Book Review: Hidden and Triumphant

 

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, by Irina Yazykova (translated by Paul Grenier), is a short work on how Russian Orthodox iconography, and indeed Christianity itself, survived the Soviets, found renewal in the Russian diaspora, survived the Nazis, spread into the greater Orthodox diaspora abroad, and returned home to its roots. As destructive as the Soviets were in their closure, desecration, and demolition of churches, not only were they unable to ever entirely squelch Christianity, but the very people they exiled were able to maintain the faith and provide outside inspiration and support to their people trapped within their homeland.

That traditional iconography survived the Soviets is remarkable in itself, yet that it survived at all as more than a novelty or as primitive folk art is just as significant.  Iconography, introduced during the conversion of Kievan Rus by Byzantium, developed its own Russian voice and style in the centuries after Byzantium’s conquest by the Ottomans, entering into a sort of golden age under such masters as Rublev during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Yet first, due to the schism with the Old Believers, and especially under the modernizing reforms of Peter the Great, much of that history was deliberately destroyed or hidden away.  From the time of Peter up until the eve of the disaster of World War I, Russian liturgical art was very often little distinguished from that of western European styles, save that its topics remained Orthodox and Russian in character.  Older, traditional icons, blackened with age and soot, were removed and relegated to barns or backwater churches far from the artistic centers of the major cities, and nearly the only practitioners of traditional iconography were rural artists or peasants.  Yet in that final generation before the Great War, these old masters were being rediscovered as these older panels were unearthed, cleaned, and restored, often for the first time in centuries, and Russian artists set about re-appraising their older traditions.

World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution ended that renewal at home.  And yet, as many Orthodox Russians fled the newly-created Soviet Union, they took with them these rediscovered forms, and in their communities of the diaspora, particularly in France, they laid the foundation for new schools of Russian liturgical art.  Yazykova profiles a number of such artists as they created new works for their churches in exile, and how they influenced new generations of iconographers, or changed what had been traditional roles.  In pre-Revolutionary Russia, for instance, only men could be iconographers in paint, while women were restricted to embroidered forms, yet with such a small community abroad, and the need to construct new churches in the expatriate communities, women stepped forward for the first time as skilled iconographers in their own right.  Sister Joanna Reitlinger, for instance, was a prolific artist, as was the highly skilled Mother Juliana (nee Maria Nikolaevna Sokolova), both of whom returned to Russia after the death of Stalin in order to continue their work and teach Russians (often in secret) in their own lands again.

Russian iconographers continued to work abroad in other media as well, with Gregory Kroug writing in frescos, or Leonid Ouspensky in woodcarving.  Mother Maria Skobtsova produced beautiful embroideries, though her life was cut short during the Nazi occupation when she was sent to a concentration camp (as were many other Russians in France).  Yazykova details the lives of these artists in exile, and how they trained succeeding generations, especially when allowed to return home as the persecutions waned.  As the Soviets realized, especially after the death of Stalin, that they had lost or destroyed a significant part of Russian culture, they began to invite some of the exiles home to assist in the restoration of some of the churches and monasteries that they had desecrated in the prior decades.

The closing chapters of the book cover the period of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new flowering of Russian iconographic art both at home and abroad, and the current challenges to iconographers as they work both to preserve the old forms, and to continue their development in new ways.  Well over half of the churches in Russia were closed by the Soviets, and often turned to other purposes, left to rot, or otherwise desecrated, so the demand for artists today is quite high as these churches are gradually handed back to the faithful and restored.  And iconography, preserved during the exile, is in high demand the world over too, with many icon writers’ works being installed abroad.  The book’s cover, a photograph of a massive banner of the icon of the Resurrection, hanging in Red Square, is a fitting sign of the restoration of the Orthodox Church at the end of the Soviet era.

The book itself only runs a shade under 200 pages, but it tells a far-reaching story within those limits and takes the reader through an understanding of iconography’s role in Orthodoxy, as well as the history of the Russian church.  There are a number of color plates with examples of the various artists’ works, including surviving ones from the medieval period of Russian history.  It is an excellent volume for anyone with an interest in liturgical art, or in Russian history.

Hidden and Triumphant, The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography
Irina Yazykova
Paraclete Press, 2010


On a personal note:  One factor in the survival of Russian iconography that the author does not discuss is how the Soviet Union, though it engaged in wanton destruction of Christian artwork, also preserved a great deal of it rather inadvertently.  Being always cash poor, for a number of years it actively sold off, or turned a blind eye to the smuggling of many of its icons.  Many museums and private collectors abroad have acquired these over the years, and in Clinton, Massachusetts there is a small museum with a significant collection.  The Museum of Russian Icons was founded by an American industrialist with an interest in religious artwork and is a donation of his personal collection of over 100 icons he acquired over several decades.  If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I remember back in the early nineties a friend of mine was going on a mission to Kiev to bring Christianity to the “Godless” Russians. (He was Baptist as I recall.) This was shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.

    I told him to visit the cathedrals at Kiev (which had reopened), and see if the catacombs were open to tours yet. He was flabbergasted. “But I thought the Russians were atheists?” I told him it was the Soviets who were atheist, and some of them were secret Christians, but that just as in “atheistic” Republican France the main body of the population remained firmly Christian – specifically Orthodox Christian.

    I was sure of that both from friends’ reports, my older brother’s stories (he is a Russian Orthodox priest), and the radioactive icons out of Chernobyl.

    In the 1980s authentic Russian Orthodox icons were a in art object in Europe. All the trendy sorts wanted them. Then in the late years of the decade a flood of icons started hitting the market. Turned out they were hot – in more ways than one. The population of Chernobyl evacuated with what they could carry.  They left everything else behind. 

    Turned out in this city, a showcase of the New Soviet Man, most residents had an icon corner (probably in one of the bedrooms out of sight) as was traditional among Orthodox Christians, filled with their icons. The icons were left behind. Enterprising looters, knowing the value of these things in Western Europe, penetrated the Forbidden Zone to loot them. Apparently many predated the Revolution and were quite valuable. Of course, they had picked up some of the background radiation.  

    I don’t know how radioactive they were, but they were detectable by Geiger counters, apparently. 

    • #1
  2. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    I remember back in the early nineties a friend of mine was going on a mission to Kiev to bring Christianity to the “Godless” Russians. (He was Baptist as I recall.) This was shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed.

     

    Here’s a funny story.  One of the men at my church is an ex-Vineyard pastor (Vineyard churches are Pentecostal offshoots).  He still laughs about this with hearty embarrassment, but during his younger days had a chance to visit Mount Athos, and while there he was doing his level best to “convert” the monks.

    • #2
  3. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Thanks, as always, for this, @skipsul!

    For those who may want to investigate further: Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Fr. Henri J. M. Nouwen is a reflection on praying with these works of art – and an introduction for those who’re unfamiliar with the art form and practice.

    • #3
  4. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    One of my favorite parts about a Russian history elective I took at university was the Russian Orthodox Church art and architecture.  This one I remember for its ornate and pristine simplicity

    https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailv2&iss=VSI&form=INRECC&it=IMG&st=TPD&dt=IMG&lids=church-orthodox-russian&id=20F990549E767101AE7690FE9CE610E65145BBCE&ccid=l7J6Brs%2B&thid=OIP.l7J6Brs-xRihcHOIWiMb0QAAAA&first=1000&selectedindex=1&expw=389&exph=600&ajaxhist=0&pagetoken=dt_image*fver_0*it_image*lft_spc*lid_church-orthodox-russian*offset_0*st_topic*uft_gen&mediaurl=https%3A%2F%2Ffiles1.structurae.de%2Ffiles%2Fphotos%2F2906%2F02_7archangel1.jpg&simid=608052528529672894&pivotparams=insightsToken%3Dccid_%252BRCa8EFf*mid_36230DC5FADF65114A5CED1C887B03F530F191D2*simid_608026496725880103*thid_OIP.-RCa8EFfDRzZHkO4bc3y5QAAAA

    In addition to its great beauty, the other thing that stood out to me was the Church’s ties to Russian government over the centuries from the Mongols on through the czars. 

    • #4
  5. Suspira Member
    Suspira
    @Suspira

    I saw something about this book years ago and put it on my endless to-read list. This inspires me to see if I can find a copy and move it to the (much shorter) have-read list.

    • #5
  6. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Mim526 (View Comment):
    In addition to its great beauty, the other thing that stood out to me was the Church’s ties to Russian government over the centuries from the Mongols on through the czars. 

    This has always been a mixed bag for the Russian Orthodox.  Peter ditched the office of the Patriarch in favor a clerical council that the Tsars directly controlled, turning the church from something that had been semi-independent into something that was horribly dependent.  Only with the abdication of Nicholas II was a Patriarchate restored in Tikhon (a remarkable figure in Orthodoxy who was canonized as a saint in the late 1980s).  The very close connection between church and state was no small factor in the Bolsheviks’ animosity to Orthodoxy.

    The same was true for the Catholic church’s position in pre-Revolutionary France, where the revolutionaries turned their wrath on the church as an arm of the Ancien Regime.  The Anglican church, being also an official arm of government of the UK has meanwhile been horribly compromised to the point where its doctrine is shifty, and its churches much more thinly attended.

    Today Vladimir Putin has closely allied himself with the Orthodox Patriarch of Russia, and while this has produced some good in the restorations of many churches, and in official government support, at the same time this has also compromised the Russian church’s ability to stand apart from the Russian government, and I worry for the long term implications.  This close connection has been a significant factor in a rift over church authority in Ukraine, which has historically been under the Moscow Patriarch, now seeking it tomos of autocephaly from Moscow for a natively Ukrainian-controlled church (I’ll spare getting into the international politics of this, but it’s quite ugly).  Suffice it to say, if the Moscow Patriarch were not seen (fairly or unfairly) internationally as a pawn of Putin, this might not be an issue.  Suffice it to say that I always think it dangerous when churches ally themselves too closely with governments or political figures – great care must be taken.

    • #6
  7. Hank Rhody, Red Hunter Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter
    @HankRhody

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Turned out in this city, a showcase of the New Soviet Man, most residents had an icon corner (probably in one of the bedrooms out of sight) as was traditional among Orthodox Christians, filled with their icons. The icons were left behind. Enterprising looters, knowing the value of these things in Western Europe, penetrated the Forbidden Zone to loot them. Apparently many predated the Revolution and were quite valuable. Of course, they had picked up some of the background radiation.

    This is the greatest thing I’ve learned in a while.

    • #7
  8. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Turned out in this city, a showcase of the New Soviet Man, most residents had an icon corner (probably in one of the bedrooms out of sight) as was traditional among Orthodox Christians, filled with their icons. The icons were left behind. Enterprising looters, knowing the value of these things in Western Europe, penetrated the Forbidden Zone to loot them. Apparently many predated the Revolution and were quite valuable. Of course, they had picked up some of the background radiation.

    This is the greatest thing I’ve learned in a while.

    So what you’re saying is that Russians think Mary is hot.

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Turned out in this city, a showcase of the New Soviet Man, most residents had an icon corner (probably in one of the bedrooms out of sight) as was traditional among Orthodox Christians, filled with their icons. The icons were left behind. Enterprising looters, knowing the value of these things in Western Europe, penetrated the Forbidden Zone to loot them. Apparently many predated the Revolution and were quite valuable. Of course, they had picked up some of the background radiation.

    This is the greatest thing I’ve learned in a while.

    So what you’re saying is that Russians think Mary is hot.

    And John, and Xenia, and Tikhon, and Cyril, and Theodosia . . .

    • #9
  10. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Turned out in this city, a showcase of the New Soviet Man, most residents had an icon corner (probably in one of the bedrooms out of sight) as was traditional among Orthodox Christians, filled with their icons. The icons were left behind. Enterprising looters, knowing the value of these things in Western Europe, penetrated the Forbidden Zone to loot them. Apparently many predated the Revolution and were quite valuable. Of course, they had picked up some of the background radiation.

    This is the greatest thing I’ve learned in a while.

    I wonder if the looters came away with anything else besides the background radiation and icons.

    In the Russian docu-drama series, “The Case of Store #1,” the KGB Major played by Michael Porechenkov, after comparing his role to that of a priest, says, “How original. In Russia it has always been customary to hide the valuables behind the icons.”  This was after he got the suspect to show that her husband’s ill-gotten money was in a hidden safe behind the obligatory office photo of Brezhnev.

    https://youtu.be/tPC3mQ7K6KE?t=10m50s

     

    • #10
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