Holy Russia!

Holy Rus, God-blessed land, God-chosen nation. In Moscow, you hear it more and more often now. The words are said in a solemn voice, with a distant look in the eyes as if they would be scanning the future and actually seeing Holy Russia. A contemplative pause usually follows. Even the most ardent supporters of the Holy Russia idea avoid using the phrase when crossing a road: otherwise, an accident is almost guaranteed.

If you steal the pondering pause to ask them what Holy Russia really is, or what their glimpse in the future revealed about it, don’t expect a coherent answer. They don’t have a slightest idea.

Many Russian artists tried to resolve this predicament by offering a picture Holy Russia believers could use as a prop.

The task they set for themselves could best be described by a line from a famous Russian fairytale, when a wicked Czar sends the protagonist on a mission saying, “Bring me I don’t know what from I don’t know where”.

Just as the fairytale hero, Mikhail Nesterov (1862 – 1942) is believed to have succeeded on this impossible mission: his painting comes first when you google “Holy Russia” and it’s not the title (which is, of course, Holy Russia) that has put it on top.

But does it shed light on the whole concept?

Nesterov_SaintRussia - small
Mikhail Nesterov, Holy Russia

Even a casual glance over this epic painting stumbles upon the frightening absence of a single happy face. I mean, seriously, if you met Christ, wouldn’t you rejoice? You know He loves you, you love Him, what’s the problem with you guys? Where does all this grim gravity come from?

When the literature genius Leo Tolstoy saw this painting, he famously remarked Christ looked like an Italian opera singer, but complimented the artist on the authenticity of the background landscape.

Is this Holy Russia? One pair of mittens for all? People united in their misery?

If not, what is it?

“An idiosyncratic Russian path”, the Holy Russia believers say.
“What is so idiosyncratically Russian about it?”
“Oh, it is definitely not the American highway. Not the German autobahn. Not the English motorway.”
“All right, definition through negation, I can take that. But a path to where?”
“Erm…to the Holy Land”.
“A few dozen regular commercial airlines can take can you there.  Why do you need an idiosyncratic path?!”
“Oh, no”, they say uncertainly, “it is not in Israel, it will be built in Russia” – and then they adopt the forbidding no-more-stupid-questions facial expression that signals they have run out of answers.

Believers in Holy Russia can be otherwise quite normal folks, that is as long as they stay uncertain what is so special about Holy Russia that sets it apart from other countries or nations. It is normal to be unsure if you are racially or nationally superior to others, because this is what it is all about, the Holy vs. the Unholy. The moment someone exclaims, “Viva la God-Chosen Holy Russia!” they proclaim superiority of Russians over other nations. It’s very similar to the “Great Reich” concept, and not surprisingly it boils down to an identical set of sentiments, including genetic differences.

If you read through comments, posts, and public speeches of those who support Putin and his policies, a scathingly scary Holy Russia would emerge:

Holy Russia is the last bastion of spirituality, the last hope of Mankind, the Third Rome. Holy Russia is fighting a spiritual war against the gay oppression of mega-rich Jews who are puppeteers of the US government that controls European nations through the NATO. If Russia loses, the forsaken Humanity crumbles under the weight of gay marriages, consumerism, junk food, and Polish vodka. Oh, and twerking, since recently.

Sometimes, I wonder if Putin really wanted Russians to believe in this bullshit. He can’t be that evil. Anyway, his subjects, overdosing on Russian TV, view the outside world now as a maniac gay Jew with a strap-on nuclear warhead hungry for the riches of Siberian taiga where Putin’s metaphorical bear is peacefully plucking berries and picking mushrooms. The wicked Jew waits for the unsuspecting bear to stoop for another chanterelle, but the Russian bear is no fool. Its bottom is tight, and its claws are at the ready.

I didn’t invent the bear metaphor. It comes straight from Putin’s mouth.

I can’t imagine what life is like when you have that kind of worldview.

If you think this kind of delirium is incapable of seducing anyone but the most insane, you are in for a surprise. One of my neighbours in London, a Royal Prosecutor, is an ardent supporter of all these ideas, except perhaps the anti-Semitic part, which for him is his last remaining reality anchor. Or his get-out-of-jail card, hard to say.

If a Royal Prosecutor is tempted by this version of reality, who can blame the majority of Russians for buying into the myth? I know very intelligent men and women who believe everything the official propaganda feeds them 24/7. At that, they are certain they are the only ones whose eyes are not blinded by the US-controlled media. Wait. No. US Jews-controlled media.

Any dialogue with these people is impossible. It is an atheist-believer kind of argument that leads either nowhere or to “gnashing of teeth” and madness, because the same facts are always interpreted differently, just like in this famous joke:

A little old Christian lady comes out onto her porch every morning and shouts, “Praise the Lord!” And every morning the atheist next door yells back, “There is no God!” This goes on for weeks. “Praise the Lord!” yells the lady. “There’s no God!” responds the neighbour. As time goes by, the lady runs into financial difficulties and has trouble buying food. She goes out onto the porch and asks God for help with groceries, then says, “Praise the Lord!”

The next morning when she goes out onto the porch, there are groceries she asked for. Of course, she shouts, “Praise the Lord!” The atheist jumps out from behind a bush and says, “Ha! I bought these groceries. There is no God!”

The lady looks at him and smiles. She shouts, “Praise the Lord! Not only did you provide for me, Lord, you made Satan pay for the groceries!”

Still, almost as long as Russia exists, debates about Holy Russia keep raging on, leaving in its wake ruined friendships, families, lives, uncountable philosophical treatises, and artworks.

The main Moscow’s gallery of Russian art, the State Tretyakov Gallery, shows two paintings that have been a silent graphic illustration of the two sides of the loud debate on Holy Russia for more than a hundred years.

The first painting comes from the author of “Holy Russia”, Mikhail Nesterov, but I am sure you’ve already guessed as much. He had a very recognisable style.

The painting’s title is “In Russia. Soul of the people” and it shows a religious procession that unites people who embrace God without questioning, like the boy at the front, and those who give it some thought, like Leo Tolstoy at the back. This is the best of Russia heading for Holy Russia.

NesterovMV_NaRusi - small
Mikhail Nesterov. “In Russia. The soul of the people”. 1914-1916

If this is the soul of Russia, I want to know why there is no joy, no happiness, no smiling eyes, but only sad resolve and grim foreboding. I want to see Russia and Russians happy (not the dead drunk kind of happy, but soberly joyful).

Fragments from “In Russia. The soul of the people” by Mikhail Nesterov. 1914-1916

Do you believe this painting for a second? Do you believe a nation can hope for progress or at least move somewhere, anywhere from this transfixed state?

As I scan this painting, faces by face, I realise what’s good about it: it’s 100% false. You can breathe out, Russians are not like this collective golem, even though some of them may want this painting (together with the accompanying ideology of a God-chosen nation) to serve as a solemn decoration of a corrupt government.

I won’t surprise you now if I say that its author was a proud member of the Union of Russian People, a far-right party of hardline royalists that took active part in planning and executing Pogroms of Jews in Russia. Some later historians considered the Union as a forerunner of fascist movements in Italy and Germany.

The other painting, completed about 35 years before this one, is Ilya Repin’s “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”.

Kurskaya_korennaya - small
Ilya Repin. “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province”. 1880-1883

That’s the real thing, the true state of affairs. I am a bit surprised the Tretyakov Gallery hasn’t put it in the storeroom. It basically says, “you can say whatever you want about the god-choosiness and greatness of the spirit of Russia, but all you get is a replacement of true faith by false ecstasy”.

You don’t see any happy faces in this painting either, but what you get is a much broader spectrum of emotions than just Nesterov’s gravity.

Several men carry a platform with holy relics on it. Religion seems to be a burden for them, the kind of cross they have to carry their whole lives, but there’s no joy or promise in it for them.

Kurskaya_korennaya - P1
Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Right behind them, there’s a group of people of the most devoted kind, it’s a group of petty bourgeois who play an active role in parish life. One of them, perhaps, OD’ed on vodka and did something inappropriate for which he (or she?) is being punished by the mounted gendarme.

Kurskaya_korennaya - P2
Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

In Russia, stepping out of line, both literally and metaphorically has always been discouraged. And you can see that the line on both sides of the procession is maintained by bearded blokes proudly exhibiting a brass badge of office on their dark cloaks. They seem to be quite attentive.

In this small fragment, I can see rage, tiredness, indifference, boredom, and fake piety, sometimes combined inside a single person. What I can’t see is the joy of belief.

Further on, at a generous distance from the petty bourgeois group, the local rich and powerful walk in safe isolation from the other believers. The guard on the left won’t hesitate to hit you with the stick on the head if you dare to interfere with the golden lady he seems to be protecting.

Kurskaya_korennaya - P3
Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

Can you spot a believer here? Would true believers fence themselves off from other “classes”?

Yet, there is a single believer in this painting.

Kurskaya_korennaya - P4
Fragment from Ilya “Cross-bearing procession in the Kursk Province” by Ilya Repin. 1880-1883

The crippled boy who attempts to get closer to the sacred object carried in front of the procession. He is barred and pushed back by one of the guards.

This is Holy Russia without make-up, by a truly Russian artist who just couldn’t lie.

A modern-day procession in St.Petersburg

The drama of Russia is that whenever it purposely sets off on a journey to the Sacred Russia of Nesterov, it ends up in the sacrilegious Russia of Repin.

P.S. After the Revolution of 1917, Repin emigrated and refused to return, while Nesterov carved out a pretty good living for himself in the new atheist Russia, becoming a laureate of the Stalin’s Prize in 1935. Hypocritical paintings = hypocritical life.

P.P.S. Now is the right time to say “Happy Birthday” to the guy behind this blog )



  1. I love this. All of it. “standing ovation, seated.” everything in this world must be legitimized by how others view it. By standing, you legitimize something to be good. But good and bad are arbitrary and opposite, just like standing and seating. the juxtaposition between good and bad produce a stance of indifference, thus showing that they do not exist.

    1. Well,.. thank you, but I guess the intention was a bit simpler to the one you describe: to understand great (or not so great) works of art while relaxing at home ) Anyway, there’s certain truth in how you interpret it, too )

  2. This article was great and informative. I’m not very familiar with the mindsets of people in Russia and I had never heard of the concept of “Holy Russia.” I find it very interesting to think that they see their nation as the chosen one above all others and the world’s last hope (especially when their depictions of this “Holy Russia” seem so sad and oppressive.) I wonder the origins of this thinking? Some kind of deep-rooted nationalism?

    By the way, happy late birthday!

  3. Repin’s painting always makes me tearful, but putting it in perspective like this …
    Happy belated birthday and thank you for writing this blog!

  4. Happy (now slightly belated) birthday to you. Another very interesting post. I’ve long been a fan of Repin’s paintings. One of my favourites is the one of Ivan the Terrible, as a terrified, insane old man clutching the body of the son he’s just murdered. I used to have a very romantic idea of Russia – Tatiana Larina, Natasha Rostova etc etc – but have no desire to go there now. What’s happening now is both frightening and deeply saddening and my heart goes out to the ordinary, decent Russians who are facing life under a venal, cynical, kleptocratic dictatorship.

    1. Thank you!

      On Repin: a group of activists wants the gallery to remove Pepin’s Ivan the Terrible from public view because for them it is an insult to Russian history and patriots. So, you may want to reconsider your plans of not coming to Russia. Also… I understand Russia seems mad right now, both from the inside and outside, but I don’t think you should be punishing yourself for it )

  5. Excellent piece of writing I enjoyed your post on Holy Russia I didn’t know Nesterov but I had read about Illya Repin at the Beginning of the 20th Century by Camilla Gray’s excellent Book called The Russian Experiment in art 1863-1922 , I learnt more from that Book especially on Modern Russian Art like Malevich and the Constructivists.

  6. Excellent post! Putin does not distance church and state – I also sniff a little thinly veiled imperialism here as well…

    Tolstoy , hehehe!
    And a very Happy Birthday – May this coming year bring you all of your wishes coming true! 😀

  7. Il est dur et douloureux de s’affranchir du passé , un peuple amer et désorienté , et si la religion revient au devant de la scène, elle est bien sur téléguidé , pour mieux briser toute velléités , soumettre comme au temps des Tsars , Boyards et autres, n’oublions pas bien sur les dictateurs de tout poils , moustache , bouc , barbe , la liste est longue …!!!

  8. Very interesting article! It is sad and (mostly)scary to see how nationalist parties are getting more and more voters a bit all over Europe. I am afraid of what comes next….

    P.S.: I noticed I am still in time to wish you : Happy birthday !!!

    1. Thank you!
      The rise of Nationalism is an inevitable push-back reaction to the disappearance of naitonal states. There’s a set of policies to convert it into relatively peaceful movements, in theory. In practice, the problem is that politicians tend to not notice this rise until it’s too late.

      1. Yes, in theory. This parties are populist, they exploit fear, prejudice and ignorance of the common people to get where they want to. And of course it works, and quite fast! People feel represented by those parties and they are fed ideas that they don’t even understand completely, yet they support them; a bit like in the Frontier gibberish scene of Blazing Saddles ( I think it was you quoting Mel Brooks in an older post, if not, sorry!).
        What I find most threatening is the way those parties boost and spread intolerance against minorities creating big angry crowds, which are their strongest weapon.

  9. Perhaps you know that I’m italian and my english is not very good (I studied english at the school 50 years ago). I find very interesting all what you wrote.
    Have I good understand that it is your Birthday? If so I wish you a very Happy Birthday and a lot of Happy Days.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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