Ivan Fedorovich from Moscow
Story by Oleksii Dubrov
Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk
Ivan Fedorov blurted out as he flung open the door to his printing house on Nikolskaya Street in Moscow. Banging the toes of his felt boots on the doorstep to keep the threshold slush-free, he took off his fur-collared woolen overcoat and, with a deep sigh, sunk down onto a stool. The brass matrices used to cast the type, those individual letters for printing, were scattered haphazardly on the copper plated surface of the table next to him. Stretching forward, Fedorov hung his coat on the railing of the stairs leading up to the second floor. He turned to look at the man standing on the other side of the table. “Why have you made such a mess?”
“Who died?” Petro Mstyslavets’s eyebrows shot up so high they disappeared into his hairline. He had been bent over the printing press and startled by Fedorov’s words, the two spherical leather pads he had been using to apply ink to the lines of type tumbled out of his hands, dropping to the floor. Thus far, Mstyslavets’s hair and beard had not turned grey, in contrast to Fedorov’s. Although, to tell the truth, the younger man couldn’t remember the year he was born or how old he was.
“So, here I am building my reputation as a perfectionist in the highest circles of power, and here you are – creating this absolute chaos! May the Lord forgive me,” Fedorov made the sign of the cross.
“Perfe-whaaat?” the astonished Mstyslavets gawked as he made the sign of the cross. “You’re scaring me, Ivan. Is it some kind of new plague from the Far East?” The assistant took a step back, leaning against the wooden wall which responded with a reproachful groan.
“Great word, isn’t it? Sounds like it’s from the future, doesn’t it?” Fedorov grinned, then abruptly the smile changed to a frown. “I almost forgot. He died last night. Can you believe it? May the Lord rest his soul…” His eyes drifted up to the icon hanging over the doorway to his right, and continued whispering under his breath.
“May the Lord rest His servant’s soul in peace,” Mstyslavets bowed three time toward the icon, then walked around the table, stopping at the spot halfway between Fedorov and the stairs, bumping into and knocking loose Fedorov’s coat so it started slowly sliding down the railing. “But whose soul is supposed to be at rest? Not the Holy Father – the Tsar’s?”
“No. Of course not. He’ll be around for at least thirty more years,” Fedorov scowled as he gazed at his coat sliding lower and lower down the railing. The coat flopped onto the floor, kicking up a cloud of dust. “You know, the tsar is in excellent health, although his mind can be a little…” the printer raised his right hand to the right side of his head palm down, tilting it from left to right.
“May the Lord grant him a long life.”
“Did the young lad, Andronik, bring me my sabre?” Fedorov asked.
“Sharp as a razor and as shiny as molten lead. He was mumbling something about almost not getting it to you on time because he was busy working on some weapons commissioned by the tsar’s personal guards,” Mstyslavets hastily responded. “Tell me already, who died? If you don’t tell me I’ll burn you with the crucible.”
“Andronik is a fine chap. A talented and precise blacksmith. And he completed the job even though he was busy with an official government order for weapons…” Fedorov halted his diatribe, confronted with the glowering look on the face of his furious assistant who had closed in and was now towering over him. Finally remembering what his assistant had wanted to know, the old printer made the sign of the cross and said, “His Holiness the Metropolitan Makariy has given up his soul to God.”
“Metropolitan Makariy?” Mstyslavets’s mood changed on the spot, his voice starting to tremble. He took a step back and almost fell over, tripping on the stairs. “And right on the 31st of December. But we just saw him at Christmas Mass…” his eyes teared up. “Wait… does this mean we’ve lost our benefactor?”
“Ah, well,” grumbled Fedorov. “We still have the gold coins from the Treasury for The Epistles, thank God. But we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the future.”
“Let’s leave, right now, go to Lithuania, or to the Crown, my things are packed up and ready to go for this kind of situation. Without our benefactor, the scribes will murder us.”
“What can they do to us? Throw their quills at us?” Fedorov smirked. “No, no matter what they say or do, I am an innovator. And the tsar is an innovator. Everything will work out. You and I will be the first to print books in all of Moscow.”
“But what about the Dutch guy? Hans Mess… Messiy…”
“Messingheim?” Fedorov dismissively waved off the comment with his blistered hand. “You keep talking about him. Don’t pay him any mind. He didn’t sign any of his books, history will not remember him.”
“Your studies at the Krakow University certainly were not in vain,” Mstyslavets broke out into a wide toothy grin, clapping Fedorov on his back. “Too bad you wasted so many years at the Nikolo-Hostunsky church.”
“That was my first job,” the old printer explained, spreading his arms in a shrug.
Fedorov donned an old, worn leather apron. The table where the discussion was taking place divided the workshop into two parts. On one side stood the printing press and the other housed the stove which illuminated the entire workshop with its fiery glow. Close to one end of the table, a staircase led to the second floor. Daylight barely crept in through the one and only window above the printing press. Mstyslavets picked up the spherical pads of ink, brushed off the tiny metal and wooden shards peppered on them from the floor, carefully dipped them into ink and daubed it on to the typeset already arranged in rows on the printing press. The familiar metallic aroma with a whiff of nuts wafted over the room.
“This is better,” Fedorov came over and straightened the lines of text. “What’s with the type?”
“I need to change the A’s and P’s,” Mstyslavets handed Fedorov the sheet of paper laying on the printing press.
“The ‘I’ as well. See, a tiny piece of one on the top right corner broke off.”
Fedorov thrust his hands into thick gloves made of pigskin that reached all the way to his elbows. With both hands, he grabbed the handle of an oft used crucible resembling a blackened soup pot and placed it in the stove. When the well of the crucible was hot enough, he returned it to the table and placed two oddly shaped pieces of lead shining like silver into the heated well. After placing the crucible back into the stove, he added two hefty logs and stoked the flames. A few minutes later, the lead pieces became rounder, then slowly melted into liquid. Sweat poured from Fedotov’s brow as he used a copper spoon to scoop out the slag collecting on the surface of the liquefying metal.
“A piece broke off of another one of the P’s,” Mstyslavets piped up. “How’s it going over there?”
“They are not ready yet,” Fedorov wiped away the sweat dripping down his long face into his beard.
“Well, then, I’ll use a wooden one for now.”
“No, wait for the lead.”
“Then I’ll go have lunch,” Mstyslavets waved his hand in dismissal and climbed the stairs to the second floor.
While the lead was melting, Fedorov reached under the table and brought out more of the copper matrices, starting the process of casting individual letters. He picked up the crucible and poured the molten lead into the matrices. He counted the minutes as the lead hardened, then extracted ten elongated dark grey hardened “sorts” from the copper molds. On one side of each the sorts, the shape of a Cyrillic letter protruded. The printer used a burin, an engraving tool with a metal shaft and wooden handle, to carefully fix any imperfections. Fedorov hadn’t even noticed an hour had passed since Mstyslavets left a bowl of soup on the table next to him.
“Now they’re perfect,” Fedorov held up the completed sorts up to the window and meticulously studied each one, and only after completing his inspection, placed the letters onto the table next to the printing press.
“Your soup has turned cold,” his assistant noted.
Ivan smiled in return as he walked across the room to look at a newly printed page of the soon-to-be-completed The Epistles Mstyslavets had just removed from the press bed.
The silence was suddenly shattered by a loud banging at the front entrance as if someone was hammering a nail into the wooden door. A startled Mstyslavets jumped up, took a few steps back and hid behind the printing press. Ivan Fedorov, chuckling at the reaction of his assistant, confidently strode to the doorway. He opened the door, letting the icy wind into the warm and steamy workshop. But there wasn’t anyone there. As he was closing the door, he noticed a sheet of paper nailed to the outside of the door and tore it off. Sloppily written on the sheet were the words “Stop the genocide!”
“What’s that?” trembled Mstyslavets peering from behind the printing press.
“Seems as though the town crier mixed up the doors again.” Fedorov crunched up the sheet of paper and tossed it out the door to be taken away by the wind. “Let’s get back to work. We’ve only printed the first 100 pages.”
After two months toiling day and night, on March 1, 1564, Ivan Fedorov and Petro Mstyslavets finally exited the workshop. Nikolskaya Street, which led straight to the square in front of the Kremlin, was lined on either side by tightly packed wooden structures. The gaps between the planks of wood making up the ground floor walls of the unkempt residential buildings, stores and workshops were as thick as a finger in some places. Less than a handful of them were made from stone. The icy winter winds caused the buildings to rattle and groan, making them sound like weary fairy tale giants waking from their slumber.
After ten minutes of laboriously trodding through the snowbanks on Nikolskaya Street, the printers arrived onto the wide square bordered by the crimson wall of the Kremlin opposite them and the recently completed St. Basil’s Cathedral to their right. With its signature green, blue, and white cupolas, the cathedral looked more like a court jester standing amid the streets of Moscow than a house of God. The waist-deep snow on the square was crisscrossed by occasional paths – wider ones made by horse-drawn wagons and thin ones trampled by people walking across the square. Fedorov made the sign of the cross several times, gazing up at the cathedral.
“Ivan,” Mstyslavets looked over at him, crossing himself with his left hand, since his right was holding a copy of The Epistles and nervously asked, “We’re simply going to show the book to the new metropolitan – Afanasius and leave, right?”
“I hope so, because he is on our side,” Fedorov answered, adjusting the fur collar of his coat, raising it higher to protect his neck from the frosty wind. “But most likely there will be several other monks, maybe even one of the bishops.”
“What have we gotten ourselves into…” sighed Mstyslavets, pulling his cap down lower onto his forehead. “Is the ancient one going to be there, the head of the scribes?”
“I certainly hope not, Lord forgive me,” Fedorov replied.
“Is it true he fought the Mongols 300 years ago? How is that even possible?”
The rooms assigned to the metropolitan inside the Kremlin’s walls were built of stone, but the interior was quite modest. The low ceilings were sloppily whitewashed with lime, and the uneven walls were decorated here and there with frescoes. The moldy scent was mixed with the stink of cheap wax and incense. The door was guarded by a heavyset soldier with a spiked helmet and slits for eyes. He peered at the visitors with contempt.
Fedorov and Mstyslavets waited outside the metropolitan’s chambers in the cold hallway for over an hour, when at last a bearded monk with a huge wart on the tip of his nose led them inside. The printers found themselves in a room eight paces long and six paces wide. Opposite the entrance, along the far wall, Metropolitan Afanasius sat on a throne, his thick black beard contrasting with the whiteness of the cowl of his cloak adorning his head. In his right hand, he held a gold-plated wooden staff called a crozier. Seated on lower chairs on either side of him were two bishops. Fedorov recognized one of them as Ioasaph, the head of the Order of Scribes, and the other as Herman, the young bishop, who had been assigned by some anonymous person to serve alongside the new metropolitan. The monk with the wart sat down on a bench not far from Bishop Herman. To the right about another dozen monks were standing with their backs against the wall.
The printers were separated from the churchmen by a table. The metropolitan gestured to place the book on the table. Mstyslavets fussed a bit, so Fedorov hurriedly grabbed the book out of his hands and waved him away to stand by the door.
“Your Beatitude, Your Eminence,” Fedorov deeply bowed to those present, “with the blessing of the recently passed Metropolitan Makariy, and at the request of the Tsar and Holy Father Ionnes Vasilovich, this edition of The Epistles came into the world. As required by tradition, the book is decorated with artwork and the Apostle Luke adorns the first page. The paper is French.”
The printer displayed the book for the hierarchs of a Church that had, by its own making, broken away from the ecclesiastical province of Kyiv and was not recognized by anyone as a legitimate institution. To the left of the title page was the carefully drawn frontispiece – the Apostle Luke seated, leaning over a table with scattered papers, pen in hand. Just then, the ancient Ioasaph raised his hand, interrupting Fedorov’s speech. His hollowed-out cheeks, drooping eyes and sagging jowls left no doubt he actually could have fought against the hordes of Batu Khan in Kyiv 300 years ago.
“So, you have been working on this one book for almost a year?” Bishop Ioasaph asked in a low, hoarse voice.
“Two thousand books exactly like the one you see before you,” Fedorov corrected him.
Ioasaph gawked, opening his mouth wide, his lower lip trembling. He gave his colleagues a questioning look, hoping for support. The metropolitan was looking intently at the book, and Bishop Herman and the monk with the wart were whispering to each other. Realizing he could only count on himself, Bishop Ioasaph, displaying a surprising agility for his age, sprung to his feet and exclaimed:
“Bishop Ioasaph, sit down already,” Metropolitan Afanasius said, reclining on the hard wooden throne. “You react the same way every time a printed book is presented to us. Remember how the Germans came to show us their book ten years ago? You offended them so badly the late Metropolitan Makariy, may the Lord rest his soul, wrote an apology to Archbishop Mainz, who sent those printers to us.” Everyone in the room made the sign of the cross.
“Lord, forgive our sins,” the ancient hierarch crossed himself three times, “there is no soul in such a book! It was not touched by the hand of man, the hand of a servant of God. To say Mass with such a book is a mortal sin.” He pointed up, as if to the heavens, with a thin, wrinkled finger that looked like an old hook. However, his gesture was blocked by the low ceiling of the metropolitan’s room.
Fedorov had already witnessed similar discussions, but in the presence of the metropolitan did not dare to contradict the bishop. His head bowed, he peeked out from under his brow at those present: the monks, as if on command, vigorously nodded at old Ioasaph’s every word.
Bishop Herman made a slight hand gesture directed at the monk with the wart, who stood up and loudly proclaimed, “I concur with the bishop. I have been working as a scribe since the reign of the last tsar, back when there weren’t even walls built around Moscow’s Chinatown, where this Fedorov came from.” The audience now focused on the monk. “Over time, I scribed almost fifty books, well, twenty-eight to be exact, and each of them is so valuable you can get a king’s ransom for it. And what does Fedorov offer us? To fill our churches with cheap soulless garbage, and you know what that will do? It will incur the wrath of God and He will strike them down with lightning, and all our churches will burn!”
“That’s right, Lord have mercy,” Bishop Ioasaph interrupted the monk and crossed himself three times, repeating the words “Lord have mercy” twelve times, then continued, “and we didn’t flee from Kyiv to these cold swamps so some Fedorov could burn our churches down.” Ioasaph directed his gaze toward Metropolitan Afanasius. “I even heard he calls himself Fedorovich in private company!”
“How is it that without permission from the tsar in Moscow someone calls himself by such a name?” Ioasaph snorted. “I don’t even want to be in the same room with him or his devilish creature anymore!”
The monks crossed themselves, again. The ancient Bishop Ioasaph hurried over to the exit. Petro Mstyslavets, standing near the door, bowed low and said:
“Thank you, Bishop, for saving our ancestors from the Mongols in Kyiv. My distant great-grandfather was also there, maybe you knew him, Ivan…”
“What are you talking about, Lithuanian?” Ioasaph bellowed, slapping Mstyslavets across the face, almost knocking him over. The ancient bishop stormed away, shouting in some unknown language. Mstyslavets looked at Fedorov guiltily, spreading his arms in a shrug: “I just wanted to do what’s best.”
Silence draped the room. Metropolitan Afanasius buried his face in his hands. Bishop Herman nodded slightly to the monk with the wart, who broke the silence.
“Imagine what thousands of my brother-scribes will do if there are a dozen like this Fedorov?”
Silence fell again, and the monks looked at each other. Mstyslavets stroked his cheek, trying to relieve the pain from the slap. “Well, there’ll be a dozen, so what? They will read more,” he thought, trying to catch Fedorov’s eye. But Fedorov’s attention was glued to the monk with the wart, who continued speaking.
The monk with the wart continued: “What do you think they will do?” Not a single sound in response. “That’s right, they will starve! They will be forced to sell their vestments and freeze to death in the snow before the next Christmas. Isn’t this genocide?” It seemed to Fedorov the wart on the monk’s nose was weeping.
“What’s ‘genocide’?” asked one of the monks near the wall without receiving an answer. His brothers whispered loudly to each other. Shocked, Fedorov opened his mouth to defend himself, but the metropolitan gestured him to stop. Afanasius slammed his crozier on the creaking wooden floor splintering one of the boards. Everyone watched as Bishop Herman struggled for almost a minute to help the metropolitan pull the staff now stuck in the floorboard. The monks giggled softly. Even the one with the wart.
“Be quiet, all of you!” Afanasius stood up to give his words more weight. The laughter ceased. “I have heard you,” he proclaimed. “We, the Orthodox, are not despots like the Pope in Rome.”
The monks started waving their arms and shouting insults. The metropolitan raised his hand to silence them.
“And that’s exactly why I agree with you. We will burn all the books, but we will pardon Fedorov for now. Know this: the tsar himself forbade his execution. Everyone is free to go except the printer. We must have a serious conversation.” Afanasius stood beside Fedorov.
The monks slowly made their way out of the room, bowing all along the way. Before leaving, Bishop Herman said something to Metropolitan Afanasius, but the hierarch waved him away. The stunned printer lowered his eyes to the floor. When everyone had gone, Fedorov dropped to his knees, quickly joined by Mstyslavets.
“Have mercy, Your Beatitude! After all the work put into them, you can’t burn the books!”
“Calm down, Ivan,” Metropolitan Afanasius said, placing his hand on Fedorov’s shoulder. “Stand up. I’m not going to do that.”
Fedorov got to his feet and stared at the metropolitan in surprise. Mstyslavets kept his head down. Fedorov’s knees buckled for a moment, but he regained his composure.
“But you said…”
“I’m not a fool. I can’t burn those books and so much of the treasury’s funds with them, the tsar would have my head. He’d also start digging around and discover how much of the money I took for my own parish,” Afanasius uttered the latter sentence almost under his breath. “We’ll burn hay in the square, and my heralds will tell everyone it was the books.”
“But what will we do with two thousand copies of The Epistles?”
“We’ll send them to the newly acquired parishes in Kazan and Astrakhan, the priests won’t even recognize the books weren’t copied by hand.” The metropolitan momentarily turned his gaze toward Mstyslavets, who was still on his knees. “They barely know how to read.”
“They will understand, Your Eminence,” Fedorov objected. “There are no mistakes in my books.”
“Calm down,” Afanasius snapped angrily, returning to his seat on the throne, “by the time any information even reaches the neighboring street, half a year will have passed. The main thing is for the spies of this Herman not to sniff around. He used to rob traders near Moscow, he has people everywhere.” Afanasius paused in thought for a moment, then continued.
Mstyslavets crossed himself and whispered something incoherent. Fedorov walked over to him and forced him to stand up, pulling at his elbow. The assistant cautiously raised his head.
“People like you,” Afanasius continued, “as people say, ‘who came from the enemy’s land,’ and who studied at university, are not well-liked. I am also not from around here. You are trying to destroy the traditions to which they are accustomed.”
“But even in Moscow there are not enough books for religious services, they will never be able to scribe so many,” Fedorov said.
“They will all have work to do for some time. Which is why I will not give The Epistles to anyone in Moscow yet.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Mstyslavets interjected, shaking the dust off his knees. He did not see Fedorov’s frantic gestures as he tried to silence his suddenly impudent assistant. “Is that why you were elected metropolitan?”
“As usual, bribery and intimidation got me here,” Afanasius smiled. “But I had to agree to take Herman on as an assistant. Only force is understood here. And remember, I did you a favor today. Here, I am your only friend .” The metropolitan looked the old printer straight in the eye.
“And what will I have to do in return?” Fedorov asked.
“We’ll see. I still have to prevent that ancient Ioasaph from fogging the tsar’s mind.”
On the way back to the workshop, Ivan Fedorov pondered whether his presentation of The Epistles was a success or a failure. Neither the cold wind, which chilled to the bone, nor the barrage of questions from Petro Mstyslavets, which penetrated even deeper, could pull him out of his thoughts. Only after he entered the workshop did the words of his assistant get through to him.
“We will be killed,” Mstyslavets almost shouted, “we must return to Lithuania. I’ve already collected all my things, and you…”
“Let’s get to work,” Fedorov waved the words away and put on his apron. “If you stop halfway, you will not become a pioneer. Remember Columbus.”
“Was he with the metropolitan?” The assistant stroked his cheek, still aching from Bishop Ioasaph’s slap.
Over the following months, the printers intensively prepared the Chasoslova tome, which contained daily prayers organized according to the time of day. Fedorov and Mstyslavets worked on the book for almost a year. The printing consumed tens of liters of paint, several kilograms of lead and countless pieces of firewood. It was especially hot in the studio in the summer and the printers worked clad only in their aprons. The tomes were not shown to the clergy this time. Metropolitan Afanasius sent the copies out without unnecessary fuss. A few weeks later, their peace was shattered, when the cries of an angry street crowd reached Fedorov’s ears.
Mstyslavets carefully looked out the window.
“What’s going on?” Fedorov asked.
“Twenty or thirty souls are shouting something outside the building next door,” the assistant answered, and then shouted to the crowd, “Who are you?”
Several men in bedraggled shirts looked over at him, temporarily distracted from the shouting.
“We came to see Fedorov. Come on out!” replied one of them, trying to shout over the crowd chanting, “Down with Satan!”
“But he is not in that building. He’s in here,” Mstyslavets’s outstretched arm pointed back to their workshop.
“Are you crazy?” Fedorov yelled pushing his assistant away from the window and looked out tentatively. “Fedorov is definitely not there,” he shouted. “Can I give him a message?”
“But he must be here,” the protester nodded at the building next door. “Bishop Herman said…” The one talking was slapped on the back of the head by an old man with a wart on his nose.
“Herman?” Fedorov thought for a moment. “I don’t know about any printing house. There was never anyone in that building.”
“You lie! The devil blinded our eyes,” exclaimed another man with an icon in his hands, who was standing a little further back. “Fedorov is a witch, and you are a witch!” The crowd enthusiastically picked up the new word and started chanting, “Witch! Witch!” now hurling their screams at Fedorov, who was still looking out of the workshop window. The mob began to approach his workshop, yelling at the top of their lungs. Mstyslavets whispered: “I told you we should have gone to Lithuania.”
“He’s not a witch, he’s a devil!” one of the protesters suddenly objected, and the crowd halted.
“Idiot, he can’t be the devil, where are his horns and tail? The bishop would have told us. He is a witch!” another protestor yelled.
“Well, then he has to be a witcher, because he’s male!” one of the protestors said out loud.
“Molfar!” shouted another voice.
“Get your head out of your ass. He’s no Molfar. We don’t have any of those, they are European,” the protester with a wart on his nose punched the supporter of the Molfar theory right in the face.
“How do you know?! He came with an assistant from the West!” yelled another and attacked the attacker. The scuffle quickly blew up into a brawl.
Mstyslavets approached the window, stood next to Fedorov staring at the melee and asserted,
“Well, now, it’s definitely time to pack our bags and go to Lithuania.”
“Calm down, they don’t even know they’re shouting at an empty building,” Fedorov demurred. Then he shouted to the crowd, “Hey, so what does your holy procession, God have mercy, actually want?”
Suddenly the people, some of whom lay curled up on the ground with the others standing over them, fists clenched, fell silent and turned to the window, not having expected to hear that question. A horse without a rider galloped down Nikolskaya Street, neighing loudly.
“Tell Fedorov to get out of here, we need to stop the genocide of the scri…scri…” the one who had first spoke to them, was tongue-tied.
“Scri…scri…” tried another, but also in vain.
“Bookmen,” interrupted another.
Fedorov and Mstyslavets exchanged glances.
“But that printer is a bookman. I heard it somewhere,” Fedorov said. The crowd fell silent again, as if confused about what was happening. Finally, one of the protesters came out of his stupor and blurted out indignantly to the person standing next to him, loud enough for Fedorov to hear:
“He is not a good bookman, but a devilish one, a warlock. Let’s stop the genocide!” another protestor tried to restart the mob.
“Do you even know what ‘genocide’ is?” Fedorov asked the crowd, but no one was listening. They returned to the neighboring building, which tiredly rattled from the wind.
Fedorov closed the window and returned to work. Similar demonstrations took place at least two or three times a month until the following spring. Sometimes the protesters threw stones at the neighboring building, turning it into a sieve. But no one came out to them anymore. The demonstrations became like a tradition. Even Petro Mstyslavets calmed down and stopped panicking every time they showed up. He and Fedorov worked on their third tome, this time a grammar textbook for schools. Over the past few months, they worked more often at night since the loud protests interfered with their work.
“Who can that be, in the middle of the night?” Fedorov thought when there was a sudden knock on the door of the workshop. “Petro isn’t returning from Novgorod until tomorrow…” he thought. A rhythmic rain tapped on the wooden window pane. The printer lifted the horizontal lever of the printing press, removed the sheet of paper with the alphabet printed on it from the press bed, and placed it on the table to dry. He heard the knocking again, louder. They seemed to be pounding on the door with something made of metal. On his way to the door, Fedorov’s hand instinctively grabbed the sabre he had brought from Krakow standing behind a barrel. As soon as he opened the door, two spears stabbed at him. Withdrawing in time, he dropped into a battle stance and quickly managed to repel several blows. Twice he avoided being struck by a flail, which fell heavily onto the table and broke it in half. The sound of metal against metal rang out, a cloud of dust rose from the workshop floor. A dozen men in pointed helmets pushed their way into the cramped workshop and began jostling each other. They shouted incoherently, interrupting each other. The spear of a soldier in broken chain mail pierced his colleague and a body clad in metal armor fell heavily onto the printing press, sending the letters in the typeset flying in all directions. The body slowly slid into a bucket of ink. Fedorov skillfully fought back, but the numerical advantage was taking its toll. One of the attackers climbed over the remains of the broken table and ended up right behind the printer. Just then, a heavy blunt object struck Fedorov in the head, and everything went black.
The printer gained consciousness due to a strong desire to vomit after a bucket of putrid water was thrown onto his face. The stink was from rotting fruit floating in dirty water for several days. The light from a lone candle was all he could see at first. When his eyes were able to adjust and focus, Fedorov looked around nervously: he was sitting on a chair with his arms and legs tied, and opposite him, at a small table, sat three men. The one in the middle he recognized as Bishop Herman, on the left sat a fat soldier in a helmet, squinting through almost closed eyes. He reminded Fedorov of the security guard in the metropolitan’s room long ago. On the right was the ancient Bishop Ioasaph, who hailed from the times of Batu Khan.
“So, you can’t take a hint?” Bishop Herman proclaimed coldly, giving Fedorov a look of contempt.
“You’re talking about the fools you paid money to loiter under my windows?” Fedorov responded acerbically, deciding he had nothing more to lose.
“You should have stopped. We gave you time but now you’ve crossed the line.” Herman seemed to have not heard the prisoner’s brazen retort.
“What line? A book for teaching children?”
“Smartass. Teaching the people is not part of the plan of our sovereign for at least the next two centuries. Educated people are dangerous people.”
“But Metropolitan Afanasius…”
“Metropolitan Afanasius gave up his soul to God a few hours ago.”
“But he was healthy!” Fedorov exclaimed, sincerely surprised. “I was with him two days ago; he couldn’t have died.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Bishop Ioasaph cut Fedorov off sharply. “We will never see him again and this is what matters. But you, traitor, must answer to the Muscovite State.”
“The tsar supports me, I know it. He guaranteed to let me live!” Fedorov did not give up, trying to find at least some argument in his favor.
“That’s why we’re still talking to you. Now the tsar has started a period of repression, reforms are over,” Ioasaph growled, waving his hook-like fingers.
“But you will die,” the fat soldier said in an unexpectedly high voice, then turned to Bishop Herman. “Isn’t that right?”
“The verdict is in,” Herman agreed. “You will be impaled on a stake. You will be displayed in the square near the church, you won’t even have the strength to cross yourself while the stake slowly impales…” A smile flashed across the bishop’s face.
“Your Eminence, is it possible to leave out the gory details?” The fat soldier cringed and covered his mouth, holding back his vomit.
Bishop Herman rolled his eyes, covered them with his hands, and then continued.
“Although, if you pay off the debt you owe to Metropolitan Afanasius, as well as what you owe our treasury, which fed you for ten years, you will remain alive.”
“So, you know about the debt?” Fedorov said.
“You’re not stupid, you should have understood: you’re not welcome here,” the bishop crookedly grimaced in disgust. “I can’t fire thousands of scribes just because you showed up out of nowhere and want to destroy their profession. The tsar is still ready to pardon you, but not to support you. You will go back to Lithuania.”
“Is that it? There was no reason for you to have dragged me here just to tell me that. And where am I, by the way?” Fedorov felt a bit more confident again.
“This is a dungeon,” the fat soldier nodded proudly, spreading his short plump arms. “Few people leave here alive.”
“Few?” Fedorov queried.
“No one,” the fat soldier corrected him, narrowing his already narrow eyes.
“Nobody?” The printer clarified.
“Have you lost your hearing from the noise of your devil’s printing press? The man told you – no one,” Bishop Ioasaph croaked.
“But you will leave, no?” Fedorov scoffed.
“Oh, you little…” The bishop raged reaching for his crozier to strike the printer. But the staff got stuck in the planks of the narrow-arched ceiling. Herman cursed softly and helped Ioasaph pry it loose. Dust rained down on them from the ceiling. The soldier gulped, swallowing air as he tried to find the right words to respond. His usually squinty eyes opened wide for a moment.
“Stop it,” Herman ordered, rising. He walked around the table and stood next to Fedorov. Placing his palm on the top of Fedorov’s head, he explained, “In Lithuania, where you are going, Catholics have completely taken over. We need to help the Orthodox Christians.”
“Why? They are fine there,” Fedorov objected.
“You will prepare them for the fact that Moscow will conquer…” Herman paused for a moment, “Moscow will take for itself the lands that were once Rus. We’ll put them back together. Publishing books in Church Slavonic will strengthen the position of the Orthodox. You can even call yourself by your real name, Fedorovich. But make sure everyone knows you are from Moscow. Let them get used to it. You can even call yourself the first printer of the entire Rus.”
“That will never work,” Fedorov said flatly.
“Why not?” Bishop Ioasaph asked, shaking the dust from his crozier.
“There have been printers and printing houses there for a long time already,” Fedorov tried to spread his arms, but they were tied together, so he shrugged instead. “Why do you think I came to these cold swamps?”
Bishops Herman, Ioasaph, and the soldier looked at each other. From two spots on the ceiling, where Ioasaph’s crozier had been stuck, water began to drip rhythmically onto the table.
“Father, you told me people were ignorant there,” Herman barked at Ioasaph.
“That’s what I thought,” said the ancient Ioasaph. He turned to Fedorov and added, “Well, do something about it, you have a lot of connections!”
“Father?” the soldier squealed in surprise, and then added in a whisper, “If the old man is three hundred years old…”
“What an old fool,” Herman roared and sat down at the table, turning toward Fedorov again. The wood creaked under the bishop’s weight. “This doesn’t change your objective. I will make sure the other printers are forgotten. Maybe it won’t happen in your lifetime. The important thing is for you to keep repeating you are from Moscow.”
“I used to say I was from Moscow. Stupidly, in my youth, or when I was drunk, I considered it fashionable at the time. But if I join the service of the King of Poland, why should I obey you? Or I could go to Austria, where everyone will want to work with me.”
“Because we’ll find you anywhere and kill you whenever we want,” shrieked the fat soldier, peering out from behind Bishop Herman and pounding his fist on the table.
“Shut the fuck up! Your people have been screaming at an empty building for a year!” Herman interrupted the fat solider and with a sharp movement, turned to the printer. “You will meet regularly with our people and report to us. They will find you themselves.”
“You won’t find me,” Fedorov scoffed in disbelief squinting at the fat soldier.
“We’ll send someone else,” Herman countered. “So, choose: impalement on a stake now, everything is ready on the square, I will organize an audience. Or go to Lithuania and continue to do what you love to do. There is nothing for you here; but you will become rich and famous over there.”
“I have some money saved up. Maybe we can make a deal?”
Bishop Herman shook his head ‘no’ and went back to his seat at the table. On the way he slapped the back of the soldier’s head, who had opened his mouth to say something. His helmet flew off his head and crashed to the floor.
“Can Petro Mstyslavets come with me?” Fedorov asked after some thought.
“Both of you can go straight to the devil,” Herman sat down and folded his hands, interlocking his fingers.
“What about my print shop?”
“My people will take care of it.”
Ivan Fedorov was led out of the dungeon a few minutes later, after having a sack put on over his head. The sun had already risen and its rays broke through the gaps of the loose fabric while gusts of wind brought the pleasant smell of a spring morning. Fedorov was dragged along for several minutes then thrown to the ground in front of his workshop. He pulled the bag off his head, got up, and went inside. There was no point in wiping the mud from his shoes considering the mess left in the workshop from the struggle that happened last night. To his delight, Mstyslavets was already inside surveying the broken table.
“Where are we going?” asked the assistant in a bewildered voice.
“We need to get out of here. Where are your things?”
“Don’t you want to see what I brought from Novgorod? Look: cucumbers, rolls, horseradish. A little oddly shaped, but…” Mstyslavets began to lay out the contents of a small bag full of pastries and clay jugs on the table.
“To hell with that! Get your things and let’s get out of here! And help me pack the tools.” Fedorov dumped the rest of the contents out of the bag, causing two jars to crash loudly to the floor. Soft pickles rolled out onto the floor of the workshop.
“Are you crazy? I’ve been lugging this stuff uphill for an entire week!” Mstyslavets bristled.
“Then you’ll do the same with the tools! We are going to Lithuania. Haven’t you been bugging me about it for the past two years!? Where are your things?” Fedorov packed one of the matrices and several bags of coins.
“Well why didn’t you say so in the first place?” the assistant smiled with joy and reached into the chest, took out a wooden spoon and solemnly lifted it up to show Fedorov.
“I’ve already packed your spoon,” Fedorov managed through laughter and tears. “Get another bag for the quills and other tools.”
“But what will we do there in Lithuania?” Mstyslavets asked, raking the utensils into the bag from the table.
“What do you think? Publish The Epistles and Chasoslova.”
“I’m going to take these too,” said Mstyslavets, putting several rolls and the two surviving jars of horseradish in the bag.
“And I am going to take this.” With his free hand, Fedorov grabbed the sabre which had been lying on the floor since after the attack last night.
The men threw their bags on their backs and hurried out of the print shop, squinting against the brightness of the May sun and the gusts of wind. In the background they heard the shouting of an angry mob. Turning the corner, Fedorov stopped and looked back at Nikolskaya Street, which had been his home and place of work for the past ten years. A crowd of people carrying torches had just approached an old building nearby and set it on fire.
“Idiots, that is not a print shop!” Fedorov exclaimed, cupping his cheek with his hand in dismay. “In this wind, they will burn half of Moscow!”
“Really? And the nasty ancient bishop is in which half?” Mstyslavets asked happily, stroking his cheek.
“What a pity. So much work wasted…”
Just then Ivan Fedorov noticed a lad passing by, humming a melody under his nose. He was wearing a shabby but clean shirt and torn pants.
“Andronik, is that you?” Fedorov called out.
“Yes, I am Andronik. Andronicus Ignoramatus,” the young man’s voice trembled. It was only when he looked more closely that he sighed with relief. “Ah, it’s you, Master Fedorov. You really scared me. Are you satisfied with the sabre?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Mstyslavets exclaimed, having stepped in a pile of horse manure. While wiping the crap from the bottom of his shoe on a board, he lost his balance and almost fell into a puddle with his bag.
“Of course, you are an excellent blacksmith,” Fedorov approached the young man and patted him on the shoulder. “Listen, I have a proposition for you. Do you want to become famous?”
“Famous?” Andronik mumbled in surprise. “What’s in it for me? Enough people already know me. I make weapons for the royal guard…”
“For the royal guard? Perfect! That kind of protection will come in handy.” Fedorov pointed to the print shop on Nikolskaya Street. “Do you recognize the building next to the burning warehouse?”
“It’s your workshop, Master.” Andronik shook his head in disgust.
“I’m leaving it to you. If the printing press survives the fire, I want you to continue printing books. I will help you from Lithuania as soon as I can.”
“Go to the monastery, tell them you want to become a scribe. You will learn to read quickly. And then pretend you haven’t learned anything and take off, back to the print shop.” Fedorov pressed on. “Believe me, you will be rich and famous. This is your golden ticket. There are several Germans in Moscow who can help you. I will write them a letter, to let them know.”
“Did you say rich?” A flash of interest appeared in Andronik’s eyes.
“But wait a year or two until everything calms down. Beware of the priests in Moscow and especially the ancient bishop. And don’t forget to mention Ivan Fedorovich was the first printer here.”
“And take this,” Fedorovich held out his sabre to Andronik. “You’ll need it.”
After finally cleaning the crap from the bottom of his shoe, Petro Mstyslavets tugged Fedorovich by the arm, and they quickly walked away carrying their bags, leaving the stunned Andronik with the keys to the printing house in his hands. A boy with a Greek first name and an “illiterate” last name, whose history was unknown, instantly became enemy number one for several thousand monks with quills in their hands, two bishops, and a fat squinty-eyed soldier. Just like anyone else in the same position.
On a warm autumn evening in 1574, Ivan Fedorovich took a leisurely walk through the Orthodox part of Lviv. The workers building the church bell tower, which Konstantin Kornyakt himself financed, were just finishing their working day and were making plans to go to a pub on Rynok Square. Fedorovich walked slowly, limping because of his left knee. The pain was worse right before winter. The printer stopped to rest, leaning against the brick wall of a mansion owned by someone from Greece. The street was quiet and uncrowded, with only occasional carriages with creaking wooden wheels passing by. As if from nowhere, a mysterious man with a mustache and wearing a black cloak appeared behind the old printer. Fedorovich jumped in surprise when the man spoke quietly, almost whispering, to him.
“Are you Fedorov?”
The printer didn’t answer. He tried to catch his breath, his heart pounding. His right hand instinctively dropped to the hilt of the new sabre he bought after he fled Moscow, and without which he never went outside.
“I’m from Moscow. We have a few questions for you,” the stranger continued.
Fedorovich took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to look anywhere but at the man in the black cloak. The sun was slowly setting behind the tower of Lviv City Hall, which was recently rebuilt after another fire. The printer stood tall and replied without turning.
Without waiting for an answer, the old printer headed in the direction of Rynok Square along a street lined with tightly packed modern brick buildings. A loud group of workers passed by on their way to the pub.
Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov
Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk