Missing the Icon: Our Remarkable Trip to Vladimir, Russia During the Russian Crisis of 1993

On Friday, October 9, 1993, just four days after government T-80 tanks had shelled the Russian Parliament building, killing staff and destroying many offices, we flew from San Francisco to Moscow. The government of President Boris Yeltsin had successfully resisted a political coup by the hard-line Parliament, and with the assistance of the Army, had blasted the legislators out of their building, known as the White House. The Russian capital was under a curfew, and anyone caught on the streets from 10 pm to 5 am would be arrested.

I had travelled to Moscow with Sam Trull, a professor at San Francisco State University’s School of Business, who had been invited to Russia by the mayor of the ancient city of Vladimir, to assist in revitalizing the city’s economy. While I had lived in Moscow and travelled there many times, I hadn’t been in Russia for two years, and I was nervous; as we were preparing to leave on our trip, the country seemed on the brink of civil war.

As we drove by on Friday, the top floors of the parliament building were still blackened from the smoke and flames. Onlookers wandered around outside the barricades that had been erected around the building, like tourists visiting the site of an earthquake or fire. We got out and took photos, like vacationers in front of a historical monument. But what we saw wasn’t history; this was happening in front of our eyes, and it was scary.

Returning the Sacred Icon — What an Idea

When I told her of my upcoming trip, my wife Andrea brightened instantly and said, “Vladimir! That’s the city of the famous icon. You can help them return the icon to Vladimir!” For the past 600 years, the Vladimir icon has actually been kept in Moscow, but it was so strongly associated with the ancient city in the north of Russia that the name has remained. As we prepared to board our flight at the San Francisco airport, Andrea told her idea to Sam, and he liked it. “It would have tremendous appeal to visitors,” she said, “and especially to orthodox Christians.” Christianity is a thousand years old in Russia; it had been suppressed under Soviet rule but was rapidly regaining popularity since the end of the Soviet Union just 2 years earlier. We didn’t know if Andrea’s idea would be met with enthusiasm, skepticism or indifference.

“Let’s see what the people say in Vladimir,” I said, tentatively. “At least we could go to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and see the painting for ourselves. If nothing else, we would enjoy a wonderful work of art.” But I think privately, I was already conceding defeat. Securing the return of the icon seemed too ephemeral a notion, almost superstitious in this day and age. I just didn’t think Russians would take it seriously.

But I had to admit that the notion of returning the icon of Vladimir to its home city was an intriguing one. Before the revolution of 1917, every Russian orthodox home had icons placed in corners of the house with candles burning before them in permanent veneration. The Vladimir icon has been cherished throughout Russian history, and had even been carried at the front of Russian armies going into battle. It was credited by many Russians with saving the Motherland from destruction at turning points in Russian history, where disaster was miraculously averted, seemingly through divine intervention.

The Role of the Icon in Russian History

Throughout medieval Russian history, icons of the saints and of Christ were virtually the only form of painting allowed; while Europe enjoyed the splendors of the Renaissance, in Russia, secular painting was forbidden. As a result, icons in Russia were treated with reverence; and the most deeply cherished, especially in the Russian north, were icons of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Of all Russian icons, the Vladimir icon of the Virgin and Child is the greatest and most loved. It expresses a feminine tenderness and sorrow that are deeply moving and very spiritual. The icon was probably painted in Byzantium in the twelfth century, then taken to the city of Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine at that time the center of the Russian state. Soon after, it was taken north to the growing city of Vladimir by prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy, who used the icon and all it represented to re-establish the center of the Kievan state in Vladimir. The icon was soon revered, and many Russian painters, such as the famous Andrey Rublev, painted similar icons in its honor. In the late fifteenth century, under threat of attack from the Mongol armies, the icon was transferred to Moscow for safe keeping, where it has remained to this day, in the magnificent Tretyakov Gallery of Russian Art.

Despite the secularization of the Soviet state after the revolution, I knew that the power of the icon in Russian culture had, to some degree, continued, even prior to the liberalization of the Gorbachev era in the late 1980’s. Even among modern, secular Soviets, there remained an appreciation of the icon as an art form and essential element of Russian cultural history.

I learned about this first-hand while living and working in Moscow in 1990, working for Apple Computer. My primary task was to manage the translation of our computer software into Russian, a process known as localization. It involves translation, not just of words but also concepts, cultural norms and other culturally significant content. One of the trickiest challenges we had to resolve was translating the English word icon, which means the graphic image of a computer file on screen. Yuri, who managed our Russian engineering team, said, “In Russian, the word icon has too much religious meaning.” We eventually chose a different word, kartinka, which means a small picture and has none of the loaded spiritual significance.

Welcome to Vladimir, Russia

The icon was in still in my mind as we drove out of Moscow on Sunday, October 11. Russian troops still were stationed at checkpoints on all the highways, checking identity papers of people coming into town. We headed East, towards Vladimir, 120 miles away. We drove through the rolling Russian countryside, the highway lined with wooden houses, occasional churches, wide fields and birch forests. Leaving Moscow brings the traveler in contact with another Russia, less modern, less frenetic, more traditional and unchanging.

We saw many armored vehicles of the elite Kantemir Division, travelling in the opposite direction; we heard they had offered their support to Yeltsin, though it was unclear how committed they were. But the troop buildup indicated there was less likely to be trouble.

Regardless, we were out of Moscow and in a very different part of Russia. When we arrived in Vladimir, my mood was different, more open, and curious as to what we would find.

What we found was impressive. The city of Vladimir is 800 years old, rich in history and art and architecture, and the city fathers were energetic in wanting to capitalize on their historical treasures and create a tourist industry. The location is scenic: the main cathedral and church, the Uspenskiy Sobor and Church of the Dormition, stand on a hilltop overlooking the countryside, capped with gold-leafed cupolas that shine with splendor in the fall sunshine. On Moscow Avenue, the main street, the famous golden gates of Vladimir still bear a medieval sturdiness and power, welcoming traders from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, as they have for eight centuries. Inside the cathedral, visitors can view the murals painted by Rublev, Russia’s greatest icon painter, and other treasures that could readily attract tourists and pilgrims from around the world.

After an initial tour, we set to work on Monday morning with the city officials, and during one of our meetings, Sam mentioned the idea of returning the icon of Vladimir to the city for whom she is named. The mayor reacted with a politician’s frustration at such a wonderful but politically difficult suggestion. “Well, that’s a great idea,” he said, “but there are at least three authorities who would have to agree to such a decision — the patriarch of the Russian orthodox church, the city of Moscow, and the Russian federal government. If you can think of a way to get all of them to agree, fine. But I don’t know what it will take.” We tabled the discussion and went on to other matters.

The negotiations that week went well, but slowly, and we ended our meetings in Vladimir feeling worn. The amount of work it would take to help get the city on its feet economically was intimidating.

We spent some time visiting local industries. One was a former collective farm that had been privatized. The canning equipment they said was from the 1930s — worn but still operative. Potatoes that had been harvested were kept over the Winter in long trenches, cut into the earth and covered with straw, as they had been for hundreds of years.

Vladimir has many glorious sites from the 12th century, including the vast Dormition Cathedral, or Uspenskiy Sobor. For inspiration, we also drove out into the countryside to see the marvelous and tiny Church of the Intercession of the Virgin on the Nerli, also a 12th-century masterpiece in delicate white stone. Russia is full of such remarkable sights, some enormous and grand, and some small and magical.

But we knew it would take something magical to help revive an economy that had been held back for so long.

“She is resting.”

On Thursday, we drove back to Moscow for a few days before returning home to the Bay Area, so we had some free time. On Saturday, Sam said, “Let’s go see the Vladimir icon.” We made arrangements with a friend, Sergey, to drive us the next day across town to the Tretyakov Gallery.

It was raining on Sunday, our last day in Russia. Many Russians were out of town, at their country dachas. The curfew was still in effect, so Moscow was quiet and there were few people on the streets, especially for a Sunday afternoon.

We drove to the Tretyakov, its turn-of-the-century building then under extensive renovation, and paid our 100-ruble entrance fee (about a dime). The clerk handed each of us a string of 10 paper tickets, each ticket worth 10 rubles. Because the ongoing inflation had eroded the value of the ruble so quickly, public establishments like museums could not reprint tickets fast enough to reflect the new prices.

Our stream of paper tickets in hand, we entered the first hall; we were surrounded by dozens of stunning Russian medieval icons. Masterpieces by Russia’s greatest painters, icons from the cities of Novgorod, Pskov, Moscow and Kiev filled the room. The oldest were encased in two-inch-thick clear Plexiglas cases for safety and climate control. Around the hall, dozens of quiet, intense Russians were studying the legacy of their country’s ancient past. I caught site of the famous Virgin of the Don, and Rublev’s masterpiece in blue and gold, the Old Testament Trinity. But I didn’t see the Virgin of Vladimir.

I noticed a middle-aged Russian woman, apparently a docent, instructing some visitors where to find something they were looking for. I listened for a while as she spoke; she appeared to know the story of every masterpiece in the gallery. So I approached her and asked, “Can you tell me where we can find the Virgin of Vladimir?” She pointed behind me, and said, “There, there is the great icon by Rublev.”

I looked at it, a lovely version of the Vladimir icon that Rublev had painted in the late fourteenth century. “No,” I replied, “I mean the old, original Virgin of Vladimir, the holy one from Kiev and Byzantium.”

“Ah,” she sighed. “That one is not here. She is resting now.” She gestured to the one Plexiglas enclosure that was empty. Inside the case were instruments to record and control temperature and humidity, essential to preserving the wood and oil of the ancient painting. But the icon was gone.

I stared at her, stunned. Our efforts all week had been frustrating, and now we were facing another disappointment. Every one of the great icons was there, in place, except the one we had come to see. I started to laugh at the irony, but caught myself, and asked, “What exactly do you mean, she is ‘resting’?”

“Last week,” she said, “our patriarch, Aleksey II, performed a holy service in the cathedral, and then carried her in a procession through the streets of Moscow. Thousands of people came out to see her. It was very hot, and humid, and she is very tired. So now, she is resting.” She looked at me calmly, with wide, innocent eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, and my face must have shown my bewilderment.

“She is very old, you know,” the woman told me.

The docent explained that the patriarch, as head of the Russian orthodox church, had volunteered to try to broker an agreement between the Yeltsin government and the Parliament, and he spent several days going back and forth between them, searching for a compromise. When the crisis escalated to gunfire, the patriarch turned to the Virgin of Vladimir, and led a procession in her honor through the streets of Moscow on a sunny October afternoon.

“You know,” she told me, her voice rising, “If it hadn’t been for the Virgin, many, many more people would have been killed. When the shooting started, we all were terribly afraid of a civil war. But it quickly stopped, and it was the work of the Virgin. She prevented the bloodshed from getting out of control. If not for her, thousands could have died.”

I stared at this intelligent, honest Russian face, and I realized that she was absolutely sincere. There was no cleverness or hint of irony in her words or her face. The Virgin had been taken out of the cool, detached environment of an art gallery, out on to the streets, no longer just a work of art, but once again a powerful spiritual symbol, to guide the people of Russia away from disaster, and once more to save the nation from ruin.

We thanked her and walked outside into the light drizzle, and I looked around at the great city of Moscow, calm now, but only days before on the brink of a terrible calamity. I thought about the docent and her story of the Virgin of Vladimir and how the power of the icon had averted a civil war.

The Accumulation of Spiritual Energies

We flew back to San Francisco the next day, and I quickly located my copy of The Icon and the Axe, a cultural history of Russia by James Billington. In discussing the role of the icon in Russian history, he notes that “the extraordinary development of icon painting and veneration in thirteenth and fourteenth century Russia occurred during a period of weakened political authority.” Billington quotes the historian Vladimir Zenkovsky, who said that Russia, in those times, experienced “the accumulation of spiritual energies during long silence.”

I thought of how I had felt a very real spiritual energy in the presence of the Russian docent, who calmly explained to us how history had been altered by the appearance of a sacred image on the streets of Moscow. I was sorry that I had not been on those streets to witness and stand with the crowd that had come out to see the icon, and perhaps to pray to it, for deliverance. It would have been an extraordinary experience.

November, 2016: It is now 23 years later and Russia has changed in many ways and yet in others, it remains eternal. What I concluded, when I first drafted this memoir in 1993, was the following:

Now, it is the late twentieth century, and President Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected leader, has forced a crisis that is likely to prove a turning point in Russia’s long and difficult history. Yeltsin may have only postponed the dissolution of his government; or perhaps he will now reassert control and begin market reforms and start building the democratic political structures that will assure Russia’s stability and prosperity into the next century. I don’t know, and I doubt anyone knows.

But for some Russians, the day was saved in October, 1993, by an 800-hundred-year old icon that someday, perhaps with our help, can be returned to the holy city whose name she still bears.

© David E. Gleason 1993 & 2016

Silicon Valley local. Content creator in computer software: SaaS, Internet, media and mobile.

Silicon Valley local. Content creator in computer software: SaaS, Internet, media and mobile.