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Russian Icons in Religion Essay



The major religion in Russia is the Russian orthodoxy, though Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam are part of the religious legacy in Russia. In Russia, religion and political systems are very much interrelated in that, since time in memorial, religion especially the Orthodoxy and its icons have been shaping politics and the government through their influence on the Russian people.

These important roles of the icons led the Soviets to order their destruction during the revolution, highlighting their relevance in the history of Russia. From more than one thousand year since Prince Vladimir introduced the Orthodoxy to the people of Russia, icons have influenced a significant part of the history of Russia[1].

The first icons were introduced in the country from Constantinople, through the Byzantines the Greek icon painters and were able to work in Russia, eventually leading to emergence of groups of Russian icon painters.

It is believed that Prince Vladimir emissaries were very impressed by Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia icon, importing it together with the Byzantium’s artistic traditions of fine arts and Christianity[2]. With time, the Russia icon painter, following Byzantine art modules and styles modified the art and style, thus producing their own unique identity as icon painters.

Background of Russia icons

Andrei Rublev, one the most recognized “15th century Russian icon painters, brought a new style to Russian icon painting”[3]. His paintings including the icon Spas, or the Savior that brought a new style of painting characterized by “use of color and the attitude of serenity and humanity portrayed in the faces of the figures depicted”[4].

Rublev lived in a monastery with other monks with whom he developed this new style. Although new style developed the traditional Russia, icons mostly lacked individual pictorial taste and creativity that was found in the Western European countries. With the Western influence sweeping through Russia during the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church separated into the Conservatives (Old Believers) and the States Church (New Believers).

The Conservatives adhered to the traditional styles while the new believers accepted the Western art forms, leading to paintings reflecting personal feelings and reality and a mixture of Russia styled and Western styled icons. This development liberated the art of icon painting to some extent in Russia. From this point on, painters were able to include personal expression, add value, and modify the standard traditional styles, producing new icons but still being within the biblical references and the laid down tradition for the icon paintings.

During the era of Peter the Great in the 18th century, reverence to icons remained but there was sudden reduction in the art of icon painting due to influence of western arts. In the second half of the 20th century, interest in icons and icon painting increased and currently, there are several painters using the traditional styles of the old icon masters[5].

Majority of Russia icons are small wooden paintings with a few being made of copper; however, there are also bigger forms that are mainly found in churches and monasteries. Generally, the Russian icon tradition is more spiritual rather than the pictorial tradition of the Western Europe. In Russia, icons are intended to help in contemplative prayer by implying meditative harmony, inspiring reflection and self-examination, rather than emphasizing on the aesthetic value[6].

The role of Russia icons in religion and culture

Russia population consists of several minority ethnic groups spread all over the country. Around 79 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, with religion and ethnicity being well connected[7].

In addition, there persists a consensus among the traditional religions in Russia in that the Tartars are Muslim, the Burjaats are Buddhist, and Jews are Judaist[8]. Icons form a central part in the practices of the Russian Orthodox consequently influencing culture of the minority ethnics.

With religion influencing the community way of life, norms, and structures, the icons are destined to make much contribution towards the culture of these people. The Orthodoxy calendar controls major events of the people of Russia such as marriage, birth ceremonies, family relationships, and burial ceremonies.

In the Russian Orthodoxy, the material aspects of religion such as altars, icons, and relics are very valued over the theological aspects that are sometimes difficulty to grasp[9]. In creating of the icons, the icon painters are very keen to create icons that will impart religious aspects and theological ideas to people reflective of the scripture messages.

Generally, the Orthodoxy services involve use of ‘the beauty of God’s Creation, the beauty of the Uncreated Light, the beauty of the choir, the liturgy, the icons and the incense to communicate the religious lessons in similar fashion the sermon or word based services preach the gospel’[10]. This practice of Orthodox venerating the spiritual and visible aspects of icons as always has been a subject of criticism from other Protestants and other religions.

Homes are essential parts of communities and human life. In the Russian tradition, icons have a special designated place in the house for home rituals: ‘newborn were touched to them, people were blessed with icon before a wedding, a journey, becoming a soldier, and before the icons people swore blood-brotherhood oaths or made vows to God’s name’[11].

At home, people prayed standing facing the special place called the red corner or beautiful corner (krasnyi ugol) which is the eastern or southeastern corner of the hut or house[12]. Sometimes, they were placed facing the closest church and in this place, were two wooden shelves or a cabinet. The icons could never be hanged on a wall; they have to be placed on a shelf in observance of the Orthodox traditions.

The shelves were decorated with embroidered clothes without covering the face of the saints on the icons. In addition, the icons were placed in a defined order on the shelf that sometimes reflected the event or purpose for which the icons will be venerated. For example, an icon of Holy Spirit is kept at the centre of Christ on the right, that of Mother of God on the left and those of apostles behind them. A lamp or a candle is also placed in the red corner to illuminate the icon(s).

The icons displayed at home were sometimes customized for personal use by including picture of a specific saint, the owner is named after, or a relative is named after, besides the main icon figure. Due to presence of icons, a Christian home served as a form of a church blessed by the sacred icons. In the churches, icons are kept in special palaces called iconostasis.

One of the traditions of the Russian Orthodox is the consecration of icons. The consecration involves performing special prayers and blessing the icon with the holy water. The icons are consecrated to become holy, thus possessing power that is more spiritual. The consecrated icons are highly regarded and that is why they are kept in the special places.

The consecrated icons are believed to possess spiritual power and some are associated with special miracle works. For example, the miraculous case involving the Passion icon of the Mother of God that occurred in Moscow on 20 February 1547 in which houses were burning in Kitai-Gorod and only a single wooden house containing the passion icon was left intact in the entire region[13].

The Russian icons are worshipped through kissing them, bowing in front of them, and saying special prayers. It is believed that, in worshipping them, you are worshiping the figure painted on them for intercession. These figures are mostly saints, apostles, and exalted Russian priest. In addition, these figures are associated with unique powers to intercede in specific instances and are prayed for specific needs. For example, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker icon is prayed to offer protection and surveillance to people who are traveling.

In the soviet era, when religion was prohibited in Russia icons, most icons were hidden in the safety of peoples’ homes and the famous Russian Orthodox icons regarded as artifacts were kept in the historical museums. After this period, people uncovered their icons and currently, there are numerous Russian icons and Orthodoxy paintings in the churches and cathedrals.

The Russian icons form essential part of the Russian culture, so people visiting Russian churches and museums have an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the Russian culture. In summation, the Russian icons are mainly for religious purposes but they also form part of the Russian culture and they are regarded as unique artistic works and historical relics[14].

The role of Russian icons during the revolution

In the history of Russia, there have been two major revolutions: the 1905 revolution and the 1917 revolution. Since religion and the politics were very much integrated in the Russian set up, the role of the Russian icons in the revolution can be clearly understood by first understanding the causes and the outcomes of these revolutions.

The 1905 revolution

The 1905 Russian Revolution began with a peaceful protest on January 22 “led by a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Gapon, 150,000 people took to the cold and snow covered streets of St Petersburg to protest about their lifestyle”[15]. Through the protest, they were petitioning the tsar Nicholas II to help them regarding their condition. Surprisingly, Nicholas ordered the soldiers and the police to shoot the unarmed masses and eventually hundreds were killed or wounded, and the day was named the Black Sunday[16].

What ensued from these events was series of workers strikes and public protests throughout the country. In October 1905, a general strike took place paralyzing all activities in Russia; consequently, Nicholas yield to pressure and agreed to form Duma (parliament). Indeed, Formation of Duma cooled the situation for some but Nicholas continued gradually limiting the powers of Duma leading to the events of the next revolution.

The push to the 1905 revolution was due to rapid socio-economic changes, suffering witnessed during tsar monarchy and craving for more freedom, religion played a major role in enhancing the success of the cause. First, the protest was led by a Russian Orthodox pries, signifying religion was at forefront in advocating for change.

Secondly, the Russian icons formed a crucial portion in the petition protest and the resulting strikes as witnessed during that period ‘… a great demonstration for Sunday, January 9, 1905; workers would march to the Winter Palace, carrying religious icons, and portraits of Nicholas, to present a petition asking for redress of grievances’[17].

Lastly, with religion being intertwined with the protests, people would express their religion through prayer for their grievances and by kissing and bowing to Russian icons to seek help from the saints.

The 1917 revolution

After the 1905 revolution, the economy of Russia continued to deteriorate, with famine striking the country and Russia was losing the battle with Germans. The tsar was making wrong decisions such as firing several prominent leaders from the Duma and replacing them with unsuitable ones.

People believed that the tsar decisions were very much influenced by a mysterious Siberian monk named Grigory Rasputin[18]. In December 1916, people within the Palace murdered Rasputin in order to stop revolution from occurring. In late February 1917, the Russian people revolted, and following the revolt in March 15, a provisional government was established with Prince George Lvov as the leader.

Several soviets held a meeting to discuss the government’s progress; however, prior to this meeting, the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin were gaining popularity especially among the workers and during the meeting, they advocated for the power to be added over to the soviets[19].

In July 1917, an uprising failed, with the revolutionaries being arrested. Lenin, a Marxist, fled the country to Finland and Alexander Kerensky replaced Lvov as the prime minister. From that time, the push for revolution continued and in October 25, another revolt was staged[20]. Kerensky fled the palace and Lenin ascended to power. Unlike other revolts, the Lenin October revolution was well planned and there was no bloodshed or destructions.

In period following Lenin October revolution, the Russian Civil War began between the communists and other groups opposed to communism. The communists won in 1922 founding the Soviet Union and Lenin died in 1923. The Communist Party continued to rule up to 1991, marking the disintegration of the USSR.

The Lenin October Revolution marked the beginning of the communism in Russia. The communist government was much based on the Karl Marx principles and it immediately banned religion, as it believed religion was opium for the poor. From this point onwards, Soviets declared war on religion, with many icons set for destruction, others were lost forever, and others were saved or spared like the Rublev’s Spas[21]. Moreover, the Lenin faces become the face of communism replacing the place for the icons.

Marxism played a crucial role in banning of religion as it was characterized with aggressive commitment to atheism and scientific materialism, rejecting all religions[22]. During the period of revolution, the Bolsheviks ensured that Russia’s spiritual underground did not play a crucial part to Lenin’s revolutionary cause. Later, the government changed its policy on religion and icons became public through personal displays and museums.


Anon. . interKnowledge Corp. 2005. Web.

Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam. Religion and Politics in Russia: A Reader. NY: M.E. Sharpe. 2009.

Forster, Matt. “The Russian Revolution.” Russian Revolution, p1-1, 1p, 2009. Web.

HistoryLearningSite. , 2011. Web.

Kivelson, Valerie and Greene, Robert. Orthodox Russia: belief and practice under the tsars. PA: Penn State Press, 2003.

Kubilius, Kerry. These Orthodox Paintings are Significant to Religion and Culture. 2009. Web.

Olga’s Gallery. . 2002. Web.

Pickel, Gert and Müller, Olaf. Church and religion in contemporary Europe: results from empirical and comparative research. Berlin: VS Verlag, 2009.

Vladimir, Soloviev. Occult Roots of the Russian Revolution, 2009. Web.

Wade, Rex. The Russian Revolution, 1917. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


  1. Olga’s Gallery. Russian Icons. 2002.
  2. Kerry Kubilius, These Orthodox Paintings are Significant to Religion and Culture. 2009.
  3. Kerry Kubilius, These Orthodox Paintings are Significant to Religion and Culture. 2009.
  4. Kerry Kubilius, These Orthodox Paintings are Significant to Religion and Culture. 2009. .
  5. Olga’s Gallery. Russian Icons. 2002.
  6. Anon. Russian Art & Architecture. interKnowledge Corp. 2005.
  7. Pickel, Gert and Müller, Olaf. Church and religion in contemporary Europe: results from empirical and comparative research. (Berlin: VS Verlag, 2009), p. 56.
  8. Gert Pickel and Olaf Müller, 2009, ibid.
  9. Valerie Kivelson and Robert Greene, Orthodox Russia: belief and practice under the tsars. (PA: Penn State Press, 2003), p. 10.
  10. Valerie Kivelson and Robert Greene, 2003, ibid.
  11. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, Religion and Politics in Russia: A Reader. (NY: M.E. Sharpe. 2009), p. 20.
  12. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, 2009, ibid.
  13. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, 2009, ibid.
  14. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, 2009, ibid.
  15. HistoryLearningSite. The 1905 Russian Revolution, 2011.
  16. Matt Forster, “The Russian Revolution.” Russian Revolution, p1-1, 1p, 2009.
  17. Rex Wade, The Russian Revolution, 1917. (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 13.
  18. Matt Forster, 2009, ibid.
  19. Matt Forster, 2009, ibid.
  20. Matt Forster, 2009, ibid.
  21. Kerry Kubilius, These Orthodox Paintings are Significant to Religion and Culture. 2009.
  22. Soloviev Vladimir, Occult Roots of the Russian Revolution, 2009.
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