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Vera Shevzov

Far from being relegated to the annals of antiquity or marginalized as a symbolically repressive ecclesiastical trapping, the icon in Russia found new life in modern times. Although remaining a dynamic phenomenon within its “natural habitat”—the environs of church and prayer—the icon emerged as a valued commodity in the global world of art historians, artists, and commercial entrepreneurs. Debased, destroyed, or driven underground in the Soviet period, the icon nevertheless remained a prominent fixture in the native worlds of ethnographers, museum curators, and Russian statesmen as well as a charged symbol that hovered just beneath the surface of official art and Communist propaganda. The millennial celebration of the Baptism of Russia in 1988 and the subsequent fall of Communism helped to pull the icon “from under the rubble” back into the sphere of Russian life. No longer shackled by Communist political correctness, Russia’s citizens, believers and on-believers alike, have once again rediscovered and reclaimed the icon and have done so (and continue to do so) in often daring and dramatic ways.

A Mix of Piety and Patriotism

Icons played a crucial role in sacralizing historical memory and undergirding the notion of the chosenness of the Russian nation. Drawing on a deep tradition shared by church and state of associating icons with major political events in Russia’s history, tsar and people alike, with a complex mix of piety and patriotism, often embraced icons as national monuments. A famous case in point at the end of the ancient regime involved an icon found by Evdokiya Andrianova, a peasant woman from the Kolomensk region outside Moscow, on 2 March 1917, the day of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication. Within days, believers, first locally, then nationally, interpreted Evdokiya’s discovery as a collective sign: in the absence of a tsar, Mary, Mother of God, had assumed sovereignty over Russia. Portraying a seated empress with a scepter and orb in her hands and the Christ Child on her lap, the icon She Who Reigns joined a wide array of prerevolutionary Marian images that affirmed Russia’s special status among the nations.

The icon She Who Reigns has re-emerged in contemporary mythmaking that links post-Soviet Russia with the political glories and cultural lure of its imperial past. In 2007, this icon was featured in an ambitious, highly publicized year-long procession to celebrate reconciliation among Russians whose histories have been severed by the 1917 Revolution and subsequent civil war. Organized by the Orthodox Church and endorsed by President Vladimir Putin, the procession had unity as its guiding theme—the unity of Russians at home with those abroad. It was a sociopolitical march as much as a religious pilgrimage, with thousands joining and departing, and often rejoining again. The procession began in eight different regions in May—Vladivostok, Yakutsk, Barnaul, Rostov-on-Don, Arkhangelsk, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, and Mount Athos in Greece—and eventually converged in Moscow a year later. Each procession was led by an image of the icon She Who Reigns.

Day of National Unity

Attempts to capitalize on the icon’s unifying power are widespread in contemporary Russia. Commenting on a 2008 exhibit at the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow titled “The Orthodox Icon: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus,” Sergei Kroletvets, director of the National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical Cultural Preserve, noted that “icons are an entire world that unite our peoples. For centuries the icon was a consolidating principle.” Given such sentiments, it is little wonder that Russia’s newest state holiday, the Day of National Unity on 4November, falls on the date of the celebration of one of Russia’s most famous icons—the Kazan Mother of God. Signed into law by Vladimir Putin in 2005,the new holiday, a direct response to the tragic events in Beslan in September 2004, commemorates Russia’s victorious emergence from the Time of Troubles at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century. Recalling an event from Russia’s deep prerevolutionary past, the holiday is meant to reinvigorate historical memory among the peoples of the former Soviet Union “to fill the gap in [that] memory.” Aiming to delineate a latent “national ideal,” the rhetoric surrounding the Day of National Unity calls on “civil solidarity,” “civic responsibility,” and “civil society” in the face of foreign threat. Once again, an icon, by virtue of its centuries-long association with pivotal events in Russia’s past, has become involved in the discourse and rituals of post-Soviet Russian state building. Although the icon in post-Soviet Russia has proven to have tremendous ability to unify and consolidate people, hopes, and identities, it has also revealed its potential to arouse sharp discord. The iconic underpinnings of the Day of National Unity, for instance, prompted almost immediate dissent. Journalists quickly pointed to the “camouflaged “nature of the new holiday and questioned the propriety of having it so closely linked with prominent Orthodox and imperial symbol. Others, including the head of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists and the Communist Party leader, openly called the Day of National Unity provocation that would lead only to divisions. Tatar nationalists referred to the Kazan icon as “a symbol of the colonial yoke.”

Competing Claims of Ownership

Certainly the position of the icon in contemporary Russia is sensitive and complex. The ideological vacuum left by the demise of the Soviet Union has resulted in an environment of heightened cultural competition in which no one group can claim to “own” the icon. Since the time of its decoupling from church in late imperial Russia, the icon has become a globally recognized art form that can be altered, adapted, and appreciated by many different audiences. As a result of competing claims to its ownership and interpretation, the icon can often be found at the forefront of post-Soviet cultural wars.

The “Caution! Religion” Exhibit

The infamous exhibit “Caution! Religion” was recent example of such a battleground. Consisting of approximately 45 works by contemporary artists from Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Cuba, the 2004 show at Moscow’s Sakharov Museum ignited heated public debates. Installations such as an image of Christ on a Coca-Cola billboard with the message “This is my blood,” as well as a life-size icon into which the viewer could insert his own face, demonstrated that disputes over the relationship and differences between art and icon continue to be a source of contention. The icon in post-Soviet Russia has become a part of the broader contemporary discourse concerning civil liberties. Supporters of the short-lived “Caution! Religion” show included such human rights activists as Elena Bonner, physicist Lev Ponomarev, Orthodox dissident Gleb Yakunin, and Sergei Kovalev, a founding member of the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International. They defended the exhibit’s participants as “critical, prophetic voices against abuses of power.” One artist compared the exhibit’s participants to John Huss, Lev Tolstoy, and archpriest Avvakum; they too were social critics warning of the dangers of religion and religious institutions. The museum’s director, Yury Samodurov, who was eventually charged by a Moscow court with inciting religious and ethnic hatred by allowing the exhibit, insisted that the artists rightfully protested a false religious consciousness that they believed was being instilled in citizens in post-Soviet Russia.

The exhibit also had its equally passionate detractors. They felt repulsed by what in their eyes was little more than hackneyed iconoclasm and blasphemy publicly displayed under the canopy of human rights center. A group of intellectuals that included such well-known figures as film maker Nikita Mikhalkov, mathematician Igor Shafareevich, and writer Vasily Belov referred to the exhibit as a new level of “conscious Satanism.” The Moscow Patriarchate issued a statement protesting the exhibit and the stereotypes of Orthodoxy that it believed were fostered. In part, church officials were disturbed by the artistic use of icons to advance an essentially political and social agenda. Artistic license that condoned “playing with the holy,” in their estimation, posed potential harm to the human soul.♦

Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Churchand Ministry Report 20 (Fall 2012).

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Vera Shevzov, “Afterword,” in Alter Icons: The Russian Icon and Modernity ed. by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall and Douglas Greenfield (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 246-56.

Vera Shevzov is associate professor of religion, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusett