What is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of medieval Russia? The visual images we associate with it can be as important for public history as factual knowledge. Similar to knights in Western Europe, Russian medieval epics depict a warrior guarding the Russian borders from enemies and mythical monsters — bogatyr, featured in films, cartoons, advertising, and popular art and crafts. Elizaveta Berezina discusses how the Soviet-era lacquer miniature has invented its own version of ancient Russia.
A multitude of competing images have been used to represent Russia's medieval history in the collective consciousness. Thus, Viktor Vasnetsov's Bogatyrs and The Knight at the Crossroads compete not only with Ivan Bilibin's historical artwork but also with cartoon characters from the Three Bogatyrs animated film series, produced by the Melnitsa Studios in the early 2000s. In contrast to the Soviet-era canonical images of bogatyrs as idealistic symbols of military valour and selfless labour, the more recent take on this cultural construct shows them as human beings with the associated weaknesses, doubts and temptations.
According to some researchers, Soviet society's perception of the past was greatly influenced by epic revisionism, i.e. the reinterpretation of historical events and personalities so they could be used for patriotic mobilisation. Soviet-era heroification of medieval Russia around the theme of the bogatyr was a manifestation of such epic revisionism, emphasising a continuity between the country's heroic past and its glorious Soviet present. ‘A Soviet man is a fairy-tale bogatyr living in our time. He is unstoppable ... making miracles happen not in a fairy tale but in real life’ ( Izvestia , July 14, 1937) — such rhetoric routinely accompanied newspaper stories of labour and the military achievements of the Soviet people.
The image of a warrior defending his country was particularly called for in the late 1930s and the 1940s. Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Sergei Eisenstein was one of the central Soviet films of that time, and it took a relatively commonplace, according to historian Igor Danilevsky, 13th-century military episode to an epic scale echoing the old Russian sagas. The cinematographic portrait of Prince Alexander Nevsky, noble and fearless, proved so convincing and rooted in historical memory that 70 years later, viewers of The Name of Russia TV project chose Alexander Nevsky as the most ‘appreciated, notable and symbolic personality in Russian history’ from the 500 nominated names.
The big screen was not the only medium for portraying the heroic image of a ‘defender of the Russian land’. Lacquer miniatures, a unique art form of a much smaller scale, has also contributed in a major way to society's perception of its medieval past. Recognised as a type of applied art in the Soviet Union, it involved hand painting on decorative items made of wood, papier-mâché or metal. Lacquer art usually features acomplex composition, ornamental design, bright colours and intricate details.
The first known Russian lacquer miniatures date back to the late 18th century when painted snuffboxes came into fashion. The first factories producing lacquer items appeared in St. Petersburg, and Moscow and its metropolitan area, where former employees of the Lukutin factory, famous in the 19th century, started the Fedoskino Artel in 1910, which later became a factory which still continues to this day.
Lacquer art workshops were set up in the villages of Palekh, Mstera and Kholui in the late 1920s and early 1930s, replacing major pre-Communist icon-painting centres. Soviet artists and art historians, in an effort to save the jobs of former icon painters, advocated for employing their skills to create ‘useful art for the proletariat’. The miniaturists began painting new Soviet-era images in the traditional iconographic style. One can see a striking similarity between lacquer art and Orthodox icons in the movement of figures and in the elaborate details of the artwork.
In their lacquer miniatures, artists were often instructed by supervising Soviet authorities to depict historical scenes in a way designed to ‘maintain public confidence in the historical causality of a happy present and beautiful future’.* The collective imagery of miniature art shaped popular perceptions of both Russian imperial and Soviet history and offered a visual language for expressing them.
The historical focus of miniature art increased dramatically during World War II. Both legendary and real battles of the past were depicted to glorify the ‘Russian people's fight for their homeland’. Miniatures of that period often featured scenes from the Russian Middle Ages, including Prince Igor Svyatoslavovich’s campaign against the Polovtsy (based on The Tale of Igor's Campaign ), the Battle of the Ice, the Battle of Kulikovo, and others.
Today, this decorative artwork offers an insight into the Soviet people's interpretation of historical events. Since miniature artists were not historians, their work was based on ideas learned from books, newspapers, films and sightseeing tours. More than visual propaganda clichés, this artwork offers a unique reflection of the artists' sublime historical experience – a term used by historian, philosopher and author Frank Ankersmit to describe the experience of trying to bridge the gap between past and present through historical knowledge.
An illustration from the Russian Bogatyrs series (1942) by Evgeny Pashkov (1920–2002), a student of the first Palekh masters, offers an insight into the ideological significance of the merging of past and present. The painting combines two different epochs and wars: the battle on the ice of Lake Peipus (Chudskoye) led by Alexander Nevsky against the Livonian Order knights (1242) and the battle of Soviet soldiers against the Nazi troops. The date of the painting, the Spasskaya Tower in the upper right corner, numerous tanks and the soldiers' winter uniforms suggest that the artist refers to the battle for Moscow (1941–1942). An imaginary axis running from the upper left to the lower right corner connects two figures: that of a Russian Prince raising his sword to kill an enemy and that of a Soviet cavalryman in the same pose threatening a cartoon Nazi. An ancient Russian warrior armed with a battle axe rhymes visually with a Soviet soldier using a bayonet rifle. As described above, the message encoded here seeks to create an image of the Soviet people as warriors whose strength against enemies stems from the glorious history of their ancestors.
Defenders of the Russian Land: 1103-1942 by Ivan Serebryakov (1888–1967, a miniaturist of the Mstera style, provides another example of a popular interpretation of history. Painted in 1947, this miniature uses what cultural scientist Ilya Kukulin describes as 'rhyming montage', i.e. representation of 'different historic episodes as structurally similar, or "rhyming"'. Here, the defence of Moscow from the Nazis is associated with the ancient battle on the Suten River where the combined forces of several Russian princes defeated the Polovtsi offensive. Apparently, the idea of combining forces to fight a shared enemy is the main theme connecting the past and the present. Three cavalrymen lead both forces, Old Russian and Soviet. The Soviet cavalrymen's horses look like they have been transported from the past, their patterned harness resembling that of the ancient warriors' horses.
There are more examples of historical inaccuracy, such as the medieval regimental banner with the face of Christ on it: according to historical evidence, such banners were first used much later, in the 14th century.
Even less likely is the use of Stalin's profile on the Soviet army's flag. Perhaps the artist adopted this detail from S. Bondar's poster For Our Victory, Forward! (1941), or from V. Andreev's drawing published in Pravda on May 9, 1945, or made a visual representation of the Soviet propaganda phrase 'under Stalin’s banner'. Rather than dismiss these details as mistakes by the artist, one can explore them as an approach used by the author to emphasise the sacred nature of Stalin's cult by visualising the propaganda-constructed image of Stalin as an omnipotent and omnipresent ruler.
Yet another example of a 'historical kaleidoscope' can be found in Anthem of the Soviet Union (1945), a miniature by Sergei Mokin (1891-1945) from Kholui. One can see, standing behind Stalin, not only heroes from the Russian Middle Ages but more recent commanders who, according to the lyrics of the 1944–1956 State Anthem written by S. Mikhalkov and G. El-Registan, 'in battle decided the fate of generations', such as Suvorov and Kutuzov. A year earlier, another Kholui artist, Konstantin Kosterin (1899-1985), created a less complex miniature around the same theme, with an Old Russian warrior and a Red Army soldier pictured in front of Lenin and Stalin who are standing on a raised platform. By looking closer, one can see behind the rays of the red star — or, as the anthem goes, 'the sun of freedom shining through tempests' — more figures, including two men recognized by art historians as Dmitry Pozharsky and Kuzma Minin, and another one on horseback, unidentified.
Conveying current ideological messages was not the sole reason why Soviet miniature artists used images from the Russian Middle Ages. Since depicting 'olden days' in epic or fairytale contexts enabled full use of the style's decorative techniques, miniaturists often chose historical themes in artwork intended for contests or exhibitions.
According to artist and teacher Nikolay Dmitriev, historic subjects helped artists to fully 'reveal the brilliance of their mastery of the art'. Dmitriev advises young miniaturists to adhere to three principles to maximise this effect:
'immerse themselves in the event they are depicting', learn about the era and try to 'feel' it;
choose an interesting theme and create a story about it;
'focus on the figurative and poetic aspects of their creation'.
The 1934 edition of The Tale of Igor's Campaign illustrated in the Palekh style emphasises the unity of form and content. Ivan Golikov (1887–1937), in addition to designing the book and creating ten miniatures on plates to be used as illustrations, also penned the entire text in half-running hand, an Old Slavonic script. In his essay about Golikov, writer and cultural historian Porudominsky quotes the art critic Zhidkov who knew Golikov personally.
Responding to remarks about a lack of 'historical authenticity' in Golikov's artwork, Zhidkov said, 'the artist was not trying to imitate the twelfth or any other century's style: instead, he painted things which excited him in his own manner — the Golikov manner', thus creating his unique vision of the past.
Miniatures can contribute to our understanding of how medieval history was perceived in Soviet times. While the famous pieces of artwork reviewed here were not offered to mass market customers, they were made public via exhibitions, printed catalogues, books and postcards, forming part of the country's visual culture. By copying the best work, novice artists assimilated not only the style and technique but also the complex system of meanings encoded in the images and then reproduced it in their own creations.
While artists had to keep within the limits of the Soviet cultural canon, which allowed only certain officially endorsed historic events and personalities to be portrayed, miniature paintings still expanded the viewers' imagination and guided mass perceptions of the country's history.
By featuring the past, even within the permitted limits, miniature artists — many of whom had fought in Word War II — were able to create the glorious patriotic compositions required of them despite their own painful and traumatic real-life experience of war, which remained hidden, just like the dark lacquer background underneath the images of brave warriors and victorious battles of the medieval past.
*(All-Russia Museum of Decorative, Applied and Folk Art, Collection A-643. Archives of the Research Institute of the Art Industry, Ref. 4. D. 272. Rosova, Contemporary Soviet themes in the works of folk artists and artisans, manuscript, page 34).