Even though Russian icons have little meaning in the USA, religious icons lie
at the roots of pictorial art in Slavic East Europe. For the 700 years from the
11th century until the time of Peter the Great, the icon practically was the
only indigenous pictorial art of the vast territories of the Eastern Slavs,
which later, in fact, coincided with the former USSR.
mysterious object, the icon, that is, the sacred image, or the sacred
representation that the museum visitor easily passes up for more conventional
art, is nonetheless both pure art . . . and at the same time sacred art.
culture, the icon can also become a defensive arm.
speak of icons here? In these critical times, what do Russian icons have to do
with anything but art? Now don�t back off, and I will explain. If we for a
moment consider icons as the powerful emblems they are for Russia, we can get
another view of some of history�s misunderstandings, tensions, and prejudices.
For example, we find that Churchill�s enigmatic Russians are not a threat to
mankind at all. For the sake of this article about a current major European
issue, however, I would add that one might also consider today the content of
the painted icon as emblematic of the tensions between powerful Russia and its
neighbor and little brother, the ambitious Ukraine.
all, the icon has mysterious powers: art connoisseurs tell us that at the very
base of the icon lies a light. Yes, a light! The gold background of the Russian
icon represents that light. A light of hope? A light of understanding? In any
case, the icon has always been a symbol of something great, something arcane
and mystical. Few persons are able to penetrate the conundrum and the real
significance of the icons that for hundreds of years were produced by
illiterate monks in remote monasteries in Slavic-Byzantine lands.
It is a
mystery that iconographic art reigned supreme in those East European
territories right up until the arrival there of Western art. Yet, soon after
Western art spread eastwards, the icon in Russia, too, was officially
reduced to a secondary art related to liturgical exigencies, if not to folklore.
From the act of the degrading of the art of the icon derives our powerful
international word, iconoclast (and the adjective iconoclastic), i.e.,
the destroyer of icons or images, and by extension the wrecker of �cherished
traditions.� (Webster�s dictionary) Yet, despite modernity and the changes in
Russia, the icon did not die.
The early icon painter, the secluded ascetic monk, like
Andrey Rublev, was not trying to transmit a realistic impression. Not at first.
He simply wanted to convey in color on a flat wooden surface the very essence
of life, its spiritual basis, and its characteristic features. Yet, in a way,
it was impressionism. That is what I see in the reproduction of a
fifteenth century icon I am now examining: impressionism.
Moreover, if icon painting began in Byzantium, the icon is
very Russian art, emblematic of the Russian mind, of the Russian religious
mind. The iconographic art
reached its zenith in Slavic lands; when we think of icons, we tend to think in
terms of Russian icons. The icon projects the Christ image to center stage.
Christ, surrounded by Madonnas and unsmiling saints, is the protagonist.
Christ, redeemer and saviour of mankind. Above all, Christ, the regenerator of
the Russian people. The very idea of Russia is identified with that
iconographic Christ. The rebirth of the world the icon painters showed in their
art must begin with the liberation and purification of the Russian people, the
people destined to save all mankind.
armies invaded Russia in 1941, Russia had no imaginary Maginot Line or Great
Wall to block the invader. Stalin, the Generalissimo, had instead Russian space
and vastness and the mystique of a Russia destined to save the world. Precisely
in that concept lies the role of the icon, a symbol of Russia�s destiny.
Traditionally every Russian home once had its Icon Corner or Beautiful (Krasny)
Corner and people carried their icons with them when they moved. Miracles and
healings and military victories have been attributed to their icons. Russian
soldiers have worn iconographic images on their chests into battle. Their icons
played the role of flags in the West.
with me. We�re nearly there.
icons differ from earlier Byzantine icons, more massive and marked by powerful
colors. Slavic icons were influenced by the directions the three chief East
Slavic peoples -- Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians -- took under foreign
domination: Byelorussia under Lithuania, Ukraine under Poland, and Russia under
the Tartars. The Russian icon then spread unchecked over vast territories to
the north and east and came to dominate the others, emblematic of constantly
expanding Russian political-cultural domination. In that sense the Russian icon
became emblematic of the idea of Russia itself. Names like Theophanes the Greek
and, above all, Andrey Rublev are familiar to every Russian, as are the most
famous cities of the icon, such as Pskov, Suzdal and Vladimir.
century Moscow was the center of Russian icon painting, giving its name to the
Moscow School. In the eyes of Russian spiritual thinkers, the destiny of Moscow
was to become the new Jerusalem. That was the same message of Russia�s great
19th century writers: purification of the Russian people in order to be able to
fulfill its destiny of salvation of the world.
age-old conviction was not greatly different from the Russian Communist view of
Russia and of Moscow as the center of a new civilization. The regeneration of
Russia, then the world, was the guiding light for Lenin�s revolutionaries. Even
for the revolution�s early poets, like Mayakovsky, the Christ figure led the
way. But always a Russian Christ. The same Christ of the icons.
Emblems and symbols and the icon story
painters of western Ukraine, on the other hand, soon fell under the influence
of a more sophisticated Western church art, more sober, more Polish Catholic in
tone and purpose, more removed from the people than the vigorous Russian icon
created by the monks, working according to Marx�s economic definition in a
�semi-Asiatic mode of production.�
people and icon painters of eastern areas of Ukraine followed the development
of their big brothers the Great Russians, West Ukraine remained under Polish
and Western influence. That cultural difference, of which icon painting is
emblematic, created an abyss between East and West Ukraine. For Ukraine today
is a country split down the middle. Its two cultures, one of its eastern part
close to Russia and a western part looking toward Europe, are the source of the
often unbridgeable divisions within Ukraine itself but especially in its
relationships with Russia.
Western emotions about the new-old country of Ukraine are no
less confused than those of the Ukrainian people themselves. Ukraine is a big
nation, the France of Eastern Europe, with a desire to decide its own fate, a
fate, however, that has led them down disastrous paths in the past. A major
problem is its two souls. Its Eastern soul has held Ukrainians close to the
Great Russians in language and culture; its Western soul led its rabid nationalists
to collaboration with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine�s Western
soul aspires to become part of Western Europe; its Eastern soul prefers a
privileged relationship with Russia.
One used to speak of a geographic Europe extending to the
Ural Mountains in Russia, with part of Russia in Europe and part in Asia.
However, the border between today�s United Europe (EU) and Russia -- straddled
by Ukraine -- is a geopolitical affair, a question of power and influence.
Here I want to interject a reminder from a Russian friend of
how nationalistic Great Russians today view (the) Ukraine. Until the collapse
of the USSR, one generally spoke of �The Ukraine� in English and other Western
languages. My friend objects to the omission of the article �the� before
Ukraine. He recalls that the word Ukraine in most Slavic languages bears
the sense of �borderland.� There are a lot of �borderlands� or �ukraines� in
the world, he insists, but only one of them has become an independent state.
Many if not most Russians still consider �the Ukraine� a borderland part of
Russia. To many the separation from Russia seems artificial and the result of
NATO-USA infringements in Russia.
Western Ukraine nonetheless insists on its historical ties
with Poland and Western Europe. Both Orthodoxy and the Uniate faith (Greek
Catholic) have followers there. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment is strongest in
the westernmost parts of the country, which became part of Ukraine when the
Soviet Union expanded after World War II.
East Ukraine is a different story. Ukraine was once the
center of the first Slavic state, the Russian state, known as Kievan Rus. It is
the cradle of Russia as the phony state of Kosovo is of Serbia. During the 10th
and 11th centuries, Kievan Russia was the largest state in Europe, until it
disappeared during the Mongol invasions. The cultural and religious legacy of
Kievan Rus laid the foundations of both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism. A
Ukrainian state was established during the mid-17th century that remained autonomous
for 100 years until Russia assimilated Ukrainian ethnographic territory.
Following the collapse of czarist Russia, Ukraine again had a short-lived
period of independence (1917-20), before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union,
as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
A significant minority of the population of Ukraine are
Russians or use Russian as their first language. Russian influence is
overwhelming in the industrialized east of the country, where the Orthodox
religion and its iconography are predominant. After Russia, the Ukrainian
Republic was the most important economic component of the former Soviet Union. Although Ukraine became independent
after the dissolution of the USSR, democracy there has remained elusive. Its
ancient divisions have stalled efforts at the formation of a unified nation. In
the final months of 2004, the Western supported �Orange Revolution� overturned
a presidential election controlled by pro-Russia exponents. An internationally
monitored vote then swept into power a coalition of pro-Western reformists.
Yet, the run-off presidential vote of 52 percent for pro-Western Viktor
Yushchenko and 44 percent for pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich again reflected the
divisions in Ukraine between east and west. Those divisions are part of the
tremendous economic-financial crisis there today, a huge threat to Western
Europe and the USA which have financed it.
post-Communist era in Ukraine seemed closed and its option for the West
certain, the change was illusory. Its coalition government collapsed over
disastrous economic policies, corruption and a dramatic gas war with Russia.
The government also dissolved abecause the east and south of the nation prefer
Russia and Ukraine�s past. Although the amount of trade with EU countries
exceeds commerce with Russia, Russia remains Ukraine�s major single trading
partner. Not only is Ukraine dependent on Russia for gas, it also forms an
important link on the pipeline transit route for Russian gas exports to Europe.
Today, Russia�s retreat from the West has ended. Since much of Europe�s
economic future depends on Russia�s gas, European efforts at democratizing
Russia have stopped. Europe no longer pushes hard for Ukrainian democracy.
Pravda reports that Ukraine�s coffers are empty and that
Western bankers are turning their backs on Ukraine. A Rome banker told me that
Western banks are terrified of Ukraine�s financial situation and that no one
will lend it more money. Anyway, in the long run Russia itself cannot permit US
economic-military presence (the two go hand in hand!) in its borderland and the cradle of Russia,
the land of the Little Russians. While Ukrainians of east and west bicker among
themselves, the reality is that only Russia can save Ukraine from itself.
Besides being divided internally between east and west,
(the) Ukraine is crushed between pressures from its eastern and western borders.
Since the end of the USSR, the major pressure from the West has been a question
of USA meddling. As did Nazi Germany, the USA has taken advantage of the
east-west division of (the) the Ukraine, wooing West Ukraine at the expense of
its eastern soul and Russia.
the European Union
desires association with Ukraine. The EU Parliament favors �full respect for the democratic choice of the Ukrainian people� and opposes pressures to change the political and economic status of Ukraine. This rings friendly and
cooperative -- to Western-oriented Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking
Ukrainians, any interference at all by the West in Ukraine rings threatening.
The reality is that the tide in Ukraine has now turned
eastwards. The impulse toward the West of the last 15 years has stopped. Though
Ukraine must have good relations with both East and West, in any economic
contest between Russia on one hand and Europe-USA on the other, Moscow in a
fair battle will always win. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would
be like Canada suddenly taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over
question of where the West ends and Russia begins is not unimportant. Russia is
again a global actor. Much of the empire is gone but Russia�s aspirations
remain. Today, Russia is showing its muscles in a game of hazards and risks.
Alongside India and China, Russia has assumed a protagonist role, which the
America of Bush and now Obama do not seem to comprehend, no more than they are even
aware of this icon story and of Russia�s world outlook.
and history, the flow of time and peoples over many centuries, war and peace,
economics, religion, philosophy, and culture -- including those enigmatic but
eloquent icons -- combine to make the Russia-Ukraine borderland a special
European story. Most certainly Europeans of both East and West would agree,
this is not an accessible space for American imperialist intervention.
collapse of the USSR, we have seen that a weak Russia is a danger for world
balance of power. A strong Russia worries Washington, less so Europe. A strong
Russia to counter uncontrollable American unilateralism appeals to much of the
world. Cold war at low risk is better than hot war anywhere. The disappearance
of the USSR paved the way for �preemptive war America,� its hands free to
strike where it likes. America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is
divided, poor, its economy in shambles, its empire dismantled. Washington
cannot control China or India. Nor in the end can it contain Russia.
Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor and European
Correspondent for Cyrano�s Journal Online, is a novelist and journalist based
in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the
Internet on many leading venues. His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes,