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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
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.