The Power of the Printed Word – Ivan Fedorov & the Creation of Literary Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City #8)

I consider myself an aficionado of used bookstores. When traveling to a new place I try to find at least one in every place I visit. Even in Eastern Europe I search for used bookstores, never mind the fact that I am unable to read any other language except English. In cities with a large population of expats such as Berlin, Prague and Budapest there is always at least one English language used bookstore. In countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine there is usually an out of the way section in a used bookstore with a handful of English language books. Most of the time, the books on offer are classic novels or popular fiction. The former probably handed down from local students who sold them off after they completed required reading at university, while the latter was likely brought in by expats or travelers who read as a form of escapism. For me, these books hold little of interest. Instead I am looking for information, history or local travel guides. I rarely find anything, but every once in a while there is a discovery that makes a search worthwhile.

Open air book market at the Fedorov Statue in Lviv

Open air book market at the Fedorov Statue in Lviv

“You Should Look At This” – Discovering Literary Lviv
On my last trip to Lviv I was literally sleeping right on top of a used bookstore. The first morning I went out to explore the city I noticed a used bookstore right beside the entrance to my accommodation. It took me several days to finally visit it. When it comes to travel, the closer something is in proximity to me, the more I am likely to take it for granted. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds indifference. Finally on the late afternoon of my third day in Lviv I decided to visit. I did not expect to find much of interest to English language readers since it was towards the end of the street off the main tourist track. When I stepped inside my senses were struck immediately by that familiar musty smell of old books. To most visitors it would be off putting, but to me it is the sweetest aroma in the world. I noticed that the shelves were buckling under the weight of countless books, all written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is bad enough when you cannot speak or read a language, but much worse when you cannot understand the alphabet.

I spent a good ten minutes browsing the stacks in an attempt to find anything written in the Latin alphabet. There were a few such books, but not many. Finally I approached the counter and asked the woman behind it if she spoke English. She nodded. I asked her if they had any books in English. She nodded again and then led me to a shelf of English language books. The titles must have been less than engaging since I cannot remember a single one. The woman who led me to the shelf walked away. I then overheard a conversation in Ukrainian between her and a coworker. Suddenly the woman reappeared, handed me a book, and said “you should look at this.” She handed me a slim, soft cover book with the title, “The Legends of Old Lviv” by Ilko Lemko. The cover art looked like something one would find gracing a Tolkien novel.   There was a fanciful rendering of Lviv’s cityscape with a forest encroaching on it. In the upper right corner there was an inset with a sorceress putting her hand close to a flame. The flame blazed from a candle stuck into the top of a skull. I wondered if this was some sort of children’s book.

The Legends of Old Lviv by Ilko Lemko

The Legends of Old Lviv by Ilko Lemko

Mystical Beginnings – Legends In Lviv
Thumbing through the pages I saw that the text had woven together both legendary and historical tales in specific sections about the city and its inhabitants. I bought the book for the equivalent of five US dollars. Over a month later I am still reading and rereading certain chapters.  Finding “Legends of Old Lviv” was like discovering a new travel companion.  It gave me new perspectives on the city. Finding a good book about Lviv in Lviv seemed only fitting. The city has the only completely open air book market I have ever visited. It also has the only statue of a book publisher that I have come across. The statue is of Ivan Fedorov a man who moved to Lviv and built it into a publishing powerhouse. The long and rich literary history of the city began with Fedorov during the age of the Renaissance in Poland. Like most everything in this part of Eastern Europe, Fedorov’s ethnic background, class roots and allegiances straddled several different worlds. His life and legacy have turned out to be paradoxical. Fedorov is one of the most important and at the same time, unknown personages in the history of Ukraine and Russia.

Ivan Fedorov - a contemporary portrait

Ivan Fedorov – a contemporary portrait

The details of Fedorov’s early life are vague. Most scholars believe he was born in Moscow. Some have questioned this, they say that Fedorov descended from Polish nobility and grew up close to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Fedorov first made his mark in Moscow where he was the co-founder of a path breaking printing house. In 1564 it published the first book in the Russian language. The work, Apostol, was religious in nature and used the language of Church Slavonic. The most enduring aspect of the book was not its subject matter, but the fact that it was printed using moveable type. This was nothing short of revolutionary, as it heralded a movement towards printing books in much larger quantities than could have ever been done by hand.

Apostolo by Ivan Fedorov - published in 1564

Apostolo by Ivan Fedorov – published in 1564

Creative Disruption – An Exile In Lwow
The changes wrought by Fedorov’s printing house met with furious resistance by monks who had long held a monopoly on written books. They derived a large income from rewriting books by hand. This was now threatened by the advent of a printing house. Fedorov and his associates were forced to flee westward to escape possible imprisonment. After a few years at a noble’s estate in the Lithuanian countryside, in 1572 Federov made his way to Lwow (as Lviv was then known), which was then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was familiar with Poland, since he had graduated from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow forty year earlier. In Lviv, Fedorov was forced to prostrate himself before potential donors. While this was trying he managed to convince enough people to fund his work. In turn, Fedorov was able to create another legacy for himself. Ironically, he first worked out of the St. Onuphrius Monastery, where he was met with open arms and open minds by the clergy.

Two years after his arrival in the city, the first known printing of a book in the Ukrainian language, the Deeds and Epistles of the Apostles was published. This was similar in form and content to Apostolos. Several other religious tracts soon followed. For all his innovation and success with printing, Fedorov was hard pressed to earn a living from it. He could not escape the bain of many an innovator’s existence, namely debt. In order to pay his creditors, Fedorov was forced to take on another type of creative work which happened to be the polar opposite of knowledge and enlightenment, namely the development of firearms. He designed multi-barreled cannons and a new type of musket. These were met with acclaim and proved to be highly successful, even gaining him an invitation to Vienna where he met the Habsburg Emperor. Yet Fedorov never was able to extricate himself from the debts he had accrued. It was death in 1583 that finally freed him from indebtedness. His legacy would turn out to be much more secure than his finances ever were.

Ivan Fedorov statue in Lviv

Ivan Fedorov statue in Lviv

A Stimulus To Imagination – Fedorov’s Gift
Ivan Fedorov’s gift to Lviv was a passion for the printed word, a love for the literary that has continued right up until today. From my accommodation in the Old Town I was scarcely a five minute walk from five bookstores. Numerous bookstores both used and new can be found throughout the city. At several of these I found “Legends of Old Lviv” on sale, in multiple languages. The tales woven by the text are part of the city’s fabric, both fictional and non-fictional. The stories are a mix of myth and fact, legend and truth. On pages 146 and 147 I was reacquainted with Fedorov’s story, these were seven paragraphs that helped inspire this post. The rest of the inspiration came in the autumn of 2011 when I first came upon piles and piles of used books being sold in the area surrounding the statue of Fedorov. Books in languages that I will never understand, about subjects I can hardly fathom. Nonetheless there were books, hundreds upon hundreds of them, of every size, shape and texture. These books, like all books had the power to stimulate the imagination. And in the middle of these books stood Fedorov sculpted in stone, with a thick beard and wearing a body length robe. In one of his hands he clutches a large book, the other is held outward, as if offering to passersby the knowledge and enlightenment that the printed word can provide.

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