Narcissus Marsh, the Theatre Impresario, and the Bolshevik Revolution

Olga Taranova is a journalist and translator living in Dublin. A native of Moscow, she works part-time in Marsh’s Library. Here she tells us about a very unusual, and highly sought-after, book in our collection.


On the face of it, you could not find two men more different than the founder of Marsh’s Library, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), and the Russian theatre impresario Sergey Diaghilev (1872-1929).

My research in Marsh’s suggests that the two men had at least one thing in common: an obsession with a sixteenth-century Moscow printer named Ivan Fyodorov.

In 1917 Sergey Diaghilev was at the height of his success. In only 8 years his theatre company, Ballets Russes,had evolved from scratch into a brand that, even today, is synonymous with talent, skill, opulence, and beauty.

Sergey Diaghilev in 1917

Exactly one hundred years ago, working with Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso on the carnivalesque avant-garde performance called Parade, living in Europe during the Great War, Diaghilev was full of hopes and plans for the end of the conflict, when he would bring his brilliant troupe back home to tour Russia to great acclaim.

It was never to happen. The Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War that followed, and the execution of several members of his family by the Soviet regime during the 1920s meant that he was never able to go home.

Ballets Russes continued to thrive, touring the world, seducing the most gifted designers, dancers, and composers; yet from the mid-20s, Diaghilev started to lose interest in all things theatrical, delegating most of his responsibilities to his assistants, friends and lovers. He turned instead to collecting ancient books and manuscripts. In fact, for a few years before his death in Venice in August 1929 rare book hunting seemed to be his greatest obsession. According to Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s choreographer and partner at the time, it was this devouring passion that brought the eventual demise of Ballets Russes.

Above all else, Diaghilev sought the first books ever printed in Russia or abroad in the Russian language. These, by Ivan Fyodorov, became the jewels of Diaghilev’s fast growing collection. Fyodorov’s fate resembled that of Diaghilev– both devoted their lives to creating beautiful things, and both ended up in unpredicted exile due to drastic historical circumstances.

Fyodorov, who had studied book printing in Krakow, happened to be in Moscow in 1560s when the young Tsar Ivan the Terrible (who wasn’t too terrible in those early days) established the Moscow Print Yard. However, a decade later, Tsar Ivan, having lost his first wife Anastasia to alleged poisoning and growing more suspicious of his entourage, introduced the ‘oprichnina’, his secret police that conducted public executions, repression and confiscated the property of aristocrats who fell out of grace with the Tsar.

The first book printed in Russia, 1564

Fyodorov, hated by the clergy, particularly by the scribes, who saw printing as an obvious threat to their profession, had to flee Russia for Europe with all his equipment. The Russian books he printed in different places during his lifetime in exile tell a fascinating story of those times.

Last year, while working at Marsh’s Library on two separate essays for my postgraduate studies at Trinity – one on Diaghilev, the other on Fyodorov – I accidently stumbled upon the connection between the two exiled men and Archbishop Narcissus Marsh.

Diaghilev was lucky enough to acquire a very great treasure: a copy of Apostol(1564), the first book ever printed in Russia. This exceedingly rare book is a collection of St Paul’s epistles from the New Testament and the Book of Acts, with an afterword written by Ivan Fyodorov himself. After Diaghilev’s death, his copy eventually ended up in the British Library.

Marsh’s Library happens to have one of the few other surviving copies of this book. In fact, like Diaghilev, Archbishop Narcissus Marsh seems to have been a fan of Fyodorov: his personal collection includes three very rare books by this first Russian printer. It is still unknown where and how Archbishop Marsh came into possession of them, but it is fair to assume that Diaghilev must have paid a lot more for his Fyodorov printings than the Archbishop did when he had been consumed by bibliomania more than two centuries earlier.


Olga Taranova

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