Russia Redux – Image is Everything

Russia has a very special relationship with its past. All nations have a selective memory when it comes to serving their nationalistic needs, but Russian revisionism is an art form Leni Riefenstahl must have envied. The Soviets mastered it and modern Russia is certainly reviving this creative spirit.

Last spring, taking the lead (or the order) from Putin, President Medvedev created a History Commission, to counter any unfair or untrue appraisals of Russian history, especially during WWII. And the revisionism is not only top down. As part of what seems like an effort to strengthen and reassert Russian society, Russians themselves appear especially eager to rehabilitate even their most ruthless villains (the ruthlessness is undoubtedly part of the charm). In a nationwide contest last year for “Greatest Russian,” Stalin fared frighteningly well, third from the top, ahead of Pushkin and Catherine the Great (Alexander Nevsky beat him and Pyotr Stolypin by a small margin).

But as Leni Riefenstal, Sergei Eisentein, and the clever men they served, well understood, it is images that are most effective at recreating reality, at impressing a more a agreeable and convenient version of past and present. Especially in a nation reared on religious icons and Socialist Realism posters, the savvy manipulation of images has always gone hand in hand with effective state control.

In this month’s ARTnews, Konstantin Akinsha writes about the evolution of the portrayal of two of Russia’s oldest and holiest heroes — Saints Boris and Gleb, depicted countless times over the centuries in gorgeous gold-plated icons. The two achieved martyrdom in the 11th Century by refusing to preempt an assasination plot by their fratricidal brother to claim the throne. They accepted their fate without a fight. This legacy can be seen in icons from the few centuries subsequent to their death, where they stand side by side, peacefully. However, by the war-scarred 15th century, this serene, somewhat fragile depiction did not suit Russian ambition and reality – newer, more appropriate depicitions made warriors of the brothers – now depicted on horseback, ready to lead their men into battle.

Boris & Gleb

With the resurgence of the Orthodox Church as part of Russia’s reassertion of its identity as strong and fearless, iconography of its martyrs and saints has regained importance. A current show at the Louvre called “Holy Russia,” provides ample proof, including the fact that the director of the Louvre sought the church’s blessings and support for the exhibition (even though nearly all of the objects were borrowed from public museums).

Seizing on the power of the image and the power of the church, Putin’s tinkering with the legacy of Boris and Gleb should then come as no surprise. According to Akinsha, last year during a visit to the studio of a famous Russian artist, Putin set his sights on an image of Boris & Gleb and declared, “We have to fight for ourselves, for our country, but Boris and Gleb sacrificed themselves without a fight. They can’t set an example for us.”

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