by Gaither Stewart
24 February 2009
“A Very European Story”
Symbols and objects held sacred by a whole people form a more powerful protective barrier than the highest of walls. Even the Great Wall of China was more a scarecrow than a real barrier to Mongol invaders. In that figurative sense I have imagined here the Russian icon as a historical defense of Russia against circling invaders, against mercenary armies and menacing space shields.
(Rome) 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 seven hundred 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. Though a 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.
Like all culture the icon can also become a defensive arm.
But why 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.
For above 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.
When German 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.
Now stay with me. We’re nearly there.
Russian 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.
Fifteenth 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 fulfil its destiny of salvation of the world.
This 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
Icon 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.”
While 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 East 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 West 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 West 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 one hundred 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% for pro-western Viktor Yushchenko and 44% 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 West Europe and the USA which has financed it.
Though the 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 dissolved also because 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 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.
In reality, 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 fifteen 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 Texas.
The 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.
Geography 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 not an accessible space for American imperialist intervention.
Since the 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 “pre-emptive 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, (www.wastelandrunes.com).