lcons: According to Villagers and Theologians

Margaret Paxson

Editor’s Note: The following account is based on anthropological field work by the author beginning in 1994-95 in a Russian village some 300 miles north of Moscow. The village, “Solovyovo,” is a pseudonym which has been used to protect villagers’ privacy.

How did the Great Social Experiment fare? It educated with images of a great and radiant future. It offered new leaders without the trappings of religion’s dulling “opium.” It offered explanations and inspirations. When that did not work, it droned with endless speeches and took children from their homes to educate them in its precepts. When that did not work, it took people away in the night, and battered them into some semblance of animal submission. But do such methods work? Is this how hearts, minds, and memory are transformed with any degree of efficiency?

Tat’iana Ivanovna

On the morning of 19 August 1991, two weeks after I had arrived in St. Petersburg for the very first time, I was awakened by the telephone and the sobbing of an old woman. It was Tat’iana Ivanovna, the babushka with whom I was living. Sickness? Death? I came out of my room and was told that Gorbachev was very ill and would have to leave his post as president. Of course, so much more was buried in that phrase. Certainly, the long arc of Tat’iana Ivanovna’s life had passed through several extraordinary times like this. I had heard stories of living within the barricaded city of Leningrad during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of people starved to death, and how she had fed her husband with dandelion leaves that she had gathered at the botanical garden where she worked. I had heard how her father had been exiled and killed for being a priest in the 1930s.

I got dressed for the day, and as I was leaving the apartment, Tat’iana Ivanovna, still crying, took me by the arm and led me into her room. It was almost bare. I noticed an icon, elaborately gilded, nestled into a corner. Tat’iana Ivanovna tapped my arm and gestured up to the icon. “Pray,” she told me between sobs, tapping my arm and gesturing again and again up to the icon, calling on me to pray. For a woman whose years spanned the entire history of the Soviet Union and who must have prayed countless times before that same icon (watching wars, the starvation of her husband, the denigration of her beliefs), the answer of the question of komu obratitsia (to whom should one turn) in times of trouble, was to the image that lived within that corner space, known for hundreds of years as the krasnyi ugol or “red corner.”

The Red Corner

Krasnyi means red, or beautiful. While I was living in Solovyovo, the krasnyi ugol, the red beautiful corner, was adorned in almost every village home with icons. The icons were often placed on a special shelf (bozhnitsa), sometimes next to crosses and treasured possessions such as photographs and keepsakes. At the time of death, I saw the deceased in a household laid out in line diagonally with the icon corner, with her head under the icons, for three days. Ritual objects (such as coins, soap, and a towel) and small icons were then placed on the body; and offerings and other ritual objects (candles, glasses of vodka) were arranged by the icons.

The red corner of a village home is a physical space where symbolic force is densely packed. Although the icons that fill corners are religious objects, the icon corner is not defined by its Orthodox religiosity per se. As Vladimir Propp confirms, “Certain pagan, and, later, Christianized practices are connected to this corner.”1 After churches were destroyed in and near Solovyovo and a generation or two went by, little was remembered of Orthodox ritual. But icons, by far the most powerful religious objects in village life, have remained a focus of supernatural powers. Villagers passionately agree on one thing: Icons are indispensable.

“You Have to Have an Icon”

Larisa Andreevna: It’s bad to live in a house without an icon. There ought to be an icon. If you take an icon out of a house, everything leaves behind it. That’s what happens. These people are now bad. Sick ones. Sorrowful ones. Drunkards. In everyone’s house stood icons. And for him who carried out the icon, in that house, there will be no happiness. Only sorrow/misfortune.

Villagers told me again and again that icons in the home are mandatory. The icon is there so that “God protects better,” says Valentine Ivanovna. Elena Andreevna concurs with urgency in her tone: “You have to have an icon in the house. We consider that you have to have an icon in the house.” More important than the performance of Orthodox rituals of any particular kind is the dire importance of keeping the icon in the living space.

Q: What can happen if there is no icon in the house?

Antonia Sergeevna: Without an icon, as they say, oi, unbaptized; so that’s all not good. It’s something terrifying, even to say it with your tongue. It is necessary to believe. As if with the soul, you are a believer. We have no church now. No one goes. And in the soul we keep it all. There is something. And in fact, there is something. Let these icons be there.

Antonina Sergeevna knows no prayers; nor does she go to church (“no one goes”). But without an icon, something unspeakably terrifying may be at hand. The icon in the home keeps the home safe, protected from illness and from terrible forces that can bring misfortune of all kinds.

The question follows, then, what exactly is in that icon in the corner? What are those framed faces with the mournful eyes that look down at every village family? As a first step into the complex space that is the corner, I begin with a brief discussion of the theology of the icon. This requires regarding the problem not only in the eyes of villagers, but in the eyes of (particularly Russian) philosophers and theologians as well. Here, it is my aim to underline the symbolism of icon veneration as expressed by philosophers of religion, people who are enjoined with explaining religion in its official, ideal manifestation. It does not follow, logically, that the ideals of church philosophers would have any necessary relationship to how people worship. And yet, some common resonance does appear to exist.

Icons and Orthodox Theology

In the context of Orthodox theology, it would be difficult to overstate the centrality of icons in the practice of worship. The Orthodox icon has its roots in the theology of Greek Orthodoxy, which came to power in Russia in the tenth century AD. Given the prohibitions against idolatry in Judaism and Islam, it is not surprising that the use of images of the holy person of Christ was debated for centuries before finally being officially accepted by Eastern Christianity. The disputing groups were known as iconoclasts (“icon smashers”) and iconodules (“icon lovers”). The iconodules eventually triumphed, and their triumph was not merely a theological one; it also marked the development of a style of worship centered on the visual image.2

Churchgoers in Russia are, indeed, icon lovers. Today, in Orthodox churches the priest may or may not be heard or heeded in his sermon or his service, which is chanted in Old Church Slavonic, a language only vaguely comprehensible to laypeople. But the space around icons draws ardent attention, as people stand in front of them in crowds. They light candles under them, speak to them, and kiss them. Sometimes they cry in front of them. They stare at the icon’s face, the icon’s eyes. Many turn to them for healing, succor, and hope, and for more than that as well.

In the debate between the iconoclasts and the iconodules, the point was made that icons per se were not being worshipped and adored. It was, rather, the truth that came through the icons that was venerated. Icons represented divine beauty, which was manifested on Earth through the agency of the icon. In this theological view, icons can be seen as the conduits for holiness, not as the substance of holiness themselves, and in this way iconodules sought to distance themselves from advocating idol worship. So, if icons are conduits, what are they carrying? If they are mirrors, what are they reflecting? The language used by theologians to describe the powers of icons centers around metaphors of light and those of passive envelopment: that is, the light or truth of icons clothe, flood, or immerse the worshipper.3

In Solovyovo, there are hints of the notion that being in front of an icon can provide good “energy,” a positive, freeing, lightening feeling that floods or envelops a person.

Emma Dmitrievna: When a person stands in front of an icon, he is always converted into a peaceful mode; so many people have prayed around them [the old icons]; there is so much good/kind energy, that just standing near the icon helps. Because there is so much kind energy.

In the exegesis of Orthodoxy, when an icon is seen and reflected upon by an individual, that icon is understood to be felt; that is, a part of the “grace of God” is said to flow through the icon and has an effect upon the worshipper. As Leonid Ouspensky writes, “When we begin to strive with all our will power towards the beauty of the likeness, divine grace makes virtue flourish upon virtue, elevating the beauty of the soul from glory to glory, bestowing upon it the mark of likeness.”4 In other words, the act of reflecting on the icon is felt to draw in a transformational power, that is, the grace required to transform man into God’s holy image.

Although being an artistic creation, icons have the power to draw individuals to their spiritually “true” images. In this line of thinking, the theologian Nicholas Zernov wrote that icons “were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art.”5 Access to divine truths is accomplished without the need of words or sermons. It is as though the human heart were made to respond to divine truths such as they are beheld in icons. They are “philosophy in colors”6 or “visible prayers”7 where the sight of and reflection on the beauty of a particular image is what is required to grasp divine truths. In the rhetoric of Orthodox theologians, they are above sermons and above exegesis. If one is to begin to regard them sociologically, they provide, in their democracy, a fundamental accessibility to divine truths, one that need not be carried through the will of a priest. Zernov, indeed, stresses the “corporate nature” of the Mass in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the priest is little seen and little heard.8

Icons and Idols

Icons are images and they are objects. The question has emerged in the history of Russian popular religion as to the relationship between images/objects and worship before the Orthodox Church came to the countryside. This discussion has often been framed in terms of dvoeverie, the idea that Russian religious faith is double faceted marked by a mixture of “paganism” and Orthodoxy. Although I believe it is an oversimplification to say that this faith is marked by a homogeneous mix of two elaborate theologies, one Christian and the other “pagan,” the emergence of the concept of dvoeverie has allowed academic discourse to explore the sometimes awkward question of how religious faith may not be purely (theologically) religious.

Theology offers exegeses on the relationship between person and image. It tells us what should happen when interacting with holy objects. We should feel awe, grace, new senses of spiritual light and beauty, an immersion in truth. We should feel fear. Standing in front of the icon, we should change fundamentally and directionally. Villagers turn to icons with an understanding that is informed, but not defined, by this.

The notion that an icon can transform a person (or a people) toward some abstract, spiritual ideal was not clearly evidenced in Solovyovo. If icons can “flood” a person with some positive “energy,” this energy does not appear to be transformational. Icons can give one a feeling of “lightness,” but do not “change” the spiritual image of man to an idealized, divine one. Icons are certainly healing objects and in that sense agents of change but they are not fashioners of spiritual character. Theology appears to wish for transformation of the spiritual self; the villagers wish to lighten the load. F

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Margaret Paxson, Solovyovo; The Story of Memory in a Russian Village (Washington, D.C. and Bloomington, IN: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Indiana University Press, 2005), 217-27.


1 Russkie agarnye prazdniki (St. Petersburg: Izdatel’stvo “Azbuka,” 1995), 25, n.5.

2 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1991), 40.

3 G.P. Fedotov, The Russian Mind: The Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966), 33. See also Alexander Soloviev, Holy Russia: The History of a Religious Social Idea (Geneva: Mouton, 1959), 6.

4 The Theology of the Icon (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 185.

5 Ware, Orthodox Church, 42; Ouspensky, Theology, 197.

6 Fedotov, Russian Mind, 368.

7 Ouspensky, Theology, 211.

8 Nicholas, Zernov, Three Russian Prophets: Khomiakov, Dostoevsky, Soloviev (Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1973), 31

Anthropologist Margaret Paxson is senior associate at the Kenton Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.