersburg, p.p. 140-144.

Shenkel P.M. 1994. K istorii russko-nemetskogo sotrudnichestva v izuchenii nauchnogo naslediya I. Keplera, ed. N. Nevskaya, sbornik No. 1: Raboti o Keplere v Rossii, Germanii i Avstrii. St. Petersburg-Munchen, 1994, p.p. 83-90.

KGB SSSR, 1990 Oficial’nye dannye o sud’be pulkovskih astronomov, in Istoriko-astronomicheskie issledovaniya, XXII, Moskva, Nauka, 1990 p.p. 482-490.
Cited http://www.ihst.ru/projects/sohist/document/pulkovo.htm, consulted on December 25, 2009.

Yashnov P.I., 1934. O rukopisyah i relikviyah Keplera, hranyatsihsya v Pulkovskoi obsrvatorii. “Trudi Instituta nauki i tehniki”, vip. 2, Leningrad, Academia nauk SSSR, p.p. 199-217.