Artist: Unknown—Copy of Theophan the Greek
Title: Copy of the Icon of the Donskoi Mother of God
Date: Modern copy of 14th century icon
Provenance: Purchased as a souvenir by EAH by at the Donskoi Monastery in Moscow in 2011.
In the spring of 2011, I visited Moscow for the first time in nearly twenty years to conduct research for my dissertation. I was writing about the influx of Italian architects into Muscovy (as it was called since there was no “Russia” at the time) in the fifteenth century. These architects helped build the Kremlin and many of the most iconic monuments in Moscow. Moreover, I argued, the mingling of cultures helped a new distinctly Muscovite style emerge at the end of the fifteenth century.
So in 2011 I flew to Moscow, a vague itinerary in hand along with a letter from my advisor to give me access to the state archives. My Russian was quite limited. I wasn’t even really sure why I was going, aside from seeing these buildings in person. It was all a bit daunting.
The last time I had been to Moscow was in the years just after the end of the Soviet Union. I visited for a few weeks in the summer of 1992. But before that, in the final years of communist Russia, Moscow had been my home. Just as surely as Central Illinois was my home.
My parents moved there in the summer of 1979, just months before I was born. I was born in Helsinki (for the sake of the hospitals), but my family lived in Moscow where my dad was working as a journalist. We moved around constantly with stints in London, Washington, Ankara, and my parents’ hometown in Illinois. But Moscow was the center to which we constantly returned.
I spent enough time back in Reagan-era Illinois to gain an understanding that my family’s life was unusual. But to me the melodic cadences of the Russian language sounded as natural as the cicadas thrumming on hot summer evenings in Illinois. The Zhiguli cars that you saw all over the city were as ordinary as the Ford station wagons that were ubiquitous in the States. I found our concrete Soviet apartment buildings—which ringed large parking lots and playgrounds that were monitored by militia men stationed in little glass booths—every bit as homey as the brick Colonials and split-level houses our relatives lived in back in the States.
So when my mom and sisters and I moved back to Illinois in 1990, life felt strange. Every single person I encountered viewed my former life as bizarre and suspicious. I think everyone looks back on their childhood as though it were a distinct, special era in time. My time in Moscow felt doubly or triply that way to me, since we were suddenly cut off from that culture. It didn’t slide away gradually by the forces of time; we were severed from it.
Suddenly, I needed to learn about things like the New Kids on the Block and TV shows like Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos. I had to try to understand the appeal of socializing at shopping malls and indoor skating rinks that played Debbie Gibson. I noticed that everyone’s clothes were so colorful!
So as I flew back to Moscow in 2011, many, many years later, I felt a lot of anxiety. Not just about my research and the prospect of trying to navigate the RGADA (Russian State Archive of Ancient Documents) but of confronting the memories of a world and a time that had been sealed away from me for two decades. Of seeing a place that would inevitably have been so changed by time and the circumstance of politics.
Everything was as I suspected. My hosts picked me up in an Audi SUV. Where is the Zhiguli? We ate sushi at trendy restaurants. There was commerce everywhere. And yet the familiar landmarks were still there. The streets we had lived on when I was a kid—Narodnaya, Kutuzovsky Prospect—were still there, as were the nondescript Soviet-era apartment buildings. The playgrounds in the center of these rings of apartment buildings looked the same too. I could vividly see a picture of my six-year-old self playing hopscotch with my best friends while glancing up at our apartment balcony on the lookout for the green towel that my mom would put out as a signal that it was time to come inside for dinner. The Metro was much the same too, with its ornate decoration and its recording of a woman saying “Uvazhayemyye passazhiry . . . [Dear passengers . . .]” It was a strange bundle of emotions, and I was frankly glad to bid it all farewell when I left after a few weeks.
But I brought home this wonderful little icon replica that I picked up on a visit to the Donskoi Monastery. It currently lives in a corner of our living room (my husband insisted that we try to create an icon corner with it), and there it stands, greeting us as we walk into the room, a reminder of where I’m from (sort of), a reminder of the distant land that helped shaped me, a glimmer of my distant past, and most importantly a reminder of how ephemeral all of our experiences in life are. Of how important memory is.
But I also like to think of the icon as it was perceived in its own time: a portrait of two saintly people, an image utterly suffused with the power of these people. Indeed, it was a two-dimensional image that had power, for it could protect. It was essentially a portal between two distinct worlds, our world and the heavenly.
Come to think of it, my cheap replica is much the same. Instead of access to choirs of angels and heavenly saints, it connects me to a sliver of space-time that has vanished. What a powerful devotional object it is after all.