December 05, 2021

The Tales Behind the Frames

The Tales Behind the Frames
The author, trying too hard to win a photo contest while simultaneously flexing his art history bona fides at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Griffin Edwards

Russian art is interesting; Russian history is interesting; so Russian art history must be doubly interesting, right?

In some cases, absolutely. Almost as interesting as the pictures themselves are the stories behind them. Below are three of our favorites, representing creations spanning almost the whole of Russian history.

And if you simply aren't into art, well, maybe this will convince you to at least stop by and check out the Hermitage the next time you're in Petersburg. If nothing else, maybe you'll see a cat.

"Miracle of the 'Virgin of the Sign.'" Anonymous, 1170

Icon, Miracle of the Virgin of the Sign
A most iconic icon. | Public domain

This first piece is a bit of a twofer. After all, "Miracle of the 'Virgin of the Sign'" is actually an icon about an icon, with a little copy of the icon inside of it. Icon-seption, if you will.

Icons are kind of funny things to us in the West today. If you're looking at early Russian art, chances are you'll be staring at a lot of icons. On one level, they portray a heavily stylized, flattened view of the world that looks more like Picasso's cubism than realistic representations. They usually depict obscure saints and Bible stories that Sunday schools tend to skip over. If you're not in the world of icons, they're a bit tough to parse.

Maybe that's why "Miracle" is such a fascinating piece: it's less an icon and more of a comic strip, depicting a story from top to bottom. The tale is historical, but it's become a bit of a legend over the years.

By the time of the painting of the icon in the late twelfth century, the Russian state of Kievan Rus' had largely fallen apart. The familial ties between the rulers of Russia's cities had frayed into a mass of shifting alliances and constant conflict barely united by the Grand Prince in Kiev.

Amid this backdrop, an army from Suzdal marched on the wealthy merchant-republic city of Novgorod. As it came under siege from the west, a priest received a vision telling him to take the icon of the "Virgin of the Sign" from its usual spot in a church on the east side of the city, cross the river Volkhov, and place it on the walls in front of the enemy (depicted in the first section of the icon). The Suzdalians, unnerved by the insolence of their enemies, fired arrows at the icon; one struck it below the eye, and it began to cry (see the second section). Inspired by this divine sight, the Novgorodian army counterattacked, driving the Suzdalians away (see the third section, with an angel giving the Novgorodians a sword-wielding hand).

It's pretty action-packed, as icons go. You can see it today in the history museum of the Novgorod kremlin, which has a massive collection of excellent icons. Across the street, in the Sophia Cathedral (the oldest in Russia), you can check out the "Virgin of the Sign," and keen observers can still spot the place where the arrow hit near her eye. Visitors are usually allowed to kiss it, although COVID restrictions may have quelled that.

"Reply of the Zaphorozhian Cossacks." Ilya Repin, 1880-1891

reply of zaph cossacks
Looks like a party. | Public domain

Ilya Repin is one of the most prolific painters of the Imperial period. Much of his work was done in the realist-romanticist style common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His paintings are typically colorful and several depict scenes of Russian history, whether the somber "Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council" or the striking (pun intended) "Ivan the Terrible and His Son." A patriot who seemed to love Russian subjects, he delved into the fantasies of local folklore with his painting of Sadko and was commissioned for a major portrait of Nicholas II. At the same time, though, his almost-impressionist "Demonstration on October 17, 1905," clearly celebrates the anti-government 1905 revolution. If you've ever read a Russian history book, chances are you've seen his work.

"Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks" depicts a band of Cossack warriors guffawing as one of their number—looking conspicuously more bookish than the rest—writes what they appear to be dictating. From the Cossacks' hairstyles to their glittering weapons and red, panting faces, the painting appears lifelike, as if a time-traveler had remembered to pack their iPhone and had taken a couple shots for the 'Gram.

This is one of Repin's more "fun" works, and its backstory is perhaps even paradoxical to the Victorian sensibilities of his era. The (probably apocryphal) story goes that, in 1676, the Ottoman sultan, who ruled territory to the south and west of the Cossacks' lands in modern Ukraine, sent a message to the Zaporozhian band requesting that they capitulate to his rule. Their response is, even in the twenty-first century, hair-raising reading. Since Russian Life tries to keep it PG, we won't copy it here, but you can read it for yourself online.

Needless to say, it's not surprising that the Cossacks are having such a good time writing a letter. Fortunately, writing listicles about history is almost as fun.

"Raising a Flag over the Reichstag." Yevgeny Khaldei, 1945

Flag over Reichstag
Not as accurate as you might think. | Public domain

If you've ever stayed up late watching History Channel documentaries about the Second World War, chances are you've seen this picture. Heck, if you've so much as perused Wikipedia history articles for longer than fifteen minutes, you've probably seen this picture. "Raising a Flag over the Reichstag" is one of the most iconic and recognizable photographs ever produced.

The photo shows a young private, identified as Alexei Kovalev, flaunting the Soviet flag on the roof of the German Reichstag, held in place by a comrade. The bombed-out city of Berlin stretches below, and the chaotic rubble of buildings fades into columns of smoke.

The image is so well-known for good reason. The capture of the center of Berlin in May 1945 meant that the end of four years of a bloody slog was in sight for Soviet forces. There must have been some satisfaction from the fact that the German offensive into Russia, begun as a surprise attack in 1941, had culminated in the almost total destruction of German forces. Today, it's the Russian equivalent of that photo from Iwo Jima.

But the image we know so well is actually a bit of a fake.

Not fake as in staged. It was well-known that this image, like its American counterpart from the Pacific theater, was orchestrated for propaganda purposes. Alexei Khaldei, the Red Army photographer who took the shot, was specifically planning a photo of a soldier waving a flag on top of the Reichstag; he'd hoped to get it before May 1 (May Day, a prominent Soviet holiday), but German defenses prevented that. But on May 2, Khaldei dragooned a group of young soldiers to pose for a picture. Having took it, he thanked them and got back to Moscow ASAP.

So it's not a candid shot, but it's at least accurate, right?

Wrong. After all, Stalin's regime was well-known for pioneering photo manipulation. Stalin's face looks too pock-marked? Airbrush it. Political lackey falls out of favor? Take him out of the group photos. Even in 1961, when a cosmonaut died in an accident, all photographic and film evidence of his existence disappeared, and it was only 25 years later that his life was officially acknowledged.

So even the moving, patriotic image captured by Khaldei was the subject of scrutiny. The man in the foreground holding up the flag-bearer originally had what looked like a watch on each wrist. This would imply that one of the watches had been looted, a crime punishable by death. Khaldei quickly removed one of the watches by scratching the negative with a needle, giving the wrist a clean appearance. In addition, he added those billowing clouds of black smoke from another image to add a little more drama.

Almost immediately after its publication in Soviet magazines, the image became stamped on the public consciousness as a symbol of Russian triumph in the midst of great sacrifice. Khaldei was proclaimed a national hero, and it seems that, even though it was suggested that the second watch was actually a wrist-mounted compass, the photographer's doctored image is here to stay.

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